An interview with Anne Applebaum on the Russian hack of the DNC.

The U.S. Electoral System Is Weak Enough for Russia to Influence It

The U.S. Electoral System Is Weak Enough for Russia to Influence It

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
July 28 2016 5:41 PM

“I Didn’t Think It Could Be Done in the United States”

An interview with Anne Applebaum on the Russian hack of the DNC and Donald Trump’s flirtation with Vladimir Putin.

Russian President Vladimir Putin looks on from the podium after the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on May 1, 2016 in Sochi, Russia.
Russian President Vladimir Putin looks on from the podium after the Formula One Grand Prix of Russia at Sochi Autodrom on May 1 in Sochi.

Dan Istitene/Getty Images

A trove of hacked emails has ignited a raging controversy about the Democratic National Committee’s impartiality and triggered the resignation of its chairwoman, Debbie Wasserman Schultz. It’s also spotlighted the now-visible hand of Russia in the U.S. presidential election. Russia appears to have carried out the DNC hack in an attempt to undermine Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the White House and bolster Donald Trump’s, the latest in a running list of apparent connections, shared traits, and common interests weaving Trump and Putin together.

On a recent episode of Trumpcast, Slate’s daily podcast about the Republican presidential candidate, Jacob Weisberg spoke with author and Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum about the hack. The topics they discussed include Russia’s recent track record of interventions in other nations’ democratic elections, Trump’s high regard for Putin, and whether he truly is a modern-day Manchurian candidate. A transcript of that interview is below. The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Jacob Weisberg: So, I have to say, you have been the person I know who has been talking about this the longest—this being Putin’s intervention in the elections of democratic countries.

Anne Applebaum: Yes, there is a pattern now of different types of interventions, whether through open funding—Russia openly funds Marine Le Pen, who’s a far-right leader in France—or through hacking and email leaks and taping scandals, which have unfolded in several East European countries. The interesting thing about Russia’s intervention in other elections is that it’s very tailored to the particular country. It’s not ideological. In other words, in the olden days, the Soviet Union supported Communist parties all over Europe and all over the world. And now it looks like the pattern is that Russia intervenes in order to create disruption and chaos in Western democracies, thereby to weaken them, thereby to weaken the European Union and NATO. And, if I’m honest, it hadn’t really occurred to me that the U.S. electoral system was weak enough for the Russians to be able to influence it, but it looks like almost exactly the same pattern is now in play in the United States that we’ve seen play out in other European countries.

Weisberg: Did you think the Russians would go this far, that they would try to have an impact on an election in the United States?

Applebaum: You know, I didn’t think about the United States because I thought the United States is too big, American politics isn’t moved by these smaller amounts of money the way that Czech politics are or Polish politics are. But I hadn’t thought through the idea that of course through hacking, which is something they’re famously very good at, that they could try and disrupt a campaign. And of course the pattern of this is something we’ve seen before: There’s a big leak, it’s right on an important political moment, it affects the way people think about the campaign, and of course instead of focusing on who did the leak and who’s interest it’s in, everyone focuses on the details, what’s in the emails, what did so-and-so write to so-and-so on Dec. 27, and that’s all that gets reported. But no, I didn’t think they would—I didn’t think it could be done in the United States. But yes, obviously, they’ve done it.

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Weisberg: You said a moment ago that you think Russia basically is making mischief in other countries’ elections. But here it certainly looks like there’s an ideological alignment, particularly on the issue of pulling out of NATO. I mean, last week Trump gave an interview where he said, you know, that the NATO alliance is somehow contingent on whether he thinks the other members of the alliance have done their fair share.

Applebaum: Yes. I meant not ideological in the sense that Russia will back the far right in some countries, it’ll back the far left in other countries, and clearly in the United States Russia is backing Donald Trump. It’s hard for me to tell you what he is exactly, but he doesn’t fall into any classic political categories. But they are certainly backing him because he aligns with their interests, and he does that in a number of ways. No. 1 is that he, as you say, has been very skeptical of NATO and actually of other U.S. alliances all around the world. No. 2 is that he has deep business connections to Russia, and the Russians like having relationships with people who they have some money linked to. They like knowing stuff about people, they like having what they would call kompromat, or details, about people. And I’m not saying they have anything specific on Trump, but they know a lot about him because he’s been operating there as a business man.

They also like him because he has, working for him directly, somebody who they know very well. His campaign manager is Paul Manafort, who was for many years working in Ukraine on behalf of Viktor Yanukovych, who was the pro-Russian president of Ukraine who escaped Ukraine after the Maidan revolution in 2014. And Manafort knows very well all these tactics. He used them in Ukraine. This is very much Ukrainian-style politics: nasty leaks, Twitter trolls, the use of thugs at meetings, this is all very East European. And of course Manafort himself has deep links to Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs, and therefore via them to the Kremlin. So the idea that they would want Donald Trump as president is not remotely surprising. It’s not even secret. You didn’t need to be conspiratorial-minded to see it. He’s got these connections, he’s got these political views that they like, and he’s surrounded by people they know.

Weisberg: But even from the beginning of the campaign, Trump’s positive comments about Putin have stood out as shocking among a litany of shocking things he’s said. From the beginning, his admiration of Putin as a strong leader jumped out. He doesn’t just seem to like Putin the way he likes other people with authoritarian or dictatorial instincts. He really seems to have a relationship with him.

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Applebaum: I think he admires Putin because Putin is what he aspires to be. You know, Putin is on the one hand an extremely wealthy man who is at the head of what is in effect a kind of criminal empire. He has no opposition. He has tamed the media. He controls business, and he is someone who has combined business and politics and is surrounded by people who operate the same way in a way that Trump clearly aspires to. You know, it’s this combination of mixing your business interests with your political interests that’s so typical of the post-Soviet world.

And I think Putin is in some ways the role model for Trump. It’s not as if he aspires to be some sort of ascetic, Chinese, secretive Mandarin. He really wants to be Putin. And even aesthetically, the vulgarity of the Russian oligarchy, the kind of houses they live in—they’re a lot richer than Trump, actually, as well, so he may aspire to that too—the kinds of women they’re surrounded by, the way they live. This is what Trump wants to be. And so I think it makes sense that he admires Putin.

Weisberg: So if Trump Tower seems a little tasteful to you, then you can go the oligarch route.

Applebaum: Yes, exactly. Trump Tower is a beacon of aesthetic appeal by comparison to what the oligarchs build in their so-called cottages outside of Moscow. So he fits right into their aesthetic, he fits right into the way they think and the way act. Except of course they’re more powerful than he is. And he aspires to be more powerful, and therefore he aspires to be more like them.

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Weisberg: They’re also his biggest investors now. American banks don’t lend Trump money anymore because he stiffed them after going bankrupt. His biggest investors are Russian oligarchs allied with Putin.

Applebaum: Yes, this is something I hadn’t fully realized until recently: the degree to which his business seems to survive on Russian money, including some rather dodgy Russian money. There was a description of one of his companies that describes how money would suddenly appear from Kazakh bank accounts to keep it going. And boy do I recognize that. That’s a way in which business is done in the former Soviet Union. This of course is what the Russians like about him: He owes them something, he’s entangled with them, they know stuff about him, they know details about him. This week they’re leaking stuff about the DNC that they hacked, but of course if they want to control Trump they might try to leak stuff about him. When they think about him, they think “Aha, here’s somebody we have something on. Here’s somebody we can find a way to use.”

Weisberg: There was one other incredibly sinister tidbit from the Republican convention. Trump didn’t care about anything in the platform, but he made a big point about getting the plank removed that said Republicans supported helping Crimea resist the Russian invasion. He got that taken out.

Applebaum: Yeah, I have to tell you, when I saw that, alarm bells went off. When I saw that very specific thing being done, particularly given that the Trump campaign was apparently not that much interested in the rest of the platform, most of which is far more conservative than anything that he stands for. When I saw that they were specifically interested in that, I thought either they’re trying to show someone in Moscow, Look, we really have influence, so you can go on helping us, or there’s someone on his staff who genuinely believes that and wants to push it through. If you think about it in the grand context of American politics, Ukraine is not very important, and I say that as someone who’s writing a book about Ukraine. The fact that that’s the only issue they care about—why? What could be the reason for that unless they’re doing somebody a favor or showing somebody how important they are?

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Weisberg: Given our history, one is very hesitant to start using words like “dupe” or “stooge” or “tool” or “agent.” But boy, it was hard not to think of the phrase “Manchurian candidate” when you heard that story.

Applebaum: I thought of it immediately. But of course the weird thing is that The Manchurian Candidate, if you remember the plot, involves someone being hypnotized, all that weird stuff. This is all very open. The relationship of Trump to Russia has been reported on, and the activity to change the Republican platform happened openly, and Trump’s support for Russian policy—Russia’s views of Europe and its views of NATO—have been stated. So it’s not like this is secret. What I’m describing isn’t a kind of deep conspiracy. You don’t have to believe in something very mystical and weird in order to see what’s happening. It’s absolutely unfolding in public. It’s a kind of postmodern version of the Manchurian candidate. It’s the Manchurian candidate, everybody knows it, and nobody’s reacting.

Weisberg: If a Democrat did this—I mean, Obama would be vilified for being a little soft on Putin at an ordinary Republican convention. And here you have a Republican candidate who is completely capitulating for what look like personal financial reasons, and it doesn’t actually seem like anybody cares.

Applebaum: No, it doesn’t. It certainly doesn’t seem like the Republican Party cares, which is mystifying given the historical record of the Republican Party. But I’m wondering whether television stations care. As it’s become clear in the last 48 hours that this leak is coming from Russia, I’m waiting for shock, horror. I’m waiting for television announcers to start talking about it. And actually, of course. they’re not. They’re focusing on the details of the leak, and as I said who wrote what to whom on Dec. 27. Which is, of course, what the Russians knew would happen, because this is always what happens when these things are leaked. It was different but a kind of parallel story in Poland, with leaked secret tapes. And once again, no one was asking where the tapes come from or why they mysteriously appeared at this particular moment, why they reappeared at the time of the election campaign. People just wanted to know what was in them. And that’s human nature, and that’s also the nature of the modern media. It’s very focused on sensational detail and it’s not focused on the bigger issue and why this thing is happening now.