WASHINGTON — The detailed indictment of 13 Russians for intervening in the 2016 presidential election has rekindled a debate that had never fully gone away and now seems destined to become one of the great questions in American political history: Did Moscow tilt the election to Donald Trump?
The 37-page indictment, revealing a sophisticated network that sought to bolster Trump and undermine Hillary Clinton by staging rallies and purchasing incendiary ads on social media, handed Democrats ammunition to claim that Trump’s success was illegitimate because it was buttressed by a foreign power.
Yet even as it offered Clinton and her advisers some measure of vindication by making clear that the Russians had supported Trump’s candidacy — an assertion he has long dismissed as a “hoax” — the indictment was also vexing to both Democrats and Republicans.
Opponents of Trump do not yet have any conclusive proof that he colluded with the Russians. And Trump’s supporters must continue to contend with questions about whether his upset for the ages was the result of foul play.
That has left both sides grappling with a new twist in a debate that has consumed the political universe since the revealing final hours of election night: How did he do it?
The dispute is especially raw because of the razor-thin margin in the election and the uncertainty over what exactly tipped the balance. Clinton, who won the national popular vote, lost the Electoral College vote and therefore the presidency because Trump defeated her by less than a combined 80,000 votes in three states that swung for Republicans: Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
Few Democrats believe that Trump won solely as a result of Russia’s intervention. But many think the meddling exacerbated Clinton’s challenges, making her more vulnerable to what some believe was the decisive blow: the announcement by James Comey, the FBI director at the time, just over a week before the election that he was reopening the investigation into her use of a private email server.
“Russia succeeded in weakening her enough so that the Comey letter could knock her off,” said Jennifer Palmieri, who was Clinton’s campaign communications director.
But veterans of Trump’s campaign shake their head at what they believe is an abiding sense of denial among Clinton loyalists over her deficiencies.
“The election was still won because Donald Trump was a better candidate with a superior message taking on a horrible candidate who people thought was corrupt,” said David Bossie, a senior Trump strategist, who is now president of the conservative lobbying group Citizens United. He allowed that Moscow had mounted a “malicious, disruptive campaign.”
No single factor was determinative in an election that brought nearly 140 million Americans to the polls. And the nation’s intelligence agencies say they do not have any way to calculate whether the Russian effort swung the election.
“To credit the victory to anyone else including those 13 Russians is to demean everyday Americans’ power to control their own destiny,” said Stephen Bannon, the Trump campaign chief executive, who reportedly spent 20 hours with the team led by Robert Mueller, the special counsel in the Russia investigation, last week. “The ‘deplorables’ deserve better.”
Yet it is difficult for Republicans to contend that the multimillion-dollar Russian intervention had no effect, with 126 million Americans being exposed to Russian-sponsored posts on Facebook alone.
The interference was not limited to the actions laid out by Mueller in the indictment of the 13 Russians linked to a “troll farm” known as the Internet Research Agency.
According to the intelligence community, the Russian government supported the email hacking of the Democratic National Committee and the personal account of John Podesta, the Clinton campaign chairman, as well as the disclosure of Clinton’s paid speeches. The committee emails, leaked just before the Democratic National Convention, helped increase the rancor between supporters of Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders.
And the Podesta emails, leaked slowly over the month of October, were doled out selectively, with a number of exchanges held back, according to two Clinton campaign officials. While there were plenty of anodyne messages in the trove, the hackers made sure to reveal the messages that maximized the appearance of DNC behavior unfairly favoring Clinton’s campaign.
Further, a major factor in Clinton’s loss of the three crucial Rust Belt states, which every Democratic nominee had carried since 1992, was a drop-off in turnout and the performance of third-party candidates.
She could not match former President Barack Obama’s turnout among blacks in cities like Philadelphia, Detroit and Milwaukee, and the Green Party nominee, Jill Stein, captured enough votes to make up the difference between Clinton and Trump in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.
The indictment says the Russians worked to exacerbate those challenges. It says that they funded social media posts that were explicitly aimed at encouraging “U.S. minority groups not to vote in the 2016 U.S. presidential election or to vote for a third-party U.S. presidential candidate.”
For example, the Russians created an Instagram account, “Woke Blacks,” and posted messages urging African-Americans not to vote at all rather than support “the lesser of two devils.” They also purchased an ad on Instagram to promote a post that read: “Choose peace and vote for Jill Stein. Trust me, it’s not a wasted vote.”
“The Stein vote alone clearly diminished Clinton’s vote and some of the vote that might have gone to us in Milwaukee and stayed home was probably discouraged, and this Russia stuff played a role in that discouragement,” said Paul Maslin, a Democratic pollster based in Wisconsin. “Out of the 10 factors that most caused Trump to win, maybe this was only the seventh, but the fact that this is even on a relatively short list ought to be alarming.”
Clinton did spend time in Pennsylvania, but she suffered there from what plagued her in the other parts of the industrial Midwest: Too many black voters stayed home, a slice of white liberals voted third-party, and many of the working-class whites who had backed Obama swung to Trump.
Her environmental and gun-control policies turned off some of the state’s ancestral Democrats, and the views she and her husband held in the 1990s on criminal justice depressed black turnout.
“She was very unpopular here, so she didn’t motivate the Democrats,” said Rob Gleason, who was the state Republican chairman in 2016.
To Democrats, though, Clinton’s shortcomings were precisely what Russia preyed on to undercut her campaign.
“We will never be able to know for certain if the massive Russian operation was the difference between victory and defeat,” said Rep. Brendan Boyle of Pennsylvania. “But there is one thing we absolutely can say with certainty: It was a factor. The Russians wouldn’t have devoted hundreds of people and tens of millions of dollars on this operation if it wasn’t having an effect.”
Trump’s admirers and detractors alike found themselves in agreement with one of his many Twitter observations on Sunday: that the Russians intended to sow chaos, and “have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.”