My thoughts on Trump-Russia that no one cares about but I care so here goes

UPDATE: Welp, I was very wrong about much of this. First, the facts, as described in the Mueller report:

“The Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion … First, a Russian entity carried out a social media campaign that favored presidential candidate Donald J. Trump and disparaged presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Second, a Russian intelligence service conducted computer-intrusion operations against entities, employees and volunteers working on the Clinton Campaign and then released stolen documents.”

And the Trump part:

“The investigation also identified numerous links between the Russian government and the Trump Campaign. Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated* with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

*Mueller defines “coordinated” as follows: “We understood coordination to require an agreement — tacit or express –- between the Trump Campaign and the Russian government on election interference. That requires more than the two parties taking actions that were informed by or responsive to the other’s actions or interests.”

Now for the retraction.

Many of the assertions in this little op-ed are silly or wrong. Freshly-minted -journalism-graduate Elise was acting young and dumb and overconfident. At the time I felt that many outlets were betting the house on what seemed like an amorphous theory that was only thinly strung together. But I cited anemic — and sometimes incorrect — facts and some ill-conceived arguments in response.

Mueller’s report details some serious and concerning aspects of the 2016 election. I should have paid more attention to the early red flags and reserved judgment until more of the facts were known.

I retract this op-ed with considerable chagrin.

(P.S. This update should have been published much earlier but I only recently remembered this post existed.)

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Trump-Russia “scandals” are a red herring. Sure, there are various ties between Russian figures and members of Trump’s team. But let’s take a look at some of these claims, and let’s take an even harder look at why we care so much.

Things that didn’t happen — or didn’t happen quite the way we said they did

The evidence that links the DNC hacks to Russia is tenuous. Fun fact: the FBI didn’t conduct its own investigation of the DNC hacks; it relied on a report compiled by a third party (CrowdStrike), which suggested ties to Russia but later backed off from several of the claims that bolstered its conclusions. CrowdStrike is a credible source, but its findings have been contested by other experts and experienced commentators. We’ve based our entire theory of DNC hacks on a single, private source that made contested claims and we’ve avoided the nuances and caveats in its original report.

Russian bots did not win the election for Trump. Perhaps some bots that spread misinformation on Twitter can be tied to Russia. Unfortunately, very few studies exist and experts who claim to have found such evidence are notably skimpy on methodology and details. Nevertheless, news outlets have been happy to pick up their findings and run them as headlines without corroborating the evidence. Meanwhile, Twitter users with demonstrably real influence, such as Microchip (who claims to live in Utah), have made it pretty clear that most of the efforts came from grassroots Americans. We can’t take his word for it, of course, but evidence of malicious Russian bots affecting real users is slim at best. Evidence of real Americans actively spreading misinformation and organizing movements based on that information is abundant.

Russian hackers did not succeed in tampering with votes (although they seem to have tried, which, I grant, is significant — more on this later). But no votes were changed. Read the coverage here.

Various members of the Trump team have ties to Russia. Conflict of business interest? That I find interesting. Finding dirt on the Hillary team — why not? And who gives a fuck?

Edit re: recent developments on Trump Jr.’s meeting with a prominent Russian lawyer. Apparently lots of people do give a fuck, and rightfully so, but this is still not the clincher. I recommend Time’s article explaining the different legal aspects of the situation. Any charges of illegality (collusion, treason, Logan Act, etc.) are currently extremely shaky. “Collusion” is not a federal offense, and to prove a vast criminal conspiracy, you have to prove “vast” (widespread and preferably wide impact), “criminal” (breaking the law), and “conspiracy” (which is a slippery term, but willingness to take someone else’s information is not going to cut it). We’ve got a long way to go.

Why “the media” is so obsessed with Russia

Things we do know

The Russian ambassador is good at his job. He met with members of the Trump team before the election and angled for Russia’s agenda.

A lot of the Trump team has some sort of ties to Russia. A lot of the Trump team weren’t politicians before; they were businessmen in lucrative businesses like, I don’t know, oil and banking, the two things Russia does best. This absolutely raises conflict-of-interest concerns, and these should be thoroughly explored. It does not raise election-hacking concerns.

Putin would probably prefer to work with Trump rather than Clinton. Putin is not a mastermind genius; he’s an able opportunist looking to expand Russia’s influence in the world. He doesn’t like working with women (see Angela Merkel); he likes working with “macho” men, and Trump’s style is up his alley. It’s also unlikely that he was going to get much slack from a Clinton administration, but he has a chance of getting quite a bit of slack from the Trump administration.

A lot of hackers speak Russian. Look, if I was a hacker, I’d post in Russian-language forums too. Easiest diversion ever. A lot of hackers do speak Russian and are either from Russia or eastern European countries that have some Russian-speaking citizens or use the Cyrillic alphabet. But there are also a lot of hackers and cyber-proficient groups in China, North Korea, the U.K., the U.S., Israel and Palestine. More relevant are the “fingerprints,” if you will, buried in code that help us attribute cyber meddling to its proper source. There are quite a few fingerprints tied to Russian groups in various malicious forays into U.S. government and political actors, which is suspicious. Some of these may be deliberately diversionary; others may be borrowed/pilfered code; others may be legitimate. But cyber attribution is hard (and often classified), so let’s not jump to conclusions here.

(Update): Trump Jr. was open to the idea of getting information from a prominent Russian source. If you’re looking for crimes, this probably isn’t it. Taking info from the Russians is not a great look and not a good idea for a number of reasons. Most people aren’t dumb enough to leave a paper trail that reveals the sources of their campaign dirt, so it’s difficult to say how anomalous something like this might be. This may be the first solid piece of evidence that something fishy happened, which is a strong start, but we’ve still got a long way to go. “Undermining” an election is a claim that would require enormous amounts of proof, as would terms like “conspiracy.” (“Collusion” is also not pretty, although it’s also not a federal crime). We haven’t “found it!” yet. For this to be significant, it has to lead to other significant facts that could be tied to other real outcomes. This could happen, but it hasn’t happened yet.

The U.S. meddles in every election ever. Name a country where we had a shred of interest in which we didn’t try to use a little pressure/influence to get our way. See the Middle East, Africa and South America over the last 50 years for more examples than you’d ever have time to fully explore. It shouldn’t be all that surprising that other foreign powers are trying to do the same thing to us.

At the end of the day

It’s totally possible that Russia is behind a lot of the shenanigans that worked in Trump’s favor (DNC hacks, misinformation campaigns, poking around in voting systems). It’s quite likely that a lot of former businessmen who are now on the Trump team have ties to Russia that pose conflict-of-interest concerns. It’s also possible that those who are political veterans on the Trump team have more sympathy for Russian interests than most Americans feel comfortable with. These are real concerns, and the media should explore them. But in its headlong rush to dismantle the Trump administration and win eternal glory, too many media outlets are frantically and prolifically trumpeting material about Russia that either does not meet journalistic standards or is overblown. Keep a reporter on Russia, by all means, but can everybody else please focus on things like health care, economic opportunity for all Americans, refugee policy, environmental policy, problematic business ties in the U.S. government and all the other important topics we’ve been neglecting? Thanks.

P.S. I am more than happy to be wrong about this. Perhaps Trump-Russia will turn out to be the biggest deal ever. Only time will tell, but so far I’m not seeing it.

Data journalism, etc. Views are my own.