Everything You Need to Know About This Whole Russian Hacking Mess

So, like, how screwed up is everything right now?

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Dec 12 2016, 11:15pm

Donald Trump as a Russian doll containing Barack Obama. Makes you think. (Photo by Sefa Karacan/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

So, you want to know about the whole Russia thing. The "Russia thing" is as good a name as any for the confusing, thorny series of stories about hacking operations that were allegedly initiated by Russian-backed operatives in an attempt to influence the presidential election in favor of Donald Trump. Whether it was the Russians, whether they were looking to get Trump elected, and what should or is likely to happen next are all controversial questions, and that's before you start going down the rabbit hole of competing Twitter threads and other conflicting sources that can muddy the waters. So here in one place is a mess of basic information about the Russia thing:

What happened, on a basic level?
Over the course of the presidential campaign, there were a number of incidents where hackers got access to the private files of Democrats, most notably the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman, John Podesta. These emails were then leaked to the public, either by WikiLeaks or another site, resulting in some damaging news stories getting out. Many people, including US intelligence agencies, believe that this was the work of operatives paid by the Russian government.

Why are people talking about this now?
The big piece of news to have come out recently was a Washington Post story published Friday that quoted anonymous officials as saying that the Russians had done this because Russia wanted Trump to win—not, as previously assumed, because Russia wanted to undermine the American electoral system in general. The New York Times, also citing anonymous officials, wrote that the Republican National Committee had been hacked, too, but that RNC documents weren't sent to WikiLeaks as the DNC's were. Also on Friday, Barack Obama ordered a review of Russian hacking in recent elections to be completed before he leaves office.

Do I have to trust the CIA's word on all this?
Even if you don't believe the unnamed officials in the Post story, there is a lot of evidence that Russia was behind the DNC hack—our friends at Motherboard can help you there.

But Donald Trump keeps saying that no one knows who was behind the hacks.
Yes, he does.

How much certainty is there that Russia was 1) behind these hacks and 2) wanted to help Trump?
Well, that's complicated, in part because whatever evidence the CIA has about this is classified. Trump and many of his supporters are skeptical of Russian involvement, period—John Bolton, who is a potential pick for deputy secretary of state, even said the DNC hack might be a "false flag operation." (However, Bolton has a tendency to be kinda nuts.) Some on the left, including the Intercept's Glenn Greenwald, are distrustful of stories relying on anonymous quotes from government officials, and they have good reason to be. The FBI apparently disagrees with the CIA on some things as well, though what those things are and the reasons for those disagreements are somewhat unclear thanks to everything being classified.

Meanwhile, not all Republicans are following Trump in denying Russian involvement. On Sunday, John McCain and Lindsey Graham, two longtime GOP senators, joined Democrats in calling for investigations into the cyberattacks. Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, the Republican leaders of the House and Senate, later indicated that they wanted investigations, too.

On the other side of the aisle, Harry Reid, the outgoing Democratic Senate minority* leader, has said that the FBI knew about Russia's involvement and pro-Trump motives and called for FBI director James Comey to resign, since he supposedly concealed this information while publicizing the FBI's continued probe of Hillary Clinton's emails.

So there's a whole spectrum of beliefs among prominent figures ranging from "the Russians might not have stolen any emails" to "the Russians stole emails because they wanted Clinton to lose, and the FBI hid what they knew because the bureau wanted Clinton to lose, too."

Could the CIA be wrong?
Sure. It's awfully hard to say what the chances are without knowing more, and it won't tell the public.

Did the hacking definitely lead to Clinton's loss?
There's basically no way to know. The stories written about the leaked emails may have made Clinton's team look bad, but there were other reasons people didn't vote for her, and other reasons people voted for Trump. Some, like Paul Krugman of the New York Times, think that the election is "illegitimate" as a result of the hacking and Comey's decision to write a letter to Congress highlighting the FBI's investigation into Clinton—but I dunno, man. Trump won.

Couldn't Obama, or the FBI, or anyone, have leaked this info about Russian hacking before the election?
Maybe. Maybe they didn't know then what they know now, whatever it is that they know now. (This is why debates about classified information are complicated.) Or maybe they hesitated because a charge like "Russia is helping Trump win the election" could itself have swung the election, and intelligence agencies didn't want to appear partisan. (Maybe also Obama figured, along with everyone else, that Clinton was going to win and didn't want to drop a bomb on the eve of the election. But this is straight supposition at this point, which is all we can really engage in.)

If Russia was helping Trump, does that make him a Russian "puppet," as Clinton once called him?
Trump has been dogged for a long time about his ties to Russia—Russian investors have reportedly put money in his business, and his former campaign manager Paul Manafort did work for Viktor Yanukovich, the pro-Russian former Ukrainian leader. But the idea that there's some nefarious connection between the Trump campaign and Russian president Vladimir Putin has never been proven. There are straightforward reasons for Russia to support Trump: He's talked about working with Putin, was less confrontational than Clinton when it came to Russia, and has said various positive things about Putin.

Doesn't the US interfere in elections all the time?
It definitely did a lot during the Cold War, as did the Soviet Union. In recent years, Russia has been working to help Putin-friendly politicians win in Europe, so the idea that they would do something similar in the US isn't a total shock.

What role does WikiLeak's Julian Assange have in all this?
WikiLeaks publishes all kinds of info it receives from all kinds of sources, so it's not surprising Assange's site ran the DNC and Podesta emails. No one is credibly accusing Assange of being a Russian agent or anything. Still, Assange obviously had an anti-Clinton bias during the campaign. The most likely scenario is that if Assange, Trump, and Putin all wanted to defeat Clinton, they wouldn't have needed to coordinate to work toward that end.

Has anyone, like, committed treason or anything?
No US citizen has been charged with any crimes. Even if Trump's campaign was helped by Russia, it doesn't appear at this point that the campaign communicated with Russia at all about any hacking*.

Could Clinton sue to have the election overturned if Russian involvement were proven?
This is America, so anyone can sue anyone for anything—but even if Russian hacking was proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, and even if it was shown to be an attempt to help Trump, it seems impossible to show that these activities were the thing that swung the election. And having the courts overturn an already-decided election would be a terrible precedent. The election is over.

But wait, what about the Electoral College? Could it respond to this news by not picking Trump, even though he won the most states?
That's technically possible if enough electors ignore the will of the voters who directed them to vote for Trump—but again, it seems like an awful, anti-democratic precedent, and is super, super unlikely. Some electors have called for an intelligence briefing before they make the results official on December 31 (which Podesta supports) but only one of those electors is a Republican. Trump won 303 electoral votes and only needed 270—it's doubtful that 34 electors are going to flip.

The election is over.

What if evidence emerged that the Trump camp was in contact with Moscow about the hacking?*
Harry Reid told the Huffington Post that "someone in the Trump campaign organization was in on the deal. I have no doubt," though he didn't speculate about whether Trump himself knew about what was going on. It's not clear what Reid is basing that on, and if there's any evidence to support him, it hasn't been made public. Obviously a presidential campaign colluding with a foreign government to sabotage its rival would be a huge scandal.

Is there any way this could lead to Trump not being the president?
No, sorry.

*UPDATE 12/12: An earlier version of this article said that there had been no communications between Trump's campaign and any Russian officials. In fact, last month a deputy Russian foreign minister said that there had been communications between Russia's government and people in Trump's orbit, though he didn't say who those people were or what they talked about. Also, Harry Reid was incorrectly referred to as the outgoing Senate majority leader rather than the outgoing minority leader.

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