Dispatch May 1, 2018

Collusion Case Study: Catholicism

Among the list of Mueller questions that were leaked last night, two make clear that hacking is still a major focus of the collusion investigation:

  • What did you know about communication between Roger Stone, his associates, Julian Assange or WikiLeaks?
  • During the campaign, what did you know about Russian hacking, use of social media or other acts aimed at the campaign?

In that vein, a report from Vox last week shows one of the clearest executions of what collusion looks like. In the final weeks before the election, the Trump campaign weaponized a WikiLeaks email release by amplifying and twisting the meaning of one stolen email chain.

The third tranche of Podesta emails released by Wikileaks included a correspondence between three of our colleagues: John Podesta, Jen Palmieri, and John Halpin, all of whom are Catholic. The emails, from 2011, discussed Republican views toward Catholics.

Surprisingly, two organizations were extremely quick to pick up on the seemingly-innocuous email: the state-owned foreign agent RT and the Trump campaign.

  • The chain was in a batch of 1,190 emails that Wikileaks released on October 11th and, as Vox notes, “nothing in the email exchange was particularly remarkable.”
  • Yet, on the same day—literal hours after the release—RT highlighted the Catholic emails, calling them “disparaging comments about Catholics.”
  • That same night, Trump followed RT’s lead, calling out the email at a campaign rally and saying they showed “the Clinton team attacking Catholics.”

Lucky break or political targeting? Vox notes:

  • In Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, roughly 30 percent of voters are Catholic.
  • At the time of the email, Trump was struggling to win support from Catholic voters, especially after the October 7th Access Hollywood release; an influential Catholic group even called for Trump to step aside.
  • The next day, the Trump campaign appeared highly organized to push out the message, as it hosted a conference call with Newt Gingrich where he said, “Callista and I both feel assault not just on Catholicism but on people of faith, the callousness, the contempt … Now we know what Hillary meant by deplorables. It’s people of faith.”
  • Trump ultimately won Catholic voters by 7 percent.

The hacked email and Trump’s sudden and robust activity around it could have played a critical role in this turnaround.

  • How did a Russian propaganda outlet know to highlight an innocuous email involving discussions of Catholicism, finding a needle in a haystack, and how did they know to do it so quickly?
  • Once RT acted, how did this email make its way into Trump’s campaign remarks that very same day?
  • Did intermediaries like Roger Stone, Donald Trump. Jr., or Cambridge Analytica play a role in coordinating with Wikileaks?

Putting the Catholics email in the context of everything we now know about Russia’s hacking, about WikiLeaks, and about the Trump campaign makes it almost impossible to believe this was just a random series of coincidences. Instead, this looks like a clear example of steps taken to collude.