Rus­sian med­dling did not taint Amer­ica’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion

The Denver Post - - PERSPECTIVE - By Ramesh Pon­nuru

et’s as­sume that Rus­sia tried to swing the elec­tion to Don­ald Trump. News­pa­per re­ports say that in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials have reached that con­clu­sion.

Did Rus­sia’s ef­forts suc­ceed? Trump back­ers, and even some con­ser­va­tives who didn’t back him, are de­fen­sive about this point. But Trump’s mar­gin in the elec­torally de­ci­sive states was suf­fi­ciently small that his vic­tory can plau­si­bly be at­trib­uted to any­thing that af­fected a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of vot­ers.

It is cer­tainly true, as many con­ser­va­tives have noted, that Hil­lary Clin­ton could still have won the elec­tion if she had made dif­fer­ent de­ci­sions, such as show­ing up in Wis­con­sin, re­frain­ing from set­ting up her own e-mail server, and so on. But it seems likely that if ev­ery­thing about the elec­tion had been the same ex­cept for Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence, Clin­ton’s lack­lus­ter cam­paign would have nar­rowly won those states.

If so, Rus­sia has sur­rep­ti­tiously in­ter­vened in our af­fairs more suc­cess­fully than any other for­eign power has ever done. Its work should be in­ves­ti­gated and, if nec­es­sary and fea­si­ble, pun­ished. States­man­ship some­times re­quires mon­u­men­tal in­grat­i­tude, and Trump will have a chance to ex­hibit it.

Does Rus­sian in­volve­ment mean “this was a tainted elec­tion” with a re­sult that was “il­le­git­i­mate in im­por­tant ways,” as Paul Krugman charges? In a coun­try premised on rule by pop­u­lar con­sent, whether an elec­tion or for that mat­ter a gov­ern­ment is le­git­i­mate de­pends on whether the pub­lic thinks it is. If the Elec­toral Col­lege were now to vote for Clin­ton, for ex­am­ple, tens of mil­lions of Amer­i­cans would con­sider it il­le­git­i­mate even though the Con­sti­tu­tion clearly al­lows for it.

But I think there are good rea­sons for vot­ers, in­clud­ing vot­ers who did not sup­port Trump, to re­ject Krugman’s view.

The form that Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence took is fore­most among them. It didn’t hack vot­ing ma­chines so that cit­i­zen pref­er­ences would be mis­counted. It didn’t even in­ject mis­in­for­ma­tion into the pub­lic de­bate. What it mainly seems to have done is put ac­cu­rate but wrong­fully ob­tained in­for­ma­tion into cir­cu­la­tion: in­for­ma­tion about what var­i­ous Clin­ton aides and Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee of­fi­cials were think­ing dur­ing the pri­maries.

Vot­ers were free to con­sider this in­for­ma­tion, or not, and to take ac­count of its il­licit ori­gins. At the time, they had good rea­son to know that Rus­sia had a hand in its dis­sem­i­na­tion. Rus­sian hack­ing came up in two of the pres­i­den­tial de­bates (even though Trump now bizarrely in­sists it didn’t). Clin­ton said the hack­ing was be­ing done for Trump’s ben­e­fit. The main thing we have learned since the elec­tion, as­sum­ing the re­port­ing holds up, is that U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials agreed with her about the mo­tive.

Again, Rus­sia’s in­ter­fer­ence ought to be in­ves­ti­gated — as should U.S. cy­ber­se­cu­rity prac­tices, and Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s dither­ing in re­sponse to the in­ter­fer­ence. Amer­i­cans should be able to agree on the need for fur­ther in­ves­ti­ga­tion re­gard­less of their sym­pa­thies in this elec­tion.

Clin­ton’s sup­port­ers, mean­while, can’t be faulted for re­gret­ting the choices that an elec­toral ma­jor­ity of their fel­low cit­i­zens made. But the vot­ers had ac­cess to the in­for­ma­tion they needed to put the leaks about the Democrats in con­text, their choice was made freely, their choices were tab­u­lated ac­cu­rately, and the re­sult is be­ing de­cided in the stan­dard way. Like it or not, Trump was elected le­git­i­mately. E-mail Ramesh Pon­nuru at rpon­nuru@bloomberg.net.

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