Shadow Government

How Should the United States Respond to Russia’s Election Meddling?

Trump welcomed Russia's DNC email hack. Do those who seek to put America First really want the Russians to help them do that?

A woman walks past a mural on a restaurant wall depicting US  Presidential hopeful Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin greeting each other with a kiss in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius on May 13, 2016.
Kestutis Girnius, associate professor of the Institute of International Relations and Political Science in Vilnius university, told AFP -This graffiti expresses the fear of some Lithuanians that Donald Trump is likely to kowtow to Vladimir Putin and be indifferent to Lithuanias security concerns. Trump has notoriously stated that Putin is a strong leader, and that NATO is obsolete and expensive. 
 / AFP / Petras Malukas        (Photo credit should read PETRAS MALUKAS/AFP/Getty Images)
A woman walks past a mural on a restaurant wall depicting US Presidential hopeful Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin greeting each other with a kiss in the Lithuanian capital Vilnius on May 13, 2016. Kestutis Girnius, associate professor of the Institute of International Relations and Political Science in Vilnius university, told AFP -This graffiti expresses the fear of some Lithuanians that Donald Trump is likely to kowtow to Vladimir Putin and be indifferent to Lithuanias security concerns. Trump has notoriously stated that Putin is a strong leader, and that NATO is obsolete and expensive. / AFP / Petras Malukas (Photo credit should read PETRAS MALUKAS/AFP/Getty Images)

How should the United States respond to the hack of the Democratic National Committee emails, especially the likelihood that a Russian intelligence service carried it out? Some possible responses are worth debating.

Reasonable people can debate whether we make the problem worse by escalating the rhetorical war of words about Russian cyber intrusions. Does naming and shaming work? Do you have to reveal too much of your own capabilities to make a persuadable public case on attribution?

Likewise, I understand the arguments for and against more punitive responses. Targeted sanctions are worth considering, but we are already employing them against Russian entities for a variety of reasons. The easy targets on the list have been taken, so we are left with harder choices if we reach for sanctions.

And certainly it is not obvious whether the United States should respond with a tit-for-tat cyber reprisal. We need to be careful about not triggering an escalation spiral, even though recent experience suggests that Russian President Vladimir Putin tends to back down when challenged and tends to escalate in response to weakness. Regardless of your judgement about Putin’s escalation tendencies, picking the right proportional response would be a very difficult analytical (and perhaps operational) challenge. Again, another downside of a reprisal is that it reveals capabilities that we might prefer to keep private.

I am even willing to concede that reasonable people can lament the illegality of the hack and yet still insist that there are things to learn from its revelations about how the DNC operated. For my money, the revelations are not shocking. Of course the establishment DNC preferred the establishment candidate, and the emails document that. But perhaps I am missing important insights.

Yet while all of those possible responses are open to debate, I think it is pretty clear that the one thing we should not do is celebrate the idea that the Russians are interfering in our democratic process and encourage them to do so more. Who would respond in that way? Alas, Republican presidnetial nominee Donald Trump.

I am gobsmacked by Trump’s decision to welcome the hacking and to encourage the Russians to do more of it. For one, it undermines the storyline that Trump offered over the weekend, namely that it was absurd to think that the Russians were behind the hack. If you claim it was absurd to think they were behind it — a conclusion that both private and government experts apparently reached — why would you call on Russia to do more of it?

Likewise, it easily fails the “sauce for the goose and gander” test. What would Trump say if the Russians hacked his emails — or better yet, his tax forms — and released them to the public?

But the real problem with encouraging Russian mischief is that no one, least of all the presidential candidate, should want a foreign power to intervene in our election with dirty tricks. It goes to the very heart of the integrity of the democratic process. Imagine the following hypothetical: that the way the Russians got access to these emails was through the complicity of an individual working for the DNC. Would we not say that such action was not merely criminal, but might even rise to the level of treason — colluding with a foreign power? To make the hypothetical even more pointed: Imagine if that person was an elected official. Wouldn’t that be an impeachable offense? If it is wrong for an American individual to do this, isn’t it doubly wrong for a foreign power to do it? And the foregoing is all true if we stipulate for the sake of argument that the emails Trump is talking about are all unclassified. But, of course, we know that Trump believes those emails are classified, so his position amounts to calling for a foreign power to interfere in our election by unlawfully releasing classified information.

This is not a matter of snubbing your nose at political correctness. This is a simple matter of right and wrong.

It has become conventional wisdom that nothing Trump says or does can undermine his support among his base. I wonder: Do those who seek to put America First really want or trust the Russians to help them do that?

Photo credit: PETRAS MALUKAS/AFP/Getty Images

Peter D. Feaver is a professor of political science and public policy and Bass Fellow at Duke University, and director of the Triangle Institute for Security Studies and the Duke Program in American Grand Strategy. He is co-editor of Elephants in the Room.

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