A guide to revelations and allegations about Russian involvement in the U.S. presidential election.
The swirl of revelations and allegations about Russian involvement in the U.S. presidential election, which has been building since summer, can be difficult to keep straight.
For example, though analysts often say that Russia “hacked the election,” this shorthand refers to something much subtler than altering the vote itself — just one of many points of growing confusion.
What follows is a guide to what is known and is not, and to separating fact from misconception.
Q: What was Russia’s role in the election?
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• Russian security agencies infiltrated Democratic National Committee email servers last year and again this spring, according to U.S. intelligence assessments and several independent security firms. The Russians also hacked a private email account belonging to John D. Podesta, chairman of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
• This summer, intermediaries linked to the Russian government passed the emails to WikiLeaks and to an anonymous WordPress blog called Guccifer 2.0. Those outlets released the emails publicly, generating weeks of unfavorable coverage of Clinton’s campaign.
• Initially, many analysts believed that Russia’s goal was to sow confusion and undermine Americans’ faith in their government — a common Russian tactic — rather than to steer the election’s outcome.
• However, after the election, the CIA concluded that Russia had released the emails with the goal of bolstering Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.
• No information has emerged suggesting that the CIA believes that Russia’s involvement decided the election’s outcome.
Q: Was the election itself hacked?
• There is no evidence that hackers, from Russia or elsewhere, tampered with the vote tallies.
• Trump has said there was widespread voter fraud that favored Clinton, and some liberal commentators have suggested that the election was hacked. Independent analysts say there is overwhelming evidence against both claims.
• A widely circulated New York magazine article reported that two voting experts had urged Democrats to push for a recount, on fears that hackers had manipulated the vote. But one of those experts disputed that article, writing in a post on Medium that he had urged a recount but had doubted hacking.
• The White House and election officials have said the vote shows no sign of tampering and accurately reflects popular will.
• A recount effort led by the Green Party candidate, Jill Stein, is unrelated to the revelations that Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee and Podesta’s emails.
Q: Did Russia swing the election for Trump?
• It is impossible to say for sure. Because the email leaks unfolded over weeks, and concurrently with many other election dramas, polls cannot easily isolate the impact of the leaks.
• Trump won three crucial Midwestern states by very small margins. So even if the leaks swung only a small percentage of votes, that could have been enough to change the election outcome.
• But this same logic applies to dozens of factors, including the FBI’s late-stage investigations related to Clinton’s private email server. Political scientists have demonstrated that even changes in weather and the performance of sports teams can alter how people vote.
• All available evidence suggests that voters freely selected Trump on Election Day in sufficient numbers for him to win the presidency under the Electoral College system. But that does not diminish the seriousness of Russia’s intervention in the election, which appears to be unprecedented.
Q: Why does the CIA think Russia wanted to help Trump?
• The CIA’s assessment is not public but is thought to turn on another alleged hack. Russia also hacked data from the Republican National Committee but declined to release whatever it found, intelligence agencies told Congress. That has given credence to theories that Moscow actively favored the party’s candidate.
• Trump has repeatedly promised to realign the United States with Russia and has praised its president, Vladimir Putin. Many in Moscow view Clinton as hostile to Russia.
• The evidence in any assessment of Russian government motives is circumstantial, and not all U.S. intelligence agencies share the CIA’s view.
• The timing suggests that, if Moscow decided to help Trump, it did so only after hacking the servers of both parties’ national committees. Both were infiltrated well before Trump’s rise.
• Trump, at a July news conference, publicly urged Russia to hack Clinton’s emails. But this could not have precipitated or encouraged the Russian hacks — they had taken place months earlier.
Q: Did Russia spread pro-Trump fake news?
• Russian state media outlets have favored Trump and opposed Clinton, but their reach in the United States is limited. (Their influence in Europe is much stronger.)
• A firm called PropOrNot claimed that the Russian government had flooded U.S. social media with fake election news. But several independent analysts challenged the report’s methodology, which classified mainstream sites as Russian propaganda and did not demonstrate a link to Moscow.
• Fake news is a growing problem, at times driven by companies in Eastern Europe that write and spread the articles. But those companies appear to be motivated by profit-seeking rather than any political agenda.
Q: What was Russia’s goal in meddling?
• There are two schools of thought: first, that Russia sought to weaken the United States by stirring up uncertainty and miring Clinton, who seemed all but certain to win, in scandal; and second, that Russia sought specifically to elevate Trump to the presidency.
• Those theories are not mutually exclusive. For instance, Moscow may have started with the first goal and then added the second as a hoped-for bonus.
• Russia is waging similar campaigns across Europe, at times through cyberattacks and selective leaks, with the apparent goal of undermining Western unity.
• The Kremlin sees itself as under siege by a hostile West that it perceives as bent on Russia’s destruction. Russian military leaders advocate shadowy “new generation warfare” — through propaganda and cyberattacks, for example — to destabilize adversaries from within.
• Not all misconceptions are directed by Moscow, however. Social media rumors that overstate Russia’s involvement in the U.S. election risk playing into Moscow’s goal of undermining Americans’ faith in the legitimacy and integrity of their democracy.