The FBI and other government agencies, two powerful Senate committees and scores of journalists are now on the trail of potential contacts between Trump campaign associates and Russian officials prior to the presidential election.
In the hunt for information, many are looking to whether particular actions by Russia (and WikiLeaks) were potentially coordinated with Donald Trump’s inner circle to help his election chances.
But that focus is too narrow. It assumes Trump and Vladimir Putin shared only one principal goal: getting Mr. Trump to the White House.
According to the intelligence community, Putin’s cyber operation during the presidential election served two ambitions: (1) to undercut Hillary Clinton’s prospect of winning; and (2) to sow doubt about the election process as a whole.
The first ambition rose and fell according to the belief that Trump’s chance of winning was within the realm of possibility. Russia may have largely given up on that ambition, according to the intelligence report, when it looked like Clinton’s victory was more certain.
The intelligence community concluded: “When it appeared to Moscow that Secretary Clinton was likely to win the election, the Russian influence campaign then focused on undermining her expected presidency.”
Here’s what should not be missed: Trump would directly benefit from the first effort, but he also aligned himself, to a significant degree, with the second effort as well. More specifically, Putin’s second ambition was fully consistent with Trump repeatedly calling the election “rigged,” and refusing to state that he would accept the election results if Clinton won.
There was a phase where Trump thought that he might win, and there were long stretches where he seemed dead set on undermining public confidence in the election results. Notably, the latter ambition was in contrast to the positions taken by Mike Pence and Reince Priebus, both of whom tried to make course corrections.
What might explain Trump’s interest in undermining public confidence in the election results? At this point, one can only speculate. And nobody seemed to know at the time. Perhaps out of concern for his reputation, he wanted any loss to be cast under a shadow of doubt.
Perhaps Trump wanted to undermine Clinton’s expected presidency, especially if it would help him set up a new media company in opposition to her administration. Perhaps there were even more nefarious reasons having to do with financial and other ties to Russia, and thus continuing to act in line with Moscow’s own interests.
Regardless of the specific reason, Trump’s systematic effort to shape public opinion around the idea of a rigged election was not out of sync with the Kremlin’s own efforts.
As we look to the various reasons that Trump’s innermost circle may have supported or otherwise colluded with Russia’s efforts, it is important to keep this wider focus in mind.
Ryan Goodman is co-editor-in-chief of Just Security. Ryan is the Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law. He served as Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-16).