What to make of Russia’s “unusually loud” interference in the 2016 election

FBI director Comey didn’t say much during his testimony today. He did confirm that the FBI is investigating possible links between Russia and the Trump campaign, but this might have been the worst kept secret in Washington.

Comey did volunteer something notable when he compared Russian interference in the 2016 election to Russian interference in past elections. He described the interference last year as “unusually loud.” He added that it was as if the Russians didn’t care that we knew what they were doing.

This view is consistent with an observation I’ve made from time to time, based on what I’ve been told by people knowledgeable about intelligence: If we know that Russia was behind the hacking of various email servers, it’s because the Russians want us to know.

Comey was asked why he thinks the Russians interfered so “loudly” in last year’s election. He answered that it might be because they wanted to undermine the credibility of our democratic system and to “freak people out.”

Comey then acknowledged that the Russians will conclude that their strategy “worked.” Indeed, they will — and they should.

The desire to “freak out” America, or at least our political class, is just one of the explanations put forth at the hearing today for Russia’s interference that did not involve “collusion.” Comey and Adm. Mike Rogers both subscribed to the view that the Russians wanted Donald Trump to win because they were furious with Hillary Clinton for supposedly encouraging anti-Putin demonstrations.

They both subscribed to the view that at some point, perhaps in late summer of 2016, the Russians concluded that Clinton was almost surely going to win. At that point, they say, the Putin’s purpose in releasing damaging emails was to undermine Clinton’s standing as president, not to prevent her election.

Some Democrats argued that Russia had good reason to want Donald Trump to become president quite apart from their unhappiness with Hillary Clinton. They cited his criticism of NATO and his status as a businessman who, allegedly, thinks he can make deals with almost anyone. (They ignored countervailing considerations, such as Trump’s pledge to significantly strengthen the American military.) Comey and Rogers didn’t adopt this theory, but they seemed to consider it plausible.

In sum, there are at least four plausible reasons why Putin might have interfered in the election as he did: (1) he wanted to “freak out” Americans and cause them to lose confidence in the system, (2) he was extremely angry at Hillary Clinton, (3) he thought Clinton was going to win and wanted to weaken her presidency, and (4) he liked some of Trump’s positions.

With all of these theories to choose from, there is no need to resort to conspiracy theory by claiming collusion. Russia had plenty of reasons to act as it did without receiving any favors or promises from the Trump campaign.

If there were evidence that Russia received favors or promises, we would have to add collusion to our list of plausible reasons why Putin interfered as he did. But so far there is no such evidence and the Democrats’ attempt to present some at today’s hearing fell flat.