Russian President Vladimir Putin conceded for the first time that perhaps computer hackers from his country actually had worked to undermine Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.
The concession comes as the Trump administration is preparing to restore Russian diplomats’ access to two luxury East Coast vacation properties a few months after the Obama administration took them away as punishment for Russian interference in the election.
Speaking to reporters in St. Petersburg, Putin continued to insist that there had been no government-sponsored effort to attack Clinton and the Democratic National Committee -- a claim the entire U.S. Intelligence Community rejects. However, he said, “patriotic” Russian hackers might have taken it upon themselves to stand up for their country against someone, as Putin put it, “who say bad things” about it.
“We are not doing this on the state level,” Putin declared. However, he said, there’s no accounting for what private citizens who also happen to be highly skilled computer hackers might decide to do in a bout of patriotic fervor.
Comparing hackers to “artists,” whose decisions are unpredictable, he said, “If they are patriotically minded, they start making their contributions — which are right, from their point of view.”
If it feels as though Putin is trolling the entire planet, and perhaps the United States in particular, it’s because he probably is. His claim that volunteer hackers may have played a major role in disrupting the U.S. election by stealing and releasing damaging data related to the Hillary Clinton campaign is strikingly similar to his bogus denial of the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014.
Many will recall that when a mysterious invasion force appeared in Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula -- wearing uniforms without insignias but speaking Russian, driving Russian vehicles and deploying Russia heavy weaponry -- the Kremlin angrily denied that there were any Russian troops involved in the operation there.
Later, after Ukrainian soldiers found dead Russian soldiers with official military identification on their bodies, and after young Russian soldiers were caught posting pictures on social media that identified them as being in Ukraine, the Kremlin and its allies changed their explanation.
Any Russians fighting on the ground in Ukraine were simply soldiers who happened to be on vacation, they explained, and instead of spending their time relaxing at the beach, they preferred to fight in Crimea.
At his end-of-year press conference in 2015, Putin repeated that there were no Russian troops officially in Crimea, but that there might be some Russian “volunteers” participating in the fighting.
That appears to be where we are now with regard to the Russian election hacking story, and Putin’s announcement could hardly come at a more embarrassing moment for the Trump administration. If, that is, the administration appeared to care about such things.
On Wednesday night, The Washington Post reported that the Trump administration is working toward restoring Russian access to two Kremlin-owned mansions, one on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the other on Long Island, where generations of Russian diplomats have vacationed.
The Obama administration ordered the two properties vacated in December, after U.S. intelligence agencies confirmed that Russia had been involved in cyberattacks on the Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party. At the time, Putin and his spokesperson denied any Russian involvement in the attacks.
For the news to break that Russia may be allowed to re-occupy the two properties again at the same time that Putin is changing his story about Russian involvement in the hacking that led to their being shuttered in the first place is remarkable. Even more so is the Trump administration’s decision to consider giving back the properties at the same time that a newly-appointed special counsel and two separate congressional committees are investigating ties between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.
At this point, though, if anything has become clear about the Trump administration, it’s that its disdain for what the political class refers to as “optics” is as great as its concern for critics’ opinions is small.