What Was the Odds of a Trump Presidency?

This past week has been full of political surprises. On Tuesday, March 13, 2018, news broke that special council Mueller had indicted a total of 37 individuals and three companies for participating in an illegal scheme to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. One of those companies was a technology company called Cambridge Analytica.

The indictment claimed that this company used “psychopathic” methods to psychologically profile American voters and influence their opinions. It also accused them of using fake accounts to spread misinformation about the opposing candidate in a number of elections. When these voters were shown fake news stories containing falsehoods, they were more likely to believe them than authentic articles from reputable news organizations.

The next day, President Trump responded to the Mueller investigation by saying, “I am being investigated for doing what every President before me has done. Getting information.”

The Mueller Investigation Continues

The following morning, March 14, 2018, the President tweeted: “As more details about the fraudulent activities of the now disgraced Christopher Steele emerge, it becomes more and more clear that he was working for both the Democrats and Republicans over the years. His bad behavior was not just limited to writing the phony Trump dossier, which he did for the Democrats.” (Emphasis added.)

This was a reference to news that Steele had been hired by a law firm representing the Republican National Committee in 2016, when it was investigating Hillary Clinton’s alleged ties to Russia. Steele had done extensive research on Trump during his tenure with the agency and had even developed a relationship with the future President. According to court documents, Steele was given a small stake in the Trump Organization, which he declined.

Then, on March 15, 2018, the Mueller investigation took a major turn with the indictments of 13 Russian nationals and three Russian businesses. The next day, the President tweeted: “These indictments and sanctions will be used by the Democrats as proof that Trump is a ‘Republican Putin puppet.’ ” The President was reacting to news that the Russia-focused indictments were part of a larger congressional inquiry into Russian interference.

Mueller, the Intel Community, and the World of Cyberspace

This is actually the third major review of Russian interference in the 2016 election that Trump has faced. The first was the special council Mueller’s investigation. The second was a declassified version of the Republican-led congressional investigation, also conducted by special council Mueller. And now the third, and surely not the last, is a burgeoning international effort to identify and prosecute individuals and entities responsible for the 2016 cyber attacks.

To make a long story short, the Russian government has repeatedly denied any involvement in the hack of the 2016 election. While many Republicans have taken this denial at face value, evidence suggests that the Russian government was, at the very least, either complicit in the hacking efforts or turned a blind eye to them. And now that the Mueller investigation has concluded, it appears that more than a dozen other countries are joining the United States in accusing Russia of being behind the cyberattacks.

What Do We Know About Election Hacking?

The Mueller investigation was originally tasked with determining whether there was coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election. According to the findings of the special counsel, there was sufficient evidence that the Russians interfered with the 2016 election. This interference constituted a serious crime, which the special counsel described as “sweeping and systematic.”

The investigation also revealed the extensive nature of Russia’s efforts to influence American voters. The Russians employed hundreds of people, operated hundreds of social media accounts, funded political organizations in the U.S., and used fake news sites and intermediaries to spread propaganda and sow discord among American voters. This behavior is, in the words of Mueller’s report, “a form of interference” that “goes beyond mere speech violations” and is, in fact, an “act of aggression.” Furthermore, Russia did not just influence American voters in 2016—they’re also believed to have hacked the emails of the Democrats and Clinton campaign manager John Podesta and made them public during the campaign. In total, more than 20 million emails were accessed as a result of the Russian cyberattacks.

Assessing Russian Influence in the 2018 Midterm Elections

To follow up on the Mueller investigation, members of Congress have been conducting their own inquiries into Russian election meddling since shortly after the 2016 election. Most notably, the House and Senate intelligence committees have been investigating Russia’s role in the 2016 election and whether there were any further attempts to interfere in the 2018 midterm elections. The House Intelligence Committee released its findings last week, concluding that “the Russians intervened in the 2016 election to help Donald Trump become president” and that “their ultimate goal was to weaken America’s standing in the world and to harm America’s democratic institutions.”

Trump and the ‘Deep State’

All of this effort to uncover Russian interference in the 2016 election was, for the most part, motivated by a deep distrust of President Trump among many in the intelligence community. This distrust was rooted in the Obama administration’s highly publicized ‘Russian Reset’ initiatives, which sought closer ties with President Putin’s government.

Though Trump had repeatedly criticized President Obama for being too ‘soft’ on Russia, when the President announced that he was accepting the resignation of Gen. Michael Flynn as national security adviser, it seemed as if he was finally doing the right thing.

Flynn had served as the National Security Adviser for Trump, but fell out of favor after allegations emerged that he had given sensitive information to the Russian ambassador to the U.S. In fact, the information that Flynn had shared with the ambassador included the names of Americans suspected of being traitors or otherwise undermining U.S. national security. As a result, Flynn’s security clearance was suspended and the White House eventually had to fire him.

Many people in Trump’s administration, as well as members of Congress, saw this move by the President as a way of currying favor with the intelligence community and possibly escaping the scrutiny that was following him. This is why the subsequent investigations into Russian interference have focused primarily on determining whether there was any collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.

But what if this investigation is missing the bigger picture? What if, instead of investigating collusion, which is simply a shorthand term for ‘coordination,’ the FBI and the various congressional committees should have been looking for patterns of behavior that indicate that the Russians have been actively meddling in U.S. elections for decades? What if, instead of focusing on the Trump campaign’s alleged involvement in the hacking of the DNC, the FBI should have been analyzing whether there is any evidence that the Trump campaign engaged in other, non-cyber-related, forms of election interference?

Cybersecurity and National Security

While the public’s attention has been focused on Russia’s meddling in the U.S. presidential election, the reality is that the country has been engaged in a broader effort to influence global events through cyberattacks. Not only do the Russians operate many of the world’s most prolific cyber-attack tools, but they do so with remarkable efficiency and expertise. If anything, their efforts seem to have increased since the 2016 election, as detailed in our recent report, “Russian Electioneering Through Cyber-attacks.”

As a result of these attacks, the U.S. has already suffered significant damage to its critical infrastructure and economy, and been forced to spend billions of dollars to protect itself from continued attacks. Unfortunately, there is no sign that this trend will abate any time soon. Given the sophistication and volume of the attacks, it is reasonable to assume that Russia will continue to seek ways to disrupt democratic institutions and promote their interests in cyberspace.