The adjective most frequently attached to Friday's news of the indictment of 12 Russian spies for hacking Democratic Party files and emails to meddle in America's 2016 presidential election was "bombshell." And in many ways it was a bombshell: Seemingly airtight proof of the most elaborate — and, many would argue, the most successful — plot in the 242-year history of the United States by a foreign power to influence American domestic politics.
That said, the "bombshell" was less like a stealth bomber hovering the tree line to drop its payload in the dead of night, and more like the 1937 crash of the Hindenburg, a massive explosion of democracy that a big crowd sat and watched happen, helplessly, in slow motion, leaving folks in the crowd to cry "Oh, the humanity!" into the void.
After all, the first reports that the U.S. intelligence community believed organized Russian spying was the source of stolen Democratic Party documents and emails surfaced nearly two years ago. And yet — just as news in June 1972 that burglars with ties to Richard Nixon's campaign had conducted their low-tech raid on Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate didn't affect Nixon's fall landslide — Donald Trump paid no penalty from American voters for those early hints of Russian interference. That happened for a lot of reasons — Trump allies like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell fought to keep a lid on the intel, then-President Barack Obama was too timid in publicizing it, and much of an angry, polarized electorate probably was too mad to care.
Friday's indictment from the team led by special counsel Robert Mueller attached 12 specific names and a ton of new, covertly obtained details that not only confirmed Vladimir Putin's spies were behind the hack, but revealed many of the methods and techniques they used to electronically succeed where Nixon's clumsy burglars had failed: To break into the Democratic National Committee and steal documents and then to hijack the emails of Hillary Clinton's campaign chair, John Podesta.
Although the revelations that were then revealed by hacker Guccifer 2.0 or posted on Wikileaks and DC Leaks actually weren't that dramatic — two years later, the best-remembered Podesta email is arguably his recipe for creamy risotto — the steady stream of disclosures helped right-wing media convince on-the-fence voters that Clinton was somehow "crooked" and changed the topic whenever there was bad news for Trump — especially the damning "Access Hollywood" tape.
And arguably the revelations from Friday's new Mueller indictment didn't answer the a-lot-more-than-$64,000-question that's been on so many people's minds since Nov. 8, 2016: Did the Russian hacking and subsequent leaks, along with a Russia-led social-media campaign to sew divisiveness in America and presumably aid Trump — change the outcome of an election where Trump won a handful of key states by less than 100,000 combined votes?
Trump and his supporters were quick to ignore the stunning geopolitical implications of Friday's indictments and claim vindication, since neither Mueller indictment citing Russians for election-meddling charged any Trump campaign officials, or any other Americans, with colluding with Team Putin. Trump — completely eschewing the reaction one would have expected from America's first 44 presidencies, which would be rage over a foreign power interfering in our domestic affairs — instead promotes the bizarre idea that what happened in 2016 was not important … but also Obama's fault.
The Russia-interference-was-no-big-deal crowd also clings to the fact there's no evidence of the greatest fear when it comes to election stealing — that hackers accessed electronic voting systems on election night and changed vote totals to hand the contest to Trump.
And yet — buried beneath the headlines on Friday's indictments — were two largely new revelations that dramatically elevated the possibility that Russian meddling wasn't just morally and criminally wrong but actually went a long way toward snatching victory away from Clinton and handed it to Trump on Election Day.
— Hacking of state voter rolls. In the 20 months since Trump's victory, there have been increasingly alarming reports on the extent to which the Russian hackers attempted to access electronic databases of registered voters — efforts were launched against at least 39 states and possibly all 50, we now know — and, even more worrisome, the extent to which they actually broke in.
In at least a few of those states, according to a bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report, the Russian hackers gained enough access to the computerized voting rolls that they could have altered or deleted key registration information. It's not been shown that this actually happened — but officials haven't done everything they can do to prove it didn't happen, either.
Friday's indictment confirmed that hacking these voter databases was a key goal for the Russians. The criminal charges said the Russian spies obtained the personal data of some 500,000 American voters in a state that news reports have identified as Illinois. (State officials there had already acknowledged they were hacked but claimed a smaller scale of about 200,000 voters.)
The indictment also offered new details about a Russian intelligence scheme that successfully hacked the computers of a leading vendor selling electronic voter-registration systems to state and local officials — widely believed to be Florida-based VR Systems — and then used that info to send so-called "spear-phishing" emails to as many as 100 election officials in Florida, seeking to gain access to voting data in that critical swing state.
Why is this so important? Some experts have pointed out that deleting or altering the registration files of voters could not only prevent some people from casting their ballots on Election Day but could also lead to mayhem such as long lines at polling places, causing some to give up and leave without casting their ballots. Unlike using a computer to change election tallies, there is no way to even investigate how many voters are "lost" in such a scenario.
Some of the kind of problems that you'd expect to see on Election Day with bad voter rolls actually materialized in key swing states. For example, in North Carolina — a swing state that proved critical to Trump's victory — voters in key precincts in places like Durham County encountered major problems with electronic "poll books," which forced officials to switch to paper lists that caused voting delays as long as an hour and a half. The poll books were supplied by … you guessed it, VR Systems. Trump won North Carolina by 177,000 votes.
Look, the messed-up balloting in the contested 2000 presidential election shows that voting problems are, unfortunately, as American as cherry pie. We don't know if the lost votes in North Carolina — or any other Election Day problems — were caused by Russian hacking or by more mundane screw-ups, but we need to do a lot more investigating to find out. We also need to further investigate the real impact of another issue identified in the Mueller indictment.
— The theft of Democratic analytics. The Mueller indictment also revealed, for the first time, that the Russian hackers were able in September 2016 to break into a cloud-based system hosting data for the Democratic National Committee and thus gain access to the party's "analytics" — i.e., the critical data that campaign strategists use to determine whether to target ads, ramp up get-out-the-vote or registration drives and send the candidate (or, in the infamous case of Clinton and Wisconsin, where to not send the candidate.)
The indictment doesn't suggest the data was altered, nor — according to experts — would that have accomplished much. But the access could have been critical for revealing — either to the Russians, who we now know were mounting their own extensive social media campaign to aid Trump, or to any GOP campaign officials colluding with Team Putin — where to focus attention to counter the Democrats.
Remember, one of the great mysteries of the Trump-Russia scandal has been how did the so-called Russian trolls — creating divisive Facebook postings on race or immigration, or boosting Trump or third-party candidates like Jill Stein who took votes away from Clinton — know which states to target? Or perhaps more damning, did the Russians successfully convey some of the purloined analytics to the Trump campaign so it could adjust its strategy?
In early October, the Trump campaign shifted its ad strategy to focus on some of the states that would prove critical to his Electoral College win, such as Pennsylvania and Ohio. De-emphasized were states such as Florida and North Carolina.
Jason Miller, a key aide in Trump's 2016 campaign, announced on Twitter in early October that "our data-driven campaign is shifting resources from over-performing markets to new battlegrounds." Those battleground states also included Wisconsin, where Trump purchased ad time and campaigned despite experts claiming it was a waste of time.
In the waning days of the campaign, an unexpected voice resurfaced to predict that Trump's new battleground state strategy would result in an upset victory. That would be Paul Manafort, who'd been ousted as Trump's campaign manager in late summer 2016 and who's now waiting to stand trial on money-laundering charges tied closely to his years of work for pro-Putin interests in Eastern Europe.
Was Manafort a savvy political pundit with his decades of political experience? Or did he have secret inside information that he also could have conveyed to his friends in Trump Tower? Two years into the Trump-Russia investigation, what Americans don't know about either the election integrity of the 2016 results or the 2018 midterms that are just four months away is astounding — and alarming.
The news of Friday's indictments and their rich detail about the extent of the Russian efforts to hijack our election have led many people to urge Trump to cancel Monday's summit with Putin, or at least threaten to cancel it unless Russia hands over the two dozen spies and trolls who've been indicted by Mueller so far for trial in the United States. Such calls are right, proper, and, in the end, kind of silly. Whatever the president knew about Russian hacking, and whenever he knew it, Trump has made it clear he has no interest in protecting the integrity of our elections.
The impetus for change is going to have to come from the rest of us.
It starts with electing a brand new Congress in November — one that is willing to use all the investigatory powers at its disposal both to uncover the full extent of Russian hacking of election systems in 2016, and develop legislation to ensure that this never happens again. One of the more obvious solutions would be the elimination of paperless ballot boxes — which is the goal of a bill that's already been introduced by six U.S. senators. Likewise, election results should be more routinely audited, or recounted, using those paper ballots to make Americans feel better about the final outcome.
It's disconcerting to watch the American president making nice with Putin in Helsinki, knowing what we now know about Russia's efforts to muck up our democracy. But what's even more upsetting is the lingering notion that Trump shouldn't have gained the 45th presidency in the first place.