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The Senate Intelligence Committee should be applauded for releasing the fifth and final volume on their investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. With over 200 witness interviews and roughly one million documents reviewed, the nearly 1000-page report documents in detail the comprehensive campaign conducted by Russian President Vladimir Putin and his proxies to seek influence within the Trump campaign, help President Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election, and amplify polarization and division within American society.
Far from a hoax, as the president so often claimed, the report reveals how the Trump campaign willingly engaged with Russian operatives implementing the influence effort
Far from a hoax, as the president so often claimed, the report reveals how the Trump campaign willingly engaged with Russian operatives implementing the influence effort. For instance, the report exposes interactions and information exchanged between Russian intelligence officer Konstantin Kilimnik and then-Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. According to the report, campaign figures “presented attractive targets for foreign influence, creating notable counterintelligence vulnerabilities.” (Manafort was later convicted of tax and bank fraud.)
Concluding one of the highest-profile congressional investigations in recent memory, the report also uncovers abuses within the U.S. government’s investigation of this operation. These methods require review and reform.
The bipartisan tone of the majority of the report, released by a committee chaired by Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, should be welcomed by all Americans who want our elected leaders to protect American sovereignty. National security should never be a partisan issue.
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Tragically, however, some of the most egregious practices from the 2016 presidential campaign and documented by the Senate investigation are repeating themselves in the 2020 presidential campaign. Once again, President Vladimir Putin wants Trump to win and appears to be seeking to undermine the legitimacy of our election. Just like in 2016, Putin has deployed his conventional media, his social media operations and his intelligence assets to pursue these objectives.
Most shockingly, Trump and his allies have decided to — again — play right along. Because waiting for criminal investigations or more congressional hearings will be too late, it will be up to American voters to decide when and how cooperation with foreign actors during a presidential election crosses the line. Trump activities to date are not appropriate.
On Aug. 7 of this year the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) warned about foreign interference in the 2020 election: “We assess that Russia is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment.’” The ODNI report noted that pro-Russia Ukrainian parliamentarian Andriy Derkach is spreading false claims about Biden as part of this effort. “Some Kremlin-linked actors are also seeking to boost President Trump’s candidacy on social media and Russian television,” it observed.
Instead of criticizing this behavior, however, Trump and his allies are amplifying and promoting Russian disinformation online. Perhaps most amazingly, Trump is circulating to his 85 million Twitter followers material provided by foreign actors designed to discredit Biden. Derkach — the pro-Russia Ukrainian oligarch — is reportedly providing these slanderous materials to Republicans, including Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa.
Johnson and Grassley have also defended the use of material from former Ukrainian diplomat Andriy Telizhenko, who is working with Rudy Guilani to spread a discrediting anti-Biden narrative. In fact, Johnson commented directly in an interview about his new investigation of U.S. intelligence activities during the Obama era, “I would think it would certainly help Donald Trump win reelection and certainly be pretty good… evidence about not voting for Vice President Biden.” Following public pressure and increasing tensions, the Senators released a statement publicly denying participating in the Russian disinformation campaign. Yet, it all feels like a replay of Nataliya Veselnitskaya’s mission to Trump headquarters in the summer of 2016 to provide “dirt” on then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton – only now, all in the open.
Amidst a patchwork of responses from the U.S. government and social media companies, many analysts and non-governmental organizations have become more skillful in tracking and aggressively countering disinformation operations. But exposure alone does not deter adversaries, nor does it stop the evolution of their tactics. Furthermore, divisions on race, religion, and immigration in the United States have only deepened in the past year. With China, Iran, and Venezuela now in the disinformation game, our current presidential election is, in some ways, already more chaotic than 2016.
After revelations about Russian interference in 2016, including the targeting of elections systems in all 50 states, American leaders concerned with defending our sovereignty and protecting our national security should have established a bipartisan commission – as they did after September 11, 2001 — to investigate all dimensions of external influence, including the Obama administration’s response. Trump opposed such a commission. Subsequently, Robert Mueller’s team at the Department of Justice was assigned the narrower assignment of investigating criminal activity, which they discovered along with at least 140 contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian nationals. Both Russians and Americans were indicted, some of whom are in jail today. But Mueller’s focus on criminal activity ignored counterintelligence threats that developed during 2016.
This final volume from the Senate Intelligence Committee has documented in greater detail the counterintelligence threats at stake. Now, the American voters must decide what is fair and honorable in political competition — and what is not.
It is wrong to solicit, let alone use, help from a foreign government to win an election. It is especially wrong to seek such assistance from an adversary like Russia, and to do so in a presidential election. We don’t need Putin’s help in choosing our president. We, the American voters, can do that on our own.
Trump’s campaign encouraged Putin’s help in 2016 and celebrated that assistance when it arrived, especially materials that were stolen by Russian intelligence officers and published by WikiLeaks. Putin violated American sovereignty — stealing private property, and then using it to help Trump and hurt Clinton.
When asked about these facts at a July 2018 press conference in Helsinki while standing next to Putin, Trump denied the findings of his — of our — own intelligence community, and instead defended the Russian autocrat. Trump has since remained loyal to Putin, not once criticizing him in public, and often undermining policies from his own administration to contain and deter Putin’s belligerent behavior abroad. Trump has refused to pledge that he will not accept foreign help this fall. When asked last year about accepting dirt from a foreign government on his electoral opponents, Trump bluntly stated, “I think I’d take it.”
In contrast, Biden has affirmed that his campaign will not use information or accept assistance provided by foreign actors, an act that our Stanford research team urged all presidential candidates take in our 2019 report on the integrity of U.S. elections. In addition, Biden has assured Americans that he would retaliate in response to any foreign interference.
Trump and Biden’s contrasting positions on Russian interference in American elections are clear. Whether voters care about these differences, however, is not as obvious. On Election Day, we will find out.
Michael McFaul is the director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. He is the author of “From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia.” He served as Special Assistant to the President at the National Security Council and as U.S. Ambassador to Russia in the Obama administration.
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