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«The Plot to Hack America», Malcolm Nance

However, this hack was unprecedented. The exposure of all of the internal discussions on the processes, procedures, strategy, beliefs, and thoughts of every staffer at the DNC from Debbie Wasserman Schultz down to the concerned citizen who calls and leaves a voice mail, was staggering. Any innocent comment could be turned into a political flamethrower. All discussions could be framed as conspiracies. The question at hand for the DNC became not who conducted the hack, but what would they do with the information.

Watergate 1.0

In 1972, President Richard Nixon, through his proxies in the White House called “The Plumbers” and in coordination with the Committee to Reelect the President (aka CREEP), sent five men into the offices of the Democratic National Committee in the offices at the luxurious Watergate hotel in Washington DC. The burglars had orders to install wiretaps, break into safes, and copy files to find out exactly what opposition research the Democrats had on Nixon in the months before the election. Although he won the presidential election, by August of 1973, the political scandal of covering up the crime led to Nixon being the first President to resign in disgrace.

The 2016 DNC hack conducted forty-four years later—almost to the day—was the exact same operation. However, this time there would be no security guard to detect the intrusion, and the burglars would not be caught wearing latex gloves and planting microphones. They would copy the information in a matter of seconds, their digital fingerprints would emerge long after the break-in, and discovery would occur well after the damage had been done to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

There were a myriad of suspects on the political stage from Trump supporters to Black Hat members of Anonymous, the shadowy hacker collective that sought to expose hidden secrets though public sun lighting. Though the DNC is a political machine that managed the Democratic Party and the campaigns of its members to office, it also operates as the framework to express the political aspirations of a huge proportion of the American electorate.

When President Barack Obama won re-election to the Presidency in 2012, he won over 65 million votes representing 51.1 percent of American voters. The management team for that electoral success was the DNC. They not only represent the candidates, but once the candidates are selected the DNC is the principle agency for the grooming, funding, and support to meet the goals of the party. Now, all of their internal secrets were stolen.

The general understanding at the time was that the DNC could contain the damage resulting from the hack, and the DNC claimed that nothing had been pilfered.1

The general inner workings were relatively tame so long as they were not in the public domain. In June 2016, DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz stated that,

The security of our system is critical to our operation and to the confidence of the campaigns and state parties we work with… When we discovered the intrusion, we treated this like the serious incident it is and reached out to CrowdStrike immediately. Our team moved as quickly as possible to kick out the intruders and secure our network.2

After the April hack had been discovered, the analytical study of what was stolen was compiled. Crowdstrike and DNC officials figured out very quickly that the attack was broad and that the hackers had access for as long as ninety or more days where they entered and exited the servers and reviewed and took what they pleased. However, there was an early indicator of the intent of the intrusion.

If an advocate of the Republican Party, a citizen hacktivist, or a malicious “Black Hat” hacker anarchist had perpetrated the intrusion, it would have been a much sloppier operation. Additionally, the perpetrators would likely have taken or destroyed the dossiers of every Republican Party candidate in a cyber version of a bonfire. Hacktivists love the anarchy of letting systems administrators know that they have been violated. On the other hand “White Hat” hackers, internet security specialists who often win contracts by illegally entering systems usually leave notes so they can be contacted and help fix security flaws. They generally let the administrators know by leaving “I told you that you were vulnerable” messages in high-value files. All of this would have been old hat for the DNC computer administrators and CrowdStrike protection analysts, but the target of this second hacking was peculiar. It ignored everything and everyone except one set of files: The opposition research folders on New York City billionaire Donald J. Trump. This 2016 intrusion could arguably be called Watergate 2.0, but unlike the original Watergate, this time the materials would be used in a political process to damaging effect.

Trump’s Revenge: Erasing Obama’s Presidency

The White House Correspondents’ Dinner is an annual spring event hosted by the White House Correspondents’ Association. Sometimes referred to as “nerd prom,” the dinner brings journalists, politicians, and celebrities to the same room and is often criticized for fostering a cozy relationship between the media and the very people they are supposed to cover. The President usually delivers a humorous monologue that is then followed by a performance by a comedian. Donald Trump was a guest of The Washington Post at the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

It was just a month before the dinner that Trump had become a leading voice in the so-called “birther movement,” raising the preposterous charge that President Barack Obama was not born in Hawaii as he claimed, but rather in Kenya. Trump publically and repeatedly called on President Obama to release his birth certificate. The New York Times wrote, “The more Mr. Trump questioned the legitimacy of Mr. Obama’s presidency, the better he performed in the early polls of the 2012 Republican field, springing from fifth place to a virtual tie for first.”3 Trump’s notoriety as a blustering TV showman using blunt, racially-tinged conspiracy theories was making him a rising star in conservative circles. These insults were not lost on the President, so Obama dedicated a notable portion of his 19-minute speech to making jabs at the New York businessman:

Donald Trump is here tonight. Now I know that he’s taken some flak lately, but no one is happier—no one is prouder—to put this birth certificate matter to rest than The Donald. And that’s because he can finally get back to focusing on the issues that matter: Like, did we fake the moon landing? What really happened in Roswell? And where are Biggie and Tupac? But all kidding aside, obviously we all know about your credentials and breadth of experience. For example—no seriously, just recently, in an episode of Celebrity Apprentice, at the steakhouse, the men’s cooking team did not impress the judges from Omaha Steaks. And there was a lot of blame to go around, but you, Mr. Trump, recognized that the real problem was a lack of leadership, and so ultimately you didn’t blame Lil Jon or Meat Loaf, you fired Gary Busey. And these are the kinds of decisions that would keep me up at night. Well handled, sir. Well handled. Say what you will about Mr. Trump, he certainly would bring some change to the White House.4

After Obama’s remarks, comedian Seth Meyers didn’t let Trump off the hook. Many journalists noted Trump did not seem amused throughout the performance, particularly at Obama’s and Meyers’ insults. Roxanne Roberts, who sat next to Trump at the dinner, wrote in The Washington Post that Trump “didn’t crack a smile” at Meyers’ jabs. Meyers joked, “Donald Trump has been saying he will run for president as a Republican—which is surprising, since I just assumed he was running as a joke.” He continued poking fun at Trump, as Roberts noted, “lobbing jokes like grenades.”5 Roberts wrote, “In retrospect, Trump broke the classic rule of political humor that says that the only response to a joke about you is to laugh harder than anyone else in the room. Whatever he was thinking, Trump looked unhappy and gave pundits a reason to pounce.”6 Trump only fueled the fire when he didn’t attend any after parties, and instead headed directly to his jet from the dinner.

The following day, Trump told Fox News that he “really understood what I was getting into” saying, “I didn’t know that I’d be virtually the sole focus. I guess when you’re leading in the polls that sort of thing tends to happen. But I was certainly in a certain way having a good time listening.”7

If he was listening, what he heard did not appear to please him the slightest. He attacked Meyers directly. “Seth Meyers has no talent,” Trump said in an interview with Michael Barbaro of The New York Times the day after the dinner. “He fell totally flat. In fact, I thought Seth’s delivery was so bad that he hurt himself.”8 He told Barbaro the evening was “like a roast of Donald Trump.” Still, Barbaro described him as “clearly reveling in the attention, if not the content.”9

In retrospect, the events of the 2011 White House Correspondents’ Dinner may have at least partially motivated Trump to run in 2016. The New York Times’ Maggie Haberman and Alexander Burns wrote, “That evening of public abasement, rather than sending Mr. Trump away, accelerated his ferocious efforts to gain stature within the political world. And it captured the degree to which Mr. Trump’s campaign is driven by a deep yearning sometimes obscured by his bluster and bragging: a desire to be taken seriously.”10

Clearly stung by the dinner jokes, it would be natural to see how Trump might relish revenge. Harnessing the power of the conservative poll numbers running for President in 2016 would give him the power of dismantling Obama’s legacy himself.

Trump Enters Politics

When Donald Trump announced his presidential run on June 16, 2015, he entered an unusually large field of eleven major Republican candidates seeking the White House. By the end of July, that field would expand to an unprecedented seventeen major Republican candidates, a hodgepodge that included nine current or former governors, senators, a retired neurosurgeon, and the former CEO of Hewlett Packard.11, 12

Polls early on in the contest showed Trump with an immediate edge over most of the candidates, with a June 26–28, 2015 CNN/ORC national poll showing him polling at 12 percent among Republicans, second after former Florida governor Jeb Bush at 19 percent.13 By July 22–25, 2015, a CNN/ORC poll showed the New York businessman topping the polls at 19 percent, with Bush trailing at 15 percent.14 Always outlandish, his brash style and ability to “tell it like it is” attracted crowds of admirers. He was an instant success among the conservative fringe and had the ability to bring that fringe into the mainstream.

The hallmark of his campaign was using hyperbole and personal insults with just a touch of Orwellian double speak. For example, he would make contradictory statements, on one hand praising veterans but insulting John McCain for being shot down and spending years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. On July 18, 2015 Trump threw out an offhand remark about McCain. “He’s not a war hero,” Trump said. “He was a war hero because he was captured. I like people who weren’t captured.”15 When pressured he would claim he never said any such thing and allow the next outrageous statement to wash over the last one.

Despite his high poll numbers, most of the media and electorate did not initially take his campaign seriously. The Huffington Post went as far as to announce in July 2015 it would run all Trump-related stories in the Entertainment section. “Our reason is simple: Trump’s campaign is a sideshow,” the announcement read. “We won’t take the bait. If you are interested in what The Donald has to say, you’ll find it next to our stories on the Kardashians and The Bachelorette.”16

Even the renowned statistician Nate Silver—founder of the polling analysis website FiveThirtyEight who had a near-perfect track record of correctly predicting the winners of the presidential contests in each of the fifty states during the 2008 and 2012 elections—couldn’t fathom Trump’s rise.17 In November of 2015, with the Republican field narrowed down to twelve candidates, Trump topped the polls. Silver put Trump’s chances of winning the Republican nomination below 20 percent. Silver wrote, “For my money, that adds up to Trump’s chances being higher than 0 but (considerably) less than 20 percent.”18

As Christmas approached it looked increasingly probable that Trump would not lose his lead. It was at this time that Trump received a peculiar endorsement. Out of the blue, Vladimir Putin, President of the Russian Federation, made a series of comments about the U.S. election that seemed to endorse Trump. Putin said of Trump in a press conference “He is a bright and talented person without any doubt. He is the absolute leader of the presidential race…”19 Putin’s endorsement was a surprise to most but not to those who had been noticing the penchant Trump had towards the Russian autocrat and his glowing admiration of other dictators such as Kim Il-Sung and Muammar Gaddafi.

Trump continued to top each poll as rivals began to fall. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush—once considered to be a shoo-in for the GOP nomination—continued to slip before dropping out after his February loss in the South Carolina primary. In the months leading up to Trump’s nomination, former neurosurgeon Ben Carson, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, Florida Senator Marco Rubio, and former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina each at different times found themselves in second place to Trump, but none could catch up to his lead, according to various CNN/ORC polls.20

By spring the race to become the Republican presidential nominee had narrowed down to three candidates. On May 3, Trump became the presumptive GOP nominee when Senator Ted Cruz dropped out of the race after losing the Indiana primary. Ohio Governor John Kasich suspended his campaign the next day.21 The field was vanquished and against all expectations, Donald Trump officially became the party’s nominee at the Republican National Convention in June.22

Between August 2015 and March 2016, the Republicans held a total of twelve presidential primary debates. The Democrats held nine.23 Trump certainly made splashes in the first Republican primary debate in August 2015, receiving both cheers and boos from the crowd at the Quicken Loans arena in Cleveland, Ohio.

When a moderator asked the ten Republican candidates on stage if anyone was unwilling to pledge their support to the eventual nominee, Trump was the only candidate to raise his hand. Receiving boos from the audience, Trump said, “I can totally make the pledge if I’m the nominee. I will pledge I will not run as an independent. I am discussing it with everybody. But I’m talking about a lot of leverage. We want to win and we will win. But I want to win as the Republican. I want to run as the Republican nominee.”24

Trump also gained a reputation for his bluntness and constant criticism of political correctness. “I think the big problem this country has—is being politically correct,” he said during the Fox debate, receiving cheers from the crowd and highlighting a theme he would exploit throughout his campaign. “And I don’t frankly have time for total political correctness. And to be honest with you, this country doesn’t have time either.”25

Trump electrified a segment of the conservative electorate. He fired them up at unprecedented levels and relished the electricity in the air when the rallies had unusually high number of protesters and descended into violent altercations. Trump was repeatedly criticized for encouraging violence. Kevin Cirilli wrote for Bloomberg:

Trump frequently chides protesters who seek to disrupt his rallies by shouting for authorities to “get ‘em out” before sometimes adding “run home to mommy.” In fact, even before the candidate begins speaking, a tongue-in-cheek audio-recording plays before each rally instructing attendees to “not hurt the protester,” but to instead chant “Trump, Trump, Trump” and point to those seeking to disrupt the proceedings so as to notify authorities of their location.26

The violence wasn’t limited to those in the crowd. His campaign staff mimicked the aggressive stance of the candidate. Trump’s campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was accused of forcibly grabbing conservative Breitbart News reporter Michelle Fields hard enough to leave a bruise at a campaign rally in Florida. Lewandowski was charged with misdemeanor battery, charges that were ultimately dropped. But it was Trump’s response to the incident that worried some. Vox explains:

In fact, Trump supported Lewandowski since the accusations first surfaced. First he denied it ever happened. Then he denied the video footage existed. Then he said the video footage showed nothing. And then argued that Fields prompted the whole thing by first grabbing Trump while holding a pen (which Trump says Secret Service could have easily mistaken for a tiny bomb).27

The entire demeanor of the campaign was called into question. Trump chief strategist, Paul Manafort, addressed these concerns at an April closed-door meeting of the Republican National Committee. Ashley Parker writes in The New York Times:

There, in a slide show, Mr. Manafort assured members that Mr. Trump was ‘evolving’ and simply playing a part with his incendiary style of campaigning, which has helped drive him to the front of the race but has caused party leaders to worry that Republicans will be punished in November.28

Trump himself has claimed that even his wife, Melania, and daughter, Ivanka, have called on him to act more presidential. Two days after Manafort addressed the RNC, Trump addressed the calls himself at a campaign rally in Connecticut, saying he wasn’t about to start “toning it down.” Parker writes: