Just when I thought I couldn't be more disturbed about Donald Trump becoming president, an article appeared in the October 1, 2018 issue of The New Yorker that got me increasingly angry and upset.
Because Jane Mayer, who wrote "Russia Won" (online title: "How Russia Helped Swing the Election for Trump"), describes in convincing detail the findings of Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a scholar with solid credentials who wrote a soon-to-be-released book, Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President -- What We Don't, Can't, and Do Know.
Here's a few paragraphs from The New Yorker piece that give an overview of why Jamieson is confident that Russia made the difference in the 2016 presidential election.
She is seventy-one, and has spent forty years studying political speeches, ads, and debates. Since 1993, she has directed the Annenberg Public Policy Center, at Penn, and in 2003 she co-founded FactCheck.org, a nonpartisan watchdog group. She is widely respected by political experts in both parties, though her predominantly male peers have occasionally mocked her scholarly intensity, calling her the Drill Sergeant.
As Steven Livingston, a professor of political communication at George Washington University, puts it, “She is the epitome of a humorless, no-nonsense social scientist driven by the numbers. She doesn’t bullshit. She calls it straight.”
Indeed, when I met recently with Jamieson, in a book-lined conference room at the Annenberg Center, in Philadelphia, and asked her point-blank if she thought that Trump would be President without the aid of Russians, she didn’t equivocate. “No,” she said, her face unsmiling. Clearly cognizant of the gravity of her statement, she clarified, “If everything else is a constant? No, I do not.”
Jamieson said that, as an academic, she hoped that the public would challenge her arguments. Yet she expressed confidence that unbiased readers would accept her conclusion that it is not just plausible that Russia changed the outcome of the 2016 election—it is “likely that it did.”
An airtight case, she acknowledges, may never be possible. In the introduction to her new book, she writes that any case for influence will likely be similar to that in a civil legal trial, “in which the verdict is rendered not with the certainty that e=mc2 but rather based on the preponderance of evidence.”
But, she points out, “we do make most of life’s decisions based on less-than-rock-solid, incontrovertible evidence.” In Philadelphia, she noted to me that “we convict people on probabilities rather than absolute certainty, and we’ve executed people based on inferences from available evidence.” She argued that “the standard of proof being demanded” by people claiming it’s impossible to know whether Russia delivered the White House to Trump is “substantially higher than the standard of proof we ordinarily use in our lives.”
Her case is based on a growing body of knowledge about the electronic warfare waged by Russian trolls and hackers—whom she terms “discourse saboteurs”—and on five decades’ worth of academic studies about what kinds of persuasion can influence voters, and under what circumstances.
Democracies around the world, she told me, have begun to realize that subverting an election doesn’t require tampering with voting machines. Extensive studies of past campaigns, Jamieson said, have demonstrated that “you can affect people, who then change their decision, and that alters the outcome.” She continued, “I’m not arguing that Russians pulled the voting levers. I’m arguing that they persuaded enough people to either vote a certain way or not vote at all.”
The effect of such manipulations could be momentous in an election as close as the 2016 race, in which Clinton got nearly 2.9 million more votes than Trump, and Trump won the Electoral College only because some eighty thousand votes went his way in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania.
In two hundred and twenty-four pages of extremely dry prose, with four appendixes of charts and graphs and fifty-four pages of footnotes, Jamieson makes a strong case that, in 2016, “Russian masterminds” pulled off a technological and political coup. Moreover, she concludes, the American media “inadvertently helped them achieve their goals.”
There's a lot of interesting, and depressing, facts in The New Yorker story, and Jamieson's book surely contains many more. Some have been reported previously, such as the 126 million Facebook users reached by Russian disinformation posts, and the 50,000 impostor accounts acknowledged by Twitter.
Since, as noted above, only about 80,000 votes in three states -- Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin -- gave the election to Trump, Joel Benenson, a Clinton pollster, is quoted as saying that 680,000 votes were cast in those three states for third-party candidates. So if only 12% of those third-party voters were persuaded not to vote for Clinton by Russian propaganda, the story says that Jamieson's theory could be valid.
Near the end of the story, I read about something I wasn't at all aware of, even though it was reported by the Washington Post six months after the election.
In 2016 the FBI had gotten unverified Russian intelligence describing emails that supposedly were written by Loretta Lynch, Attorney General in the Obama administration, and sent to someone in the Clinton campaign. The fake emails said that Lynch promised to go easy on Clinton, as regards her infamous email server, I presume.
FBI Director James Comey was worried that even though the emails had been assessed as 'junk," if they became public conservatives would make a big deal out of them. So Comey decided to bypass his superior, Lynch, and announce on his own the decision not to charge Clinton with any wrongdoing regarding how she handled her emails.
Mayer's story says:
Nick Merrill, a former Clinton-campaign spokesman, describes Comey’s actions as “mind-blowing.” He said of the intelligence impugning Lynch, “It was a Russian forgery. But Comey based major decisions in the Justice Department on Russian disinformation because of the optics of it! The Russians targeted the F.B.I., hoping they’d act on it, and then he went ahead and did so.”
Thus not only were the Russians successful in swaying voters to either vote for Trump, or not vote for Clinton, they also succeeded in influencing Comey to hold his press conference where he talked at length, often in ways that made Clinton look bad, about the decision not to charge Clinton.
Adam Schiff, the Democratic representative who is the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, told me that, if you take Comey at his word that the fake intelligence drove his decision to publicly censor Clinton in the first place—there are skeptics who suspect that Comey’s grandstanding moralism was a bigger factor—then “it probably was the most measurable” and “the most significant way in which the Russians may have impacted the outcome of the election.”
Bottom line: when Jamieson's book is released on October 3 (according to Amazon), it will be in the midst of the contentious effort of Republicans to confirm Trump's second Supreme Court nominee, Brett Kavanaugh.
The book will remind Americans that most likely it was Russian interference in the 2016 election that gave Trump his victory, and ability to shape the Supreme Court for decades to come. Thus both Gorsuch and Kavanaugh are illicit nominees, which makes Michael Avenatti's call to enlarge the Court to eleven members when the Democrats return to power look quite fair.