Last week, Donald Trump stubbornly stuck to the line he had maintained throughout the campaign: that nobody knows who hacked into Democratic Party emails. It could have been the Chinese, a lone obese man, etc. The “intelligence” — he insisted on using scare quotes — was suspiciously postponed, the Iraq War had shown that the CIA was untrustworthy in general, and trusted authority Julian Assange had suggested Russia might be getting unfairly blamed for the actions of a 14-year-old boy.
Over the weekend, his line changed. Now, the very idea that Trump had mocked U.S. intelligence was an invention of the “dishonest media”; in fact, he is “a big fan.” Trump cited intelligence as his authority that Russia attempted to hack both parties, but only succeeded in hacking Democrats because Republicans had “strong defense.” (In reality, U.S. intelligence believes Russia successfully hacked both parties, but only released Democratic emails.) Trump and his supporters retreated to a new line, insisting in an official statement that the report had proved “there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election including the fact that there was no tampering whatsoever with voting machines.”
Kellyanne Conway made the talk-show rounds on Sunday to press home the point that the official report concluded that Russian email hacking had no influence on the election whatsoever. “They did not succeed in throwing the election to Donald Trump,” she told Chuck Todd. “If you read the full report, they make clear, Mr. Clapper in his testimony made very clear in his testimony, under oath, that any attempt, any aspiration to influence our elections failed. They were not successful in doing that,” she insisted to Jake Tapper.
This is completely false. In fact, the intelligence report that Conway refers to took no position whatsoever on whether Russian hacking changed the outcome of the election. “We did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election,” it states. “The US Intelligence Community is charged with monitoring and assessing the intentions, capabilities, and actions of foreign actors; it does not analyze US political processes or US public opinion.” And James Clapper, whose testimony Conway also cites as evidence that Russian hacking failed to influence the election outcome, took the same position, which, he said, “certainly isn’t the purview of the U.S. intelligence community.”
It isn’t just outside the purview of the intelligence community to say conclusively whether the Russian email hacks made Trump president. It’s outside the realm of human knowledge altogether, since it would require re-running the election in an alternate universe in which every other factor was identical save the presence of hacked emails published on WikiLeaks. Still, in an election that could have been reversed by a swing of 0.7 percent of the vote in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin plus 0.3 percent of the vote in Michigan, it seems quite likely that the revelations produced by the Russian hack made a large enough difference to change such a small number of votes. Trump cited WikiLeaks revelations 164 times during the election, according to Igor Volsky and Judd Legum. WikiLeaks emails were central to Trump’s case that Hillary Clinton was corrupt and disqualified from holding office. WikiLeaks emails also infuriated supporters of Bernie Sanders, some of whom never came around to supporting Clinton after the primary grudge. Most important, the leaked emails generated countless headlines connecting Clinton to “emails,” which to low-information voters had become a catch-all phrase summarizing an aura of scandal around the Democratic candidate.
Yet in falsely insisting that U.S. intelligence concluded that Russia failed to influence the election’s outcome, Trump’s campaign has articulated a defense conservatives are more eager to support than a straightforward denial of Russian guilt. The conservative movement and the Republican apparatus has largely embraced its new president, and have come to see skeptical coverage of a president who promises to enact cast new swaths of right-wing policy as a plot by the liberal media. The conservative pundit David Harsanyi, in a column published in National Review, the Federalist, Reason, and Hot Air, insists, “there’s no evidence that the Russians had anything to do with Trump’s victory,” and that any suggestions to the contrary have been made because “the Left” wants “to delegitimize the democratic validity of Trump’s presidency.”
Harsanyi’s argument rests on his inability to understand the difference between the probability of an outcome and its provability. I wrote in a column it was “probable” that Russia’s attack changed enough votes to elect Trump, while conceding it could not be known for certain. Harsanyi makes the case that this is a prima facie contradiction:
New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait asserted — in a single paragraph — that not only was there “evidence that Russian intelligence carried out a successful plan to pick the government of the United States” but that it was “probable that the hacks swung enough votes to decide a very tight race” and that the latter could not be “proven.”
I wrote that passage assuming readers would understand that a hypothetical scenario could be probable without being provable. This was a mistake, so I will walk Harsanyi through the concept. A hypothetical scenario might be predicted with some confidence even though its outcome is not provable. If I were to play Steph Curry in a one-on-one basketball game, it is overwhelmingly likely that Curry would win, but we can’t say this for certain; maybe I would get the ball first and hit crazy shot after crazy shot, or maybe Curry would break his leg and I’d repeatedly drive for layups while he writhed in agony on the floor. That Curry would win is not a provable fact.
Or, if instead of nominating Trump, the Republicans had nominated Charles Manson, it is likely that Hillary Clinton would have won, but again, we can’t say this for certain. In fact, I have my doubts. Republicans would initially view Manson as a dangerous maniac who must be stopped, as Republicans (like Harsanyi) did in early 2016 with Trump, but maybe over time they would place his flaws in context: Manson and Clinton both did radical things in the 1960s, and both are accused murderers, but only one of them used an unsecured email server and plans to fill the vacant Supreme Court seat with a left-wing justice etc., etc. Who’s to say? The human mind is capable of tremendous rationalization.
Trump, his supporters, and the enemies of his critics want very badly to deny that Russian hacking might have played a decisive role in his razor-thin victory. And so Trump and his supporters will provide reasons — or, at least, sentences in the English language that sound like reasons — to deny this, and those reasons will be believed.