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Editorial: Democrats see a silver lining in an email release

Supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders protest in Philadelphia on Monday, July 25. On Sunday, Debbie Wasserman Schultz announced she would step down as DNC chairwoman at the end of the party's convention, after emails presumably stolen by hackers were publicly posted on the Internet.
(John Minchillo / Associated Press)

The unauthorized release of 20,000 internal emails from the Democratic National Committee created a huge embarrassment for Hillary Clinton on the eve of the convention that will nominate her for president. Some of the emails confirmed the widespread view that party officials favored Clinton over insurgent Sen. Bernie Sanders. Their release led swiftly to the resignation of Democratic National Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a longtime Clinton ally.

The risk for Clinton is that the stolen emails will exacerbate party divisions, further alienating Sanders’ supporters already angry about what they see as a “rigged system.” The convention opened on the same sort of raucous note as last week’s fractious GOP gathering, with Sanders’ supporters hooting and shouting “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!” in response to pro-Clinton speeches.

But some Clinton supporters see a political silver lining in the dissemination of the committee’s internal messages. Because the leaks are widely suspected of being the result of a Russian hacking operation, they can be used to reinforce the narrative that Russian President Vladimir Putin is rooting for Trump and that Trump, in turn, would be too accommodating to Moscow.

Over the weekend, Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, seemed to connect those dots in an interview on CNN. After citing “experts” for the proposition that the Russians were releasing the emails to help Trump, Mook added that “we also saw last week at the Republican convention that Trump and his allies made changes to the Republican platform to make it more pro-Russian. And we saw him talking about how NATO shouldn’t ... [necessarily] intervene to defend our Eastern European allies if they are attacked by Russia.

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“So, I think, when you put all this together, it’s a disturbing picture. And I think voters need to reflect on that.”

The possibility that a foreign government might be engaging in cyber mischief to influence a U.S. election is indeed troubling. Several experts have concluded that the DNC email system was compromised by two Russian intelligence agencies that previously engaged in other operations directed at U.S. government agencies.

The circumstantial case is strong enough that the FBI announced Monday that it is investigating “a cyber intrusion involving the DNC.” Presumably it will seek to determine whether there is Russian government complicity in the attack. (Determining whether the motive was to help Trump’s election prospects would presumably be harder to establish.)

But even if the Russian government played a role in this intrusion and even if the purpose was to help Trump’s candidacy, that doesn’t mean Trump is taking orders from Moscow. Tempting as it might be for Democrats to insinuate that Trump is a Russian version of the Manchurian Candidate, they need to avoid guilt by association.

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Trump’s actual foreign-policy positions provide more than enough ammunition for Democrats who want to argue that his ill-informed approach to Russia would only embolden its leaders. In an interview with the New York Times, Trump suggested that the U.S. might not come to the defense of a NATO ally under attack if that country weren’t fulfilling its financial obligations to the alliance.

Trump also has said that he would “get along” with Putin, and some of his advisors have ties to Russia. Paul Manafort, the chairman of Trump’s campaign, worked as a political consultant for a pro-Russian government in Ukraine. (Manafort has described as “absurd” the notion that Trump is too cozy with Putin.)

By all means Trump should be pressed to elaborate on how he sees Putin and how his policy toward Russia would differ from that of President Obama and Hillary Clinton. But Democrats need to be careful not to overplay their hand. It isn’t that long ago that accusing Americans of being Russian dupes was a popular, and poisonous, political pastime. That tactic shouldn’t be revived, even to score points against Trump.

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