What Really Happened In The 2018 Election?
The 2018 elections resulted with the Democrats trouncing the Republicans by the largest popular vote margin for the House of Representatives in a midterm election in American history. That result, combined with a better than expected showing for Democrats in the Senate and similar successes in state and local races seemingly put to bed any thoughts of a significant impact on the 2018 election from foreign, especially Russian, interference. However, that may not have been the case.
As Marcy Wheeler over at emptywheel has been discussing, last September, under pressure from Congress, President Trump issued an executive order that the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), currently Dan Coats, produce a report an any foreign interference in what was then the upcoming midterm elections within 90 days after election day. That report would be forwarded to the President, the Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of Defense, the Attorney General, and the Secretary of Homeland Security. In addition, the executive order required the administration to impose pretty stiff sanctions on any foreign country or individual who had been found interfering.
There was a remarkable exchange in the Senate Intelligence Committee (SSCI) hearing discussing the Worldwide Threat Assessment last week where Senator Heinrich pressed DNI Coats on the status of that report and whether the committee would be briefed on its findings. At that point Coats admitted that the report had been submitted to the relevant principals as required but that the 90 deadline had not expired and the DOJ was still reviewing the report in order to determine what actions, if any, should be taken. Heinrich continued to press on whether the committee would be briefed on the report as they had requested on multiple prior occasions. At that point, Chairman Burr stepped in and pretty much shut Heinrich down, saying that he and Vice Chairman Mark Warner had been briefed on the report’s findings, while ominously adding that “we are sort of in uncharted ground”.
Yesterday was the day the 90 day deadline expired which meant that the Trump administration must begin to impose sanctions on those who interfered in the election. It has already been reported that Russia’s GRU attempted to hack into then Senator Claire McCaskill’s campaign and were also engaged in manipulating social media to influence the midterms in the lead-up to the 2018 election. But yesterday, at the deadline, the Acting Attorney General and Homeland Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen released a statement that “Although the specific conclusions within the joint report must remain classified, the Departments have concluded there is no evidence to date that any identified activities of a foreign government or foreign agent had a material impact on the integrity or security of election infrastructure or political/campaign infrastructure used in the 2018 midterm elections”. Coincidentally, this conclusion gets Trump off the hook for having to impose more sanctions on Russia, an action he always finds difficult to take for some reason or other.
It seems remarkable that a report that found “no material evidence” of tampering with the 2018 election would not only prevent the full SSCI from getting briefed on it but also required the two principals of that committee to receive such a briefing. In that context, it is important to note, as I have previously, that Burr and Warner are part of the “Gang of Eight” in Congress that is required to be briefed on sensitive security matters.
One of the more interesting parts of the Worldwide Threat Assessment released last week was what it had to say about Russian interference in US electoral politics. According to the Assessment, “Moscow may employ additional influence toolkits—such as spreading disinformation, conducting hack-and-leak operations, or manipulating data—in a more targeted fashion to influence US policy, actions, and elections”. The phrase “manipulating data” covers a lot of territory and is particularly disconcerting when talking about elections, conjuring up nightmares of hacked voter rolls and even changing vote totals.
This could easily be much ado about nothing and at present there is no direct evidence to suggest otherwise. But the ferocity with which the administration is fighting the release of the full report to the SSCI, while also briefing its principals, one of whom describes the situation as “uncharted territory”, is curious for a document that concludes there was no material impact for foreign interference. And it is always difficult to take this administration’s word for anything. As Wheeler asks, “Maybe the Russians did have an effect on the election?” And since, by definition, any interference in the 2018 election would effect races down-ballot from the President, it also raises the issue of whether those tactics were also used in a similar fashion in the 2016 election as I have previously theorized.