It’s a sign of our hyper-polarized times that we can’t seem to sort through the simplest of controversies. Yes, the debate over whether Russia used WikiLeaks (and other means) to attempt to influence the 2016 election is important, but that doesn’t make it remotely complex. Factually and conceptually there is ample ground for consensus. Let’s start with four key truths.
First, WikiLeaks is not our friend. As Jonah Goldberg relates in his piece today, it’s been astonishing to watch attitudes shift on Julian Assange & Co. When it was busy engineering and facilitating the largest intelligence leaks in American military history, WikiLeaks was praised by fringe figures on the left and universally reviled on the right. Now it’s reviled on the left and praised on the right.
This is unconscionable. WikiLeaks is not suddenly under new management, and Assange has not had a change of heart. He has targeted the American government time and again. He’s placed American allies in mortal danger. He opposes the U.S. and is sympathetic to its enemies. It’s obvious every time he opens his mouth, and every time he dumps reams of damaging information into the public square even as he spares authoritarian regimes such as Russia and China the same embarrassment. If you dance with WikiLeaks, you dance with the devil.
Second, Americans should unite in opposition to foreign attempts to influence election outcomes. It’s fair to ask whether Russia did in fact attempt to influence American public opinion through illegitimate means. It’s one thing for foreign leaders to publicly criticize candidates. It’s another thing entirely to steal information, plant fake stories in the media, and otherwise use deception and subterfuge to influence our Democratic process.
We can’t be afraid of the truth. There has to be a complete and (to the extent possible without disclosing vital intelligence assets) transparent public investigation of Russian intelligence activities in 2016. We have to examine actions and intentions. We have to examine the extent of the damage, if any, and gauge as much as possible the impact on our politics. This is a matter of national defense. It’s vital that we protect our constitutional structure from foreign enemies.
In the weeks since our intelligence agencies accused the Russians of meddling in the election, however, it seems like parts of the GOP have been transplanted to the Berkeley quad circa 1971. There’s anti-government paranoia (“This is all a conspiracy against Trump!”) and moral equivalence (“So what? America interferes with foreign governments all the time”). That’s the power of polarization. The quest for victory transforms you into the very thing you once claimed to hate.
Third, politicians, including the president-elect, shouldn’t publicly attack intelligence agencies simply because those agencies reach disagreeable conclusions. No, the U.S. intelligence community isn’t perfect. Yes, there have been times when intelligence was not just flawed, but politicized. But it is unprecedented for the president-elect of the United States to cast aspersions on intelligence conclusions before he’s seen the evidence.
No good can come of this development. It places pressure on eager-to-please bureaucrats to tell the incoming president what he wants to hear. It antagonizes hostile bureaucrats, incentivizing conflict between the Oval Office and our intelligence agencies. And in so doing, it makes the already-difficult job of obtaining and evaluating intelligence that much harder at a time when the stakes are extraordinarily high.
Fourth, there is still no evidence that the Russians changed the outcome of the election. It is true that Julian Assange is anti-American. It’s likely true that the Russians worked to disrupt and influence American public debate, and it’s possibly true that they did so to elect Donald Trump. But it’s still wildly speculative to claim that Russian actions were decisive.
The Russians didn’t hack voting machines. They didn’t change vote tallies. Any “fake” news stories were lost like tears in the rain of news. The WikiLeaks revelations were but one small part of an election cycle that sometimes seemed to feature not just a scandal per day, but a scandal per hour. One of America’s most well-known celebrities ran against one of America’s most well-known politicians. After billions of dollars worth of earned and purchased media, after millions of words of coverage, both candidates ended up where they began —disliked by a majority of Americans. Indeed, Trump won despite being more disliked than Hillary. His unfavorability rating was a stunning 60 percent. Hers was “only” 55 percent.
In a world where both Clinton and Trump were controversial figures for decades, are we really to believe that John Podesta’s e-mails tipped the balance? It’s implausible, at best.
As with so many pre-inauguration controversies, the hype is worse than the substance, and the hype causes even good people to say and do foolish things. Now is not the time to reevaluate clear truths about WikiLeaks and Russia simply because you may like the consequences of their improper actions. Nor is it the time to cast election results into doubt absent compelling evidence. It’s the time to investigate — not hyperventilate.
— David French is a staff writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and an attorney.