Pence Lies About Assessment of Russian Influence on the 2016 Election

Does anyone have a running tally on how many times Trump or those around him have claimed that the investigation into Russian influence over the election has exonerated them of collusion or proven that it didn’t affect the outcome of the election? Mike Pence is the latest to tell that lie, in an interview with Axios last week:

Irrespective of efforts that were made in 2016 by foreign powers, it is the universal conclusion of our intelligence communities that none of those efforts had any effect on the outcome of the 2016 election.

That is a lie. Not only has our intelligence community not concluded that, they haven’t even attempted to assess the question at all. How do we know that? They’ve said so quite plainly. In the declassified report from the Director of National Intelligence detailing the evidence, it says that Putin “ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election” whose goal was “to help President-elect Trump’s election chances.” But on the question of whether those efforts actually changed the outcome, it says that our intelligence agencies “did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcomes of the 2016 election.”

And the reality is that it would be impossible to reach any conclusion at all on the subject because we simply cannot know if even one single vote was changed as a result of those efforts. I’ve seen some efforts by Democrats to make a mathematical argument, but it’s still speculation and it’s usually skewed toward the conclusion that they want to be true. For example, I’ve seen arguments that say something like this:

Only a few tens of thousands of votes in three key states decided the election (Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania). The Russian trollbots and fake news operation had a potential reach of 126 million social media users. So even if it swayed only a tiny percentage of votes, that would have been enough. Thus, we can conclude that the campaign was probably successful in changing the outcome of the election.

But there are some real problems with that argument. First, 126 million is the maximum potential reach, not an indication of how many people actually saw the fake news stories being planted. Second, of those who did see those stories, how many people who were susceptible to falling for them would likely have voted for Clinton rather than Trump? Most of those stories were so ridiculous that it’s difficult to imagine someone being on the fence and pushed over by them; you’d almost have to already be prone to falling for those stories in order to accept them as true. And there were plenty of such stories already being pushed by the right without any help from the Russians that, it seems to me, anyone susceptible to them would already have accepted them as true.

The reality is that we simply cannot know. We never will. We can speculate, and our speculation will, of course, almost always lead us to the conclusion that we want to be true rather than the one that is most justified. The only supportable position, I think, is agnosticism. But whether we can know or not, we should be able to agree that we need to take steps to prevent such influence in the future. It’s a sad fact of the hyper-partisan nature of our political discourse — and Trump’s fragile ego — that we can’t even get agreement on that simple truth.

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