It’s been buried under news of Donald Trump bragging about his ability to grab women by their genitals, but Friday afternoon’s news dump included a stunning declaration by the Department of Homeland Security: the first direct accusation from the Obama administration that Russia is trying to interfere with our elections. “The U.S. Intelligence Community is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations,” the statement said, concluding that “these thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the US election process.” After the Democratic National Committee hack and the scattered hacks of voting machines, and months of talk in the press and on Capitol Hill, the Obama administration has openly called out the Kremlin for meddling in the election. This was immediately followed by a new dump of documents from WikiLeaks, this time of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta’s emails, and news that the Russian ambassador to the United Nations lodged a formal complaint with the organization when another official criticized Trump. And all of this comes against the backdrop of Trump’s constant and effusive praise for Vladimir Putin, as well as a steady stream of revelations about his campaign’s shady ties to Russia.
As head-spinning as it might be and as distracted as we might be by #TrumpTapes, this is arguably the more important story. What’s really going on? The hacking war is a genuinely new development in the long and often fraught U.S. relationship with Russia, and carries profound implications. Here’s what’s behind Friday’s statement—and why it matters so much.
1. There’s probably serious evidence. DHS statement formally accuses the Russian government of hacking emails and passing them to organizations like WikiLeaks, but stops short of blaming the Kremlin for hacking voter machines. The latter, according to this joint statement from the U.S. intelligence community, “in most cases originated from servers operated by a Russian company.” It goes to note: “However, we are not now in a position to attribute this activity to the Russian Government.” That is: There was enough there for the intelligence community to mention the breaches and their connection to Russia, but not quite enough to truly tie it to the Kremlin. That makes the opening of the statement—“that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized” the hack and handoffs—that much more glaring. You don’t make a declaration like that unless you really have that evidence.