Certain stories – call them conspiracy theories – develop a life of their own, not because of actual facts associated with them, but because they are so plausible based on other, related facts that we do know. One of those stories/conspiracy theories is the one currently getting pretty wide circulation that the Russians hacked the DNC with the express idea that they wanted to help Donald Trump become President.
Now, the first half of that equation – that the Russians hacked the DNC – has a pretty decent amount of actual factual material behind it. The U.S. Government has been saying for over a year that the Russians breached government servers and explicitly warned both the RNC and DNC that they were attempting to break into the computer systems of both parties. Definitely the Obama administration is telling everyone as loudly as possible that this was the Russians, so to the extent that they are not just running interference for Hillary, that’s sort of credible.
The second half – that the Russians are doing it on purpose to help Trump – is where things get interesting. On the one hand, Trump’s campaign is right that there’s a delicious irony in the Clintons – who have long been credibly implicated in Chinese foreign influence schemes – accusing the Russians of trying to throw this election to Trump.
And yet. And yet. Trump is probably tied to the Kremlin and the oligarchs who run the Kremlin more credibly than any Presidential candidate since Eugene McCarthy. The guy in charge of Trump’s campaign has a well known history of working for the more unsavory elements of Russian society. Trump’s main foreign policy advisor, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, was fired for (in part) allegedly leaking secrets to the Kremlin and is still dogged by rumors of potentially being on the Kremlin payroll. This much is widely known.
What’s less known is that Trump, many of his companies, and many of his campaign operatives have very long standing ties to Russia, both in the business community and in the government. As The Hill chronicled earlier this week, the extent of Trump’s ties to Russia would be troubling for any Presidential candidate even in the absence of the DNC story. Courting business from Russian oligarchs has long been part of Trump’s business plan:
Is Russia playing in the U.S. like it has been in Europe? Russian investment has been a major target of the Trump organization. The Republican nominee’s son, Donald Jr, told a 2008 real estate conference, “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.” According to the website of eTurboNews, a trade publication, he added: “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”
Investors have included Alexander Mashkevich, a Kazakh who in 2011 was investigated by Turkish prosecutors for organizing a sex party on a luxurious yacht involving underage girls. Mashkevich denied any wrongdoing. He was also at the heart of one of the longest-running cases in Belgian history involving allegations of money-laundering. The case was eventually settled after he and two associates agreed to pay an undisclosed fine in return for the dropping of the case. Another investor is former Soviet official Tevik Arif, who has been investigated off-and-on for organized-crime links.
Has the Russian money and Moscow ties had consequences and does it shape candidate Trump’s foreign-policy thinking or that of the advice he receives from his aides? It is certainly a question that would be asked — and rightly so — of Hillary Clinton, if the shoe was on the other foot. Saudi donations to the Clinton Global Initiative have come under scrutiny, as well they should.
Objectively, Putin must be thinking he has won the jackpot in the current United States Presidential election. Hillary Clinton was completely feckless and powerless dealing with his administration, but in Trump he realizes that he has a candidate who is actually deeply connected through his own business interests with the people who actually run Russia. The chances that these people have damaging inside information about Trump – even if Trump weren’t inclined to act in Russia’s interest through his own self-interest – is pretty overwhelming. And that’s the kind of thing you can’t put a price tag on, if you’re Putin.
In other words, the reason this conspiracy theory has gained so much instant credence is that if Putin didn’t hack the DNC and release these emails at this particular time, then he should have.
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