Hillary Clinton’s campaign team is now asserting that Donald Trump may have had secret prior knowledge of the WikiLeaks hacks——in other words, that he might have colluded with the Russian government to undermine the American electoral system. It’s a eyebrow-raising allegation (one might even call a conspiracy theory), and one for which they have provided scant evidence. And the Trump campaign says it’s false.
Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon floated the possibility of Trump colluding with Russia in a statement provided to The Daily Beast on Oct. 18, before the final presidential debate. Fallon criticized Trump for refusing to disavow the WikiLeaks hacks which laid bare the inbox of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, then suggested the Republican nominee might have had something to do with them.
“His unwillingness to speak out against this unprecedented interference in our elections—combined with his campaign’s and companies’ many connections to Russia—raise troubling questions about whether he has had advance knowledge of any of these activities,” Fallon said at the time.
Since then, two news reports published Oct. 20 have undergirded the first part of Clinton team’s argument—that the Russian government bears some responsibility for the initial hacking of Podesta’s email. First, Esquire reported that Fancy Bear, a Russian hacking group affiliated with its top military intelligence organization, broke into Podesta’s inbox. Additionally, Motherboard reported that Fancy Bear is likely also responsible for the cache of hacked emails from Colin Powell that DCLeaks published in September.
The Clinton team cited both of these stories in a press release blasted out on Thursday afternoon.
But the campaign then went further than either report did and linked Trump directly with the Kremlin.
“There is no longer any doubt that Putin is trying to help Donald Trump by weaponizing WikiLeaks,” said Jake Sullivan, Clinton’s top foreign policy advisor, in a statement.
“In light of his associate’s admitted ‘back-channeling’ with Assange, and Trump’s own undisclosed business ties with Russia, it’s time for Trump to tell the American people what he knew about these hacks and when he knew it,” Sullivan added.
In other words, the Clinton campaign is now arguing that Russian hackers or their affiliates may have given Trump a heads-up about their illegal hacking.
We emailed the Clinton campaign and asked if they have any evidence Fancy Bear, Guccifer, Julian Assange, or anyone else potentially affiliated with the hacking operation informed Trump of their activities before publicizing them. The Clinton campaign didn’t provide any evidence of that.
Now, it’s certainly possible that Trump got a heads-up. But the intelligence community isn’t saying that. And while some intelligence officials have said that they think the Russian hacks could be designed to boost Trump’s chances of winning by embarrassing Clinton and other Democrats, there’s no consensus on that point either. Rather, the intelligence agencies agreed in a rare joint statement that the hacks are “intended to interfere with the US election process,” but stopped short of saying they were benefiting one candidate.
Clinton herself has previously implied that the hacks were designed to help Trump. And Podesta suggested last week that the Trump campaign may have known in advance that WikiLeaks intended to publish his own purloined emails.
Democrats in Congress have practically begged the FBI to investigate Trump’s Russia ties and his campaign’s possible connections to the hacking campaign. But GOP leaders have refused to support efforts to investigate any possible Trump-Russia connections, which have been raised in news reports and closed-door intelligence briefings. But that isn’t to say they aren’t concerned; Sen. Marco Rubio said earlier this week that Republicans could also be in the Kremlin’s sights.
“I want to warn my fellow Republicans who may want to capitalize politically on these leaks,” he said. “Today it is the Democrats. Tomorrow it could be us.”
Democrats have noted in particular that Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, did business with Ukraine’s ousted, Moscow-friendly president, Viktor Yanukovych. They also point to the fact that Trump adviser Carter Page met with at least two Russian officials and was suspected of negotiating an end to some sanctions in a Trump administration. U.S. officials told The Daily Beast that Page’s meetings are of particular concern to congressional Democrats who worry that he may have been freelancing U.S. foreign policy.
In an interview this week with The Daily Beast, Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, called these circumstances “deeply alarming.” And he said Trump’s financial ties to the country deserve more scrutiny.
“We don’t have a full appreciation at all of financial interests Trump has in Russia,” Schiff said.
In a statement Thursday, Schiff blasted the GOP nominee for refusing to agree to abide by the election results, suggesting Putin must have loved Trump’s infamous comment.
“Trump’s whining of rigged elections must be music to the Kremlin, which has endured withering criticism over its rigging of elections and anti-democratic decline,” Schiff said. “When Donald Trump threatens to jail his opponent if he wins, contest the results if he loses, and blames all his problems on a corrupt press and rigged system, he describes a system only Vladimir Putin could applaud.”
The Trump campaign denies this. When asked about the Clinton campaign’s charges on Oct. 18, a Trump spokesperson said the campaign had “nothing to do with the hacks, and we certainly had nothing to do with the terrible content of the emails.” The Trump campaign didn’t respond to a request for additional comment on today’s developments.
So here we are: less than three weeks from an election, with one candidate contending the contest is rigged, and the other suggesting her opponent is in league with the Russians.\