The 2016 Democratic Convention has opened with a scandal no one foresaw: An apparent foreign adversary—”Russian state actors,” in the words of cyber security experts—hacked and released emails that led to the resignation of the Democratic Party Chair, Debbie Wasserman Shultz.
If Russia was indeed responsible, the meddling was not at all out of character. Russian President Vladamir Putin has allegedly used digital dirty tricks before to meddle in other nation, with a cyber attack on Estonia in 2007 and on Ukraine’s power grid in 2015 both blamed on Russian actors. And the political reverberations of the latest attack are likely just beginning.
Aides to both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have jumped on the hack to launch blistering attacks on each other. Trump’s team claims the released emails underscore their claim that Clinton’s Democratic victory was “rigged.” The released emails appear to show ostensibly neutral Democratic Party officials trading messages about supporting Clinton during the primary against her opponent Bernie Sanders. “Crooked Hillary Clinton knew everything that her ‘servant’ was doing at the DNC – they just got caught, that’s all!” Donald Trump tweeted Monday. “They laughed at Bernie.”
At the same time, Clinton aides have used the attacks to launch a new attack on Trump for his past praise of Putin, and the close ties of his family and aides to Russian oligarchs in the Russian ruler’s circle. “Candidate Trump has been espousing in public a bunch of policies from a foreign policy standpoint that would completely play into Vladimir Putin’s hands,” said Brian Fallon, the press secretary to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. “He’s talked about abandoning our NATO alliance and leaving some of those NATO member states that are on the Eastern part of Europe and right in the periphery of Russia’s sphere of influence, leave them potentially vulnerable by not honoring our own commitments to NATO.”
Earlier this month in Cleveland, the Republican Party’s platform committee shot down efforts to call for giving lethal assistance to Ukraine to fight Russian aggression. Trump’s top aide, Paul Manafort, is a lobbyist who previously worked for the pro-Putin leader of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych. The New York Times reported that Manafort set up an investment vehicle for another pro-Putin businessman, Dmytro Fitash. Other Trump aides also have ties. Former Trump New York aide Michael Caputo previously worked to improve Putin’s image in the United States, and Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page has advised Gazprom, the Russian energy giant.
Trump has also done a number of business deals with Russians, including accepting funding for real estate projects, and staging a beauty pageant in Moscow in 2013. In 2013, he tweeted that Putin could become his “new best friend” if he attended the Trump-owned Miss Universe pageant. (Putin did not attend, though he sent Trump a gift, according to a Putin ally quoted in the Washington Post. “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” Trump’s oldest son, Donald Trump Jr. was quoted as saying at a 2008 real estate conference.
Trump has never been shy about his admiration of Putin, who has often returned the favor with positive comment. “He’s a really brilliant and talented person, without any doubt,” Putin said of Trump in a December press conference. Trump, in turn, repeatedly brags about appearing on the same episode of 60 Minutes as Putin and has drawn praise from afar from the Russian leader. In a December interview on MSNBC, Trump was asked if he felt comfortable being praised by Putin, given the accusations that Putin has killed journalists and political opponents. “He is running his country, and at least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country,” Trump said in response. “Our country does plenty of killing also.”
Trump’s approach towards Russia and Putin marks a dramatic departure from Republican tradition. The 2012 party nominee, Mitt Romney, said Russia was the gravest threat facing in the United States. Four years earlier, John McCain said he looked into Putin’s eyes and saw three letters: “a K, a G and a B.” George W. Bush’s top national security maven, Condi Rice, was a Soviet expert who helped manage the downfall of the Communist regime for Bush’s father. President Bush tried to improve relations with Putin, but found the relations grew increasingly tense as time went on. At one point, Bush said in 2014, Putin made a point of insulting the size of Bush’s Scottish Terrier, Barney.
The political bromance has been an obsession for some Clinton aides in Brooklyn, but, until recently, they were laughed out of the room. When Fallon met with reporters on Monday, it was clear he was glad his deputies had been in the weeds on the Trump-Putin ticket. “Told you I wasn’t crazy,” one Clinton aide texted a TIME reporter on Monday.
What remains unclear, however, is whether American voters care at all about this episode of espionage. Ask any voter who runs the DNC and it’s a good bet a blank stare comes back. The challenge for Clinton’s team is to connect the Russian strongman with Americans’ worries. Anxiety over terrorism and extremism runs high, fears of economic downturn are persistent and many voters find Trump’s muscular messaging comforting—even if it lacks credulity or specifics. Clinton, who once promised a “Reset” with Russia as Secretary of State, is hardly the ideal messenger when it comes to tough talk on Putin.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation announced Monday it has launched a formal investigation to determine the scope of Russian involvement in the hack. Senior administration officials gathered at the White House Thursday to discuss the hack, the Washington Post first reported. The meeting, confirmed by an administration official, was to begin formulating a response to the infiltration. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Monday the hack was a “national security” issue.
What is also clear is that the event, so far, has been a major coup for the hackers. What henchmen of President Richard Nixon tried to do in 1972 with a crowbar and tape over door jams at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C., digital thieves have successfully pulled off with the help of computers overseas.