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Is the media exaggerating Putin’s role in the DNC email hack?

REUTERS/Maxim Zmeyev
Professor Nick Hayes: “In some ways it has the hallmarks of a Putin strategy.”

As a nefarious media strategy, the drop of the Democratic National Committee’s e­mails the day before its convention opened in Philadelphia doesn’t seem to have played out the way the perpetrators intended. Chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz may have been given the boot, but as far as general press coverage went, attention (very) quickly turned away from the DNC and to the likely involvement of Russia and Vladimir Putin — and then to Donald Trump and whatever connections he may have to Russian money.

It was a moment to call Nick Hayes, professor of history and holder of the university chair in critical thinking at St. John’s University in Collegeville. A familiar, respected voice on things Russian for over 30 years, Hayes has a talent for bringing coherence to sprawling stories clotted with byzantine Russian politics. (Here is Hayes in particularly cogent form last spring on MPR.)

At the bottom line, Hayes is among those who find the episode just a bit too clumsy for direct involvement from a character as wily as Putin himself. “But there’s no question whoever did it wanted us to know they are capable of such a hack. Although it was done clumsily, they wanted it out there so we could see that they can do this.

“In some ways it has the hallmarks of a Putin strategy,” said Hayes. “He sometimes likes us to see the choices he makes, as in Crimea where he let the world know he deliberately chose to use force, letting everyone know that he can do as he pleases. He tried the same tactic in Ukraine though, and that didn’t go quite as well.”

Similarly, Putin’s antipathy toward Hillary Clinton is not exactly a state secret. “The Politico story a couple days ago (by Michael Crowley and Julia Ioffe), gives I think a very good picture of the animus Putin has for Clinton, relating back her accusing him of rigging the 2011 elections in Russia. This e­mail dump, [through WikiLeaks], could be seen as his payback for what he sees as her interference in his domestic politics. It’s like saying, ‘You say we rig elections. But we can see what you’ve been doing.’”

“It’s also no secret that Clinton, as Secretary of State, made a push for [Dimitry] Medvedev to remain as President, rather than Putin returning. She saw Medvedev as the better option.”

Hayes is more skeptical though about Putin directly calling the play, pointing out that in modern Russia there are competing intelligence agencies and other entrenched bureaucratic entities eager to please Putin by embarrassing an adversary like Clinton. Like committed careerists everywhere, they don’t need to be told what makes the boss happy.

Professor Nick Hayes
MinnPost photo by Jana Freiband
Professor Nick Hayes

As for the Trump connection, “Even though Trump often speaks flatteringly about Putin, Putin doesn’t need Trump’s praise and compliments.”

Like others, Hayes is less interested in what investments and deals Trump has going down in Russia than what investments Russia/Russians have made in Trump, cautioning that just because Russian oligarch money flowed to Trump in some form isn’t the same as saying the Russian state had a hand in the deal(s). (Here’s another Crowley piece on the one Russian transaction Trump alluded to in his recent press conference.)

“I’ve long thought it odd that Trump, who has wanted access to the Russian market, in the form real estate development deals in Moscow, has never been able to make that happen, despite literally years of trying. That’s curious to me.”

But, he says, “I think the media may be guilty of exaggerating the Russian role in this incident. It may well be nothing more serious than Russia meddling, and doing so in a clumsy fairly obvious way. Putin has animosity toward Clinton and whatever he may think of Trump personally, Trump makes him look good.

“As I say though, Putin often likes the world to know what he knows. So it is absolutely possible that if he was able to get his hands on these e­mails he may be able to get his hands on other information with potentially worse consequences.”

Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Mike martin on 07/30/2016 - 01:11 am.

    What does this hack say about

    Clinton’s state department private email server being hacked??

    What is your opinion of which server had better security DNC or Clinton’s private server? Do you think that the FBI and CIA work with the DNC & RNC to improve the security of their servers so foreign governments cannot hack into the DNC & RNC servers?

    Because of Watergate, both parties assume that fringe branches of the other party are always trying to hack into the other’s email and mailing lists. Both the RNC and DNC install security software to protect their emails and donor data.

    IMO the DNC had much better security. Therefor its is very likely if not a given that Clinton’s private email was hacked. Perhaps by several foreign governments/interests.

    Because of the nature of the information in the emails its not in Russia’s China’s etc best interest to announce that they have hacked Clinton’s private server. The only reason to announce that Clinton’s server was hacked would be to try to get Trump elected

    Information on Clinton’s server may have given Russia, China etc. information/clues that enabled them to hack into regular State Department servers and other government servers.

    • Submitted by Doug Gray on 08/01/2016 - 10:18 am.

      “IMO the DNC had much better security”

      IMO you might want to defer to the head of the FBI on that since they actually investigated it and found no evidence of a hack. While we’re in correction mode: “[Putin] sometimes likes us to see the choices he makes, as in Crimea..He tried the same tactic in Ukraine though, and that didn’t go quite as well.” Um, Crimea is Ukraine, however confused some people may be about that on national television or east of the former Iron Curtain.

      • Submitted by Jim Million on 08/02/2016 - 09:09 pm.


        Crimea (the Crimean peninsula) has been colloquially separated for many years, certainly since the Crimean War. Nothing wrong with differentiating it. The recent Russian absorption of Crimea was not reported as the taking over of Southern Ukraine. Putin still has troops in Eastern Ukraine, I believe, but not in Western Ukraine.

  2. Submitted by David Hanegraaf on 07/30/2016 - 07:51 am.

    I think the media has raised some important questions.

    I haven’t heard anyone saying Trump and Putin colluded on the hack. I do think intentions have been transmitted through actions and relationships. Trump hires Paul Manafort, a man who worked to elect a pro-Putin Ukrainian presidential candidate who is now exiled to Russia. Trump praises Putin and vice versa. The only item the Trump campaign demanded be removed from the GOP platform pertained to supporting the Ukraine against Russian aggression. Trump states we should look at recognizing Russia’s sovereignty over the Crimean peninsula which Russia invaded. Trump states if he is president we will not necessarily support NATO countries in Eastern Europe against Russian aggression. Trump’s businesses have sought Russian financing because they cannot get financing in the US due to his businesses’ history of bankruptcies. I find all these factors troubling.

  3. Submitted by Harris Goldstein on 07/30/2016 - 08:42 am.

    It’s not the hacking per se

    They try to hack us and we (hopefully) try to hack them. So while the hacking itself is a problem, I’m more concerned about why they chose to let everyone know about it. I’m not much of a poker player, but even I know you don’t show your cards if you don’t have to.

    So the fact that it was announced through WikiLeaks right before the convention was done to damage Clinton. Maybe it’s Assange’s and Putin’s personal animosity toward Clinton, but that would demonstrate a real lack of discipline, especially for Putin.

    The idea that this was done without Putin’s knowledge but by groups within the Russian government looking to curry favor is certainly possible, but it seems unlikely that the emails would be leaked to Assange without Putin’s approval.

    So logically it demonstrates a preference for Trump. You have to ask yourself why. I don’t buy into the Trump/Putin conspiracy theories, but I’m concerned if Russia prefers Trump as President. Somehow I don’t think he has our best interests at heart.

  4. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 07/30/2016 - 10:34 am.

    There are two things going on here.

    One is the hacking by Russians of the Democratic National Committee emails where the staff’s bias toward Clinton provided embarrassment. The second, and far more important in its unusualness, is Trump’s reaction.

    It was Trump who took this hacking incident to a possibly traitorous extreme by asking Putin to hack, or reveal what the Russians had hacked already, Clinton’s state department-days private server. He praised Putin, and turned the angle of vision toward himself. It backfired, and now he doesn’t have a clue what to do about it, because he looks like someone who would readily sell the United States down the river if it profited his companies, or his campaign.

    Trump is the one responsible for what the media are doing. His awful reaction is where the story is (we all know that every country hacks everybody else).

  5. Submitted by Steve Titterud on 07/30/2016 - 05:08 pm.


    “…attention (very) quickly turned away from the DNC…”

    THAT is the main function going on here. The Clinton campaign couldn’t change the subject fast enough. The media in its lap panted and wagged its tail, like a good lapdog.

    We certainly don’t want to dwell on the corrupt nature of the DMC nor its intimate collaboration with the Clinton campaign now, do we?? We don’t want a bright light cast on the integrity of our elections, do we?? People might get the impression the whole thing is a sham and a fraud.

    There have been so many stories – for so many years – about the U.S. and both its enemies and friends “hacking” each other’s national secrets, it amazes me there is any surprise of a foreign entity’s intrusion into ANY systems here. It could have been Israel or Germany doing the hacking. The target could have been the power grid or the NSA. We are told these attempted intrusions happen by the thousands daily.

    Our mock outrage that any outsider would be interested in embarrassing our system – messing with our election system, exposing corruption – when weighed against our OWN penchant for utter destruction of societies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, etc. – causes me to think that casting light on the lies of the DMC and the Clinton campaign is humane by comparison.

    There is really no reason for this artificial propaganda hysteria except misdirection, as in, “Quick!! We gotta change the subject, and quick!!”

    • Submitted by David Hanegraaf on 07/31/2016 - 06:59 am.

      No need for diversion.

      Nonsense. There is no need for the “DNC” to divert the story. Everyone knew a long time ago that the DNC favored the life-long Democrat over the just declared Democrat. Besides, as demonstrated yesterday with his immoral attack on Gold Star parents and equating his going to work with their loss, he provides more than enough examples that disqualify him for our nation’s highest office.

  6. Submitted by Jim Million on 07/31/2016 - 08:53 am.

    More Likely:

    “[BECAUSE] it was done clumsily, they wanted it out there so we could see that they can do this.”

  7. Submitted by Pat Terry on 08/01/2016 - 10:30 am.

    Nick Hayes

    Is one of those guys who generates an automatic disagree from me. I just assume he’s wrong.

  8. Submitted by Joel Stegner on 08/02/2016 - 12:52 am.

    Putin the show off

    For his internal audience, given Russia’s current problems, Putin builds support by attacking Clinton and thumbing his nose at the US, as we trying to work out a common approach toward Syria and won’t put on new sanctions. By this, he is weakening the US.

    He surely understands that Trump is a dim bulb more motivated by money than loyalty, someone who can be easily manipulated as he had been already with Crimea, the Ulkraine and NATO.

    Russians play chess very well, it doesn’t involve force but guile, and not revealing your underlying strategy, which appears to be rebuilding the Russian empire and sphere of influence.

    Trump does not have the patience or mental acuity to play chess, but is too arrogant to pick someone brighter or more knowledgeable than him to do so. What motives and long-term strategy Putin is pursuing may not be clear for some time.

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