Trump Asks Russia to Dig Up Hillary’s Emails in Unprecedented Remarks
Donald Trump’s schadenfreude in the DNC’s embarrassing email leak is standard practice in America’s messy electoral politics. Today, though, his casual request that Russian hackers dig up Hillary Clinton’s emails—sent while she was U.S. Secretary of State—for his own political gain has sparked a new level of outrage among cybersecurity experts.
As the controversy continues to swirl around a likely-Russian hack of the Democratic National Committee, Trump responded to a reporter’s question at a press conference Wednesday by inviting Russia to do him another favor: collect and leak the emails that Clinton deleted from the private server she ran during her time as Secretary of State. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you’ll be rewarded mightily by our press,” he said. He later circled back to the same theme, telling reporters that “If Russia or China or any other country has those emails, to be honest with you, I’d love to see them.”
Some have dismissed the comment as a joke, though his repetition of the request seemed sincere. Either way, Trump’s comments represent a dangerous first, according to amazed members of the cybersecurity community: A politician actively soliciting political help from foreign government hackers.
“Basically what we have here is a presidential nominee inviting a foreign agency to hack his opponent,” says Thomas Rid, a professor in security studies at King’s College of London and the author of Rise of the Machines. “It’s certainly unprecedented. And it’s irresponsible.”
To apply some nuance to candidate who typically does not engage in it, Trump may not have asked for Russia to hack Clinton’s emails, so much as to leak emails that they’d already compromised, points out Jeffrey Carr, a cybersecurity analyst at Taia Global and the author of Inside Cyber Warfare. But “it’s still inappropriate and possibly illegal,” Carr notes. “Trump reaching out to Russia and China for help in obtaining hacked emails means that he has excluded himself from any serious international discussions about cyber norms.”
The Clinton campaign was quick to echo those responses in a statement responding to to Trump: “This has to be the first time that a major presidential candidate has actively encouraged a foreign power to conduct espionage against his political opponent,” wrote Clinton campaign policy director Jake Sullivan. “This has gone from being a matter of curiosity and a matter of politics to being a matter of national security.”
On another day, Trump’s remarks might have been dismissed as his usual jabbing at Clinton over her controversial use of a private email server to send State Department emails. But the remarks come in the wake of a still-unfolding hack of the Democratic National Committee, believed to have been perpetrated by Russian hackers with possible ties to that country’s intelligence agencies. A Wikileaks release of embarrassing emails from the DNC led to the resignation of DNC chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz earlier this week, and cybersecurity and political commentators have asked whether Trump is benefitting from active foreign government hackers meddling in the American electoral process on his behalf. In that context, calling on Russia (or China, or anyone) to facilitate further cyber espionage takes on a much grimmer tone, whatever its intent.
Trump’s running mate Mike Pence was quick to tamp down the notion that the GOP candidate’s comments Wednesday were intended to signal collaboration between Trump’s campaign and the DNC hackers. “The FBI will get to the bottom of who is behind the hacking,” Pence wrote in a statement. “If it is Russia and they are interfering in our elections, I can assure you both parties and the United States government will ensure there are serious consequences.”
Nonetheless, Trump’s glib celebration of foreign hackers’ potential breach of Clinton’s emails—not during her campaign, but during her far more sensitive work as Secretary of State—signals he’s missed the gravity of the sort of foreign hacking he’s condoning. “This is really about national security, not about the campaign,” says King’s College’s Rid.
It wouldn’t be the first time Trump has displayed an ignorance of global cybersecurity issues. Asked by the New York Times earlier this month if he would use “cyberweapons” as an alternative to traditional military force, he responded vaguely that “Cyber is absolutely a thing of the future and the present” and that “I am a fan of the future, and cyber is the future.”
Clinton’s handling of State Department classified emails on her personal server, which FBI director James Comey recently called “negligent” and “extremely careless,” means she’s still ultimately responsible for whatever harm comes from them, says Dave Aitel, a former NSA scientist and founder of the security firm Immunity. He argues that her mishandling of those emails means any statement from Trump about their potential breach is fair game. “If you’ve had the FBI director say you’re extremely negligent with national security materials, having another candidate suggest they release that material is still your fault,” Aitel says.
But Aitel also notes that Trump’s comments suggest a dangerous path towards active collusion with foreign hackers to sway American political outcomes. “The hyperbole version of this is, ‘Russians, please hack the election machines and make me win,” Aitel says. “He hasn’t said that…but that next step is super dangerous.”
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