On Thursday morning, Donald Trump tweeted something factual.
Here it is (with the factual part in bold):
“Russia, Russia, Russia! That’s all you heard at the beginning of this Witch Hunt Hoax…And now Russia has disappeared because I had nothing to do with Russia helping me to get elected. It was a crime that didn’t exist.”
Trump was not coordinating with the Russian effort to elect him. Yes! True!
Or at least, pretty darn close to what Robert Mueller found. We know from the special counsel’s report that Mueller and his team found “insufficient evidence” to suggest there was a criminal conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign. And we know – from the Mueller report and the intelligence community’s unanimous analysis way back in 2017, that Russians actively sought to interfere in the 2016 election to help Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton. They did so because they believed Trump would be better than Clinton on issues they cared about.
These are facts. They are also things that Trump has, in the past, disputed.
In July 2018, standing beside Russian president Vladimir Putin in Helsinki Trump said this of Russian interference: “I have great confidence in my intelligence people, but I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.” (That sentiment was echoed by – wait for it – Putin, who said this: “Russia has never interfered in and is not going to interfere in US internal affairs, including the elections.”)
Both before that summit and after it, Trump has repeated – and retweeted – a similar claim: That it’s not entirely clear that Russia was the lead actor in the 2016 election interference campaign and that, even if it was, he won fair and square.
Which is why Trump’s tweet was so newsworthy. The President is, finally, acknowledging what everyone other than him in a position to know has been saying for the better part of the last two years: Russia sought to help Trump win in 2016 by interfering – online and offline – in the election!
That moment was short-lived, however. As Trump emerged from the White House to head to the Air Force Academy in Colorado to deliver a commencement address later Thursday, he stopped to take questions from reporters. Not surprisingly, he was asked about his admission that Russian had helped him win the election. And he said this:
“Russia did not help me get elected. You know who got me elected? You know who got me elected? I got me elected. Russia did not help me at all.”
It’s worth taking a step back here to note that no one – not Mueller, not the intelligence community – is saying Trump won solely because Russia interfered in the election in an attempt to bring about that outcome. While there is evidence that two Florida counties were hacked by the Russians during the 2016 election, there’s no proof that any actual votes were affected. And while it’s very difficult to dispute that the release of hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chair John Podesta played a role in the 2016 election, it’s impossible to quantify exactly how large (or small) an effect that had.
All of which means you can’t say definitively that Trump would have lost if Russia hadn’t hacked the DNC and released those emails via WikiLeaks. And which also means that you can’t declare that Trump would have definitely won either. We just don’t know. And we will never know.
(Keep in mind that Mueller indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities over their 2016 election interference.)
So, when Kellyanne Conway, senior counselor to the President, says things like “we didn’t need WikiLeaks … we had Wisconsin,” she (and the President, who has said much the same) are missing the point entirely.
The point isn’t whether or not Trump needed Russia to win or not. As I just said, we will likely never know whether the President needed it or not. But what we know beyond a shadow of a doubt is that the emails that appeared on WikiLeaks during the 2016 campaign were the direct result of Russia seeking to interfere in the election in hopes of aiding Trump and hurting Clinton. FACT.
Trump’s inability to admit that has had an impact well beyond simply proving that he never lets facts gets in the way of a good story. It means that the US will almost certainly be less prepared for future attempts at election interference by Russia and other ill-intended foreign powers. And that’s scary.