Dispatch January 28, 2020

Trump Will Cheat Again if He Is Not Removed

President Donald Trump is a repeat offender when it comes to seeking out and accepting foreign interference for personal gain. If the Senate fails to convict and remove him from office, there is no doubt that Trump will once again solicit the help of a foreign power to interfere in the United States’ democratic elections. And Russia is getting ready to interfere again. A vote to let Trump off is a vote that guarantees that when American democracy is attacked again, Trump will encourage it.

In 2016, Trump knowingly accepted assistance from a massive Russian interference campaign designed to help him win. Then, the day after special counsel Robert Mueller testified and it became clear that Trump would not be held accountable, Trump pressured another foreign government to help him politically. Weeks later, Trump said that he would gladly accept foreign interference. If he is not removed from office he will do it again.

Trump encouraged Russian interference in 2016.

  • On July 22, 2016, WikiLeaks began dumping emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee. When asked about reports that Russia was behind the theft, Trump famously replied, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing” from his opponent Hillary Clinton’s private email server. That very night, Russian intelligence operatives allegedly tried to do exactly that.
  • Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Trump was actively encouraging people on his campaign to “get the emails,” which led to his campaign creating a secret backchannel to WikiLeaks that they used to gain advance information about the remaining emails Russia had stolen.
  • In the closing days of the 2016 campaign, Trump leaned heavily on the emails Russia had stolen, citing WikiLeaks 164 times—an average of more than five times per day—during the final month of the campaign.
  • He and his team then did everything they could to obstruct the investigation by lying, deleting records of potentially incriminating conversations, and even firing the investigators, ensuring that the American people would never learn the truth of not only their perfidy but the Russians’ as well.

Trump pressured Ukraine the day after he realized he wouldn’t be held accountable for 2016.

  • On July 24, 2019, Mueller testified before Congress, where he detailed evidence of the Trump team’s efforts to capitalize on Russia’s hacking campaign and obstruct Mueller’s investigation. He also warned against allowing collusion to become “the new normal.”
  • The next day, Trump had his now-infamous call in which he demanded that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky “do us a favor” by opening investigations into Trump’s political opponents.
  • It’s clear from the partial transcript of the call that Trump felt emboldened by Congress’ lackluster response to Mueller’s testimony: In addition to raising a conspiracy theory with the aim of debunking Mueller’s entire investigation, Trump gloated on the call about Mueller’s “very poor” and “incompetent performance.”

Russia is already preparing to attack our 2020 election.

  • Several members of Trump’s own administration have warned that 2016 was not the end of the Russian interference campaign:
    • In January 2019, then-Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats warned that “foreign actors,” including Russia, “will view the 2020 U.S. elections as an opportunity to advance their interests … We expect them to refine their capabilities and add new tactics as they learn from each other’s experiences and efforts.”
    • Coats’s replacement Joseph Maguire described “maintain[ing] the integrity of our election system” against “foreign powers that are trying to get us to question the validity of whether or not our elections are valid,” including not only Russia but also China, as one of the “greatest challenge[s]” that the intelligence community faces.
    • In July 2019, FBI Director Chris Wray told the Senate Judiciary Committee, “The Russians are absolutely intent on trying to interfere with our elections,” adding that “until they stop they haven’t been deterred enough.”
    • Special Counsel Robert Mueller echoed Wray’s warning in his own testimony, telling Congress that Russia is “doing it as we sit here, and they expect to do it during the next campaign.”
  • The disinformation campaign may already be in full swing: As Bloomberg reported, the U.S. intelligence community has launched an investigation into Russia’s role in promoting the conspiracy theories about Joe Biden that led to the Ukraine scandal.
  • According to the web-analysis firm Graphika, that role appears to include mobilizing the same online networks that spread Russian disinformation in 2016 to spread debunked allegations theories about the Bidens and Ukrainian interference in 2016.
  • In addition, the Russian government has reportedly hacked into Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company at the center of Trump’s conspiracy theories, and into a media organization founded by Zelensky.

As The New York Times has reported, after some sloppy operational security in 2016—including paying for political ads using rubles and using computers geotagged to Russia—Russia is “refreshing” its procedures for 2020.

  • As The New York Times has reported, one of the two main units responsible for the hacks that derailed the 2016 election reportedly “abandoned its hacking infrastructure six months ago and has dropped off the radar,” while the other has shifted its operations to U.S.-based servers to evade intelligence agencies “which are limited by law to operating abroad.”
  • Meanwhile, bot and troll networks that once operated in a relatively exposed manner have reportedly moved to encrypted communications tools and devised workarounds, such as “paying American users to hand over personal pages and setting up offshore bank accounts to cover their financial tracks,” to evade detection.
  • Meanwhile, there’s growing concern that foreign intelligence agencies—not just Russia but also potential bad actors such as Iran, North Korea, and China—are employing tools such as ransomware to disrupt governments and “deepfakes” to deceive voters.

Trump and his top accomplice, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, are still doing almost nothing to protect our elections.

  • McConnell earned the nickname “Moscow Mitch” by spending years blocking any election-security legislation designed to deter foreign attacks from even coming to the floor in the Senate.
  • The total blockade finally ended when the Senate approved $250 million in election-security funding in September 2019, but by then, election-security experts were already warning that the efforts may be too little and too late to significantly deter Russia (or any other sufficiently motivated country) from attacking American democracy.
  • Even without the added stress of attacks from hostile foreign governments, America’s election infrastructure is already vulnerable: During an election in Pennsylvania last year, faulty voting machines led to problems with initial vote counts. Pennsylvania is one of several states that’s still scrambling to implement paper backups and other necessary upgrades in advance of the 2020 election.

Even if the national-security community wants to deter Russian aggression, Trump won’t let them do their jobs.

  • Even as his top advisers have warned about possible interference, Trump’s own behavior has almost certainly encouraged Russia to attack again:
    • He’s expressed displeasure at the prospect of sanctioning Russia for its attack on the 2016 election—including reportedly to two of Russia’s top diplomats in the Oval Office in May 2017—and has undermined the sanctions that Congress has put in place.
    • He’s called into question the confirmed fact that Russia attacked U.S. democracy in 2016, most memorably at his joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, where he seemed to accept Putin’s denial and said he didn’t “see any reason why it would be” Russia that launched the attack. (The administration subsequently claimed that Trump misspoke.)
  • Meanwhile, Trump is happily pushing the Kremlin’s disinformation, promoting debunked conspiracy theories about Ukrainian interference that appear to have reached him through the indicted suspected Russian intelligence operative Konstantin Kilimnik. 

Trump has opened the door for foreign interference in American elections.

  • In 2016, Trump’s campaign opened the door for Russia’s attack, setting up backchannels to exploit stolen emails for personal political benefit and talking about WikiLeaks 164 times in the election’s final month, despite the intelligence community’s warnings that the Kremlin was behind the hacks.
  • Trump’s impeachment stems from his efforts to solicit—or, if necessary, extort—interference from Ukraine, demanding Zelensky announce investigations into Trump’s political opponents in advance of the 2020 election.
  • And Trump has even explicitly stated on national television that he’d happily accept dirt on an opponent from a foreign government that offered it, and wouldn’t necessarily alert law enforcement or the intelligence community afterward. And he’s called on China to investigate his political opponent as well.

The 2016 election showed that foreign interference can work. WikiLeaks’s dumps of stolen emails, which Trump repeatedly helped amplify, generated seemingly endless news cycles against Hillary Clinton. Meanwhile, as Professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson, one of the world’s leading experts on how campaign messaging works, wrote in Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President, the evidence strongly suggests that Russia’s efforts to boost Trump reached—and could have persuaded—an audience of millions in an election decided by fewer than 80,000 votes.

Trump has already shown that he’s desperate for foreign assistance in the 2020 election, extorting the Ukrainian government (which remains at war with Russia) to announce investigations into Trump’s political opponents. Every Senator who votes against conviction and removal is giving a green light to another attack on U.S. democracy.