Fox News screenshot

Votes may not have been changed, but that doesn’t mean Russian interference didn’t have an impact on the outcome.

With former special counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony having come and gone, the White House is trying to turn the tables on President Donald Trump’s political opponents by portraying the years-long Russia investigation as a total waste of time. Toward that end, administration spokesperson Hogan Gidley went on Fox News on Friday and proclaimed it now has been “proven” that Russian interference had no impact on the outcome of the 2016 election.

“It’s now been proven by every metric that Russian meddling had no effect on the outcome of the election,” Gidley said.

This talking point is meant to help Americans rest easy, secure in their knowledge that Trump didn’t wind up in office in part because of crimes committed by a foreign adversary on his behalf. But there’s just one problem: It’s not true.

Hogan’s position would be defensible if you interpret what he’s saying very narrowly: Neither Mueller’s 22-month investigation nor the Senate Intelligence Committee’s own two-year inquiry found any evidence that any votes Americans cast on Election Day were changed by Russian hackers.

But the reality of Russia’s sophisticated, multi-pronged effort to meddle in the US election went much deeper than probing states’ voting infrastructure, and the circumstantial case it had an impact is overwhelming. What remains in question is just how decisive that impact was.

Russia helped Trump, even though it didn’t change votes for him

First, it’s worth remember what Russia was up to: Contrary to what the conspiracy theory Sean Hannity and Trump pushed during their latest Fox News gabfest on Thursday, Moscow was not attempting to aid Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

Both US intelligence agencies and Mueller’s investigation affirmed that Russian hackers wanted to help Trump win office and committed crimes toward that end. Trump even acknowledged it at one point.

A Senate Intelligence Committee report released on Thursday indicated that beyond hacking and propaganda campaigns, the Kremlin’s efforts included attempts to penetrate elections systems in all 50 states. It also affirms there is no evidence Russian hackers messed with vote totals or were able to change votes. So in that very narrow sense, the claim that Russia didn’t affect the outcome of the election is defensible.

Gidley, however, went much further.

Votes not being changed doesn’t mean votes weren’t affected

To determine whether Russia had an effect on the 2016 presidential election (as Gidley ruled out), you wouldn’t just need to look at Moscow’s attempted penetration of voting systems. You’d also need to consider how the Kremlin’s $1.25-million-a-month online propaganda campaign and WikiLeaks’ publication of emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign played in American voters’ minds on Election Day. While there’s no incontrovertible proof that those efforts swayed voters in Trump’s favor, there is a convincing circumstantial case.

Earlier this month, for instance, a University of Tennessee Knoxville study funded by the Defense Department found that Trump’s polling upticks during the 2016 campaign correlated with social media activity by Russian trolls and bots. According to the study, every 25,000 retweets from troll and bot accounts connected with Russia’s Internet Research Agency predicted a 1 percent bump in Trump’s polling.

Damian Ruck, the study’s lead researcher, told NBC’s Ken Dilanian that his findings indicate Russia played a very key role in Trump’s victory:

In an interview with NBC News, Ruck said the research suggests that Russian trolls helped shift U.S public opinion in Trump’s favor. As to whether it affected the outcome of the election: “The answer is that we still don’t know, but we can’t rule it out.”

Given that the election turned on 75,000 votes in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, “it is a prospect that should be taken seriously,” Ruck wrote, adding that more study was needed in those swing states.

He points out that 13 percent of voters didn’t make their final choice until the last week before the election.

There is also a strong argument to be made that WikiLeaks, which published the first tranche of emails purloined from Clinton campaign chair John Podesta by Russian hackers just hours after the Washington Post published the Access Hollywood tape of Trump on October 7, swayed voters during the final month of the campaign. In this period, Trump overcame a string of sexual misconduct allegations and a 7-point deficit in the polls to win the election.

As Harry Enten noted for FiveThirtyEight in an analysis of WikiLeaks’ impact during the campaign’s closing stretch, the case remains circumstantial, but Americans were definitely paying attention to WikiLeaks. Enten found that for much of October, there was almost twice as much search interest in WikiLeaks than there was in the FBI, which was also in the news that month because of a letter then-Director James Comey sent to Congress publicizing the Clinton email investigation. Here are a couple additional important data points from Enten’s piece:

Trump, for instance, won among voters who decided who to vote for in October 51 percent to 37 percent, according to national exit polls. That’s Trump’s best time period. He carried voters who decided in the final week, when you might expect Comey’s letter to have had the largest impact, 45 percent to 42 percent.

It’s worth remembering that Trump’s closing message centered largely around WikiLeaks. He mentioned Julian Assange’s operation about five days a day during the campaign’s final month, but now pretends that never happened. (“Problematic is an understatement,” Mueller said on Wednesday about Trump’s promotion of WikiLeaks.) Is it possible the Clinton campaign email dumps and Trump’s relentless hyping of them on the campaign trail had no impact on the outcome of the election? It seems exceedingly unlikely.

So while it’s impossible to prove that Russian propaganda and/or WikiLeaks played a decisive role in swaying anyone’s vote, that’s not what Gidley said. He claimed it’s “been proven by every metric that Russian meddling had no affect on the outcome of the election.” Not only is that not true, but it’s a particularly brazen piece of gaslighting.

The Trump administration has self-interested reasons for downplaying Russian meddling

The president and his Republican enablers in Congress have a vested interest in the narrative that Russia didn’t play a role in Trump’s election, as disconnected from reality as it may be. But the impact of this narrative goes beyond confusing Fox News viewers — it also provides Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell with a pretext to block a number of bills meant to prevent foreign meddling from happening again during the very same week Mueller warned the country that it’s an ongoing concern.

It’s worth noting that Trump’s denialism about Russian interference goes even further than Gidley’s. During a press availability shortly after Mueller’s testimony, Trump not only indicated he’s not taking the Russia issue seriously, but went further and dismissed the entire investigation into election interference as based on “a fake set of facts that the Democrats used, and others, to try and do really an illegal overthrow, but we’re going find out about that.”

Then again, perhaps expecting Trump to take Russian interference seriously is too much to ask, considering that a full accounting of what happened in 2016 could potentially undermine Americans’ sense of security that their president beat Hillary Clinton fair and square.


The news moves fast. To stay updated, follow Aaron Rupar on Twitter, and read more of Vox’s policy and politics coverage.

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