Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections
The Russian government interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election to increase political instability in the United States and to damage Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign by bolstering the candidacies of Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein. A January 2017 assessment by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) stated that Russian leadership favored presidential candidate Trump over Clinton, and that Russian president Vladimir Putin personally ordered an "influence campaign" to harm Clinton's chances and "undermine public faith in the US democratic process".:7
On October 7, 2016, the ODNI and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) jointly stated that the U.S. Intelligence Community was confident that the Russian Government directed recent hacking of emails with the intention of interfering with the U.S. election process. The Russian military intelligence service (GRU) hacked the servers of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the personal Google email account of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta and forwarded their contents to WikiLeaks.:ii-iii,2 Although Russian officials have repeatedly denied involvement in any DNC hacks or leaks, there is strong forensic evidence linking the DNC breach to known Russian operations. In January 2017, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified that Russia also interfered in the elections by disseminating fake news promoted on social media. On July 13, 2018, 12 Russian military intelligence agents were indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller for allegedly hacking the email accounts and networks of Democratic Party officials.
On October 31, 2016, President Barack Obama warned Putin via the "red phone" to stop interfering or face consequences. In December 2016, Obama ordered a report on hacking efforts aimed at U.S. elections since 2008, while U.S. Senators called for a bipartisan investigation. President-elect Trump rejected claims of foreign interference and said that Democrats were reacting to their election loss. On December 29, 2016, the Obama Administration expelled 35 Russian diplomats, denied access to two Russia-owned compounds, and broadened existing sanctions on Russian entities and individuals. More sanctions were imposed against Russia by the Trump administration in March 2018, and on April 6, 2018, the Trump administration brought another new round of sanctions against Russia, targeting several oligarchs and high-ranking Russian officials. In June 2018, the United States Department of the Treasury implemented new sanctions on several Russian entities and officials in connection to cyberattacks by Russia related to the 2016 election interference. Several countries in the European Union have also pursued a sanctions regime against Russia, accusing the state of supporting terrorism and interfering in their own elections.
Investigations about Russian influence on the election include a counter-intelligence investigation by the FBI, hearings by the Senate Intelligence Committee and the House Intelligence Committee, and inquiries about possible links and financial ties between the Kremlin and Trump associates, notably targeting Paul Manafort, Carter Page and Roger Stone. On May 9, 2017, Trump dismissed FBI Director James Comey, citing in part dissatisfaction with suspicions of his presidency because of "this Russia thing". On May 17, Deputy Attorney General, and Acting Attorney General for this investigation Rod Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as Special Counsel to oversee the investigation.
In a testimony on February 13, 2018, before the Senate Intelligence Committee, the heads of the top six American intelligence agencies unanimously reaffirmed Russian interference. Three sources familiar with Trump's thinking told CNN he remains unconvinced that Russia interfered because it suggests he did not win the election solely on his own merits. As of June 2018, at least 11 Trump associates or officials have admitted to having contacts with Russians during the campaign or transition.
Prior Russian election interference in the Ukraine
Pro-Russian hackers launched a series of cyberattacks over several days to disrupt the May 2014 Ukrainian presidential election, releasing hacked emails, attempting to alter vote tallies, and delaying the final result with distributed denial-of-service attacks. Malware that would have displayed a graphic declaring far-right candidate Dmytro Yarosh the electoral winner was removed from Ukraine's Central Election Commission less than an hour before polls closed. Despite this, Channel One Russia falsely reported that Mr. Yarosh had won, fabricating a fake graphic from the election commission's website. Political scientist Peter Ordeshook said in 2017, "These faked results were geared for a specific audience in order to feed the Russian narrative that has claimed from the start that ultra-nationalists and Nazis were behind the revolution in Ukraine." The same Sofacy malware used in the Central Election Commission hack was later found on the servers of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Around the same time as Russia's attempt to hack the 2014 elections in 2014, the Obama administration received a report suggesting that that the Kremlin was building a disinformation program that could be used to interfere in Western politics.
Motivation of Putin
The U.S. intelligence community, in a joint January 6, 2017, declassified report, stated that Russian President Vladimir Putin wished to retaliate against Hillary Clinton as he blamed her for the 2011–2012 mass protests in Russia against him.:11 On March 20, 2017, FBI Director James Comey testified that Putin disliked Clinton and preferred her opponent. Putin repeatedly accused Clinton, who served as U.S. Secretary of State from 2009 to 2013, of interfering in Russia's internal affairs, and in December 2016, Clinton accused Putin of having a personal grudge against her. Michael McFaul, who was U.S. ambassador to Russia, said that the operation could be a retaliation by Putin against Clinton. Russian security expert Andrei Soldatov has said, "[The Kremlin] believes that with Clinton in the White House it will be almost impossible to lift sanctions against Russia. So it is a very important question for Putin personally. This is a question of national security."
U.S. Counter-disinformation team
The United States Department of State planned to use a unit formed with the intention of combating disinformation from the Russian government, but it was disbanded in September 2015 after department heads missed the scope of propaganda before the 2016 U.S. election. The unit had been in development for 8 months prior to being scrapped. Titled the Counter-Disinformation Team, it would have been a reboot of the Active Measures Working Group set up by the Reagan Administration. It was created under the Bureau of International Information Programs. Work began in 2014, with the intention of countering propaganda from Russian sources such as TV network RT (formerly called Russia Today). A beta website was ready, and staff were hired by the U.S. State Department for the unit prior to its cancellation. U.S. Intelligence officials explained to former National Security Agency analyst and counterintelligence officer John R. Schindler that the Obama Administration decided to cancel the unit, as they were afraid of antagonizing Russia. A State Department representative told the International Business Times after being contacted regarding the closure of the unit, that the U.S. was disturbed by propaganda from Russia, and the strongest defense was sincere communication. U.S. Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Richard Stengel was the point person for the unit before it was canceled. Stengel had written in 2014 that RT was engaged in a disinformation campaign about Ukraine.
Russian actors and operations
In December 2016, two senior intelligence officials told U.S. news media[Note 1] that they were highly confident that Vladimir Putin personally directed the operation to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. They said Putin's motives were a vendetta against Hillary Clinton and the desire to foment global distrust of the U.S. They stated that Putin became personally involved after Russia accessed the DNC computers, because such an operation required high-level government approval. U.S. officials said that under Putin's direction, the goals evolved from criticizing American democracy to attacking Clinton, and by the fall of 2016 to directly helping Trump's campaign, because Putin thought Trump would ease economic sanctions. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest and Obama foreign policy advisor and speechwriter Ben Rhodes agreed with this assessment, with Rhodes saying operations of this magnitude required Putin's consent.
Russian officials have strongly denied the allegations each time they surfaced. In June 2016, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied any connection of Russia to the DNC hacks. In December 2016, when U.S. intelligence officials publicly accused Putin of being directly involved in the covert operation, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said he was "astonished" by this "nonsense".
In January 2017, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, representing the work of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Security Agency (NSA), published the following assessment:
President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia's goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. We have high confidence in these judgments.:7
In June 2017, Putin told journalists that "patriotically minded" Russian hackers may have been responsible for the cyberattacks against the U.S. during the election campaign. Putin continued to deny any government involvement.
Social media and internet trolls
Russian use of social media to disseminate propaganda content extended beyond Facebook and Twitter to (among other sites) Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Medium, YouTube, Vine, and Google+, with Instagram being by far the most used platform, and one that through 2018 had largely remained out of the public eye.
Advertisements bought by Russian operatives for the Facebook social media site are estimated to have reached 10 million users. But many more Facebook users were contacted by accounts created by Russian actors. 470 Facebook accounts are known to have been created by Russians during the 2016 campaign. Of those accounts six generated content that was shared at least 340 million times, according to research done by Jonathan Albright, research director for Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. Russian activity on Instagram was comparable to or greater than that on on Facebook. The most strident Internet promoters of Trump were paid Russian propagandists/trolls, who were estimated by The Guardian to number several thousand. (By 2017 the U.S. news media was focusing on the Russian operations on Facebook and Twitter and Russian operatives moved on to Instagram.)
Russian propaganda fabricated articles were popularized by social media. Disinformation spread from government-controlled outlets, RT and Sputnik to pro-Russian accounts on Twitter. Citing research by Adrian Chen, they compared Russian tactics during the 2016 U.S. election to Soviet Union Cold War strategies. They referenced the 1992 United States Information Agency report to the U.S. Congress, which warned about Russian propaganda called active measures. They wrote active measures were made easier with social media. Institute of International Relations Prague senior fellow and scholar on Russian intelligence, Mark Galeotti, agreed the Kremlin operations were a form of active measures.
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In a follow-up article, together with colleague J. M. Berger, Weisburd and Watts said they had monitored 7,000 pro-Trump social media accounts over a two-and-a-half year period, and found that such accounts denigrated critics of Russian activities in Syria and propagated falsehoods about Clinton's health. Watts said Russian propaganda is aimed at a right wing and fascist audience, and in America works to foment "dissent or conspiracies against the US government and its institutions". Watts' findings cited Russian propaganda that exacerbated criticism of Clinton and support for Trump, via social media, Internet trolls, botnets, and websites.
Professor Philip N. Howard of the University of Oxford found that about one half of all news on Twitter directed at Michigan prior to the election was junk or fake. (The other half came from real news sources.)
Facebook originally denied that fake news on their platform had influenced the election and had insisted it was unaware of any Russian-financed advertisements but later admitted that about 126 million Americans may have seen posts published by Russia-based operatives. Criticized for failing to stop fake news from spreading on its platform during the 2016 election, Facebook originally thought that the fake-news problem could be solved by engineering, but on May 2017 it announced plans to hire 3,000 content reviewers.
According to an analysis by Buzzfeed, the “20 top-performing false election stories from hoax sites and hyperpartisan blogs generated 8,711,000 shares, reactions, and comments on Facebook.” In September 2017, Facebook told congressional investigators it had discovered that hundreds of fake accounts linked to a Russian troll farm had bought $100,000 in advertisements targeting the 2016 U.S. election audience. The ads, which ran between June 2015 and May 2017, primarily focused on divisive social issues; roughly 25% were geographically targeted. Facebook has also turned over information about the Russian-related ad buys to Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Approximately 3,000 adverts were involved, and these were viewed by between four and five million Facebook users prior to the election. On November 1, 2017, the House Intelligence Committee released a sample of Facebook ads and pages that had been financially linked to the Internet Research Agency, a Russian company with ties to the Kremlin.
According to a February 2018 criminal indictment, more than two years before the election, two Russian women obtained visas for what turned out to be a three-week reconnaissance tour of the United States, including battleground states such as Colorado, Michigan, Nevada and New Mexico, to gather intelligence on American politics. Another Russian operative visited Atlanta in November 2014 on a similar mission. Hundreds of email, PayPal and bank accounts and fraudulent driver's licenses were created for fictitious Americans, sometimes unknowing real Americans whose Social Security numbers had been stolen, in order to establish American identities for individuals and groups within specific social media communities.
Intrusions into state voter-registration systems
As early as June 2016, the FBI sent a warning to states about "bad actors" probing state-elections systems to seek vulnerabilities. In September 2016, FBI Director James Comey testified before the House Judiciary Committee that the FBI was investigating Russian hackers attempting to disrupt the 2016 election and that federal investigators had detected hacker-related activities in state voter-registration databases, which independent assessments determined were soft targets for hackers. Comey stated there were multiple attempts to hack voter database registrations. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper attributed Russian hacking attempts to Vladimir Putin.
In August 2016, the FBI issued a nationwide "flash alert" warning state election officials about hacking attempts. In September 2016, U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials and the National Association of Secretaries of State announced that hackers had penetrated, or sought to penetrate, the voter-registration systems in more than 20 states over the previous few months. Federal investigators attributed these attempts to Russian government-sponsored hackers, and specifically to Russian intelligence agencies. Four of the intrusions into voter registration databases were successful, including intrusions into the Illinois and Arizona databases. Although the hackers did not appear to change or manipulate data, Illinois officials said that information on up to 200,000 registered voters was stolen. The FBI and DHS increased their election-security coordination efforts with state officials as a result. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson reported that 18 states had requested voting-system security assistance from DHS. The department also offered risk assessments to the states, but just four states expressed interest, as the election was rapidly approaching. The reports of the database intrusions prompted alarm from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, who wrote to the FBI saying foreign attempts to cast doubt on free and fair elections was a danger to democracy not seen since the Cold War.
On September 22, 2017, federal authorities notified the election officials of 21 states that their election systems had been targeted. Over a year after the initial warnings, this was the first official confirmation many state governments received that their states specifically had been targeted. However, top elections officials of the states of Wisconsin and California have rebutted the federal claim. California Secretary of State Alex Padilla stated that "California voters can further rest assured that the California Secretary of State elections infrastructure and websites were not hacked or breached by Russian cyber actors". "Our notification from DHS last Friday was not only a year late, it also turned out to be bad information".
In May 2018, the Senate Intelligence Committee released its interim report on election security. The committee concluded, on a bipartisan basis, that the response of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to Russian government-sponsored efforts to undermine confidence in the U.S. voting process was "inadequate". The committee reported that the Russian government was able to penetrate election systems in at least 18, and possibly up to 21, states, and that in a smaller subset of states, infiltrators "could have altered or deleted voter registration data," although they lacked the ability to manipulate individual votes or vote tallies. The committee wrote that the infiltrators' failure to exploit vulnerabilities in election systems could have been because they "decided against taking action" or because "they were merely gathering information and testing capabilities for a future attack". To prevent future infiltrations, the committee made a number of recommendations, including that "at a minimum, any machine purchased going forward should have a voter-verified paper trail and no WiFi capability".
Cyberattack and email leaks
Starting in March 2016, the Russian military intelligence agency (“GRU”) sent “spearphishing” emails targeted more than 300 individuals affiliated with the Democratic Party or the Clinton campaign, according to the Special Counsel's 13 July 2018 Indictment. Using malware to explore the computer networks of the DNC and DCCC, they harvested numerous documents and deleted computer logs and files to obscure evidence of their activities.
During the three months before the 2016 election, tens of thousands of the stolen emails and attachments were released in stages to the public. Some were released strategically to distract the public from media events that were either beneficial to the Clinton campaign or harmful to Trump's. The first tranche of 19,000 emails and 8,000 attachments was released on July 22, 2016, three days before the Democratic convention. The resulting news coverage created the impression that the Democratic National Committee was biased against Clinton's Democratic primary challenger Bernie Sanders and forced DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz to resign disrupting the plans of the Clinton campaign. A second tranche was released on October 7, a few hours after the Obama Administration released a statement by the Department of Homeland Security and the director of National Intelligence accusing the Russian government of interfering in the election through hacking, and just 29 minutes after The Washington Post reported on the Access Hollywood videotape where Trump boasted about grabbing women “by the pussy”. The stolen documents effectively distracted media and voter attention from both stories.
Stolen emails and documents were given both platforms they created — a website called DCLeaks and a lone-hacker persona called Guccifer 2.0 — and to wikileaks. (The Russians registered the domain dcleaks.com, using principally Bitcoin to pay for the domain and the hosting.)
- Podesta hack
John Podesta, Chairman of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, received an email on March 19, 2016, alerting him of a "compromise in the system". The Google alert prompted him to change his password "immediately" by clicking on a link. Podesta later said an IT employee mistakenly told his assistant that the email was "legitimate", when in fact he meant to write "illegitimate". Upon clicking the phishing email, Russian hackers were able to access around 60,000 emails from Podesta's private account.
John Podesta, in an interview with Meet the Press on December 18, 2016, claimed that the FBI spoke to him only once regarding his hacked emails. When asked about when he was aware his emails had been taken, Podesta said, "In one of those DNC documents that appeared to me ... that might have came from my account. ... So I wasn't sure. I didn't know what they had, what they didn't have. It wasn't until October 7 when [WikiLeaks' Julian] Assange ... started dumping them out and said they would all dump out, that's when I knew that they had the contents of my email account."
On October 7, 2016, less than an hour after The Washington Post released the Donald Trump and Billy Bush recording Access Hollywood tape, WikiLeaks announced on Twitter that it was in possession of 50,000 of Podesta's emails. It initially released 2,050 of these. The Clinton campaign did not confirm or deny the authenticity of the emails. Senior national spokesman for the Clinton campaign, Glen Caplin, said: "We are not going to confirm the authenticity of stolen documents released by Julian Assange [of WikiLeaks] who has made no secret of his desire to damage Hillary Clinton. Guccifer 2.0 has already proven the warnings of top national security officials that documents can be faked as part of a sophisticated Russian misinformation campaign." US intelligence officials said the hackers gave the email cache to WikiLeaks. The cache included emails containing transcripts of Clinton's paid speeches to Wall Street banks, controversial comments from staffers about Catholic voters, infighting among employees of the Clinton campaign, as well as potential Vice-Presidential picks for Clinton.
On October 8, the US government formally accused Russia of hacking the DNC's computer networks to interfere in the 2016 US Presidential Election with the help of organizations like WikiLeaks. The Department Of Homeland Security and Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Election Security claimed in their joint statement, "The recent disclosures of alleged hacked e-mails on sites like DCLeaks.com and WikiLeaks and by the Guccifer 2.0 online persona are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts." This was corroborated by a January 6, 2017 report released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), in conjunction with the CIA, the FBI, and the NSA.
- DNC hack
In June 2016, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) first stated that the Russian hacker groups Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear had penetrated their campaign servers and leaked information via the Guccifer 2.0 online persona. Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigned as DNC chairwoman following the release of e-mails by WikiLeaks that showed DNC officials discussing Bernie Sanders and his presidential campaign in a derisive and derogatory manner.
On July 25, 2016, the FBI announced that it would investigate the hack of the Democratic National Committee emails, following the publication on July 22 of a large number of the emails by WikiLeaks.
- Forensic analysis of DNC attack
In June and July 2016, cybersecurity experts and firms, including CrowdStrike, Fidelis, FireEye, Mandiant, SecureWorks, Symantec and ThreatConnect, stated the DNC email leaks were part of a series of cyberattacks on the DNC committed by two Russian intelligence groups, called Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear, also known respectively as APT28 and APT29 / The Dukes. ThreatConnect also noted possible links between the DC Leaks project and Russian intelligence operations because of a similarity with Fancy Bear attack patterns. SecureWorks added that the actor group was operating from Russia on behalf of the Russian government. de Volkskrant later reported that Dutch intelligence agency AIVD had penetrated the Russian hacking group Cozy Bear in 2014 and in 2015 observed them hack the DNC in real time, as well as capturing the images of the hackers via a security camera in their workspace. American, British, and Dutch intelligence services had also observed stolen DNC emails on Russian military intelligence networks.
- Intelligence reaction and indictment
On October 7, 2016, Secretary Johnson and Director Clapper issued a joint statement that the intelligence community is confident the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from U.S. persons and institutions, including from U.S. political organizations, and that the disclosures of alleged hacked e-mails on sites like DCLeaks.com and WikiLeaks are consistent with the Russian-directed efforts. The statement also noted that the Russians have used similar tactics and techniques across Europe and Eurasia to influence public opinion there.
In the July 2018 indictment by the Justice Department of twelve Russian GRU intelligence officials posing as "a Guccifer 2.0 persona" for conspiring to interfere in the 2016 elections was for hacking into computers of the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee, (as well as for hacking state election boards and secretaries of several states). The indictment describes "a sprawling and sustained cyberattack on at least three hundred people connected to the Democratic Party and the Clinton campaign". The leaked stolen files were released “in stages,” a tactic wreaking "havoc on the Democratic Party throughout much of the election season.”
One collection of data that hackers obtained and that observers believe may have been a "devastating weapon" against the Clinton campaign was the campaign's data analytics and voter-turnout models, which gave the Russian agents what they needed to "target the messaging” of “key constituencies" that Clinton needed to mobilize if she was to win the election. Clinton campaign data indicated that by late summer of 2016, there were a high number Democratic voters were so unhappy with Clinton they were considering voting for a third-party candidate. These voters would and could have been susceptible to social media campaigns bombarding them with negative information about Clinton.
In April 2017, CIA Director Mike Pompeo stated WikiLeaks was a hostile intelligence agency aided by foreign states including Russia, and said that the U.S. Intelligence Community concluded that Russia's "propaganda outlet" RT, had conspired with WikiLeaks.
WikiLeaks claims that the Russian government was not the source of the material. However, the CIA has said Russian officials (who the CIA have identified) transferred the hacked e-mails to WikiLeaks using "a circuitous route", that started with Russia's military intelligence services (GRU) went through third parties and ended with WikiLeaks.
- Targeting of Congressional candidates
Hillary Clinton was not the only democrat attacked. Caches of Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee documents stolen by "Guccifer 2.0" were also released to reporters and bloggers around the U.S. As one Democratic candidate put it, "Our entire internal strategy plan was made public, and suddenly all this material was out there and could be used against me." The New York Times noted, "The seats that Guccifer 2.0 targeted in the document dumps were hardly random: They were some of the most competitive House races in the country."
- Republicans and hacking
The RNC said there was no intrusion into its servers, while acknowledging email accounts of individual Republicans (including Colin Powell) were breached. Over 200 emails from Colin Powell were posted on the website DC Leaks. 
- Civil DNC lawsuit against Russian Federation
On April 20, 2018, the Democratic National Committee filed a civil lawsuit in federal court in New York, accusing the Russian Government, the Trump campaign, WikiLeaks, and others of conspiracy to alter the course of the 2016 presidential election and asking for monetary damages and a declaration admitting guilt. The lawsuit was dismissed by the judge, because New York "does not recognize the specific tort claims pressed in the suit"; the judge did not make a finding on whether there was or was not "collusion between defendants and Russia during the 2016 presidential election".
- Calls by Trump for Russians to hack Clinton's deleted emails
At a news conference on July 27, 2016, Trump publicly called on Russia to hack and release Hillary Clinton's deleted emails from her private server during her tenure in the State Department.
Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing, I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.— Donald J. Trump
Trump's comment was condemned by the press and political figures, including some Republicans; he replied that he had been speaking sarcastically. Several Democratic Senators said Trump's comments appeared to violate the Logan Act, and Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe added that Trump's call could be treasonous.
The July 2018 federal indictment of Russian GRU agents said that the first attempt by Russian hackers to infiltrate the computer servers inside Clinton’s offices took place on the same day (July 27, 2016) Trump made his "Russia if your listening" appeal. While no direct link with Trump’s remark was alleged in the indictment, journalist Jane Mayer called the timing "striking".
Russian Institute for Strategic Studies
In April 2017, Reuters cited several U.S. officials as saying that the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISS), which had until January 2017 been headed by a retired SVR general Leonid Petrovich Reshetnikov, had developed a strategy to sway the U.S. election to Donald Trump; in October 2016, when a conclusion was made that Hillary Clinton was likely to win, the strategy was modified and aimed at undermining U.S. voters′ faith in the electoral system. The development of strategy was allegedly ordered by Putin and directed by former officers of Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). The Institute had been a part of the SVR until 2009, whereafter it has worked for the Russian Presidential Administration.
Unidentified U.S. officials have said the propaganda efforts began in March 2016. The first set of recommendations, issued in June 2016, proposed that Russia must support a candidate for U.S. president more favorable to Russia than Obama had been via a social media campaign and through Russia-backed news outlets. The second report was written in October 2016 when a Clinton win appeared likely. It allegedly advocated messages about voter fraud in order to undermine the legitimacy of the U.S. electoral system and a Clinton presidency. RISS director Mikhail Fradkov and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied the allegations.
Targeting of important voting blocs and institutions
In her analysis of the Russian influence on the 2016 election, Kathleen Hall Jamieson argues that the Russian cyberwar was aligned with the Trump campaign and "the campaign’s geographic and demographic objectives", such as targeting certain constituencies.
Attempts to suppress African American votes and spread alienation
Russia's influence campaign devoted an "disproportionate" and "extraordinary" effort in trying to influence Black Americans, using an array of tactics aiming to reduce their vote for Hillary Clinton, as part of a broader ploy to exacerbate divisions within the US, according to a December 2018 report commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee.
While the Russian IRA focused on the culture of Muslims, Christians, Texas, and even LGBTQ, in their work, no other group received as much attention as black Americans. 30 Facebook pages targeting black Americans and 10 YouTube channels that posted 571 videos related to police violence against African-Americans.) Ads were targeted at users who had expressed interest in Black history, the Black Panther party, and Malcolm X. Content was spread via Facebook groups, YouTube channels including "Don't Shoot" and "Black To Live", Instagram accounts and websites including blacksoul.us, blackmattersus.com and blacktivist.info.
The covertly Russian Instagram account @blackstagram had over 300,000 followers. Of the known Facebook pages targeting African Americans, they amassed a total of 1.2 million individual followers, the report found. Overall the effect of the operation remains unclear; Black voter turnout declined for the first time in 20 years but this doesn't exclude the possibility of other causes for that decline. The Facebook page for (the Russian) Blacktivist, garnered more hits than Black Lives Matter's (non-Russian) Facebook page.
Influence operations included recruiting typically unknowing assets who would stage events and spread content from Russian influencers, spreading videos of police abuse, spreading misleading information about how to vote (including telling viewers of ads that they could avoid lines at polling places by voting by tweet or text) and spreading views that not voting or otherwise voting for Jill Stein was in the best interest of the Black community. These efforts are held to echo previous Soviet and Russian strategies of undermining foreign countries within by spreading ethnic strife.
Many of the operations to influence the Black community currently remain active.
Alienating other voters from Clinton
Among the information the Russian hackers stole from the Clinton campaign was its data analytics and voter-turnout models, including the fact that by late summer of 2016, in traditionally Blue (Democratic) states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania there were a high number voters who usually voted Democratic that were so unhappy with Clinton they were considering voting for a third-party candidate. While the Clinton Campaign had a plan to win back these voters, Russian agents in possession of the data knew that all they needed to do was to keep these voters alienated from Clinton (according to political scientist Kathleen Hall Jamieson) -- something the Russian's aggressive negative social media campaign against Clinton would certainly facilitate. In the end Clinton lost Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin to Trump -- giving him enough electoral college votes to win the election. Trump won the states by a very narrow margin -- a total of 80,000 votes -- a number much smaller than the 680,000 votes cast for third-party candidates in the three states. Jane Mayer writes that if only 12% of the third-party voters in the three states "were persuaded by Russian propaganda—based on hacked Clinton-campaign analytics—not to vote for Clinton", this would have been enough to win the election for Trump.
Russia developed seven pages on social media that focused specifically on the political left and drew 689,045 followers. The pages attacked Clinton and promoted Senator Bernie Sanders and Green Party candidate Jill Stein.
Arousing conservative voters
As the Black Lives Matter movement moved to the center of public attention in the America, sparking a pro-police reaction, Russian operatives added Blue Lives Matter material to social media platforms. 25 pages drawing 1.4 million followers targeted the political right and promoting the Trump candidacy were created by Russian sources.
Attempts to win over churchgoers and military families
In her analysis of the Russian influence on the 2016 election, Kathleen Hall Jamieson noted there was reason to believe Donald Trump would under-perform among two normally dependable Republican voting blocs -- churchgoing Christians and military service members and their families. It was thought pious Christians were put off by Trump's lifestyle as a Manhattan socialite not known for any religious beliefs who had been married three times and had boasted of groping women; military personnel might lack enthusiasm for a candidate who avoided service in Vietnam  but described himself as a "brave soldier" having to face his "personal Vietnam" of the threat of STD, and who mocked of Gold Star parents and former prisoner of war John McCain.
Jamieson observed that during the campaign Russian trolls appeared promoting Biblical memes, `including one that showed Clinton as Satan, with budding horns, arm-wrestling with Jesus, alongside the message “ ‘Like’ if you want Jesus to win!”` An image on Instagram of an American widow "resting her head on a flag-draped coffin" appeared with a post alleging Clinton's indifference to 2012 attack in Benghazi; another showed a "thin homeless veteran" alongside a heavyset, dark-skinned man "wearing an `undocumented unafraid unapologetic` T-shirt", and asked why “this veteran gets nothing” and “this illegal gets everything.” CNN exit polls for the presidential election showed Trump led Clinton among veterans by 26%, and got a higher percentage of the evangelical vote than either of the two previous Republican presidential nominees, indicating that this targeting may have succeeded.
Influence on FBI investigation of email server
In July 2016, James Comey, then head of the FBI, denounced Clinton and her staff for being "extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information" concerning e-mails that Clinton had mishandled while serving as Obama’s Secretary of State. Just ten days before the election, Comey, reopened the investigation after more Clinton e-mails had been found (she was cleared again seven days later). Clinton's poll numbers dropped after Comey reopened the investigation and Clinton herself blamed her defeat on Comey's action.
Adam Schiff, the Ranking Democrat of the House intelligence committee has called Comey's actions “probably the most measurable” and “the most significant way in which the Russians may have impacted the outcome of the election.” Political scientist Kathleen Hall Jamieson has argued that Comey's behavior concerning the Clinton email server could plausibly be attributed to disinformation from Russian agents. Comey's public statement did not follow FBI protocol (usually the FBI makes no public statement when it ends an investigation with no charges) and was made without the approval of Attorney General Loretta Lynch. His behavior was later described by the inspector general of the Justice Department as “extraordinary and insubordinate.” Comey, however, believed it to be justified based in part on classified information alleging that Lynch sent emails to a member of the Clinton team, in which Lynch promised that she would go easy on Clinton. According to journalist Jane Mayer, Comey reportedly told aides that he let the disinformation affect his decision to sideline Lynch. The information later turned out to be unverified Russian intelligence. A former Clinton-campaign spokesman, Nick Merrill, has said that the intelligence impugning Lynch was forged by the Russians. "But Comey based major decisions in the Justice Department on Russian disinformation because of the optics of it!" Merrill said. "The Russians targeted the F.B.I., hoping they'd act on it, and then he went ahead and did so."
Intelligence analysis and reports
In part because U.S. agencies cannot surveil U.S. citizens without a warrant, the U.S. was slow to recognize a pattern itself. From late 2015 until the summer of 2016, during routine surveillance of Russians, several countries discovered interactions between the Trump campaign and Moscow. The UK, Germany, Estonia, Poland, and Australia (and possibly the Netherlands and France) relayed their discoveries to the U.S.
Because the materials were highly sensitive, GCHQ director Robert Hannigan contacted CIA director John O. Brennan directly to give him information. Concerned, Brennan gave classified briefings to U.S. Congress' "Gang of Eight" during late August and September 2016. Referring only to intelligence allies and not to specific sources, Brennan told the Gang of Eight that he had received evidence that Russia might be trying to help Trump win the U.S. election. It was later revealed that the CIA had obtained intelligence from "sources inside the Russian government" that stated that Putin gave direct orders to disparage Clinton and help Trump.
On May 23, 2017, Brennan stated to the House Intelligence Committee that Russia "brazenly interfered" in the 2016 U.S. elections. He said that he first picked up on Russia's active meddling "last summer", and that he had on August 4, 2016, warned his counterpart at Russia's FSB intelligence agency, Alexander Bortnikov, against further interference.
October 2016 ODNI / DHS joint statement
At the Aspen security conference in summer 2016, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said that Vladimir Putin wanted to retaliate against perceived U.S. intervention in Russian affairs with the 2011–13 Russian protests and the ousting of Viktor Yanukovych in the 2014 Ukraine crisis. In July 2016, consensus grew within the CIA that Russia had hacked the DNC. In a joint statement on October 7, 2016, the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence expressed confidence that Russia had interfered in the presidential election by stealing emails from politicians and U.S. groups and publicizing the information. On December 2, intelligence sources told CNN they had gained confidence that Russia's efforts were aimed at helping Trump win the election.
December 2016 CIA report
On December 9, the CIA told U.S. legislators the U.S. Intelligence Community had concluded, in a consensus view, that Russia conducted operations to assist Donald Trump in winning the presidency, stating that "individuals with connections to the Russian government", previously known to the intelligence community, had given WikiLeaks hacked emails from the DNC and John Podesta. The agencies further stated that Russia had hacked the RNC as well, but did not leak information obtained from there. These assessments were based on evidence obtained before the election.
In May 2016 the Donald Trump campaign foreign policy advisor, George Papadopoulos, disclosed to Alexander Downer in Kensington Wine Rooms, a London wine bar, his inside knowledge of a large trove of Hillary Clinton emails that could potentially damage her presidential campaign, which in turn led to the opening of the FBI investigation into the Russian interference in the 2016 United States Presidential Election.
In June 2016, the FBI notified the Illinois Republican Party that some of its email accounts may have been hacked. In December 2016, an FBI official stated that Russian attempts to access the RNC server were unsuccessful. In an interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, RNC chair Reince Priebus stated they communicated with the FBI when they learned about the DNC hacks, and a review determined their servers were secure. On January 10, 2017, FBI Director James Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Russia succeeded in "collecting some information from Republican-affiliated targets but did not leak it to the public".
On October 31, 2016, The New York Times stated that the FBI had been examining possible connections between the Trump campaign and Russia, but did not find any clear links. At the time, FBI officials thought Russia was motivated to undermine confidence in the U.S. political process rather than specifically support Trump. During a House Intelligence Committee hearing in early December, the CIA said it was certain of Russia's intent to help Trump. On December 16, 2016, CIA Director John O. Brennan sent a message to his staff saying he had spoken with FBI Director James Comey and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and that all agreed with the CIA's conclusion that Russia interfered in the presidential election with the motive of supporting Donald Trump's candidacy.
On December 29, 2016, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released an unclassified report that gave new technical details regarding methods used by Russian intelligence services for affecting the U.S. election, government, political organizations and private sector.
The report included malware samples and other technical details as evidence that the Russian government had hacked the Democratic National Committee. Alongside the report, DHS published Internet Protocol addresses, malware, and files used by Russian hackers. An article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung discussed the difficulty of proof in matters of cybersecurity. One analyst told the Süddeutsche Zeitung that U.S. intelligence services could be keeping some information secret to protect their sources and analysis methods. Clapper later stated that the classified version contained "a lot of the substantiation that could not be put in the [public] report".
On March 20, 2017, during public testimony to the House Intelligence Committee, FBI director James Comey confirmed the existence of an FBI investigation into Russian interference and Russian links to the Trump campaign, including the question of whether there had been any coordination between the campaign and the Russians. He said the investigation began in July 2016. Comey made the unusual decision to reveal the ongoing investigation to Congress, citing benefit to the public good. On October 7, 2016, Secretary Johnson and Director Clapper issued a joint statement that the intelligence community is confident the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from U.S. persons and institutions, including from U.S. political organizations, and that the disclosures of alleged hacked e-mails on sites like DCLeaks.com and WikiLeaks are consistent with the Russian-directed efforts. The statement also noted that the Russians have used similar tactics and techniques across Europe and Eurasia to influence public opinion there. On December 29, 2016, DHS and FBI released a Joint Analysis Report (JAR) which further expands on that statement by providing details of the tools and infrastructure used by Russian intelligence services to compromise and exploit networks and infrastructure associated with the recent U.S. election, as well as a range of U.S. government, political and private sector entities.
January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment
On January 6, 2017, after briefing the president, the president-elect, and members of the Senate and House, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released a de-classified version of the report on Russian activities. The report, produced by the CIA, the FBI, the NSA, and the ODNI, asserted that Russia had carried out a massive cyber operation ordered by Russian President Putin with the goal to sabotage the 2016 U.S. elections. The agencies concluded that Putin and the Russian government tried to help Trump win the election by discrediting Hillary Clinton and portraying her negatively relative to Trump, and that Russia had conducted a multipronged cyber campaign consisting of hacking and the extensive use of social media and trolls, as well as open propaganda on Russian-controlled news platforms. The report contained no information about how the data was collected and provided no evidence underlying its conclusions. Clapper said the classified version contained substantiation that could not be made public. A large part of the report was dedicated to criticizing Russian TV channel RT America, which it described as a "messaging tool" for the Kremlin.
On March 5, 2017, James Clapper said, in an interview with Chuck Todd on Meet the Press that, regarding the January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment, their report did not have evidence of collusion. On May 14, 2017, in an interview with George Stephanopoulos, Clapper explained more about the state of evidence for or against any collusion, saying he was personally unaware of evidence of collusion but was also unaware of the existence of the formal investigation. In June 2017, E. W. Priestap, the assistant director of the FBI Counterintelligence Division, told the PBS Newshour program that Russian intelligence "used fake news and propaganda and they also used online amplifiers to spread the information to as many people as possible" during the election. In November 2017, Clapper explained that at the time of the Stephanopoulos interview, he did not know about the efforts of George Papadopoulos to set up meetings between Trump associates and Kremlin officials, nor about the meeting at Trump Tower between Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort and a Russian lawyer.
Investigation into financial flows
By January 2017, a multi-agency investigation, conducted by the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, the Justice Department, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network and representatives of the DNI, was underway looking into how the Russian government may have secretly financed efforts to help Trump win the election had been conducted over several months by six federal agencies. Investigations into Carter Page, Paul Manafort and Roger Stone were underway on January 19, the eve of the presidential inauguration.
James Comey testimony, June 8, 2017
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In testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 8, former FBI Director James Comey said he had "no doubt" that Russia interfered in the 2016 election and that the interference was a hostile act. Concerning the motives of his dismissal, Comey said, "I take the president at his word that I was fired because of the Russia investigation. Something about the way I was conducting it, the president felt, created pressure on him he wanted to relieve." He also said that, while he was director, Trump was not under investigation.
Investigation into money funneled through the NRA
By January 2018, the FBI was investigating the possible funneling of illegal money by Aleksandr Torshin, a deputy governor of the Central Bank of Russia, through the National Rifle Association, which was then used to help Donald Trump win the presidency. Torshin is known to have close connections to both Russia's president Vladimir Putin and the NRA, and has been charged with money laundering in other countries. The NRA reported spending $30 million to support the 2016 Trump campaign, three times what it spent on Mitt Romney in 2012, and spent more than any other independent group including the leading Trump superPAC. Sources with connections to the NRA have stated that the actual amount spent was much higher than the reported $30 million. The subunits within the organization which made the donations are not generally required to disclose their donors. Spanish special prosecutor José Grinda Gonzalez has said that in early 2018 the Spanish police gave wiretapped audio to the FBI of telephone discussions between Torshin, and convicted money launderer and mafia boss Alexander Romanov. Torshin met with Donald Trump, Jr. at an NRA event in May 2016 while attempting to broker a meeting between Donald Trump and Vladamir Putin.
Maria Butina, a Russian anti-gun control activist who has served as a special assistant to Torshin and came to the U.S. on a student visa to attend university classes in Washington, claimed both before and after the election that she was part of the Trump campaign's communications with Russia. Like Torshin, she cultivated a close relationship with the NRA. In February 2016, Butina started a consulting business called Bridges LLC with Republican political operative Paul Erickson. During Trump's presidential campaign Erickson contacted Rick Dearborn, one of Trump's advisors, writing in an email that he had close ties to both the NRA and Russia and asking how a back-channel meeting between Trump and Putin could be set up. The email was later turned over to federal investigators as part of the inquiry into Russia's meddling in the presidential election. On July 15, 2018, Butina was arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and charged with conspiring to act as an unregistered Russian agent who had attempted to create a backchannel of communications between American Republicans/conservatives and Russian officials by infiltrating the National Rifle Association, the National Prayer Breakfast, and conservative religious organizations.
2018 reports for the Senate Intelligence Committee
Two reports on Russian the influence campaign in social media during the 2016 election were commissioned for the Senate Intelligence Committee. The reports were based largely on data about the Russian operations provided to the Senate by social media companies whose platforms were used, such as Facebook and Twitter. One report (The Tactics & Tropes of the Internet Research Agency) was produced by the New Knowledge cybersecurity company aided by researchers at Columbia University and Canfield Research LLC. Another (The IRA, Social Media and Political Polarization in the United States, 2012-2018) by the Computational Propaganda Project of Oxford University along with the social media analysis company Graphika. The reports described Russian efforts as "far more extensive than originally understood", according to NBC News. The New Knowledge report was impressed by "the energy and imagination" of the Russian effort to "sway American opinion and divide the country", according to the New York Times, and gave "particular attention" to the Russians’ focus on African-Americans. Russian operations were "intended to reinforce tribalism, to polarize and divide, and to normalize points of view strategically advantageous to" Russia. The report counted over 263 million "engagements" (likes, comments, shares, etc.) with Internet Research Agency content and faulted U.S. social media companies for "failing to come to grips with the extent to which their platforms are being used for foreign propaganda".
U.S. government response
Members of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee traveled to Ukraine and Poland in 2016 and learned about Russian operations to influence their elections. Senator Angus King said the problem frustrated both political parties. On November 30, 2016, seven members of the committee asked President Obama to declassify and publicize more information on Russia's role in the U.S. election. Representatives in the U.S. Congress took action to monitor the national security of the United States by advancing legislation to monitor propaganda. On November 30, 2016, legislators approved a measure within the National Defense Authorization Act to ask the U.S. State Department to act against propaganda with an inter-agency panel. The initiative was developed through a bipartisan bill, the Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act, written by U.S. Senators Republican Rob Portman and Democrat Chris Murphy. Senate Intelligence Committee member Ron Wyden said frustration over covert Russian propaganda was bipartisan.
In deciding to hold hearings and investigate Russian influence on the 2016 U.S. elections, Republican U.S. Senators went against the preference of incoming Republican President-elect Trump, who downplayed Russian interference. Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain and Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr planned investigations of Russian cyberwarfare. U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker planned a 2017 investigation. Senator Lindsey Graham indicated he would conduct an investigation during the 115th Congress. On December 11, 2016, top-ranking bipartisan members of the U.S. Senate issued a joint statement responding to the intelligence assessments about Russia's influence on the election. The two Republican signers were Senators Graham and McCain, both members of the Armed Services Committee; the two Democratic signers were incoming Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and Senator Jack Reed, the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee.
Senator McCain called for a special select committee of the U.S. Senate to investigate Russian meddling in the election, and called election meddling an "act of war". Republican Senator and Intelligence Committee member James Lankford agreed that investigation into Russian influence on the elections should be cooperative between parties. Republican Senator Susan Collins said a bipartisan investigation should improve proactive cyber defense. Outgoing Senate Democratic Caucus leader Harry Reid said the FBI hid Russian interference to swing the election for Trump, and called for James Comey to resign.
On December 12, 2016, Senate Majority Leader Republican Mitch McConnell expressed confidence in U.S. intelligence. McConnell added that investigation of Russia's actions should be bipartisan and held by the Senate Intelligence Committee. The next day, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) and Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-VA) announced the scope of the committee's official inquiry. Senators McCain, Graham, Schumer, and Reed issued a joint bipartisan statement on December 18, urging McConnell to create a select committee tasked with the investigation.
On December 14, 2016, Graham said Russians hacked into his Senate campaign email, adding that the FBI contacted his campaign in August 2016 to notify them of the breach in security that occurred in June to his campaign vendor. On December 15, Graham stated that in order for Trump's nominee for United States Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, to earn his confirmation vote, Tillerson would need to acknowledge his belief Russia interfered in the 2016 elections.
On December 16, Burr denied that the CIA was acting on political motives and stated that intelligence employees held diverse perspectives. The committee issued a release emphasizing they earnestly took into consideration the fact that both the Senate Majority and Minority Leaders were in agreement a bipartisan investigation should take place.
The Senate Intelligence Committee began work on its bipartisan inquiry on January 24, 2017. On May 25, 2017, a unanimous Senate Intelligence Committee voted to give both Chairmen of the Senate Intelligence Committee solo subpoena power. In December 2017, the Senate Intelligence Committee was looking at the presidential campaign of Green Party's Jill Stein for potential "collusion with the Russians". On May 26, 2017, Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) and Vice-Chairman Mark Warner (D-VA) issued a subpoena to the Trump campaign for all Russia-related documents, emails, and telephone records.
In May 2018, the Senate Intelligence Committee released the interim findings of their bipartisan investigation, finding that Russia interfered in the 2016 election with the goal of helping Trump gain the presidency. In a statement jointly issued by Senator Richard Burr, the Republican chairman of the committee, and Senator Mark R. Warner, the Democratic vice chair of the committee, the committee stated: "Our staff concluded that the [intelligence community's] conclusions were accurate and on point. The Russian effort was extensive, sophisticated, and ordered by President Putin himself for the purpose of helping Donald Trump and hurting Hillary Clinton." In affirming the conclusion of the U.S. intelligence community, and Senate Intelligence Committee rejected the conclusion of House Republicans.
On January 10, 2018, Senator Ben Cardin of the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee released, "Putin's Asymmetric Assault on Democracy in Russia and Europe: Implications for U.S. National Security." The report said the interference in the 2016 United States elections was a part of Putin's "asymmetric assault on democracy" worldwide, including targeting elections in a number of countries, such as Britain, France and Germany, by "Moscow-sponsored hacking, internet trolling and financing for extremist political groups".
U.S. House of Representatives
In January 2017, the House intelligence committee launched its investigations on the Russian meddling into the presidential election, including possible ties between Trump's campaign and Russia. About sixteen months later the Republican House majority released its final report of the committee, amid harsh criticism from Committee Democrats. Fox News noted that the Committee did not interview any of the 19 individuals who had been charged by the Mueller investigation, most notably Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, Michael Flynn or George Papadopoulos.
On November 4, 2016, U.S. Representative Adam Schiff, Ranking Member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, commented on Putin's aims, and said U.S. intelligence agencies were concerned about Russian propaganda and disinformation. He predicted Russian propaganda operations would continue against the U.S. after the election and put forth a recommendation for a combined House and Senate investigation similar to the Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities before and after the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001.
On December 12, 2016, Republican U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said external interference in U.S. elections was "intolerable". Ryan said an investigation should be conducted by U.S. House Intelligence Committee chairman Representative Devin Nunes, saying interference from Russia was troubling due to Putin's activities against the U.S. On December 12, 2016, Nunes emphasized that at the time he had only viewed circumstantial evidence Russia intended to assist Trump win. On December 14, Nunes requested a formal briefing to gain more information about assertions officials had revealed to the media; the DNI refused, citing the ongoing review ordered by President Obama.
In January 2017, both the House and Senate intelligence committees launched investigations on the Russian meddling into the presidential election, including possible ties between Trump's campaign and Russia. In February, General Michael Flynn, Trump's pick for National Security Advisor, resigned after it had been discovered that he had been in touch with the Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, discussing the possibility of lifting sanctions against Russia.
On February 24, 2017, Republican Congressman Darrell Issa called for a special prosecutor to investigate whether Russia meddled with the U.S. election and was in contact with Trump's team during the presidential campaign, saying that it would be improper for Trump's appointee, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, to lead the investigation. On March 19, 2017, Schiff told Meet the Press that there was sufficient evidence to warrant further investigation. On March 22, 2017, Schiff stated that he had seen evidence of a higher standard than circumstantial regarding collusion. On April 6, 2017, Nunes temporarily recused himself from the Russia investigation after the House Ethics Committee announced that it would investigate accusations against him that he had disclosed classified information without authorization. Representative Mike Conaway subsequently assumed control of the investigation. Nunes was cleared of the accusation of disclosing classified information on December 8, 2017
On March 12, 2018, the Republican leadership of the House Intelligence Committee shut down their investigation. They acknowledged that the Russians interfered in the 2016 elections through an active measures campaign, involving the promotion of propaganda and fake news. The committee Republicans said they did not find evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government's efforts; Representative Mike Conaway, who led the investigation when Nunes was recused, said they had uncovered only "perhaps some bad judgment, inappropriate meetings." That evening Trump tweeted, in all capital letters, a quote from the committee announcement in which they said they had found "no evidence of collusion or coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election". The Republican report also disagreed with the determination of U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia had favored Trump in the election, although Conaway and some other Republican committee members subsequently receded from that stance.
Democrats on the committee objected to the Republicans' closure of the investigation; ranking member Adam Schiff said that "By ending its oversight role in the only authorized investigation in the House, the majority has placed the interests of protecting the president over protecting the country. And history will judge its actions harshly". Schiff then issued a 21-page "status report" outlining plans to continue the investigation, including a list of additional witnesses to interview and documents to request.
U.S. President Obama and Vladimir Putin had a discussion about computer security issues in September 2016, which took place over the course of an hour and a half. During the discussion, which took place as a side segment during the then-ongoing G20 summit in China, Obama made his views known on cyber security matters between the U.S. and Russia. Obama said Russian hacking stopped after his warning to Putin. One month after that discussion the email leaks from the DNC cyber attack had not ceased, and President Obama decided to contact Putin via the Moscow–Washington hotline, commonly known as the red phone, on October 31, 2016. Obama emphasized the gravity of the situation by telling Putin: "International law, including the law for armed conflict, applies to actions in cyberspace."
On December 9, 2016, Obama ordered the U.S. Intelligence Community to investigate Russian interference in the election and report before he left office on January 20, 2017. U.S. Homeland Security Advisor and chief counterterrorism advisor to the president Lisa Monaco announced the study, and said foreign intrusion into a U.S. election was unprecedented and would necessitate investigation by subsequent administrations. The intelligence analysis would cover malicious cyberwarfare occurring between the 2008 and 2016 elections. A senior administration official said that the White House was confident Russia interfered in the election. The official said the order by President Obama would be a lessons learned report, with options including sanctions and covert cyber response against Russia.
On December 12, 2016, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest was critical of Trump's rejection of the idea that Russia used cyberattacks to influence the election. Earnest contrasted Trump's comments on Twitter with the October 2016 conclusions of the U.S. Intelligence Community. At a subsequent White House press conference on December 15, Earnest said Trump and the public were aware prior to the 2016 election of Russian interference efforts, calling these undisputed facts. United States Secretary of State John Kerry spoke on December 15, 2016, about President Obama's decision to approve the October 2016 joint statement by the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Kerry stated the president's decision was deliberative and relied upon information cautiously weighed by the intelligence agencies. He said the president felt a need to warn the U.S. public and did.
In a December 15, 2016, interview by NPR journalist Steve Inskeep, Obama said the U.S. government would respond to Russia via overt and covert methods, in order to send an unambiguous symbol to the world that any such interference would have harsh consequences. He added that motive behind the Russian operation could better be determined after completion of the intelligence report he ordered. Obama emphasized that Russian efforts caused more harm to Clinton than to Trump during the campaign. At a press conference the following day, he highlighted his September 2016 admonition to Putin to cease engaging in cyberwarfare against the U.S. Obama explained that the U.S. did not publicly reciprocate against Russia's actions due to a fear such choices would appear partisan. President Obama minimized conflict between his administration and the Trump transition, stressing cyber warfare against the U.S. should be a bipartisan issue.
In the last days of the Obama administration, officials pushed as much raw intelligence as possible into analyses and attempted to keep reports at relatively low classification levels as part of an effort to widen their visibility across the federal government. The information was filed in many locations within federal agencies as a precaution against future concealment or destruction of evidence in the event of any investigation.
Punitive measures imposed on Russia
On December 29, 2016, the U.S. government announced a series of punitive measures against Russia. The Obama administration imposed sanctions on four top officials of the GRU and declared persona non grata 35 Russian diplomats suspected of spying; they were ordered to leave the country within 72 hours.[Note 2] On December 30, two waterfront compounds used as retreats by families of Russian embassy personnel were shut down on orders of the U.S. government, citing spying activities: one in Upper Brookville, New York, on Long Island, and the other in Centreville, Maryland, on the Eastern Shore. Further sanctions against Russia were undertaken, both overt and covert. A White House statement said that cyberwarfare by Russia was geared to undermine U.S. trust in democracy and impact the election. President Obama said his decision was taken after previous warnings to Russia. In mid-July 2017, the Russian foreign ministry said the U.S. was refusing to issue visas to Russian diplomats to allow Moscow to replace the expelled personnel and get its embassy back up to full strength.
In June 2017, the Senate voted 98 to 2 for a bill that had been initially drafted in January by a bipartisan group of senators over Russia's continued involvement in the wars in Ukraine and Syria and its meddling in the 2016 election that envisaged sanctions on Russia as well as Iran, and North Korea; the bill would expand the punitive measures previously imposed by executive orders and convert them into law. An identical bill was introduced by Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives in July and passed in the house on July 25, with 419 votes in favor and 3 against. On July 27, the bill was passed overwhelmingly by the Senate, which provoked Russia's president Putin into pledging response to ″this kind of insolence towards our country″. On August 2, president Donald Trump signed the bill into law (the ″Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act″). Simultaneously, the president issued two separate, simultaneous statements. One of those said, ″While I favor tough measures to punish and deter aggressive and destabilizing behavior by Iran, North Korea, and Russia, this legislation is significantly flawed. In its haste to pass this legislation, the Congress included a number of clearly unconstitutional provisions."
The law forbids the president from lifting earlier sanctions without first consulting Congress, giving them time to reverse such a move. It targets Russia's defense industry by harming Russia's ability to export weapon, and allows the U.S. to sanction international companies that work to develop Russian energy resources. One of Trump's statements noted that "by limiting the Executive's flexibility, this bill makes it harder for the United States to strike good deals for the American people, and will drive China, Russia, and North Korea much closer together." The proposed sanctions also caused harsh criticism and threats of retaliatory measure on the part of the European Union, including Germany. On January 29, 2018, the Trump administration notified Congress saying that it would not impose additional sanctions on Russia under 2017 legislation designed to punish Moscow's alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. election. The administration insisted that the mere threat of the sanctions outlined in the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act would serve as a deterrent, and that implementing the sanctions would therefore be unnecessary.
On December 30, 2016, commenting on his eventual decision to refrain from retaliatory measures to actions by the U.S. on December 29, Putin released a published statement that his government, while reserving its legitimate right to respond adequately, would not take action at that time; he also invited all the children of the U.S. diplomats accredited in Russia to New Year's and Christmas celebrations at the Kremlin. The statement went on to say that further steps for restoring Russian-American relations would be built on the basis of the policies developed by the Trump administration. In May 2017, Russian banker Andrey Kostin, an associate of President Vladimir Putin, said the Washington elite was purposefully disrupting the presidency of Donald Trump.
In mid-July 2017, the Russian foreign ministry said that the staff of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow far exceeded the number of Russian embassy employees in Washington and indicated that the Russian government was considering retaliatory expulsion of more than 35 U.S. diplomats, thus evening out the number of the countries′ diplomats posted. As a response to the new sanctions against Moscow passed by Congress and measures imposed against the Russian diplomatic mission in the U.S. by the Obama administration, Russia's foreign ministry demanded that the U.S. reduce its diplomatic and technical personnel in the Moscow embassy and its consulates in St Petersburg, Ekaterinburg and Vladivostok to 455 persons—the same as the number of Russian diplomats posted in the U.S.—by September 1 and the suspension of the use of a retreat compound and a storage facility in Moscow by August 1. On July 31, 2017, Russian president Vladimir Putin said that the decision had been taken by him personally and that the U.S. diplomatic mission must reduce their personnel by 755.
Impact on election result
As of October 2018, the question of whether Donald Trump won the 2016 election because of the Russian interference had not been given much focus -- being declared impossible to answer or ignored in favor of other factors that led to Trump's victory. Among those who believe we cannot, or probably will never, know are Joel Benenson, the Clinton campaign’s pollster (“How will we ever know? We probably won’t ...”), and Richard Burr the Republican US Senate Intelligence Committee chairman ("we cannot ... calculate the impact that foreign meddling and social media had on this election”). Michael Hayden, the former director of the C.I.A. and the N.S.A., believes that although the Russian attacks were “the most successful covert influence operation in history,” what impact they had is "not just unknown, it’s unknowable.”
Statistician Nate Silver, writing in February 2018, described himself as "fairly agnostic" on the question, but notes "thematically, the Russian interference tactics" (e.g. "Crooked Hillary"l) "were consistent with the reasons Clinton lost." Supporters of the candidate Russia worked to defeat have been more likely to blame Clinton's campaign mistakes and performance, the reopening of the criminal investigation into Hillary Clinton's mishandling of classified e-mails by FBI head James Comey, or to direct attention to the question of whether Trump colluded with Russia in the campaign.
Several high-level Republicans believe they do know whether Russian interference determined the election outcome, and that it did not. These include the two beneficiaries of the effort. Trump, has asserted that "the Russians had no impact on our votes whatsoever". Vice President Pence has claimed "... it is the universal conclusion of our intelligence communities that none of those efforts had any impact on the outcome of the 2016 election." Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also stated that “the intelligence community's assessment is that the Russian meddling that took place did not affect the outcome of the election”. (However, the official US "Intelligence Community Assessment" of January 2017 stated, "We did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election", and CIA agency spokesman Dean Boyd withdrew Pompeo's remarks the day after he made them stating that they were made in error.)Paul Ryan also claims it is “clear” that the Russian interference “didn’t have a material effect on our elections.”
On the other hand, a number of ex-intelligence, ex-law enforcement officials and political scientists argue
- the sophistication of the Russian propaganda on social media,
- the hacking of Democratic Party emails and the timing of their public release, along with
- the small shift in voter support needed to achieve victory in the electoral college (0.03% of the total number of votes from Clinton to Trump, approximately 80,000 votes in three states -- Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania) and
- the relatively high number of undecided voters (who are more susceptible to influence),
made Russian interference decisive. James Clapper, the former director of National Intelligence, told Mayer, "it stretches credulity to think the Russians didn't turn the election ... I think the Russians had more to do with making Clinton lose than Trump did". Ex-FBI agent, Clint Watts, writes that, “without the Russian influence ... I believe Trump would not have even been within striking distance of Clinton on Election Day.” Political scientist Kathleen Hall Jamieson, in a "forensic analysis" of the available evidence (found in her book Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President) concludes that "the preponderance of evidence" indicates Russian trolls and hackers persuaded enough Americans "to either vote a certain way or not vote at all" to make the difference in the presidential election results.
Effect on democratic institutions
The ODNI stated in its January 2017 report that one reason the Russian leadership ordered an "influence campaign" was to "undermine public faith in the US democratic process".
Dismissal of FBI director James Comey
On May 9, 2017, Trump dismissed Comey, attributing his action to recommendations from United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. Trump had been talking to aides about firing Comey for at least a week before acting, and had asked Justice Department officials to come up with a rationale for dismissing him. After he learned that Trump was about to fire Comey, Rosenstein submitted to Trump a memo critical of Comey's conduct in the investigation about Hillary Clinton's emails. Trump later confirmed that he had intended to fire Comey regardless of any Justice Department recommendation. Trump himself also tied the firing to the Russia investigation in a televised interview, stating, "When I decided to [fire Comey], I said to myself, I said, 'You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story, it's an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.'"
The dismissal came as a surprise to Comey and most of Washington, and was described as having "vast political ramifications" because of the Bureau's ongoing investigation into Russian activities in the 2016 election. The termination was immediately controversial. It was compared to the Saturday Night Massacre, President Richard Nixon's termination of special prosecutor Archibald Cox, who had been investigating the Watergate scandal, and to the dismissal of Sally Yates in January 2017. Near the end of James Comey's testimony to the senate intelligence committee on June 8, 2017, Comey stated "It's my judgment that I was fired because of the Russia investigation. I was fired in some way to change, or the endeavor was to change, the way the Russia investigation was being conducted."
According to a White House document, while having a meeting Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak on May 10, 2017, in the Oval Office, president Donald Trump allegedly told the Russian officials that firing the F.B.I. director, James Comey, had relieved "great pressure" on him. He stated, "I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job," he continued, "I faced great pressure because of Russia. That's taken off."
Investigation by special counsel
On May 17, 2017, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to direct FBI agents and Department of Justice prosecutors investigating election interference by Russia and related matters. As special counsel, Mueller has the power to issue subpoenas, hire staff members, request funding, and prosecute federal crimes in connection with his investigation.
Mueller assembled a legal team. Trump engaged several attorneys to represent and advise him, including his longtime personal attorney Marc Kasowitz as well as Jay Sekulow, Michael Bowe, and John M. Dowd. All but Sekulow have since resigned. In August 2017 Mueller was using a grand jury.
Investigation into possible obstruction of justice
There have been multiple reports that senior White House officials, and Trump himself, asked intelligence officials if they could intervene with the FBI to stop the investigation into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats later said he had "never felt pressured to intervene in the Russia investigation in any way".
A memo written by FBI Director James Comey said that on February 14, 2017, Trump suggested Comey should "let go" the FBI investigation into Flynn. In testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee Comey said he "took it as a direction".
A few days after Comey's dismissal, the FBI widened its investigation to examine whether President Trump attempted to obstruct justice. Many FBI insiders believed the real reason Comey was fired was because he had refused to end the investigation into Russian connections to the election. In his June testimony Comey said that Trump never asked him to stop the Russia investigation. The special counsel's office took over the investigation. ABC News clarified in June 2017 that the special counsel is gathering preliminary information about possible obstruction of justice by the President, but a full-scale investigation has not yet been launched.
In October 2017 Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty earlier in the month to making a false statement to FBI investigators about his connections to Russia. In the first guilty plea of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, George Papadopoulos admitted lying to the FBI about contact with Russian agents that offered the campaign 'thousands' of damaging emails about Clinton months before then candidate Donald Trump asked Russia to "find" Hillary Clinton's missing emails. His plea agreement said a Russian operative had told a campaign aide "the Russians had emails of Clinton". Papadopoulos agreed to cooperate with prosecutors as part of the plea bargain.
Later that month, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort surrendered to the FBI after being indicted on multiple charges. His business associate Rick Gates was also indicted and surrendered to the FBI. The pair were indicted on one count of conspiracy against the United States, one count of conspiracy to launder money, one count of being an unregistered agent of a foreign principal, one count of making false and misleading FARA statements, and one count of making false statements. Manafort was charged with four counts of failing to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts while Gates was charged with three. All charges arise from their consulting work for a pro-Russian government in Ukraine and are unrelated to the campaign. It was widely believed that the charges against Manafort are intended to pressure him into becoming a cooperating witness about Russian interference in the 2016 election. In February 2018, Gates pleaded guilty to fraud-related charges and agreed to testify against Manafort. In April 2018, when Manafort's lawyers filed a motion to suppress the evidence obtained during the July 26 raid on Manafort's home, the warrants for the search were revealed and indicated that, in addition to seeking evidence related to Manafort's work in Ukraine, Mueller's investigation also concerned Manafort's actions during the Trump campaign including the meeting with a Russian lawyer and a counterintelligence officer at the Trump Tower meeting on June 9, 2016.
In March 2018 the investigation revealed that the prosecutors have established links between Rick Gates and an individual with ties to Russian intelligence which occurred while Gates worked on Trump's campaign. A report filed by prosecutors, concerning the sentencing of Gates and Manafort associate Alex van der Zwaan who lied to Mueller's investigators, alleges that Gates knew the individual he was in contact with had these connections.
On February 16, 2018, a Federal grand jury in Washington, D.C., indicted 13 Russian nationals and 3 Russian entities on charges of conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to commit bank and wire fraud, and fraud with identification documents, in connection with the 2016 United States national elections. The 37-page indictment cites the illegal use of social media "to sow political discord, including actions that supported the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump and disparaged his opponent, Hillary Clinton." On the same day, Robert Mueller announced that Richard Pinedo had pleaded guilty to using the identities of other people in connection with unlawful activity.
Lawyers representing Concord Management and Consulting appeared on May 9, 2018, in federal court in Washington, to plead not guilty to the charges.
On July 13, 2018, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein released indictments returned by a grand jury charging twelve Russian intelligence officials, who work for the Russian intelligence agency GRU, with conspiring to interfere in the 2016 elections. The individuals, posing as "a Guccifer 2.0 persona" are accused of hacking into computers of the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee, as well as state election boards and secretaries of several states. In one unidentified state, the Russians stole information on half a million voters. The indictment also said that a Republican congressional candidate, also unidentified, was sent campaign documents stolen by the group, and that a reporter was in contact with the Russian operatives and offered to write an article to coincide with the release of the stolen documents.
Claims by Anastasia Vashukevich
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In March 2018, Anastasia Vashukevich, a Belarusian national currently incarcerated in Bangkok, said that she had over 16 hours of audio recordings that could shed light on possible Russian interference in American elections. She offered the recordings to American authorities in exchange for asylum, to avoid being extradited to Belarus. Vashukevich said she was close to Oleg Deripaska, described by the New York Times as "an oligarch closely tied" to Putin, who in turn had business links to Paul Manafort, and asserted the recordings included him[who?] discussing the 2016 presidential election. She said some of the recorded conversations, which she asserted were made in August 2016, included three individuals who spoke fluent English and who she believed were Americans. Vashukevich's claims appeared to be consistent with a video published in February 2018 by Alexei Navalny, about a meeting between Deripaska and Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Eduardovich Prikhodko. In the video, Navalny said Deripaska probably served as a liaison between the Russian government and Paul Manafort in connection with Russian interference efforts.
In August 2018, Vashukevich said she had sent the recordings to Deripaska without having made them public, hoping he would be able to gain her release from prison. She said promised to Deripaska not to make any comment further on the recordings' contents. In 2018, Deripaska won a legal case in Russia against Vashukevich for the invasion of his privacy by the public availability of videos and photos of the two of them together.
Links between Trump associates and Russian officials
In spring of 2015, U.S. intelligence agencies started overhearing conversations in which Russian government officials discussed associates of Donald Trump. British and the Dutch intelligence have given information to United States intelligence about meetings in European cities between Russian officials, associates of Putin, and associates of then-President-elect Trump. American intelligence agencies also intercepted communications of Russian officials, some of them within the Kremlin, discussing contacts with Trump associates. Multiple Trump associates, including campaign chairman Paul Manafort and other members of his campaign, had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials during 2016, although in February 2017 officials said that they did not have evidence that Trump's campaign had co-operated with the Russians to influence the election. As of March 2017[update], the FBI was investigating Russian involvement in the election, including alleged links between Trump's associates and the Russian government.
In particular, Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak has met several Trump campaign members and administration nominees; the people involved have dismissed those meetings as routine conversations in preparation for assuming the presidency. Trump's team has issued at least twenty denials concerning communications between his campaign and Russian officials; several of these denials turned out to be false. In the early months of 2017, Trump and other senior White House officials asked the Director of National Intelligence, the NSA director, the FBI director, and two chairs of congressional committees to publicly dispute the news reports about contacts between Trump associates and Russia.
Federal prosecutors have accused Trump’s former campaign chief, Paul Manafort, of sharing political polling data in 2016 with an associate linked to Russian intelligence (Konstantin V. Kilimnik). The polling data was provided during a time when hundreds of Russian operatives were working to play on divisive issues in the U.S. targeting demographic/racial/regional groups, and the data could have been used to help Russia fine tune its messages to the target audiences. The New York Times called this "the most direct evidence to date" that the Trump campaign "may have tried to coordinate with Russia". According to Clint Watts, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, “This is the closest thing we have seen to collusion. ... The question now is, did the president know about it?” The disclosure came by accident in January 2019 when Manafort’s lawyers made "a formatting error" in a document filed to respond to charges that he had lied to prosecutors working for the special counsel Robert Mueller.
In February 2016, retired Army general Michael Flynn was named as an advisor to Trump's presidential campaign. Later that year, in phone calls intercepted by U.S. intelligence, Russian officials were overheard claiming that they had formed a strong relationship with Trump advisor Flynn and believed they would be able to use him to influence Trump and his team.
In December 2016 Flynn, then Trump's designated choice to be National Security Advisor, and Jared Kushner met with Russian ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak and requested him to set up a direct, encrypted line of communication so that they could communicate directly with the Kremlin without the knowledge of American intelligence agencies. Three anonymous sources claimed that no such channel was actually set up.
On December 29, 2016, the day that President Obama announced sanctions against Russia, Flynn discussed the sanctions with Kislyak, urging that Russia not retaliate. Flynn initially denied speaking to Kislyak, then acknowledged the conversation but denied discussing the sanctions. When it was revealed in February 2017 that U.S. intelligence agencies had evidence, through monitoring of the ambassador's communications, that he actually did discuss the sanctions, Flynn said he couldn't remember if he did or not.
Upon Trump's inauguration on January 20, 2017, he appointed Flynn his National Security Advisor. On January 24, Flynn was interviewed by the FBI. Two days later, acting Attorney General Sally Yates informed the White House that Flynn was "compromised" by the Russians and possibly open to blackmail. Flynn was forced to resign as national security advisor on February 13, 2017.
On December 1, 2017, Flynn pleaded guilty to a single felony count of making "false, fictitious and fraudulent statements" to the FBI about his conversations with Kislyak. His plea was part of a plea bargain with special counsel Robert Mueller, under which Flynn also agreed to cooperate with Mueller's investigation.
On January 31, 2018, Mueller filed for and was granted a delay in Flynn's sentencing due to the status of the Russia investigation. On May 1, 2018, Mueller asked for a second delay in sentencing, requesting at least another two months. On July 10, Flynn's sentencing was again delayed, until at least late October.
In March 2016 Donald Trump named George Papadopoulos, an oil, gas, and policy consultant, as an unpaid foreign policy advisor to his campaign. Shortly thereafter Papadopoulos was approached by Joseph Mifsud, a London-based professor with connections to high-ranking Russian officials. Mifsud told him the Russians had "dirt" on Hillary Clinton in the form of "thousands of emails" "apparently stolen in an effort to try to damage her campaign". The two met several times in March 2016. In May 2016 at a London wine bar, Papadopoulos told the top Australian diplomat to the United Kingdom, Alexander Downer, that Russia "had a dirt file on rival candidate Hillary Clinton in the form of hacked Democratic Party emails". After the DNC emails were published by WikiLeaks in July, the Australian government told the FBI about Papadopoulos' revelation, leading the FBI to launch a counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign, known by its code name: Crossfire Hurricane, which has been criticized by Trump as a "witch hunt."
Papadopoulos' main activity during the campaign was attempting, unsuccessfully, to set up meetings between Russian officials (including Vladimir Putin) and Trump campaign officials (including Trump himself). In pursuit of this goal he communicated with multiple Trump campaign officials including Sam Clovis, Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, and Corey Lewandowski.
On January 27, 2017, Papadopoulos was interviewed by FBI agents. On July 27, he was arrested at Washington-Dulles International Airport, and he has since been cooperating with Special Counsel Robert Mueller in his investigation. On October 5, 2017, he pleaded guilty to one felony count of making false statements to FBI agents relating to contacts he had with agents of the Russian government while working for the Trump campaign. Papadopoulos's arrest and guilty plea became public on October 30, 2017, when court documents showing the guilty plea were unsealed. Papadopoulos was sentenced to 14 days in prison, 12 months supervised release, 200 hours of community service and was fined $9,500, on September 7, 2018.
In June 2016, Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner met with Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya, who was accompanied by some others, including Russian-American lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin, after Trump Jr. was informed that Veselnitskaya could supply the Trump campaign with incriminating information about Hillary Clinton such as her dealings with the Russians. The meeting was arranged following an email from British music publicist Rob Goldstone who was the manager of Emin Agalarov, son of Russian tycoon Aras Agalarov. In the email, Goldstone said that the information had come from the Russian government and "was part of a Russian government effort to help Donald Trump's presidential campaign". Trump Jr. replied with an e-mail saying "If it's what you say I love it especially later in the summer" and arranged the meeting. Trump Jr. went to the meeting expecting to receive information harmful to the Clinton campaign, but he said that none was forthcoming, and instead the conversation then turned to the Magnitsky Act and the adoption of Russian children.
The meeting was disclosed by The New York Times on July 8, 2017. On the same day, Donald Trump Jr. released a statement saying it had been a short introductory meeting focused on adoption of Russian children by Americans and "not a campaign issue". Later that month The Washington Post revealed that Trump Jr.'s statement had been dictated by President Donald Trump, who had overruled his staff's recommendation that the statement be transparent about the actual motivation for the meeting: the Russian government's wish to help Trump's campaign.
Other Trump associates
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, an early and prominent supporter of Trump's campaign, spoke twice with Russian ambassador Kislyak before the election – once in July 2016 at the Republican convention and once in September 2016 in Sessions' Senate office. In his confirmation hearings, Sessions testified that he "did not have communications with the Russians". On March 2, 2017, after this denial was revealed to have been false, Sessions recused himself from matters relating to Russia's election interference and deferred to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
Campaign chairman Paul Manafort had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials during 2016. Manafort said he did not knowingly meet any Russian intelligence officials. Intercepted communications during the campaign show that Russian officials believed they could use Manafort to influence Trump.
Roger Stone, a former adviser to Donald Trump and business partner of Paul Manafort, stated that he had been in contact with Guccifer 2.0, a hacker persona believed to be a front for Russian intelligence operations, who had publicly claimed responsibility for at least one hack of the DNC. During the campaign, Stone had stated repeatedly and publicly that he had "actually communicated with Julian Assange"; he later denied having done so. In August 2016, Stone had cryptically tweeted "Trust me, it will soon [sic] the Podesta's time in the barrel" shortly after claiming to have been in contact with WikiLeaks and before Wikileaks' release of the Podesta emails. Stone has denied having any advance knowledge of the Podesta e-mail hack or any connection to Russian intelligence, stating that his earlier tweet was actually referring to reports of the Podesta Group's own ties to Russia. Stone ultimately named Randy Credico, who had interviewed both Assange and Stone for a radio show, as his intermediary with Assange.
In June 2018 Stone disclosed that he had met with a Russian individual during the campaign, who wanted Trump to pay 2 million dollars for "dirt on Hillary Clinton". This disclosure contradicted Stone's earlier claims that he had not met with any Russians during the campaign. The meeting Stone attended was set up by Donald Trump's campaign aide, Michael Caputo and is a subject of Robert Mueller's investigation.
Oil industry consultant Carter Page had his communications monitored by the FBI under a FISA warrant beginning in 2014, and again beginning in October 2016, after he was suspected of acting as an agent for Russia. Page told The Washington Post that he considered that to be "unjustified, politically motivated government surveillance". Page spoke with Kislyak during the 2016 Republican National Convention, acting as a foreign policy adviser to Donald Trump. In 2013 he had met with Viktor Podobnyy, then a junior attaché at the Russian Permanent Mission to the United Nations, at an energy conference, and provided him with documents on the U.S. energy industry. Podobnyy was later charged with spying, but was protected from prosecution by diplomatic immunity. The FBI interviewed Page in 2013 as part of an investigation into Podonyy's spy ring, but never accused Page of wrongdoing.
On January 11, 2017, UAE officials organized a meeting in the Seychelles between Erik Prince, the founder of the Blackwater security company and a Trump campaign donor, and an unnamed Russian "close to Vladimir Putin". They discussed a back channel between Trump and Putin along with Middle East policy, notably about Syria and Iran. U.S. officials said that the FBI was investigating the meeting.
Donald Trump's son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner, on his application for top secret security clearance, failed to disclose numerous meetings with foreign officials, including Ambassador Kislyak and Sergei Gorkov, the head of the Russian state-owned bank Vnesheconombank. Kushner's lawyers called the omissions "an error". Vnesheconombank has said the meeting was business-related, in connection with Kushner's management of Kushner Companies. However, the Trump administration provided a different explanation, saying it was a diplomatic meeting.
On May 30, 2017, both the House and Senate congressional panels asked President Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen to "provide information and testimony" about any communications that Cohen had with people connected to the Kremlin. Cohen had attempted to contact Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov during the 2016 campaign, asking for help in advancing plans for a Trump Tower in Moscow.
In May 2017 longtime Republican operative Peter W. Smith confirmed to The Wall Street Journal that during the 2016 campaign he had been actively involved in trying to obtain emails he believed had been hacked from Hillary Clinton's computer server. In that quest he contacted several known hacker groups, including some Russian groups. He claimed he was working on behalf of Trump campaign advisor (later national security advisor) Michael Flynn and Flynn's son. At around the same time, there were intelligence reports that Russian hackers were trying to obtain Clinton's emails to pass to Flynn through an unnamed intermediary. Five of the hacker groups Smith contacted, including at least two Russian groups, claimed to have Clinton's emails. He was shown some information but was not convinced it was genuine, and suggested the hackers give it to WikiLeaks instead. A document describing Smith's plans claimed that Flynn, Kellyanne Conway, Steve Bannon, and other campaign advisors were coordinating with him "to the extent permitted as an independent expenditure". The White House, a campaign official, Conway, and Bannon all denied any connection with Smith's effort. British blogger Matt Tait said Smith had contacted him – "curiously, around the same time Trump called for the Russians to get Hillary Clinton's missing emails" – to ask him to help authenticate any materials that might be forthcoming. Ten days after his interview with The Wall Street Journal, Smith committed suicide in a Minnesota hotel room, citing declining health.
Christopher Steele, a former MI6 agent, was hired by Fusion GPS to produce opposition research on Donald Trump. In the beginning, the research was funded by Trump's political opponents. He did not know the identities of the ultimate clients. His reports, based in part on information provided by Russian sources, included alleged kompromat that may make Trump vulnerable to blackmail from Russia. A 33-page compilation was leaked to the press in October 2016 but was not published by mainstream media who doubted the material's credibility. In December 2016, two more pages were added alleging efforts by Trump's lawyer to pay those who had hacked the DNC and arranging to cover up any evidence of their deeds. On January 5, 2017, U.S. intelligence agencies briefed President Obama and President-elect Trump on the existence of these documents. Eventually, the dossier was published in full by BuzzFeed on January 10.
By April 2017, corroborated information from the dossier had been used as part of the basis for getting the FISA warrant to monitor former Trump foreign policy advisor Carter Page during the summer of 2016.
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Commentary and reactions
Polls conducted in early January 2017 showed that 55% of respondents believed that Russia interfered in the election; 51% believed Russia intervened through hacking. As of February 2017[update] public-opinion polls showed a partisan split on the importance of Russia's involvement in the 2016 election. At that time, however, the broader issue of the Trump administration's relationship with Russia didn't even register among the most important problems facing the U.S. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 53 percent wanted a Congressional inquiry into communications in 2016 between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. Quinnipiac University found that 47 percent thought it was very important. A March 2017 poll conducted by the Associated Press and NORC found about 62% of respondents say they are at least moderately concerned about the possibility that Trump or his campaign had inappropriate contacts with Russia during the 2016 campaign.
A January 2017 poll conducted by the Levada Center, Russia's largest independent polling organization, showed that only 12% of Russian respondents believed that Russia "definitely" or "probably" interfered in the U.S. election. A December 2017 survey conducted by the Levada Center found that 31% of Russian respondents thought that their government tried to influence U.S. domestic affairs in a significant way.
A Quinnipiac University poll conducted in late March and early April 2017 found that 68% of voters supported "an independent commission investigating the potential links between some of Donald Trump's campaign advisors and the Russian government". An April 2017 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that respondents had little confidence in Congress's investigation into the Russian interference in the election. The poll found that approximately 73% supported a "nonpartisan, independent commission" to look into Russia's involvement in the election. An ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted in April 2017 found that 56 percent of respondents thought that Russia tried to influence the election.
A May 2017 Monmouth University poll, conducted after the dismissal of James Comey, found that "nearly 6-in-10 Americans thought it was either very (40%) or somewhat (19%) likely that Comey was fired in order to slow down or stop the FBI investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible links with the Trump campaign." Like other recent opinion polls, a majority, 73%, said that the FBI investigation should continue.
A June 2017 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that respondents were more likely to believe James Comey over Trump when it came to their differing accounts behind the reasons for Comey's dismissal. The survey found that 45% of respondents were more likely to believe Comey than Trump. The poll also found that the number of respondents disapproving of Trump's decision to fire Comey- 46%- was higher than when the same question was asked in May of the same year. 53% of respondents said that they believed that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election, however the number changes by party affiliation. 78% of Democrats said that they believed there was interference, versus 26% of Republicans who agreed. An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist College poll conducted in late June 2017 found that 54% of respondents believed that Trump either did "something illegal" or "something unethical, but not illegal" in his dealings with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The poll found that 73% of Republicans said Trump himself has done "nothing wrong" while 41% of Democrats believed that Trump did something that was illegal. In addition, 47% said that they thought Russia was a major threat to future U.S. elections, while 13% of respondents said that Russia posed no threat at all.
A July 2017 ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 63% of respondents said that it "was inappropriate for Trump's son, son-in-law and campaign manager to have met with a Russian lawyer during the campaign." The poll also found that six in ten overall who think that Russia tried to influence the election, with 72% saying that they thought that Trump benefited and that "67 percent thought that members of his campaign intentionally helped those efforts."
Polls conducted in August 2017 found widespread disapproval and distrust of Trump's handling of the investigation. A CNN/SSRS poll conducted in early August found that only 31% of respondents approved of Trump's handling of the matter. The poll also noted that 60% of adults "thought that it was a serious matter that should be fully investigated." On party lines, the poll found that 15% of Democrats and 56% of Republicans approved of Trump's handling of the matter. A Gallup poll from the same month found similar trends. The poll found that 25% of respondents said Trump acted illegally in dealings with the Russians. The poll found that 6% of Republicans and Republican-leaners thought that Trump did something illegal in his dealings with the Russians. A poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 58% of respondents expressed a negative view of Russia, while 25% had a favorable view of the country. The poll also found that 48% believed that "there is clear evidence that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to help the Trump campaign." The broader issue of the Trump administration's relationship with Russia, however, was not identified by more than 1% of respondents in Gallup tracking of 'Most Important Problem' at any point since February 2017. (As of July 2018, it was <0.5%.)
On December 15, 2016, Hillary Clinton said she partially attributed her loss in the 2016 election to Russian meddling organized by Putin. Clinton said Putin had a personal grudge against her, and linked his feelings to her criticism of the 2011 Russian legislative election, adding that he felt she was responsible for fomenting the 2011–13 Russian protests. She drew a specific connection from her 2011 assertions as U.S. Secretary of State that Putin rigged the elections that year, to his actions in the 2016 U.S. elections. During the third debate, Clinton stated that Putin favored Trump, "because he'd rather have a puppet as president of the United States". Clinton said that by personally attacking her through meddling in the election, Putin additionally took a strike at the American democratic system. She said the cyber attacks were a larger issue than the effect on her own candidacy and called them an attempt to attack the national security of the United States. Clinton noted she was unsuccessful in sufficiently publicizing to the media the cyber attacks against her campaign in the months leading up to the election. She voiced her support for a proposal put forth by U.S. Senators from both parties, to set up an investigative panel to look into the matter akin to the 9/11 Commission.
Republican National Committee
The RNC said there was no intrusion into its servers, while acknowledging email accounts of individual Republicans (including Colin Powell) were breached. Over 200 emails from Colin Powell were posted on the website DC Leaks. Priebus appeared on Meet the Press on December 11, 2016, and discounted the CIA conclusions. Priebus said the FBI had investigated and found that RNC servers had not been hacked.
Prior to his presidential run, Donald Trump made statements to Fox News in 2014 in which he agreed with an assessment by then FBI director James Comey about hacking against the U.S. by Russia and China. Trump was played a clip of Comey from 60 Minutes discussing the dangers of cyber attacks. Trump stated he agreed with the problem of cyber threats posed by China, and went on to emphasize there was a similar problem towards the U.S. posed by Russia.
In September 2016, during the first presidential debate, Trump said he doubted whether anyone knew who hacked the DNC, and disputed Russian interference. During the second debate, Trump said there might not have been hacking at all, and questioned why accountability was placed on Russia.
During the third debate, Trump rejected Clinton's claim that Putin favored Trump. Trump's words "our country has no idea" and "I doubt it" were deeply shocking to the British because "all NATO allies" and "all of America's intelligence agencies" were "sure Russia was behind the hacking". Trump denied these conclusions "based on absolutely nothing. ... That he would so aggressively fight to clear Putin and cast aspersions on all Western intelligence agencies, left the British officials slack-jawed."
After the election, Trump rejected the CIA analysis and asserted that the reports were politically motivated to deflect from the Democrats' electoral defeat. Trump's transition team said in a brief statement: "These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction." However, the intelligence analysts involved in monitoring Russian activities are different from those who assessed that Iraq had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, while post–Iraq War reforms have made it less likely for similar errors to reach the highest levels of the U.S. intelligence community. Trump dismissed reports of Russia's interference, calling them "ridiculous"; he placed blame on Democrats upset over election results for publicizing these reports, and cited Julian Assange's statement that "a 14-year-old kid could have hacked Podesta". After Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats and announced further sanctions on Russia, Trump commended Putin for refraining from retaliatory measures against the United States until the Trump administration would lay out its policy towards Russia.
On January 6, 2017, after meeting with members of U.S. intelligence agencies, Trump released a statement saying: cyberwarfare had no impact on the election and did not harm voting machines. In the same statement, he vowed to form a national cybersecurity task force to prepare an anti-hacking plan within 90 days of taking office. Referring to the Office of Personnel Management data breach in 2015, Trump said he was under a "political witch hunt" and wondered why there was no focus on China. Two days later, Reince Priebus said that Trump had begun to acknowledge that "entities in Russia" were involved in the DNC leaks. On January 11, 2017, Trump conceded that Russia was probably the source of the leaks, although he also said it could have been another country.
On November 11, 2017, after meeting Vladimir Putin at a summit in Vietnam, Trump said, "I just asked him again. He said he absolutely did not meddle in our election. ... Every time he sees me he says: 'I didn't do that,' and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it." Trump went on to contrast Putin's "very strongly, vehemently" spoken denials with the word of former intelligence officials who he termed as "political hacks": John Brennan, James Clapper, and the "liar" and "leaker" James Comey. A day later, when asked to clarify his comments, Trump said, "As to whether I believe it or not, I'm with our [intelligence] agencies, especially as currently constituted." Brennan and Clapper, appearing on CNN, expressed concern that Trump was "giving Putin a pass" and showing the Russian leader that "Donald Trump can be played by foreign leaders who are going to appeal to his ego and try to play upon his insecurities."
In an interview on February 14, 2018, Pence said, "Irrespective of efforts that were made in 2016 by foreign powers, it is the universal conclusion of our intelligence communities that none of those efforts had any impact on the outcome of the 2016 election." Actually, in January 2017 the intelligence community had published a statement saying, "We did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election." Pence added, "It doesn't mean that there weren't efforts, and we do know there were — there were efforts by Russia and likely by other countries. We take that very seriously."
The CIA assessment, and Trump's dismissal of it, created an unprecedented rupture between the president-elect and the intelligence community. On December 11, 2016, U.S. intelligence officials responded to Trump's denunciation of their findings in a written statement, and expressed dismay that Trump disputed their conclusions as politically motivated or inaccurate. They wrote that intelligence officials were motivated to defend U.S. national security. Members of the intelligence community feared reprisals from Donald Trump once he took office.
Former CIA director Michael Morell said foreign interference in U.S. elections was an existential threat. Former CIA spokesman George E. Little condemned Trump for dismissing the CIA assessment, saying that the president-elect's atypical response was disgraceful and denigrated the courage of those who serve in the CIA at risk to their own lives.
Former NSA director and CIA director Michael V. Hayden posited that Trump's antagonizing the Intelligence Community signaled the administration would rely less on intelligence for policy-making. Independent presidential candidate and former CIA intelligence officer Evan McMullin criticized the Republican leadership for failing to respond adequately to Russia's meddling in the election process. McMullin said Republican politicians were aware that publicly revealed information about Russia's interference was likely the tip of the iceberg relative to the actual threat. Former NSA director Michael V. Hayden has stated that Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election is the "most successful covert influence operation in history". Hayden went further saying that Trump was a "useful fool ... manipulated by Moscow".
A January 2017 report by the Director of National Intelligence said that the intelligence community did "not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election". Despite this, CIA Director Mike Pompeo claimed that "the Russian meddling that took place did not affect the outcome of the election" at an event hosted by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on October 19, 2017. CIA agency spokesman Dean Boyd withdrew his remarks the next day stating that they were made in error.
In July 2016, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said he had not seen evidence linking Russia to the emails leaked from the DNC, despite the CIA's conclusion that Russian military intelligence fed them to Wikileaks indirectly. In November 2016, Assange said Russia was not the source of John Podesta's hacked emails published by Wikileaks. In a leaked Twitter direct message, Assange stated that in the 2016 election “it would be much better for GOP to win,” and that Hillary Clinton was a “sadistic sociopath".
On December 10, 2016, ten electors, headed by Christine Pelosi, daughter of former United States Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), wrote an open letter to the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper demanding an intelligence briefing on investigations into foreign intervention in the presidential election. Fifty-eight additional electors subsequently added their names to the letter, bringing the total to 68 electors from 17 different states. The Clinton campaign supported the call for a classified briefing for electors. On December 16, 2016, the briefing request was denied.
The Russian government initially issued categorical denials of any involvement in the U.S. presidential election. Already in June 2016, in a statement to Reuters, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied any connection of Russian government bodies to the DNC hacks that had been blamed on Russia. When a new intelligence report surfaced in December 2016, Sergey Lavrov, Foreign Minister of Russia, rejected the accusations again. When ABC News wrote that Russian President Vladimir Putin was directly involved in the covert operation, Peskov called the report "rubbish". On December 16, 2016, Peskov called on the U.S. government to cease discussion of the topic unless they provide evidence to back up their assertions. However, Putin and other Russian officials have offered explanations for the interference crediting "patriotic" (but not governmental) Russians, "Ukrainians, Tatars or Jews" in the pay of the US, or that any Russian interference is justified in the face of earlier US interference in Russian affairs.
At the Valdai Discussion Club forum in October 2016, Putin denounced American "hysteria" over alleged Russian interference. During his December 23 press conference, Putin deflected questions on the issue by accusing the U.S. Democratic Party of scapegoating Russia after losing the presidential election. He also remarked that the Republicans won control of the House and Senate in state elections and wondered if Russia was deemed responsible for this as well. (Caches of Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee documents were stolen by "Guccifer 2.0" and released to reporters and bloggers, targeting some of the most competitive elections in the House of Representatives.)
In early 2017, there was a purge of suspected traitors underway in Russia's intelligence apparatus that mainly targeted computer security professionals, the arrested men being charged "with treason in favor of the United States"; experts speculated that those arrested might have provided the U.S. government with information that allowed the U.S. intelligence officials to accuse Russia of using hackers to try influence the 2016 presidential election.
In June 2017, Putin told journalists in St. Petersburg that "patriotically minded" Russian hackers could have been responsible for the cyberattacks against the U.S. during the 2016 campaign, while continuing to deny government involvement. Putin's comments echoed similar remarks that he had made earlier the same week to the French newspaper Le Figaro.
In a March 2018 interview, Putin suggested that "Ukrainians, Tatars or Jews" rather than ethnic Russians were to blame for interfering with U.S. elections, and suggested that "maybe it was the Americans who paid them for this work". Putin's statement was criticized by the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, which both likened Putin's comments to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an antisemitic hoax first published in Russia in the early 20th century.
A report commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee said that trolls created by the Internet Research Agency have denounced the Special Prosecutor's investigation of Russian election interference as a “weird conspiracy” pushed only by “liberal crybabies,” and alleged that Robert Mueller “worked with radical Islamic groups,” and that James Comey was “a dirty cop”.
In September 2017, at his Senate confirmation hearing, Jon Huntsman Jr., Trump's nominee for United States Ambassador to Russia, said there was "no question" that the Russian government had interfered in the U.S. election the year before.
- Cyberwarfare by Russia
- Foreign electoral intervention
- Russian espionage in the United States
- Russian interference in the 2016 Brexit referendum
- Russian interference in the 2018 United States elections
- Russia–NATO relations
- Social media in the 2016 United States presidential election
- The Plot to Hack America
- Trump: The Kremlin Candidate?
- 1996 United States campaign finance controversy, known as "Chinagate"
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|Wikiquote has quotations related to: Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections|
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- U.S. Department of Justice federal indictment against 13 Russian individuals and 3 Russian entities, February 16, 2016
- Joint Statement from the Department Of Homeland Security and Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Election Security, October 7, 2016
- McCain, Graham, Schumer, Reed Joint Statement on Reports That Russia Interfered with the 2016 Election, December 11, 2016
- James Comey's opening statement preceding the June 8, 2017 Senate Intelligence Committee hearing
- House Intelligence Committee Report Findings and Recommendations
- Chronological Listing of Donald Trump Jr.'s Email Exchange With Rob Goldstone
- Committee to Investigate Russia
- Indictment, July 13, 2018 indictment of 12 Russians for conspiracy, hacking, identity theft, and money laundering
- House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Report on Russian Active Measures: Majority Report, March 22, 2018—Final Report of the Republican majority
- House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Report on Russian Active Measures: Minority Views, March 26, 2018—a 98-page response by the Democratic minority
- Trump Stories: Collusion, NPR Embedded, February 8, 2018. Length: 1:06:31