Editor’s note: Andrew C. McCarthy’s new book is Ball of Collusion: The Plot to Rig an Election and Destroy a Presidency. This is the third in a series of excerpts; the first can be read here and the second here.
As we’ve seen, candidates can get chirpy at final presidential debates less than three weeks from Election Day, and Hillary Clinton was no exception. What “horror” had her inveighing so? The very thought that her Republican rival would question the legitimacy of the presidential election.
Donald Trump being Donald Trump, he wouldn’t budge. He would not pledge to accept the election results a priori. Okay, no, Trump didn’t use the phase a priori. But he did speculate that the electoral process could be rigged. Until he saw how it played out, the Republican nominee said, he could not concede that the outcome would be on the up-and-up.
First, he reaffirmed an allegation for which he’d already been roundly condemned: Foreigners could swing the election — specifically, “millions” of ineligible voters, an allusion to illegal immigration, the piñata of Trump’s campaign. Second, he complained about the gross one-sidedness of the media’s campaign coverage: scathing when it came to him, and between inattentive and fawning when it came to his opponent, whose considerable sins were airbrushed away. Third, he claimed there was deep corruption: Clinton, he maintained, should not have been permitted to run, given the evidence of felony misconduct uncovered in her email scandal. Instead of prosecuting her, law-enforcement agencies of the Democratic administration bent over backwards to give her a pass, and congressional Democrats closed ranks around her, conducting themselves in committee hearings more like her defense lawyers than like investigators searching for the truth.
A flabbergasted Clinton responded that she was shocked — horrified — to hear Trump “talking down our democracy” this way. This was a top theme in her campaign’s closing days: The election was absolutely legitimate; Trump was traitorously condemnable for refusing to say so.
Of course, Clinton and the Democrats who parroted her would prefer that you forget that now. And given her strained relationship with the truth, they’re right to suspect that you’d never retain anything she said for very long. The media–Democrat caterwauling over Trump’s election-rigging spiel was not rooted in patriotic commitment to the American democratic tradition of accepting election outcomes. They said what they said because they fully expected to win. The polls all said they would. Mrs. Clinton and her backers, President Obama included, would not abide a taint of illegitimacy affixing itself to her inevitable presidency.
Except it wasn’t so inevitable. And when Clinton lost, they changed their tune about election-rigging. Suddenly, the inconceivable, the heresy-even-to-hint-at, was to be taken as gospel: The outcome was illegitimate! Russia hacked the election!
There was, however, a very inconvenient problem for this narrative: Everything of significance that is known to the U.S. government about Russian meddling was already known in those pre-election weeks when Clinton and the Democrats were vouching for the integrity of the process and condemning Trump for even hesitating to endorse it.
By now, the story is well known. Russia’s cyberespionage operations began in 2014, long before Donald Trump’s entry into the race. By summer 2015, hackers believed to be connected to Russian intelligence agencies had access to DNC computer networks, and the FBI began warning DNC officials of this in September of that year — albeit with a lack of urgency that now seems stunning. In March 2016 came the hacking of a private email account belonging to John Podesta, Mrs. Clinton’s campaign chairman, who was sufficiently versed in cyber privacy issues to have authored a 2014 report on the subject while serving as a top Obama White House adviser.
U.S. intelligence agencies were intimately aware of the penetrations. Obama’s national intelligence director, James Clapper, publicly acknowledged that hackers appeared to have targeted presidential campaigns. By August 2016, CIA director John Brennan had interpreted streams of foreign intelligence to indicate that Putin had personally ordered the cyber thefts with the intention of at least damaging Clinton, if not flipping the election to Trump. In a phone call, Brennan is said to have admonished Alexander Bortnikov, the head of Russia’s security service (the FSB), to desist. The next month, in a face-to-face confrontation (through interpreters) at an international conference in China, Obama warned Putin that “we knew what he was doing and [he] better stop it or else.” Meanwhile, the administration conducted numerous high-level, close-hold meetings, weighing several options including retaliatory cyber attacks.
Ultimately, Obama decided to do nothing. The president’s political allies and media admirers are now embarrassed about his inaction — “It is the hardest thing about my entire time in government to defend. I feel like we sort of choked,” one anonymous senior administration official told the Washington Post. As ever, though, they remain apologists for their man, portraying a pained POTUS, fearful that any action he took would make matters worse, or be perceived as political, or otherwise undermine confidence in the election.
What, then, is the collusion narrative? And what’s their story now? It is pretty much the same story they rebuked Trump for telling. They peddle a three-part rigged-election claim: (1) foreign interference, not by illegal aliens who may have voted but by Russians who did not affect the voting process; (2) one-sided press coverage — they mean the Russian propaganda press and the WikiLeaks release of DNC and John Podesta emails, which they’d now have you believe had more influence on Americans than did the media-Democrat complex and the grudging State Department release of Hillary Clinton’s own emails; and (3) the corruption that lifted a low-character candidate who should not have been allowed to run but who received extraordinary government assistance — not from the Obama Justice Department but from the Putin regime.
To assess the Democratic narrative as bunk is not to excuse Russian duplicity, which many of us were warning about while Bush was embracing Putin as a strategic partner and while Obama was “resetting” with all due “flexibility.”
By late October, the Russian “cyberespionage” effort to meddle in the election was well known. In the same debate in which Clinton rebuked Trump for refusing to concede the election’s legitimacy, she attacked her rival as “Putin’s puppet” and cited the finding of government agencies that Russia sought to interfere in the election. Clinton was not at all concerned that Putin’s shenanigans would have any actual impact on the election. She invoked them because she thought it was helpful to her campaign — an opportunity to portray Trump as ripe for rolling by the Russian regime.
And how could she have taken any other position? None other than President Obama himself observed that there was nothing unusual about Russian scheming to influence American elections, which he said “dates back to the Soviet Union.” Obama deftly avoided mentioning that past scheming had never gotten much media traction because the Soviets had been more favorably disposed towards Democrats. While he blamed the Putin regime for hacking emails during the 2016 campaign, Obama described this as “fairly routine.” He acknowledged, moreover, that it was publicly notorious well in advance of the election — which, of course, is why Clinton had been able to exploit it in a nationally televised debate three weeks prior to November 8.
What happened here is very simple: Russia was unimportant to Democrats, and was indeed avoided by Democrats, until they needed to rationalize a stunning defeat. Prior to the election, Democrats had little interest in mentioning “Russia” or “Putin.”
Attention to the Kremlin was bad news for Clinton. It invited scrutiny of the Clinton Foundation’s suspicious foreign dealings, Bill Clinton’s lucrative speech racket, Hillary’s biddable State Department, and Russia’s acquisition of major U.S. uranium supplies. It conjured embarrassing memories of the “Russia Reset,” during which the supine Obama administration watched Putin capture territory in Eastern Europe and muscle his way into the Middle East, all while arming and aligning with Iran. It called to mind the intriguing relationship between Podesta (the Clinton-campaign chairman and former Obama White House official) and Putin’s circle — specifically, a $35 million investment by a Putin-created venture-capital firm, Rusnano, in a small Massachusetts energy company, Joule Energy, just two months after Podesta joined Joule’s board.
So, while Donald Trump’s Russia rhetoric ranged from the unseemly (blowing kisses at an anti-American thug) to the delusional (the notion that Russia, Iran’s new friend, could be a reliable ally against jihadism) to the reprehensible (moral equivalence between the murderous Putin regime and American national-defense operations), Clinton’s own Russia baggage rendered her unable to exploit it.
It was only afterward, after she lost a contest she thought she had in the bag that the election turned illegitimate.