Russia and its influence on the presidential election

Russian President Vladimir Putin struck an unusually conciliatory tone in his annual state of the nation address, saying Moscow wanted to get on with the incoming U.S. administration and was looking to make friends not enemies. (Reuters video)

Editor's note: Since we published this story, the question of Russia's role has come under additional questioning. The Washington Post reported Dec. 9 that the CIA concluded Russia meddled in the election with the intent to help Trump, rather than to disrupt the election generally. The New York Times produced a similar report. However, the Washington Post also reported that the FBI isn't as confident in this conclusion. These stories are all based on anonymous sources and cannot be independently verified.

One of the most pervasive narratives of the presidential race was that Russian President Vladimir Putin was trying to upend the election — in a way that helped President-elect Donald Trump.

Politicians of both parties condemned the alleged actions of a U.S. adversary. Trump, however, often brushed off claims that Russia was meddling in the election to his benefit, while Hillary Clinton charged that Trump was encouraging Russia.

"It’s pretty clear you won’t admit that the Russians have engaged in cyberattacks against the United States of America, that you encouraged espionage against our people, that you are willing to spout the Putin line, sign up for his wish list, break up NATO, do whatever he wants to do, and that you continue to get help from him, because he has a very clear favorite in this race," Clinton said to Trump at the third presidential debate in October.

Clinton’s rhetoric would lead you to believe that Putin wanted Trump to win, and his actions during the election helped ensure that outcome. Claims that Russian government hacked Democratic politicians, had undue influence over the Trump campaign and even that it compromised voting machines all contributed to this narrative.

We wanted to know the current evidence both for and against Russian involvement. While investigations may reveal more later, we found that there isn’t conclusive proof of Russian involvement for some of these claims, and whether Putin truly prefers President Trump remains an open question.

"There is likely some truth to some of these allegations, but there has also been a bit of Russia hysteria recently on the part of some pundits, politicians and media," said Scott Radnitz, a professor at the University of Washington currently researching conspiracy theories in post-Soviet states.

Did Putin prefer Trump to Clinton?

Some of Trump’s foreign positions happen to dovetail with Putin’s. This includes Trump’s potential unwillingness to defend NATO allies, support for Russia’s takeover of Crimea in Ukraine, and willingness to consider lifting sanctions against Russia. He has also praised Putin as a "strong leader."

But experts said this alone is not evidence that Putin is Trump’s puppeteer, or that he even wanted him as president.  

"Trump's comments on Russia have been very unusual, strangely at odds with the dominant view of both parties in the U.S.," Radnitz said. "But that's literally all we know."

It’s no secret that Putin doesn’t like Clinton. She often tussled with Putin and his administration while serving as secretary of state, overseeing the so-called "Russian reset." But he also may not like Trump’s unpredictable nature, said Dmitry Gorenburg, a senior research scientist at CNA, a think tank.

Putin believes Clinton stoked protests in Russia surrounding its 2011 elections. So if Putin did intentionally interfere in the U.S. election, it might have been to get back at Clinton rather than an attempt to prop up Trump, Gorenburg added.

DNC hack

The most concrete example of Russian involvement in the election was the Democratic National Committee email hack. Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., resigned from the DNC chair position because of embarrassing emails revealed in the subsequent dump.

The federal intelligence community, as well as private cybersecurity analysts, are confident that Russian actors were behind the hack. The Homeland Security Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a joint statement Oct. 7 saying they believed people at the top levels of Russian government directed the attack in an attempt to interfere in the election.

Some private security researchers also believe Russians stole and leaked emails from Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta.

Fake news

Some Russian media websites, like RT and Sputnik, are known to have spread some fake or false news reports during the election.

For example, Sputnik published an article that said the Podesta email dump included certain incriminating comments about the Benghazi scandal, an allegation that turned out to be incorrect. Trump himself repeated this false story.

But claims that the Russian government called for these fake news articles are unproven.

It’s far more likely that these websites were being opportunistic, publishing them on their own accord to drive traffic, Gorenburg said.

Trump campaign

Trump certainly has conducted business in Russia or with Russian investments, like taking the Miss Universe pageant to Moscow in 2013. Without his tax returns, however, we don’t know the full extent of his business dealings there.  

Trump has taken on advisers with clearer-cut connections to Russia. Top adviser Paul Manafort, for example, consulted for Putin-backed Ukrainian politicians. Foreign policy adviser Carter Page advised Russian gas giant Gazprom, and national security adviser Michael Flynn attended an RT gala with Putin.   

The experience of Trump’s advisers might have shaped Trump’s policy positions. But the FBI looked into the issue and found no evidence of a direct connection between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, according to news reports.

"Even if something is consistent with Russian government interests, it doesn’t mean the Russian government did it," said Yoshiko Herrera, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies Russia and former Soviet states.

Election Day

Before the election, Russian actors gained access to the voter registration system in Arizona and possibly other states. It is not clear if the perpetrators were directed by the Russian government or if they were private criminals.  

But regarding Election Day itself, President Barack Obama’s administration said in a statement that it believes "our elections were free and fair from a cybersecurity perspective."

Some computer scientists flagged anomalies in the results of several counties that used electronic voting in three swing states — Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan — prompting calls for recounts. But claims that Russians are to blame for these vote tally anomalies, through hacking or other means, are baseless.

So what does it all mean?

Based on the evidence, it seems highly unlikely that actions by the Russian government contributed in any decisive way to Trump’s win over Clinton.

There might have been some influence on the issues that made headlines during the campaign, such as Trump’s Putin-friendly advisers pushing him to make Putin-friendly statements, or the hacking of DNC emails.

Still, Gorenburg said, policymakers should still be concerned about the possibility that a foreign government might have attempted to meddle in a domestic election.

"Regardless of the extent of the impact we should be concerned about the attempt," he said. "It is something to investigate regardless of whether we think it affected the result."