by Eric Chenoweth (The Shanker Blog, May 23, 2019)

In the manner of Russian propaganda, where everything is true if it supports the leader, Donald Trump has asserted simultaneously that the report of Special Counsel Robert Mueller completely exonerated him (“No collusion, no obstruction, game over”) and that the Special Counsel’s investigation was completely illegitimate (a “Russia hoax,” a “witch hunt” and an “attempted coup”). Vladimir Putin joined Trump in declaring that the Mueller investigation, previously a reflection of “Russia hysteria,” was now “objective” and cleared not only the U.S. president but also the Russian government of conspiring together to influence the 2016 presidential election. “A mountain gave birth to a mouse,” Putin quipped.

Robert Mueller’s Report on Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election, of course, is hardly a mouse. It is a 448-page mountain of evidence refuting both Putin’s and Trump’s denials. Indeed, the intense focus of politicians and pundits on whether the president obstructed Mueller’s investigation has distracted from the essential findings of the report: first, that the Russian government attacked American democracy and successfully deployed a sophisticated intelligence operation to get the U.S. president it wanted; and second, that the Trump campaign openly and furtively welcomed and used Russia’s help. In the process, Trump promised to improve relations with Russia if he were elected. When one reads the report carefully, even in redacted form, it is hard not to agree with what a Kremlin official emailed to a confederate immediately after Hillary Clinton’s concession: “Putin has won.”

The report is worth careful review. Russia’s attack on American democracy is ongoing and, as we see from Trump’s denials, there is a U.S. president who is intent on covering it up. If we do not examine the central findings of the Mueller Report, we won’t be able to do what is necessary to defend American or Western democracy. That includes ensuring that our elections are free and fair, without foreign interference, and helping voters recognize foreign sources of propaganda, misinformation and influence. It also means helping the general public recognize fully what happened, the extent and impact of Russia’s intervention in the election, and what it will take to prevent Putin, not to mention other foreign powers, from achieving their goals.

Russia’s “Interference Activities” to Elect Donald Trump

The Mueller Report is not a full examination of Russia’s active measures campaign during the 2016 election. It is instead a disciplined and limited presentation on the findings of a criminal investigation to determine whether or not the president of the United States or his campaign cooperated with the Russian government conspiracy to get him elected and if the president or his representatives tried to obstruct the investigation into that effort.

To answer the questions set out for the Special Counsel, however, the Office first examined the predicate basis of the investigation, namely the Russian conspiracy. In doing so, it confirms what U.S. intelligence agencies had previously concluded: that the Russian government intervened in the 2016 presidential election “in sweeping and systematic fashion” to help elect Donald Trump.

The report makes clear that these “interference activities” were not just intelligence hijinks. Nor was it “what the Russians have always done and always will do,” as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has claimed. Rather, the report describes a multi-faceted intelligence operation carried out on a qualitatively and quantitatively different level and with greater specific purpose than any previous efforts to influence an American election.

The two main elements of the interference activities are well known but described in greater detail in the Mueller Report: (1) a sustained and targeted social media disinformation campaign aimed at American voters carried out by the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency; and (2) a cyber operation executed by a unit of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, which hacked into U.S. electoral targets and used cut-outs to weaponize a vast trove of emails and documents it had stolen from the Democratic Party and Clinton campaign staff. The report’s presentation makes clear that these two operations worked together both to damage Clinton’s candidacy and to support Trump.

The report does not include, as the Intelligence Community’s National Assessment did, how the IRA’s and GRU’s “activities” were closely integrated with foreign propaganda stations Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik, which reach a large American audience and originated many disinformation stories. The report does offer important new information not found in earlier indictments. For example, it reveals definitively that Wikileaks received the email and document troves from Guccifer2.0 and DC Leaks, both identified as GRU fronts. We learn also that Wikileaks’s Julian Assange eagerly participated in Russian disinformation attempts to shield the GRU as the source of the hacked emails. It indicates again that his role was as a Russian intelligence asset and propagandist, not an actual champion of transparency. We now know definitively that the U.S. media used Russian-intelligence generated anti-Clinton propaganda channeled through a Russian government asset as the basis for a month of negative news stories.[1]

The Special Counsel’s report reminds us that the IRA’s and GRU’s “interference activities” were serious crimes against the United States that acted to undermine America’s democracy. Two indictments for conspiracy and other crimes were brought against 12 GRU officials, 13 Russian IRA employees, and three affiliated Russian organizations. The report found that many more were involved. For example, “dozens of IRA employees were responsible for operating accounts and personas on different U.S. social media platforms.” Other investigations and reporting in the previous three years add perspective on what is not included in the report, such as the role of other intelligence units like the SVR’s “Cozy Bear,” the GRU’s recruiting of “lone wolf” disinformation agents in foreign countries, the role of influence agents like Maria Butina, and influence operations more generally in radical or extremist movements.

The detailed narrative also shows that Russia’s “interference activities” had a real and distorting impact on the 2016 election. While not rendering an opinion itself, the report’s findings give greater credence to experts who have carefully studied the matter and concluded that Russia’s influence operation tipped the scales in a very close election by directly changing the course of media coverage in the campaign, aiding the Trump campaign in messaging, and reaching millions of targeted voters with specific social media content to impact voting behavior.[2] There is reason at least for Putin to think that these efforts were decisive.

A Web of Conspiracy and Compromise

The Special Counsel’s report did not find conclusive grounds to bring additional criminal charges against Trump or persons connected to the Trump campaign for conspiring or coordinating with the Russian government — its principal legal task. At the same time, the report’s voluminous factual findings are a contextual roadmap of potential, attempted, and, in one likely case, actual collusion (more below).

The number of links and contacts between the Russian government and the Trump campaign is truly impressive (they count in the hundreds). One can get lost in the fifteen separate cases presented in this chapter of the report. Suffice to say that — contrary to the repeated denials of everyone involved — nearly every top aide and foreign policy adviser in Trump’s campaign was involved in specific meetings with Russian government representatives or foreign assets. While some are incidental, most are not. Also contrary to Trump’s recent claim, no offers of assistance were rebuffed. Indeed, in most cases, from Trump’s closest confidants down to the “coffee boy” George Papadapalous, there were clear signals to the Russian government that the campaign wanted to cooperate in Russia’s advertised efforts to aid in Donald Trump’s election.

The open solicitation of Russian hacking by Trump and the constant use of Wikileaks dumps by him and the campaign despite their known origin also signaled the intent to cooperate. The Mueller Report did not establish a specific agreement for a quid pro quo, but it offers substantial evidence of a concordance of interests between the two parties that amounts to the same. As it states in its summary,

“[T]he Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and the [Trump] Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts…”

The links and contacts described in the Mueller Report are hard to fathom. There are seemingly random contacts with the Trump campaign undertaken by seemingly unconnected figures. A Maltese professor promises damaging emails on Hillary Clinton to a campaign foreign policy adviser. A shady lawyer joined by the son of a shady oligarch representing Russia’s “crown prosecutor” also promises “dirt” on Clinton to the campaign’s top operatives. A low-level Trump foreign policy adviser previously rejected as an asset by the GRU is invited to give a prestigious speech at a Moscow economics forum attended by Russia’s deputy prime minister. Kiril Dmitriev, the head of Russia’s national sovereign fund, shows up in an intelligence movie-like setting in the Seychelles Islands engaging a key Trump backer with mercenary pursuits in attempted backchannel communications between the Kremlin and Trump’s transition team.

There are many more tales that seem strange to those not familiar with the nature and methods of Russian state intelligence. In fact, this is how Russian intelligence operates. In such interactions, one does not know with what authority anyone acts. Nothing is ever what it seems. Behind all of it lies a continuing prospect to entice people into a shadow world of mutual interest and compromise benefitting Moscow and, in this case, the Trump campaign.

The Special Counsel’s Office did not establish sufficient evidence of “tacit or express” cooperation — the legal threshold it established for conspiracy — in any of the fifteen cases. Still, the Trump campaign had multiple interactions with Russians and Russian assets, many involving offers of an exchange of benefits. All fit a basic pattern. The meetings and contacts were largely hidden from the public; they were denied or lied about repeatedly after the election; most cases betrayed a willingness of the campaign to cooperate with a Russian conspiracy to help elect Trump; and, when under scrutiny by the Special Counsel, most of the protagonists misled investigators, lied, suborned perjury and otherwise “materially impeded” the investigation. All the protagonists were thus subject to being compromised by Russia. Thus, the investigation was hardly a “hoax.” The counter-intelligence implications were large and required careful scrutiny.

At minimum, the report revealed the Russian government’s successful efforts to compromise a U.S. presidential election and influence an administration’s policies. More, though, the report details numerous cases of collusion for which evidence of motive, means, opportunity, and a consciousness of guilt are established.

What is also clear: A great deal remains unknown that requires further investigation. One case in particular deserves greater attention than it has received. It is the type of “Trump-Russia” connection looked for since the beginning of the investigation.

The Curious Case of Paul Manafort: A Counter-Intelligence Perspective

In March 2016, immediately upon entering the Trump campaign as campaign manager, Paul Manafort ordered his deputy, Rick Gates, to provide regular internal campaign polling data to Manafort’s former “right-hand” man in Ukraine. That man was Konstantin Kilimnik. Through Gates, Manafort instructed Kilimnik to pass the information on to one of Putin’s most trusted oligarchs, Manafort’s former client Oleg Deripaska, as well as three shady Ukrainian oligarchs who had sponsored Manafort’s work in Ukraine and also had extensive Russian ties. In May and early August 2016, Manafort, now named the Trump campaign chairman, met Kilimnik directly to give detailed briefings on the polling data and how it related to the campaign’s strategy of winning the Electoral College. Gates fulfilled Manafort’s orders faithfully despite thinking, like the FBI, that Kilimnik was a “spy.” (The report describes in detail why the FBI thought this.) Gates continued to provide Kilimnik data even after Manafort left the campaign in a scandal over the discovery of $18 million in under-the-table payments from Ukraine.

The report presents Manafort’s and Gates’s description of their own motives as purely corrupt: an intent to “monetize” their restored influence in the U.S. This conforms with their record of trading political connections for lucrative lobbying contracts to serve foreign interests. By itself, this made the chairman of a presidential campaign subject to a high level of influence by both foreign private interests and a foreign government. (Indeed, Kilimnik solicited Manafort in getting Trump to support a seemingly Putin-backed scheme to “resolve” the Ukraine conflict to Russia’s advantage.) Given Manafort’s unending practice of lying, however, the Special Counsel suspected there was more to the story. Lacking access to foreign witnesses, however, it could not determine what Kilimnik (or others) did with the information Manafort provided. The report states only:

“[T]he Office could not reliably determine Manafort’s purpose in sharing polling data with Kilimnik during the campaign.”

In a report of cautious under-statement, this sentence stands out as the most under-stated. Manafort provides no credible reason for why he would give regular access to internal polling data to foreigners who had nothing to do with the campaign. Manafort’s position at the helm of the Trump campaign was sufficient proof of his potential future value and influence. The long relationship between Kilimnik and Manafort might explain a single briefing, but the more obvious purpose for multiple secret briefings and the regular feeding of internal polling data would be if the foreigners were somehow assisting the campaign. Detailed internal polling data and briefings pinpointing a campaign’s focus is extraordinarily valuable to any effort at swaying voter opinion and behavior. It is what the Russian government, akin to a Super PAC, was seeking to do to Trump’s benefit.

The report presents Manafort’s past work as relevant. It is. Just four years after the 2004 Orange Revolution in Ukraine, he helped the pro-Russian Party of Regions rebound to victory in 2008 parliamentary elections and then aided its leader, Viktor Yanukovich, to do the same in presidential elections in 2010. From various accounts, Manafort’s role was significant (including crafting Yanukovich’s populist message and image and negative campaigns against his opponent). These elections together moved Ukraine away from a pro-Western course and definitively back towards Putin’s sphere of control. That is, Manafort helped to secure one of Russia’s most important goals. After the Euromaidan protests of 2013-14 again drove Yanukovich from power and re-affirmed the will of the Ukrainian people to align with Europe, Manafort again showed his allegiance to Russian interests. He helped the successor to the Party of Regions in the post-Maidan parliamentary elections gain a significant bloc of seats to impede democratic reform.

In all of those ten years working in Ukraine, Manafort relied on the ethnic Russian and Ukraine-born Kilimnik, who was trained in languages at the GRU’s military academy. After being fired for compromising behavior at his first assignment, the International Republican Institute, Kilimnik had attached himself to the non-Russian speaking Manafort as his amanuensis for communications with Deripaska, with whom Manafort had financial relationships, and pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarchs and politicians. Kilimnik retained this role after Manafort left Ukraine in 2015. Whether Manafort was a Russian “agent” matters little given his actual role and Kilimnik’s actual relationship with Russian military intelligence.

Manafort’s behavior might still be explained as mercenary: he would do anything for money or the prospect of money without concern for the damage caused to the countries where he worked or to U.S. national security interests. But it cannot be a full analysis. Manafort — after 10 years of entanglement in the world of Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs, mafias, and intelligence agencies — was subject to cooperation, blackmail or use by the Russian government and pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarchs while serving as the head of the Trump campaign and afterwards. Did Manafort, who offered his services to the Trump campaign for free, also promise Trump the possibility — and ability — to utilize his Russian and pro-Russian Ukrainian assets on Trump’s behalf? Or did Trump simply appreciate Manafort’s willingness to do anything to win without regard to democratic scruples?

There are no answers in the Mueller Report on these and other questions nor is there a counter-intelligence assessment (the counter-intelligence investigation has vanished). What is clear is that a Russian intelligence operation was fully intertwined with a U.S. presidential campaign. It is imperative for Congress to investigate further and to take action to prevent such foreign entanglement and influence in future presidential campaigns.

The More Curious Case of Dmitri Simes

Another section of the Mueller Report, devoted to “Dmitri Simes and the Center for the National Interest,” explains even more the imperative for further investigation. It tells us more as to the purposes of Russia’s “interference activities.”

Dmitri Simes is an American citizen who emigrated from the Soviet Union in the early ‘70s. His mother was a noted defense lawyer for Soviet dissidents who was forced to emigrate in 1977. But the two did not have principled interests in common. Prior to coming to the U.S., Simes was the head of the Communist Party youth structure at the leading international affairs institute in Moscow. In the U.S., Simes quickly attached himself as an adviser to the realpolitik former President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, the main proponents of détente with the Soviet Union. Later, starting in 1994, he became director of the Nixon Center. In 2011, after a dispute with the Nixon family, he renamed the organization the Center for the National Interest (CNI).

There are multiple interpretations of Simes’ behavior, motives and allegiances over the years and he has many defenders in Washington, D.C. The most generous interpretation, as with Manafort, is an ally’s description that “he’s the ultimate realist; he works only for himself.”[3] If so, however, his self-interest pointed him in only one direction. After arriving in the U.S., he promoted “normal relations” with the Soviet Union. And now, as with Trump, no domestic repression or foreign aggression alters Simes’s advocacy of “great power” diplomacy with Russia.

The self-interest goes further. The CNI boasts “unparalleled access to Russian officials and politicians among Washington think tanks.” Indeed, it is CNI’s business model. For this purpose, Simes maintained relations at the highest levels of the Russian government, organized top-level exchanges, and frequently facilitated meetings between Russian and U.S. officials. He was not surprisingly one of a very few in the foreign policy establishment who supported Trump’s call to improve relations with Russia at a time when Russia’s foreign aggression had reached new levels and was threatening the very foundations of the post-war liberal order.

Simes became an adviser to the Trump campaign and the CNI’s publication, The National Interest, hosted Trump’s first major foreign policy speech in April 2016. He and a board member, former Ambassador Richard Burt, helped shape the speech’s realist themes and Trump’s America First doctrine. Simes, Burt and others at CNI continued to write foreign policy memos and advise the campaign on foreign policy, especially in relation to Russia. In one memo, Simes explained to the neophyte Jared Kushner that people “tend to exaggerate Putin’s flaws.”

Like Trump and Putin, Simes claims “exoneration” in the Mueller Report. True, the investigation established no evidence of facilitation by Simes or CNI of actual cooperation between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. Still, this lengthy section on Simes is in the “Russian Government Links and Contacts with the Trump Campaign” chapter for good reason. In addition to Simes’s and CNI’s intertwined interests with Russia’s top leaders, CNI Board member Richard Burt worked as a long-time lobbyist for Gazprom and other Russian interests, including as a director of Letter One, based in Belgium. L1 is a foreign investment firm joining together the assets of five Russian oligarchs. One, former Alpha Bank head Peter Aven, was among those assigned by Putin to establish relations with the Trump administration for pursuit of a new relationship. Burt acted as Aven’s lobbyist to facilitate contacts with the Trump transition team (even while he was being considered to become the next U.S. Ambassador to Russia).

CNI also assisted in arranging meetings with U.S. officials for Maria Butina, the recently convicted influence agent who infiltrated the National Rifle Association and other conservative circles, and for her Russian sponsor, Alexander Torshin, a former Central Bank head with close ties to both Putin and the Russian mafia. Not mentioned in the report is that Butina’s U.S. profile was raised significantly in June 2015 when, as a fresh American University graduate student, her article predicting a future Republican administration would establish “new relations” between Russia and the U.S. was published in The National Interest. It appeared just before a press conference where Butina solicited Trump’s first public promise of a future positive relationship with Russia if he became president.

After Butina’s arrest in July 2018 in the U.S., Simes returned to Moscow and in September began co-hosting the main foreign policy show on Russia’s Channel 1, called “The Great Game.” His co-host, Vyacheslav Nikonov, is the son of a KGB general and a well-known nationalist supporter of Putin who boasts about Russia’s having won the 2016 election for Trump. On the show, Simes explains to Russian viewers how Trump wanted better relations with Russia but was constrained by an anti-Russia foreign policy establishment and the Mueller investigation.

What Putin Won

Intelligence activities are usually opaque or hidden. Many remain cloaked in mystery and subject to multiple interpretation even decades later. The Russian attack on the 2016 presidential election is no different. It is part of the disarray that Putin set out to achieve that there remain still so many unexplained aspects of the operation. None of the remaining mystery or complexity should be surprising, though. The multifarious character of active measures has been a continuing facet of Soviet and Russian intelligence operations for over a century. So, too, their enduring nature. It is why we can be sure the Russian attack is continuing. And why Trump’s continued denial of such an operation and its impact on the 2016 presidential election is so threatening to American democracy. Far from defending against future attack, Trump has his chief lawyer stating there is nothing wrong with utilizing Russian help to win an election and then threatening to engage another foreign government to investigate one of Trump’s opponents.

Robert Mueller’s Russian Interference in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election presents a rare examination of key elements of a foreign intelligence operation and demonstrates the extent to which a hostile foreign power’s leader succeeded in a broadly conceived, multi-purposed effort to influence American politics, public opinion and overall policy. It also presents the means by which a president set out to obstruct the investigation. All of these trails of evidence require further examination by Congress. Only then can we defend American democracy in all respects, not only through legislation protecting American elections against foreign hacking but also by prohibiting collusion with foreign conspiracies and by heightening public awareness against manipulation by propaganda and foreign influence.

Ultimately, though, we must consider the central purpose of all Russian intelligence operations. It is to further and strengthen Russian geopolitics. And there is no secret to Putin’s central geopolitical purpose, which is laid out in speech after speech, action after action. It is to restore, strengthen and expand Russia’s geopolitical standing and great power status and influence. Putin pursues this purpose to the detriment of his country’s economic future and at the expense of human rights, democracy, the rule of law, and the international rules-based order. To achieve his aims, he represses dissent, imprisons and murders opponents, invades countries, seizes territories, commits war crimes to prop up allied leaders in other countries, carries out chemical weapons attacks abroad to silence enemies, seeks to weaken the global power and reach of the U.S., and tries to divide and perhaps break up the U.S.’s principal alliance, NATO.

Putin has stated why he supported Donald Trump for the U.S. presidency as serving those geopolitical purposes: Trump promised to end U.S. “hegemonic policy” and restore “normal relations” with Russia. Today, President Trump, if not fully his administration, demonstrates in his public messaging and in his many meetings and telephone calls with Putin that he is invested in helping Putin achieve his central purpose and in helping Putin deny Russia’s efforts to disrupt American democracy. After the Mueller Report was released, Trump spent an hour-and-a-half not discussing Russia’s intervention and instead discussing U.S.-Russia cooperation in all parts of the world — from Venezuela to North Korea to Ukraine — as if Putin were leader still of the old Soviet Union.

There was another time when an American president was invested in establishing “peaceful relations” with a hostile foreign power in order to distract from public investigation. In the midst of the Watergate hearings, President Richard Nixon tried to convince the American public that the world’s very future depended on establishing détente with the Soviet Union in order to balance global interests. In this view, human rights concerns, although acknowledged, should not get in the way of managing relations with a superpower. The president’s defenders, most notably Henry Kissinger, argued that the president’s political opponents were risking global peace by stoking scandal against him for their own personal benefit. On top of which, it should be remembered, the president’s defenders argued that despite the Nixon Administration’s pursuit of détente, it had stronger policies against Soviet expansionism than any prior one.

Back then, Democratic lawmakers Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Charles Vanik proved prescient in re-establishing Congressional authority in foreign affairs. The Jackson-Vanik Amendment, at the time a controversial intrusion on the foreign affairs prerogatives of the executive branch, removed most-favored trade status on Soviet bloc countries based on their lack of observance of human rights and especially their unwillingness to allow Jewish emigration, something Soviet leaders feared would undermine the internal basis of their power. The Jackson-Vanik Amendment established an actual tough policy on Soviet Bloc countries and arguably proved a more effective policy than détente.

Congress has again re-asserted its authority in the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) by preventing the Trump administration from lifting sanctions on Russia and forcing new ones to be added. Democratic — and Republican — lawmakers should take stock from a previous historical lesson and continue to insist on full implementation of CAATSA, adoption of additional measures, and fully asserting Congress’s proper role in stemming Russian aggression here and abroad. Only in doing so can it prevent Trump from fulfilling his foreign policy promises to Putin (regardless of what those promises were based on). Any weakening of policy can only convince Putin of the enduring value not only of his aggressive policies and propaganda but of his intelligence operations to distort American and Western democracies.

More, Congress must take proactive steps to protect American democracy from further foreign electoral interference and prevent American election campaigns from colluding in them. Our nation’s future depends on it.

•  •  •

[1] There were always indications of Assange’s role. Many were recounted in a September 1, 2016 New York Times article, “How Russia Often Benefits When Julian Assange Reveals the West’s Secrets,” which the newspaper  itself rarely referred to when covering the Wikileaks propaganda “dumps.” In April 2017, the CIA concluded that Wikileaks was a “non-state hostile intelligence service.”

[2] See “The Alarming Story That Won’t Go Away” by Eric Chenoweth, The American Interest, June 4, 2018. The most comprehensive study and analysis is Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President—What We Don’t, Can’t, and Do Know (Oxford University Press, New York: 2018). A synopsis of her analysis and findings is found in a review in The New Yorker by Jane Mayer, September 24, 2018.

[3] “Jared Kushner Sought Advice from a Pro-Kremlin Russian,” by Natasha Bertrand, Politico, April 30, 2019.