The American Interest (Published on: June 4, 2018)
Despite all the diminishment, denial, and deflection, the evidence is mounting that Russian interference may have tipped the 2016 election.
In mid-February, the news cycle was saturated with coverage of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russians, the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency (IRA), and two front companies. The indictment detailed the IRA’s surreptitious, deceptive, and illegal “interference operations” in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Here was a major development in what is called the “Russia-Trump investigation,” one that added to public understanding of what the Russia government did, its intentions, and its possible impact on the election. Molly J. McKew, a specialist in information warfare, wrote in Wired that “it is now undeniable” Russia’s intervention affected the election in favor of Donald J. Trump. A Washington Post editorial stated that Mueller had presented “powerful evidence that Moscow staged an attack on the United States’ democratic political process.”
In another time, one might reasonably expect that a criminal indictment detailing a hostile foreign power’s conspiratorial attack on U.S. democracy that affected a presidential election might lead to bipartisan pronouncements to defend the homeland, the appointment of a joint Congressional or independent commission to help craft a national response, and joint legislative and executive branch action to deter such intervention in the future.
None of that happened. Instead, the response took on a predictable pattern of diminishment, denial, and deflection. The President himself issued what amounted to the U.S. government’s response via Twitter: “Russia started their anti-U.S. campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run.The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong—no collusion!” Instead of condemning the “anti-U.S. campaign,” Trump attacked the investigations into the Russian intervention as a “witch hunt.” Conservative media, including the most-watched national cable news channel and the largest broadcaster of local news, largely backed these official statements, as did pro-Trump Republicans. But many anti-Trump stalwarts also pooh-poohed the indictment. Adrian Chen, author of a New York Times Magazine exposé of the IRA in 2015, said it amounted to “90 people shit-posting on Facebook.” An editor at the Never-Trump Commentary magazine wrote that the election could not have been affected by “a few Americans being led around the nose by the Russians for a few months.” Masha Gessen of The New Yorker dismissed the IRA campaign as “cacophony” and rejected the idea that a Russian government conspiracy “to muddle American politics can fundamentally change the fate of this country.”
In the end, the coverage and analysis were sucked into the policy and scandal maelstrom that has typified Trump’s time in office. That now included an escalating barrage of attacks on the Justice Department and Robert Mueller’s investigation, together with a series of contradictory policy messages: expelling diplomats and adopting some long-delayed sanctions to punish Russia for different acts of aggression, while at the same time planning a summit meeting with Vladimir Putin, continuing to seek better relations, and limiting implementation of sanctions that had been imposed.
None of this should distract our attention from the alarming story of Russia’s assault on the U.S. democratic process. Each new development in the Russia investigation over the course of the last 16 months has offered increasing confirmation that there was a Russian government conspiracy to “muddle American politics,” that the Trump campaign was connected to it in myriad ways, and that it did in fact “turn the election” (as former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper puts it in his new book). Perhaps McKew is right and Gessen wrong: The “fate of this country” was changed by a hostile foreign power seeking to undermine democracy and alter the course of American events.
Both pro-Trump and anti-Trump arguments against the election impact of the Russian intervention have a common starting point: Russia did not create the political conditions in American politics that allowed candidate Trump the possibility to win the presidency. Those obsessing about Russia’s role in the outcome, the argument goes, are ignoring America’s political reality and blame Trump’s victory on a phantom. American citizens cast their votes freely and alone determined the outcome, good or bad. For Trump and his supporters, those obsessing over “Russia-gate” are seeking to overturn “the will of the people” and even seek “a coup.” For anti-Trump denialists, like Jeet Heer of The New Republic, “The problem is not that American democracy was hacked, but that . . . there was enough fragility in American democracy for a few crude memes to have an outsized influence.”
It is true that the political landscape for 2016 existed with or without outside efforts to influence voting behavior. Russia did not create class resentment, anti-establishment sentiment, racism, misogyny, or other core elements in the American political crust that Trump successfully mined for his presidential bid. Nor did Russia create the weaknesses in President Barack Obama’s presidency or in the candidacy of Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, that reduced the Democrats’ appeal in 2016. True, too, trends in American (and European) politics have allowed anti-liberal political appeals to gain success.
If, however, one accepts that the electorate’s divisions were so deep and home-grown, it is precisely for this reason that one should take so seriously the impact that Russia’s intervention had on the election. The divided character of the American electorate had been set over four previous presidential elections. A minimum of 46 percent voted Republican and a minimum 48 percent voted Democratic; the maximum for a Democrat was 52.9 percent; for a Republican, 50.7 percent. Given the Republican Party’s full backing of Trump and the fractured backing by Democrats of Clinton, reasonable analysis of the 2016 race predicted a close outcome and fierce competition in states determining the Electoral College. It was an open opportunity for a foreign power to influence an election and help bring about an outcome serving its interests. That is what the Intelligence Community concluded that Vladimir Putin directed the Russian government to do—in Trump’s favor.
A close race was always likely in such a polarized environment. That only a total of 77,000 votes in three states were the margin for Trump’s Electoral College victory is an indicator that Putin succeeded in tipping the election outcome, not the opposite.
One reason the issue is not squarely confronted is that each media revelation about the Russian operation has been siloed in separate stories. Determined journalists uncovered many small parts over the last 16 months. Yet, as when starting a jigsaw puzzle, each interlocking piece was just an isolated patch.
The Mueller indictment of the Internet Research Agency for the first time put many of the pieces of the puzzle together so that one could see a larger picture emerging. The 13 individuals identified in the IRA’s U.S. operation (there were up to 80 more) engaged in espionage and identity theft, opened and operated illegal bank accounts, created automated and individually managed social media accounts and personas pretending to be Americans, propagated false information and fake news in a massive amount of posts and ads, and directly engaged with U.S. citizens to incite protests. According to the indictment, the operation targeted specific audiences with clear intent: depress the vote for Clinton, support the election of Trump, and sow discord within American society. These are exactly the purposes identified in the Intelligence Community’s assessment on the Russia intervention.1 All of it, Mueller reminded us, constitutes illegal behavior interfering in an election process.
The indictment, while detailed, was limited in scope. There is a lot more to the picture. Adrian Chen’s initial New York Times Magazine exposé, confirmed by many later reports, revealed that the IRA, although the largest at an estimated 400 workers, is one of many ostensibly private “troll farms” set up to influence—distort—public opinion through the internet, both in Russia and worldwide. It is part of an official strategy of “public consciousness manipulation” devised in the Kremlin and directed by Russian intelligence, security, and military agencies. Simply, the 13 persons named in the indictment are a tiny portion of those engaged in the Russian government’s overall information and cyber warfare operations, a large portion of which has been directed at the United States.
The Russians’ social media campaign—which reached at least 126 million users of Facebook alone—was just one part of a very large and fully integrated “active measures” operation to influence America’s politics, election outcomes, and policies. Here is just some of what American journalists, intelligence assessments, and other investigations, now including two Senate Intelligence Committee reports, have revealed about the extent and scope of Russia’s ongoing operation:
- Well-financed foreign broadcast propaganda outlets RT and Sputnik were the source of false information and “fake news” stories propagated on multiple social media networks and even by pro-Trump media and the Trump campaign itself;
- There were extensive attempts to hack into election infrastructure, including at least 20 state election systems, a private electronic selection equipment provider, as well as the accounts of thousands ofjournalists, civic activists, and opinion and policy makers (2,400 have been identified by the AP at last count);
- Two state election voter roll databases, other local systems, both national political party structures, and a number of the former government officials, policy and opinion makers, and journalists identified as targets, were successfully hacked;
- Influence campaigns were carried out to gain alliances with American politicians, opinion leaders, organizations and institutions, including the NRA, the libertarian Ron Paul Institute, the religious Right, the alt-right, and the Green Party;
- Russian intelligence assets engaged in multiple attempts to solicit cooperation from and establish communications with Trump aides and associates; and, not least,
- Coordinated diplomatic and intelligence operations aimed at changing U.S. foreign policy towards Russia and creating quid pro quos for helping the Trump campaign.
All of this is before consideration of Russia’s stealing and weaponizing of email communications of DNC staffers and Clinton campaign aides for propaganda purposes using “cut-outs” like Guccifer 2.0, DCLeaks, and Wikileaks. Through this means, news organizations became part of an effectively timed and planned effort to spread negative stories about Hillary Clinton, which were then amplified by Trump, his campaign and pro-Trump and social media. This arguably had the most impact by influencing overall media coverage in the last month of the campaign.2
With such perspective, a fuller (but still not full) picture of Russia’s operation emerges, and the arguments diminishing the significance of the Mueller indictment or of the Russian intervention generally, become less convincing. No one can measure the exact impact, but a reasonable assessment leads to one conclusion: Russia’s government conspiracy to intervene in the U.S. presidential election was one of the decisive factors that swung the election to Trump.3
Donald Trump’s response to Russia’s clear intervention is denial, but of a particular sort: an insistence on false, elastic, and conflicting claims at the same time. Trump won a “landslide” Electoral College victory on his own; there was no Russian intervention, but if Russia did intervene it was no different than other governments; whatever happened, Putin did not order it and it wasn’t to support Trump’s election; Russia could have intervened but it had no effect on the vote; and regardless, the Trump campaign did “nothing wrong” and there was “no collusion.” Investigation of the Russia intervention is part of a “witch hunt,” a position one might note reflective of the official Russian view that Washington, DC is in the throes of “Russia mania.”
Mueller’s indictment of the IRA did not alter the President’s account. And despite the Intelligence Community assessments contradicting these claims, former CIA Director and now Secretary of State Mike Pompeo affirms several of them.4 The new National Security Adviser John Bolton actively promoted the conspiracy theory that the hacking of the DNC servers may have been a “false flag operation” carried out by U.S. intelligence agencies.
In most polling, Republicans generally have supported Trump’s stated positions, however elastic. In Congress, Republican leadership limited investigation and blocked appointment of an independent commission or bipartisan congressional panel to come up with a unified course of action in response. Investigation was relegated to opaque, inadequately staffed and politically divided Intelligence Committees under Republican control. In the few open hearings and in many public actions, Republicans on both committees consistently attempted to defend and confirm Trump’s main claims. Sixteen months after the election, the Republican majority on the House Intelligence Committee closed its investigation and issued a “conclusive” report that exonerated Trump and his campaign but without fully investigating any matter.5 The less divided Senate committee has issued so far two of six interim reports. Its most recent report, which directly refutes the House Intelligence Committee report and affirms the Intelligence Community Assessment of Russia’s activities and intentions, had minimal impact. Its urgent recommendations related to election security made in its first report lie fallow.
Given the reliance on the assertion that Russian “meddling” had no impact on the vote, it is quite odd that so little effort has been made to investigate Russia’s efforts to hack election infrastructure and whether this resulted in altering votes cast or the vote count. This assertion remains largely a matter of public assurance by officials of both the Obama and Trump Administrations, not anything shown through public hearings and findings. Instead, the focus and investigation has tended to revolve around the claim that Trump or the campaign did “nothing wrong” and that “no collusion” took place. Eighteen months after the election, the argument goes, no “smoking gun” proving explicit cooperation and coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russian government has been uncovered or revealed by investigation. Finding the “smoking gun” and proving actual “collusion” remains a fixed point of reference, even among Trump skeptics and opponents.6
“Collusion” or not, there is abundant evidence that the Trump campaign availed itself of the services Russia was offering. Trump solicited, welcomed, and then eagerly used the email dumps weaponized by Russian intelligence services to help fuel his rebound in the polls during the last month of the campaign. He did so in public and despite the Intelligence Community’s statement warning of the Russian government’s efforts to influence the election through just such means. Republican supporters (including Mike Pompeo) were eager to use private emails stolen by Russian intelligence agencies as political fodder.
There is also ample evidence of campaign connections to the operation at various levels. Right after the election, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov stated that the Russian government had maintained contacts during the campaign with Trump’s “immediate entourage.” At the time, Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks denied the Russian boast outright. Trump and his “entourage” repeatedly denied any contacts whenever the issue was raised. But it has now been shown that there were dozens of significant contacts between members of the Trump campaign and Russian government officials, agents, and assets through which the latter lobbied on foreign policy issues; offered collaboration and assistance to the campaign; and shared information about Russia’s plans to release emails damaging to the Clinton campaign.
Most are well known, such as top national security adviser to the campaign (and briefly the country), Michael A. Flynn, being paid more than $55,000 by the Russian propaganda arm RT and Kaspersky Labs, an internet security firm suspected of links to Russian intelligence. Or three high officials in the Trump campaign meeting in June 2016 with multiple Russian agents, including one tied to the country’s General Prosecutor, with explicit intent to discuss “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. Or one of five named foreign policy advisers being told in April 2016 of the future release of Clinton emails by the Russian government. Or another of those advisers traveling to Moscow in July 2016 and later admitting to meeting with a top Putin deputy. Or the campaign chairman and deputy chairman being financial front men for Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs, acting as agents for a corrupt pro-Putin Ukrainian dictator, and maintaining contacts with a suspected Russian intelligence agent and a Putin-aligned oligarch during the campaign. Other connections are less well known, such as the case of Richard Burt, a lobbyist for the energy giant Gazprom and a director in an investment firm underwritten by five Putin-connected oligarchs, who helped write Trump’s inaugural foreign policy speech in March 2016 that pledged better relations with Russia as a key goal of the candidate. Burt later wrote policy briefs for Senator Jeff Sessions, who chaired the campaign’s national security team.
At no point were Federal authorities notified of such efforts to impact the election or to lobby directly to change U.S. policy. The details of these and many other interactions, including after the election, were kept secret and have been lied about to the American people even after being uncovered by journalists or when public testimony and indictments revealed them.
The Director of National Intelligence (DNI), the former Republican Senator Dan Coats, testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee on February 13. He stated, “There should be no doubt that Russia perceives its past efforts [in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections] as successful and views the 2018 midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations.” Coats previously affirmed the assessment of the Intelligence Community regarding the Russian government’s intentions in those efforts. The conclusion of Trump’s own appointed intelligence chief is thus stark: The world’s oldest and most stable modern democracy had a foreign power attack and undermine its political system. That foreign power’s leader believes his efforts to manipulate American democracy were successful and a victory for his country’s strategic interests.
What did Putin achieve in this victory? Some Russia hawks are echoing Trump’s last incredible line of defense, namely that Putin’s gain is not what is stated in the Intelligence Community’s reasoned analysis but “the chaos” created by obsession with the Russia-Trump investigation. This chaos in turn prevents us from recognizing the truth of Trump’s claim that his administration “has been harder on Russia than the Obama administration.”9
The investigations by journalists, Congress, and Mueller’s office have certainly shadowed Trump in the White House, but their work and what they have uncovered about Russia’s large-scale conspiracy to impact the 2016 election are not the cause of political “chaos,” just as they are not the cause of “bad relations with Russia,” as Trump has asserted. Rather, it is Trump himself—his behavior during the campaign and since being elected, including his reliance on lies, distortions, and conspiracy theories—who has been the primary agent of turmoil. In turn, sympathetic media, Republicans in Congress, and most Administration officials have loyally joined in Trump’s attacks on established media, intelligence agencies, and justice officials, including support for the most cockeyed conspiracies. If political “chaos” and weakening American democracy was Putin’s ultimate aim, his preference for Trump was sound.
As to the argument that Trump’s Russia policy has been harsher than his predecessor’s, it is unconvincing. While Trump has been successfully pressured to approve additional sanctions on Russia by Congress and members of his staff, none of the Administration’s actions amount to a consistent policy, particularly in reaction to a direct assault on the United States. Both as a candidate and as President, Trump has not once publicly criticized Russia or Putin for intervening in the U.S. elections. Even when, a month after the indictment, the Administration for the first time responded to the intervention by imposing sanctions, Trump himself was silent and the action was limited to the individuals and entities named in the indictment. Other actions, such as the expulsions of 60 diplomats or sanctions on a handful of oligarchs and 17 government officials, were not formally in response to the election intervention. Yet after each action, and at other points, Trump consistently repeats his goal of improving ties with Russia as a “good thing.” Even UN Ambassador Nikki Haley was obliged to state her support for “better relations with Russia” following Trump’s reversal on her promise of sanctions on Russia related to its support of Syria’s chemical weapons program. Such mixed signals are the Trump Administration’s policy towards Russia. They undercut any hope for maintaining sustained international pressure on Putin to stop and reverse his foreign aggression—the ostensible intent of any sound sanctions policy.
It remains to be determined the extent to which the Trump campaign engaged in a direct conspiracy to collude with a foreign power or even if Trump is tangled in a web of Russian kompromat. Yet, the Russia-gate debates often obscure the key point: Russia’s assault on our electoral system was real, it had a determinative impact, and its effects have amounted to a success for the Kremlin. Facing this reality is the first step.
Putin’s Russia is engaged in a continuing assault not only on U.S democracy but also on Western democracy, its alliances, and the international rules-based world order. Putin’s goals are large: to divide the West, to undermine democratic systems, and to expand Russian power, regional dominance, and world influence. The constant in Moscow’s policies, both towards its neighbors and the West, is aggression. All of this also serves Putin’s interest to maintain his autocratic (and kleptocratic) power. The lack of reaction to a direct assault on U.S. democracy and the mixed signals sent by the Trump Administration towards Russian actions as a whole can only fuel additional aggression and ongoing efforts to sow discord and divide the West.
Despite Dan Coats’s assessment of the 2016 election and his warning about the 2018 elections, there remains no “whole of government approach” uniting legislative and executive branches in a comprehensive effort to defend American democratic processes and institutions and to join with NATO and the European Union in a common defense of Western democracy. Given the President’s resistance to act to protect America’s elections, such a response requires Congress to lead and direct it. And given the congressional leadership’s partisan-driven actions thus far, this is unlikely short of a dramatic political shift resulting from the 2018 elections. Still, pressure can be put to bear on Republican leaders to finally act on (still insufficient) proposals to strengthen the security and validity of the election process, to restrict foreign interference on social media, and to protect the investigation of the Special Counsel.
One area of bipartisan agreement in Congress was on the issue of sanctions as a means of pressuring Russia to stop its aggression in Ukraine and deter further attacks on U.S. democracy. Yet, since passing overwhelmingly the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), Congress has done little to make sure the Administration carries out the serious and comprehensive sanctions envisioned in the law. It needs to do so to demonstrate to Putin that there is a united political will to counter aggression, not, as Trump indicates, continued hope for entente.
One way to do this is through public hearings to present what Russian aggression means in reality: the carving up of neighboring countries; the brutal and systematic oppression of Crimean Tatars and Ukrainians in Crimea; ten thousand killed and a million people uprooted by war in Ukraine’s eastern territories and the annexation of Crimea; atrocities and war crimes carried out in Syria; a chemical weapons attack carried out on foreign soil; and the massive active measures to manipulate Western and U.S. democracies. The more political understanding there is of Russia’s aggression, the less appeal Trump’s solicitation of Putin will have, and the less effect there will be of Russia’s propaganda.
We should also recognize how the Russian assault succeeded by taking advantage of glaring weaknesses in America’s democracy and its institutions. The first institution, of course, is the Electoral College, whose original intent was as a mediating institution between the voters and the office of the presidency but whose sole purpose appears to be to override the national popular vote (now in two of the last five elections). Whether this arcane institution can be reformed, it should at least be acknowledged that the Electoral College was a key element of Russia’s strategy to help Trump to victory.
Social media companies have finally become a focus of inquiry for their role in purveying “fake news” and propaganda. But even established U.S. media, with developed professional practices, became participants in a foreign government’s effort to influence an election. News editors generally defend their daily coverage of the Wikileaks bombardment—the “what else could they do” defense. If, however, established news media won’t reconsider their willingness to report on private communications stolen by foreign intelligence agencies, they will face ever more complex cases of “kompromat” that aim to poison further the atmosphere of America’s already toxic politics.8 It is incumbent then on American citizens to become much more sophisticated not only in sorting truth from fiction but also seeing the motives of those who are seeking to change public opinion.
Robert Mueller’s indictment of the Internet Research Agency—and the work of the Special Counsel’s Office generally—has helped us understand the nature of the Russian assault on the U.S. democratic process. The question is whether American citizens and the American system of democracy will allow a hostile foreign power to permanently alter the fate of this country.
1 “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections,” the Office of National Director of Intelligence briefing, January 7, 2017, offers a clear enough assessment. According to the Office’s former director, James Clapper, the classified version prepared by the Obama Administration and presented to President-elect Trump contains “staggering” and “specific” evidence of the intervention that was withheld from the public document.
2 See, e.g., “Don’t Blame the Election on Fake News. Blame it on the Media,” Columbia Journalism Review, Dec. 7, 2017. Authors Duncan J. Watts and David M. Rothschild track reporting topics during the campaign and found that “Clinton emails” (including Wikileaks email dumps and the Comey re-opening of the FBI investigation) were by far the dominant story in the last month of the campaign. The authors conclude that the effect was to distort election coverage. Wired offers an analysis of the social media operation, but not a conclusion of its impact.
3 These factors were inter-related, such as reducing the minority turnout for Clinton. Ari Berman of Mother Jones has reported extensively on depressing the minority vote and its relationship to the Russian campaign.
4 In October 2017, Pompeo claimed that the Intelligence Community had determined that Russian “meddling” had not affected the election. This was not the first such claim by him, but remarkably this time the CIA issued a statement refuting its own director. More recently, appearing on Fox News shortly before being named Secretary of State, he repeated some typical and false assertions: “the Russians attempted to interfere” but it was similar to previous efforts; “other actors” also interfered; and “there’s not been a single indication” that Russia succeeded.
5 The HPSCI Minority issued an extensive 21-page report on unfinished aspects of the Committee’s work in response to the closing of the investigation (March 13, 2018).
6 See, for example, “Confessions of a Russia-gate Skeptic” by Blake Hounshell, editor-in-chief of Politico, in an article on February 18, 2018, written in direct response to the Mueller indictment.
7 See, e.g., “Don’t Rehabilitate Obama on Russia,” by Benjamin Haddad and Alina Polyakova, The American Interest, February 28, 2018.
8 Some journalists, on reflection, agree, such as the New York Times’s Amy Chozick. She writes that she perceives her role as having been “a de facto instrument of Russian intelligence.”