The news this morning is filled with reports of high confidence from US intelligence agencies that Russia intervened in the presidential election, hacking into the servers of both the DNC and RNC, but only releasing information from the DNC to harm Hillary Clinton. The New York Times is suggesting that Russia didn’t actually think Trump would win (lets be honest, who did?), but was trying to find ways to further damage Clinton as president. Trump is still denying the whole thing, but the evidence is growing increasingly strong that there were unprecedented efforts by a foreign nation to influence our election. What there isn’t evidence of, however, is actual vote tampering, or fraud in the vote count. That is an important distinction. If the latter was true, then the entire legitimacy of the election would be called into question, and we would have a true constitutional crisis.
What did happen was that Russia tried to influence the election by enabling the spreading of anti-Clinton propaganda. This is in the same vein as Macedonian teenagers creating fake news sites. It is deeply disturbing, but not unprecedented. How many times has the CIA tried to intervene in foreign elections? (That is a blog in itself, just google the CIA and Guatemala 1954, for one example). The end result should be an increase in international tensions with Russia, and even a potential international crisis. Yet, given the chumminess of Trump with Putin, that crisis might only last until January 20. Now don’t get me wrong, I think foreign interference in our elections is nothing to scoff at. Indeed, it is just a small step from hacking emails to hacking electronic voting machines. But there is no evidence that the latter happened.
In many ways, Russian influence was just one more stream of anti-Clinton rhetoric. The mainstream media basically gave Trump free airtime for months on end, with few media outlets challenging him. The alt-right put out a steady stream of misinformation. And people chose to vote for Trump. They voted for Trump in large enough numbers in places where it mattered, that he gained the required 270 electoral votes. It will probably be impossible to actually measure the influence that Russia had in swaying the election. What we do know is that there were a lot of people who voted for for Trump because they felt that they had been left behind in the economic recovery, and they did not think that they would be any better off under Clinton then they were under Obama. Whether or not it is rational to believe that they will be better off under Trump is another question. Nor do we know if they would have voted for him absent Russian interference.
The latest revelations only adds fuel to the frustration of liberals and Democrats that Trump won the election even though Hillary Rodham Clinton won the national popular vote by about 2.5 million. Nation-wide, about 2 percent more Americans voted for her than voted for Trump. This is not the first time an individual has won the electoral college, while losing the popular vote. Just look at Al Gore. The difference is that Gore won by an extremely small margin, and were it not for “hanging chads” in south Florida, he would have been president. Hillary Clinton, by contrast, had a resounding popular vote margin. Yet, we do not elect the president with a popular vote, we select electors in each state, who cast a vote for president. Since the mid-1800s, that process has been based on state wide elections.
So is this a constitutional crisis? I don’t think so. Nor do I think that the electoral college will act to “fix” it. There might be some “faithless” electors, but it is’t going to change the result. What Russian tampering, fake news, and a “lost” popular vote will do is weaken the credibility of the next president. But he will so busy tweeting, and running Celebrity Apprentice, that it will probably have little impact.
The more I think about this, the more I think the bigger story may be that the Obama administration went to the Congressional leadership in September, seeking for a bi-partisan agreement to go public with the knowledge of what the Russians were accused of doing, but the Senate Majority Leader refused, claiming it would an effort by Obama to help Clinton win the election. That might be the biggest part of this story — the leadership knew about it, and allowed it to go on.