Did Russia just hand Donald Trump the Presidency?

Donald J. Trump is now the President-elect of the United States. Running on a platform of nationalist populism and anger at the status quo of the ‘business as usual’ politics of Washington, DC, the New York billionaire shocked the world by defeating Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. Winning perhaps one of the most divisive elections in recent memory, Trump will now be leader of the free world. One question that remains is whether Russian cyber and information operations launched during the campaign were a deciding factor in the outcome of this election. 

The US government has implicated the Russian government in being responsible for the hacks of the DNC, the DCCC, and the emails of Clinton’s campaign chair John Podesta. Hacking groups such as Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear as well as individuals such as Guccifer 2.0 were named as the culprits, and these groups have known ties to the Kremlin. The information contained in these data breaches was subsequently dumped to WikiLeaks for public consumption. A retaliatory response to these information campaigns has been promised by the Obama Administration, but this has yet to manifest. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin had good reason to prefer Trump over Clinton as president. Trump has entertained the idea of recognizing the Russian annexation of Crimea as legitimate, of weakening the bonds with NATO allies, and cooperating with Russia in Syria by withdrawing support for US-backed rebels. Clinton is an ardent supporter of the ousting of Russia-backed Syrian President Assad, has been outspoken about continuing economic sanctions against Russia for its actions in Ukraine, and has not ruled out more NATO expansion. From a Russian national interest perspective, Trump is the preferred candidate of Russia. 

Returning to the question, did Russia just help elect their preferred candidate President of the United States? Such an accusation has huge implications for the integrity of the world’s oldest democracy. But this claim is dubious when one reflects on the campaigns and public opinion of the last few months. Beginning with the DNC hacks that were released at the beginning of the Democratic National Convention in July, this information exposed by WikiLeaks showed that top party brass were biased toward Mrs. Clinton winning the nomination. Yet these leaks did not have an impact on public opinion; in fact, Clinton saw a post-convention bounce that lasted for weeks. The subsequent DCCC leaks also a demonstrated minimal impact on opinions of the Democratic nominee and her chances for winning the White House.

WikiLeaks ‘October Surprise’ came in the form of the hacked emails of the Clinton campaign CEO John Podesta. These emails showed the inner workings of the Clinton campaign, with no real change in public opinion until the bombshell announcement by FBI Director James Comey that he will reopen investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server during her tenure as Secretary of State. Her favorability dropped to a near tie with Donald Trump and never recovered up until election day. So, although Russian information campaigns on the American election is extremely troubling, it did not have a major impact on the result. What it did succeed in doing is sowing discontent and mistrust in American democratic institutions, an impact that cannot be measured accurately at this time. 

It would also be unfair to blame the Hillary Clinton loss on the actions of FBI director James Comey. It is now apparent that most of the polls were wrong throughout the campaign, and that Donald Trump tapped into a populist sentiment that resonated with many rural white voters who have been politically sidelined by both parties for decades. Hillary Clinton’s campaign was complacent and even cocky, thinking that it could win with the Obama coalition that propelled the current president to two terms by winning the coasts and the safe states of the upper Midwest. But Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin were taken for granted and went red. This was Clinton’s deathblow. She was a victim of a flawed campaign and the electoral college system, and this is the second time this has happened to a Democratic candidate in 16 years where the latter wins the popular vote but not the federal system of state to state voting. 

The United States and the world is now preparing for a President Trump; a man with no government experience who ran a divisive campaign built on anger. The effects of Russian cyber and information operations are negligible but troubling for future Western elections. The wave of anti-globalization is consuming the West. For good or bad, this is becoming the new normal.