“IT JUST DOESN’T MATTER.”
This is more than just the inspiring chant from Bill Murray’s legendary motivational speech in the early ’80s teen comedy “Meatballs”; it’s the new mantra of Donald Trump and his Republican enablers when it comes the Russia investigation.
“Russia’s actions had no impact at all on the outcome of the election,” said President Trump in one of his numerous clean-up missions, post-Helsinki.
Russia “did interfere in our elections, it’s really clear,” said Speaker of the House Paul Ryan. “It’s also clear that it didn’t have a material effect” on the outcome.
The “meddling is on the margins,” former Trump campaign chief executive and white person enthusiast Steve Bannon calls it. “It’s just not that big of a deal.”
As the argument goes, the Russians might have meddled in the 2016 election, but it didn’t affect the outcome.
In a way, they’re right. There’s still no definitive proof that Russian hackers, for example, changed vote tallies (though the investigation is not yet complete). Such evidence may never emerge.
Yet, based on what we know about elections, the closeness of the 2016 outcome, and the level of Russian meddling, it’s very hard to buy the argument that Moscow’s intervention didn’t sway the election to Trump.
While Hillary Clinton had a 3-million-vote advantage in the popular vote, just a handful of voters in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania cost her the election. Clinton lost by 77,744 votes — out of nearly 14 million ballots cast — in those three states. If half those voters (around 38,875) had switched from Trump to Clinton, then we’d have a Democratic president right now. In addition, in all three states the number of votes for third-party candidate Jill Stein was far greater than Clinton’s margin of defeat. And then there are the votes for Gary Johnson and other write-in candidates as well as the non-votes of those who made the decision to stay home on Election Day.
In an election this close, everything matters and nothing matters. That means any number of factors — from third-party candidates to voters who stayed home, to voter suppression efforts, to ill-timed letters from the FBI Director — could have influenced the final results, individually or cumulatively.
If one argues that Clinton’s failure to travel to Michigan and Wisconsin was material to the outcome, then one can’t also take the position that Russia’s multi-pronged, multi-platform, and multi-year effort to boost the candidacy of Trump and undermine Clinton’s had no impact.
As we’ve learned from the special counsel, Russian meddling played out in a number of ways during the campaign, but it had two primary goals: boost Donald Trump but also deflate support for Hillary Clinton.
In February 2018, the Department of Justice indicted 13 Internet trolls who worked at the Russian-based Internet Research Agency (IRA). According to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, those who were singled out “allegedly conducted what they called ‘information warfare against the United States,’ with the stated goal of spread[ing] distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general.”
The defendants, allegedly posing as US citizens (and hiding their Russian identity), bought “political advertisements on social media . . . staged political rallies inside the United States . . . solicited and compensated real U.S. persons to promote or disparage candidates . . . and communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump Campaign and with other political activists to seek to coordinate political activities.”
Some of their actions were highly specific, including encouraging Muslim-American and African-American voters (who traditionally vote Democratic) either to not vote or to cast a ballot for third-party candidate Jill Stein.
According to Mueller’s more recent indictment, Russian hackers gained access to the Democratic National Committee’s analytics.
So why does this matter? Not long after these data were stolen, the Trump campaign made a surprising shift in their advertising spending. The candidate himself began traveling to Michigan and Wisconsin, two states which most political observers assumed were in the bag for Clinton.
Did the Russian theft of the DNC’s analytics find itself in the hands of Trump’s team? Did Trump’s campaign team use the purloined information to shift their campaign strategy and target states that, without it, they would not have?
Forget the conspiracy theories for a moment: Did the Russians use the DNC’s analytics to change their own ad targeting to ensure that their interference efforts had the maximum impact on voters?
At this point, we don’t know the answer to these questions, but if any of this is true, then can anyone seriously argue that Russian meddling didn’t matter?
And then there is the most damaging aspect of Russia’s interference efforts: the leaked e-mails hacked from the DNC and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta. The steady drip of stories from that trove of stolen information drove anti-Clinton press coverage.
In the run-up to Democratic National Convention, leaks from the DNC played into the grievances of Bernie Sanders supporters and almost certainly undermined Clinton’s support among some of his backers. The Podesta leaks played into the already damaging “e-mail narrative” about her. It’s more than likely that many voters did not differentiate between Clinton’s controversial e-mail server and these hacked messages. They simply heard the word “e-mails,” which contributed to doubts about her trustworthiness.
As Mueller’s indictment points out, those e-mails were stolen and disseminated by the Russians. They were then turned into breathless news story after breathless news story by national political reporters. It’s hard to imagine that those leaks, which were weaponized against Clinton, didn’t influence at least a few voters, perhaps even enough to change the final outcome.
We will probably never know the true impact of Russian interference. And it bears noting that whether it did or didn’t affect the outcome, Russia’s meddling — and any collusion that took place between Moscow and the Trump campaign — is wrong and probably illegal. No one suggests that Richard Nixon should get a mulligan for Watergate because he probably would have trounced George McGovern anyway. A crime is a crime, whether it sways a national election or not.
But Trump and his enablers in the Congress and conservative media will still argue that Russian meddling didn’t change the outcome. We know why they are taking the position. But the fact is, Donald Trump is probably president today because a foreign power — with which he may have directly colluded — interfered in the 2016 election. Wherever the Mueller investigation leads, let’s not ever forget that.
Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.