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Thursday, August 02, 2018


Aaron Blake at the Washington Post makes a good point about something that's been driving me nuts for months:

“No actual votes were changed.” This is a regular talking point offered by the White House, and has been for months. At times, officials including Pence and even then-CIA Director Mike Pompeo have wrongly ascribed this conclusion to the intelligence community, which pointedly said it would not offer any such conclusion. But more and more, it's being thrown out there without such attribution. House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) even said a version of it. “It's also clear that it didn't have a material effect,” Ryan said.

But here's the thing: This is a laughable contention. It's not serious. And any politician with an ounce of campaign experience and logic knows it.

There were nearly 140 million votes in the 2016 presidential election. To make this claim, you would have to get in the heads of virtually every voter (and potential voter who stayed home) in America and psychoanalyze their decisions. It's impossible. The odds that not a single, solitary vote hinged on anything the Russians injected into our campaign is virtually nil.

That's especially true given the most recent indictments in special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's Russia investigation. Last month, 12 Russian military intelligence officers were indicted on a charge of hacking Democrats' computers and distributing the information during the 2016 election. The emails distributed by WikiLeaks dominated the news for days. This wasn't just some Russian bots pushing dubious fake news to a few thousand people on social media; this was Russia inserting a major story line into the 2016 election that wouldn't have existed if not for its efforts.

It would be one thing for Pence to say, “I don't think Russia changed the winner of the election.” Okay. That's still complete guesswork based upon nothing, but at least it's plausible. Yet that's not the argument here; the argument is that it didn't change any votes.

Pence and his allies will probably argue that his comment referred only to Russians hacking actual voting machines or changing totals — which the intelligence community has said it found no evidence of. If you were the fact-checker, you'd probably have to knock a Pinocchio or two off for that. But the context of his remarks include nothing about hacking; they're about influencing the election. The impression that's left is that he's talking about Russia being completely unsuccessful in shifting even one vote with its interference.

The full volume of the Trump administration's comments on this topic can't be ignored either. This fits neatly with what can only be described as an effort to mislead and obfuscate in the name of keeping Trump happy by downplaying the idea that Russia elected him. Officials have regularly sought to cast doubt upon not just the idea that Russia's interference mattered, but also that it favored Trump and even that it was ordered by Vladimir Putin. Oftentimes, like Pence, they choose their words carefully so they are at least defensible, while being clearly misleading.
This might seem like so much nitpicking, but consider this: Our intelligence community evaluates that Russia is still trying to impact American elections. Part of thwarting that effort involves the public bringing pressure to bear on elected officials to take action. If Pence is in one breath saying Russia interfered but also suggesting it didn't matter one bit, there will be considerably less impetus for action among those who are inclined to believe him.

That's the real danger of these false and misleading talking points. These officials are undoubtedly trying to avoid alienating Trump, who in recent weeks has demonstrated he still wants to cast doubt on Russian interference. But catering to him and obscuring the truth comes with real-world costs.

I'm not sure they're just catering to him but be that as it may, he's right about the impact. If it didn't change any votes why should we care? And frankly, in an election that was won by the man the foreign saboteurs favored with 70,000 votes spread across three states out of more than a hundred an twenty million cast, it's more likely than not that it did decide the election. It's not provable, of course, but it's perfectly believable. And we know they're working hard to do it again.