Tuesday, ABC’s Jon Karl had an illuminating exchange with White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest regarding the difference between China’s 2015 OPM hack, and Russia’s 2016 hack:
KARL: “So when the Chinese hacked OPM in 2015, 21+ million current and former government employees and contractors had their personal records stolen by the Chinese. Why did the White House do nothing publicly in reaction to that hack? Which in some ways, was even more widespread than what we saw here from the Russians?”
EARNEST: “I think that what we’ve seen is that these are two cyber incidents that are malicious in nature, but materially different.”
KARL: “21 million people had their personal data taken–fingerprints, social security numbers, background checks. I mean, this was a far-reaching act–“
EARNEST: “I’m not downplaying the significance of it, I’m just saying that it is different than seeking to interfere in the conduct of a U.S. national election. I can’t speak to the steps that have been taken by the United States in response to that Chinese malicious cyber activity–“
KARL: “But nothing was announced. There was not a single step announced by the White House…”
EARNEST: “It is true that there was no public announcement about our response, but I can’t speak to what response may have been initiated in private.”
KARL: “But no diplomats expelled, no compounds shut down, no sanctions imposed, correct? You don’t do that stuff secretly.”
EARNEST: “Well, certainly when it comes to the diplomats, that’s right. There were no diplomats PNGed. That’s something that we would announce publicly. But, look, I can’t speak to the response because, as you pointed out, that’s not something that we have announced. It certainly is something that we take seriously…”
KARL: “But do you see how — that there’s just this wildly different response? With the Russians, which, of course, is very politically charged, the White House takes this action, makes it public. With the Chinese, which was not so political charged but was absolutely as far-reaching a hack as we had ever seen in this country, nothing was done publicly…”
EARNEST: “…look, I’m not suggesting that somehow that’s not important. What I’m just saying is that it’s materially different than the kind of hack-and-leak strategy that we saw the Russians engage in to try to influence our democracy. That is significant. That’s serious. And that explains the serious steps that President Obama has imposed against the Russians in response.”
During the exchange, John Karl and Josh Earnest articulate two very different points of view. Karl wonders why China’s hacking of the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) in 2015 wasn’t rebuked as publicly as Russia’s hacking of data during the election cycle. Earnest claims that while both hacks are significant, they are materially different.
Earnest is correct in suggesting that Russia’s hacking of various officials and organizations during the election–as well as their propaganda efforts–were perhaps more significant than what China did. Russia attempted to interfere with the very foundation of our democratic process, and their efforts may undermine the perceived legitimacy of President-elect Donald Trump in the years to come. China’s hack, while wide-spread and malicious, didn’t have the same effect.
Karl, however, is tugging on a thread that Earnest would rather he left alone. The Russian hack hurt President Obama much more than the Chinese hack did. As such, the retaliatory effort is being made much more public.
The Russians didn’t “hack the election,” as many progressives suggest. They didn’t break into voting machines, change votes, or manipulate our Election Day process in any way. The Wall Street Journal reports that while speaking in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper “described a multifaceted Russian campaign that went beyond leaking hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman to include classic propaganda, disinformation and fake news.”
It’s impossible to quantify the impact of the Russian campaign on the election. Would Hillary Clinton have won in the absence of leaked emails and “fake news?” We cannot know with any certainty. However, Clinton’s loss hurts President Obama. With the election of Donald Trump, Obama’s legacy achievements are in danger. Obamacare, DACA, relations with Cuba and Iran–all “progress” that was made under the Democratic president are in danger of being undone by Trump.
Additionally, many Democratic voters are under the misapprehension that without Russia’s concerted campaign, Hillary Clinton would have won the election in a landslide. As was mentioned above, it’s impossible to know how the leaks and misinformation hindered Clinton’s campaign. Clinton was a severely flawed and corrupt candidate. Even before the leaked DNC emails, Clinton’s favorability was plummeting in the wake of her private server scandal.
In May 2015, two months after the scandal was made public, 46% of U.S. adults had an “unfavorable” opinion of the candidate, according to Gallup. By September 2015, the percentage of Americans with an “unfavorable” view of Clinton climbed to 51%, as measured by Gallup.
Despite the uncertainty regarding whether or not Russia’s interference had a significant impact on Clinton’s chances, many Democrats believe it was her singular downfall. It behooves President Obama to feed this narrative. His legacy may be undone, but he can still water the seeds of discontent and uncertainty by very publicly slapping Russia. If this uncertainty grows during Trump’s tenure, it may be more difficult for the president-elect to enact policy. Moreover, it will weaken Republicans, and make them more vulnerable in 2018 and 2020.
Earnest and Karl are both correct. The OPM hack is indeed materially different than the Russia hack. However, by retaliating very publicly to Russia, President Obama can, without saying a word, question Donald Trump’s legitimacy as president, and plant the seeds for a 2018 and 2020 comeback for the Democratic Party.