Earlier this spring, just after the number of Americans killed by the coronavirus passed 40,000, the Senate Intelligence Committee released its latest report on Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election. After a three-year review, the Republican-led committee found a “coherent and well-constructed” basis for the intelligence community’s assessment that Vladimir Putin had personally approved a campaign to undermine American democracy; that Moscow sought to “denigrate then-candidate [Hillary] Clinton”; and that the Russians “demonstrated a preference” for Donald Trump. The scale of the Russian operation was “unprecedented.” All 17 members of the committee endorsed the report. Maine’s Angus King, the lone independent on the committee, declared, “The case is closed.”
The senator was wrong, of course. The hacking of the 2016 election will be the subject of partisan litigation for the rest of our lives, and probably beyond, just as Putin intended. The Kremlin’s overriding objective, David Shimer argues in his impressively researched book, was not so much to alter the outcome of the election as to turn America against itself. In this regard the attack succeeded stupendously. “They wanted Donald Trump to win, they wanted Hillary to lose,” former deputy C.I.A. director David Cohen tells Shimer, “but most of all they just wanted to fuck with us.”
Back in the U.S.S.R.
Rigged aims to place Russia’s 2016 active-measures campaign in the context of covert electoral interference carried out by both the U.S. and U.S.S.R. during the Cold War. “Between 1948 and 1991, the CIA and the KGB … targeted elections aggressively,” including multiple attempts by the Kremlin to infiltrate U.S. presidential campaigns. In 1960, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was so alarmed at the prospect of a Nixon presidency that he had the Soviet ambassador to Washington hand a personal letter to Adlai Stevenson. “We are concerned with the future, and that America has the right president,” Khrushchev wrote, hoping to persuade Stevenson to run by offering the Kremlin’s assistance to his campaign. Stevenson refused.
Eight years later, Khrushchev’s immediate successor, Leonid Brezhnev, instructed his diplomats to give Vice President Hubert Humphrey “any conceivable help” to defeat Nixon. Over breakfast at Humphrey’s residence, Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin tried to suggest that Moscow might secretly fund Humphrey’s campaign, but Humphrey quickly made it clear he would never accept a foreign government’s help. “The matter was thus settled to our mutual relief,” Dobrynin said, “never to be discussed again.”
Putin’s decision to meddle in the 2016 election was unsurprising, given his K.G.B. background and loathing of Hillary Clinton. (Once, after Secretary of State Clinton compared Russia’s aggression in Ukraine to that of Nazi Germany, Putin said, “Maybe weakness is not the worst quality for a woman.”) The conspiracy was aided by the Trump campaign’s openness to colluding with foreign entities and by the Obama administration’s reluctance to take action to stop it.
Shimer’s account of the White House’s deliberations during the fall of 2016 is based on interviews with dozens of senior policymakers. It’s the liveliest section of Rigged, and, for anyone involved in carrying out the administration’s foreign policy during that time, also the most depressing. Time and again, top officials meet to discuss ways to deter Putin and sound the alarm about his intentions; month after month, the president and his national-security team postpone the reckoning. “Knowing then what we know now,” the former deputy secretary of state Tony Blinken tells Shimer, “yeah, we should, absolutely should, have done more, faster, harder.” It’s difficult to view Obama’s handling of the Russian hack as anything but an indelible stain on his presidency.
“They wanted Donald Trump to win, they wanted Hillary to lose, but most of all they just wanted to fuck with us.”
As a narrative, Rigged is a less satisfying read than previous chronicles of the 2016 contest, including Greg Miller’s The Apprentice and Joshua Green’s Devil’s Bargain. Shimer has a tendency to quote his well-placed sources at excessive length, which saps the tale’s dramatic force. The book also leaves some key questions unresolved. The first is whether Russian subterfuge played a decisive role in delivering the White House to Trump—whether the election was, in fact, rigged. Shimer is uncertain that Russia’s social-media disinformation campaign swayed the outcome, but he does reveal that several Obama advisers, including the former director of national intelligence, do not rule out the possibility that the Kremlin may have tampered with state electoral databases to alter vote totals on Trump’s behalf.
A second question is how much influence Russia continues to wield over Trump’s presidency. According to Shimer, Trump has met with Putin on at least two occasions in which no aides were present, no notes taken, no transcripts generated—an “almost unprecedented” break from standard protocol, as one National Security Council official puts it. White House officials believe the president confers with Putin in conversations “left off the public record”; in secret, in other words. Shimer’s N.S.C. source tells him that after serving in the White House for a year, “I reluctantly concluded, as did many of my peers, that Trump was doing Russia’s bidding, and that Russia had leverage over him.”
The last question is whether Putin will do it again. U.S. intelligence officials have informed lawmakers that Russia has already started laying the groundwork to interfere in this November’s election. Yet it’s not clear Putin can gain more than what his army of hackers, trolls, and bots have already achieved: an American society riven by partisanship, a federal government exposed as hopelessly inept, and a generation of voters abandoning democracy. “The United States was and remains a ripe target, unable to muster a coherent response to its exposure,” Shimer concludes. Perhaps the truth is too painful to confront: We have met the enemy, and it is us.
Romesh Ratnesar is an editor at Bloomberg Opinion and a New America fellow. He served in the U.S. Department of State from 2015 to 2017