Dispatch March 19, 2019

The Russian Campaign to Elect Donald Trump

Three years ago today, the personal email account of the chairman of the Clinton campaign, John Podesta, was hacked by an elite unit in Russia’s military intelligence service, the GRU. (Full disclosure: he is the founder of CAP Action, which you probably already know).

This hacking effort was part of a yearlong campaign by Russian intelligence directed against the Clinton campaign and Trump opponents, an effort that left zero question about the prevalence of interference in the 2016 election.  There were two campaigns to elect Donald Trump in 2016: a campaign run out of Trump Tower (the Trump campaign) and a campaign run out of the Kremlin (the Russian campaign).

In the three years since the Podesta hack, Mueller’s wave of indictments detailed just how massive the Russian campaign was. The Russian campaign often had the resources of a presidential campaign, with the added advantage of being bolstered by the immense capabilities of Russia’s intelligence services.

The Campaign

  • Russia had a digital team the size of a modern presidential campaign: Housed in the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency (IRA), the Russian campaign had a digital wing that was roughly the size of the Clinton campaign’s digital team based in Brooklyn. The Russians exploited the openness of social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram to spread disinformation online and helped to promote Trump.
    • Estimates indicate that the IRA employed anywhere from hundreds to a thousand They also had 80 people just devoted to influencing the US population, which was about the same size of the Clinton campaign’s digital team.
  • Russia’s digital campaign had a multi-million dollar budget, funded by a close Putin ally, who has been indicted and sanctioned. The project to interfere in the US had a $1.25 million monthly budget in 2016.
  • Russia’s digital campaign was influential on social media, with some accounts gaining more than 100,000 followers. The IRA set up fake personas on social media platforms, deploying politically-driven messages that sought to bolster Trump, sow discord, and amplify extremist voices. For example, the IRA-twitter account @TEN_GOP falsely claimed to be the Tennessee Republican party and gained more than 100,000 followers.
    • They also created issue specific groups on Facebook and Instagram that amassed “hundreds of thousands of followers.” These include IRA-created groups like “Secured Borders,” “South United” and “United Muslims of America.”
  • Russia’s digital campaign organized at least eight political rallies in the U.S. This included demonstrations titled “March for Trump” and “Miners for Trump.”
    • For example, the IRA used the Facebook group “Being Patriotic” and the Twitter account @March_for_Trump to coordinate a series of rallies in Florida.
    • They even paid people to build a cage and wear a prison uniform pretending to by Hillary Clinton.
  • Russia’s digital campaign bought ads on social media, spending “thousands of U.S. dollars every month.” One advertisement in May read, “Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote.” Another in October said “Among all the candidates Donald Trump is the one and only who can defend the police from terrorists.”
  • Russia’s digital campaign sought to depress Clinton’s turnout by targeting African Americans. The IRA leeched off the popularity of the Black Lives Matter movement, setting up dozens of fake activist social media pages, including the Facebook group “Blacktivist.”
  • Russia’s digital campaign conducted reconnaissance missions to prepare for the election. Operatives from the IRA visited the U.S. as early as 2014 to prepare for the election, going to and collecting intelligence in Nevada, California, New Mexico, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Louisiana, Texas, New York, and Georgia.
  • Russia also used traditional propaganda outlets like Russia’s state-owned channels RT and Sputnik. These were used to elevate and amplify stories, spread disinformation, and to provide a platform for third-party candidates like Jill Stein.

The Hack

  • Russian intelligence engaged in a massive cyber hacking campaign, targeting 76 Clinton campaign staffers. Russian hackers conducted extensive cyberoperations during the 2016 election cycle. They stole information from both Democratic and Republican targets – but only released information on Democrats.
    • In April, Russian hackers breached DNC servers. They stole field operations research, DNC analytics, donor lists, and emails. Russian hackers were able to take screen shots and capture key strokes when DNC staff were at their computer.
  • Russia released some, but not all, of the stolen content through WikiLeaks in a manner designed to help Donald Trump.
    • The DNC emails were released on the Friday before the DNC convention, massively disrupting what was supposed to be a unifying event after a divisive primary.
    • John Podesta’s emails were leaked on a Friday afternoon, just 29 minutes after the release of the Access Hollywood video.

The Assets

Russia used its intelligence assets as part of its campaign, particularly to liaise with the Trump campaign. Some were clear Russian agents knowingly working on Russia’s behalf, while others with previously known links may have acted unwittingly.

  • The Trump campaign passed polling data to a suspected Russian intelligence agent. Konstantin Kilimnik was Paul Manafort’s right hand man and is suspected to have ties with Russian intelligence.
  • Maria Butina sought to infiltrate the NRA and connect with key Republican leaders. According to her guilty plea, Butina said “circumstances were favorable for building relations with” the GOP, predicting in 2015 that whoever the Republican nominee was would win the election.
  • The June 9th, 2016 meeting in Trump Tower that included Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner was also attended by Rinat Akhmetshin, a Washington lobbyist and alleged former Soviet counter-intelligence officer, as well as a Russian government lawyer with ties to the Russian Prosecutor General.
  • Joseph Mifsud, a “Maltese professor,” informed the Trump campaign in April 2016 that the Russians had “thousands of emails” and had “dirt” on Clinton.
  • A suspected Russian agent was on the Trump campaign. Carter Page, according to the FISA warrant released in the Nunes memo, was suspected by the FBI to be a Russian agent. He traveled to Moscow during the campaign, delivering a foreign policy speech that parroted Kremlin talking points.

These three lines of effort created a powerful and robust Russian campaign to elect Donald Trump. And there was no bright line separating the Russian campaign from the Trump campaign. They were in constant contact, with at least 28 meetings and more than 100 contacts between Trump officials and Kremlin-linked figures. Three years since the Podesta hack, the Trump administration’s inaction in response to such a massive attack on our democracy continues to be a national security risk.