Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections
The Russian government interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election with the goal of harming the campaign of Hillary Clinton, boosting the candidacy of Donald Trump, and increasing political discord in the United States. Russia's covert activities were first reported by the United States Intelligence Community in October 2016, and confirmed by the Director of National Intelligence office three months later. Former FBI director Robert Mueller has been leading a Special Counsel investigation into the interference since May 2017.
The clandestine influence campaign, which the U.S. intelligence community has concluded was ordered by President Vladimir Putin himself, involved the Internet Research Agency "troll farm" creating thousands of social media accounts that impersonated Americans supporting radical groups, planning and promoting rallies, and reached millions of social media users between 2013 and 2017. According to criminal indictments by the Special Counsel, those messages and activities "spread distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general", for example by discouraging African Americans from voting or by motivating conservative voters wary of Trump.
Additionally, hackers affiliated with the Russian military intelligence service (GRU) penetrated computer systems of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), and Clinton campaign officials, notably chairman John Podesta. Tens of thousands of private emails and attachments were released to the public during the final months of the campaign, via DCLeaks, Guccifer 2.0 and Wikileaks. The exposed information revealed internal bias against Clinton's primary challenger Bernie Sanders, which led to the resignation of the DNC chair and lukewarm backing of Clinton by Sanders supporters. Russian government officials have repeatedly denied involvement in any DNC hacks or leaks. Russia-connected individuals also communicated with various Trump campaign associates, offering damaging information on Clinton or business opportunities.
The Russian interference activities triggered strong statements from American intelligence agencies, a direct warning by then-U.S. president Barack Obama to Russian president Vladimir Putin, renewed sanctions against Russia, closures of Russian diplomatic facilities and expulsion of their staff. The Senate and House Intelligence Committees have held several hearings.
The FBI and Special Counsel conducted investigations resulting in indictments of twenty-six Russian agents and three Russian organizations. The Special Counsel also has been investigating links between Russia and Trump associates, which has resulted in indictments of Rick Gates and Roger Stone, and convictions of Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos, Alex van der Zwaan, W. Samuel Patten, and Michael Cohen. Trump has called the interference a "hoax", contending it was an excuse by Democrats for losing the election. He dismissed FBI Director James Comey over the issue.
Background and Russian actors
Prior Russian election interference in Ukraine
The May 2014 Ukrainian presidential election was disrupted by cyberattacks over several days, including the release of hacked emails, attempted alteration of vote tallies, and distributed denial-of-service attacks to delay the final result. They were found to be launched by Pro-Russian hackers. 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 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.
In December 2016, two senior intelligence officials told several U.S. news media outlets[Note 1] that they were highly confident that the operation to interfere in the 2016 presidential election was personally directed by Vladimir Putin. Under Putin's direction, the goals of the operation evolved from first undermining American's trust in their democracy to undermining Clinton's campaign, and by the fall of 2016 to directly helping Trump's campaign, because Putin thought Trump would ease economic sanctions.
The officials believe Putin became personally involved after Russia accessed the DNC computers, because such an operation would require high-level government approval. 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.
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
Putin blamed Clinton for the 2011–2012 mass protests in Russia against his rule, according to the report:11 (Clinton was U.S. Secretary of State at the time). FBI Director James Comey also has testified that Putin disliked Clinton and preferred her opponent, and Clinton herself has accused Putin of having a 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."
Russian officials have denied the allegations multiple times. 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". Putin also has denied any Kremlin involvement in the election campaign, though in June 2017 he told journalists that "patriotically minded" Russian hackers may have been responsible for the campaign cyberattacks against the U.S., and in 2018 he stated that he had wanted Trump to win the election "because he talked about bringing the U.S.-Russia relationship back to normal."
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 writing in The New York Observer (published at the time by Jared Kushner) 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 Institute for Strategic Studies
In April 2017, Reuters cited several unnamed U.S. officials as stating that the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISS) had developed a strategy to sway the U.S. election to Donald Trump, and failing that to disillusion U.S. voters with in their democratic system. The development of strategy was allegedly ordered by Putin and directed by former officers of Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), retired SVR general Leonid Petrovich Reshetnikov being head of the RISS at the time. The Institute had been a part of the SVR until 2009, whereafter it has worked for the Russian Presidential Administration.
The U.S. officials stated that the propaganda efforts began in March 2016. The first set of recommendations, issued in June 2016, proposed that Russia support a candidate for U.S. president more favorable to Russia than Obama had been, via Russia-backed news outlets and a social media campaign. It supported Trump until October, when another conclusion was made that Hillary Clinton was likely to win, and the strategy should be modified to work to undermine U.S. voters′ faith in their electoral system and a Clinton presidency by alleging voter fraud in the election. RISS director Mikhail Fradkov and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied the allegations.
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. In order to establish American identities for individuals and groups within specific social media communities, hundreds of email, PayPal and bank accounts and fraudulent driver's licenses were created for fictitious Americans — and sometimes real Americans whose Social Security numbers had been stolen.
Social media and internet trolls
Russian use of social media to disseminate propaganda content was very broad. Facebook and Twitter were used, but also Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Medium, YouTube, Vine, and Google+ (among other sites). Instagram was by far the most used platform, and one that largely remained out of the public eye until late 2018.
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. 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.)
Fabricated articles/Disinformation were spread from Russian government-controlled outlets, RT and Sputnik to be popularized on pro-Russian accounts on Twitter and other social media. Researchers have compared Russian tactics during the 2016 U.S. election to the "active measures" of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but made easier by the use of social media.
Monitoring 7,000 pro-Trump social media accounts over a two-and-a-half year period, researchers J. M. Berger, Andrew Weisburd and Clint Watts found the accounts denigrated critics of Russian activities in Syria and propagated falsehoods about Clinton's health. Watts found Russian propaganda in the U.S. to be aimed at fomenting "dissent or conspiracies against the US government and its institutions", and by autumn of 2016 amplifying attacks on Clinton and support for Trump, via social media, Internet trolls, botnets, and websites.
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Monitoring news on Twitter directed at one state -- Michigan—prior to the election, Philip N. Howard found approximately 50% of it to be fabricated or untrue, (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.[not in citation given]
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.
Cyberattack on Democrats
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 tens of thousands of emails and attachments and deleted computer logs and files to obscure evidence of their activities. These were saved and released in stages to the public during the three months before the 2016 election. 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 (who received 43% of votes cast in the Democratic presidential primaries) 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 to platforms created by hackers — a website called DCLeaks and a persona called Guccifer 2.0 claiming to be a lone hacker — and to wikileaks. (The Russians registered the domain dcleaks.com, using principally Bitcoin to pay for the domain and the hosting.)
John Podesta, Chairman of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, received a phishing email on March 19, 2016, sent by Russian operatives purporting to alert him of a "compromise in the system", and urging him to change his password "immediately" by clicking on a link. This allowed Russian hackers to access around 60,000 emails from Podesta's private account.
John Podesta, later told Meet the Press that the FBI spoke to him only once regarding his hacked emails and that he had not been sure what had been taken until a month before the election on 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."
The wikileaks October 7 dump started 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, and a few hours after the Obama Administration released a statement by the Department of Homeland Security and the director of National Intelligence stating "The U.S. Intelligence Community (USIC) is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations."
It initially released 2,050 of these. 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. The Clinton campaign did not confirm or deny the authenticity of the emails but emphasized they were stolen and distributed by parties hostile to Clinton and that "top national security officials" had stated "that documents can be faked as part of a sophisticated Russian misinformation campaign."
The GRU (using the names Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear) gained access to the computer network of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) — the formal governing body of the Democratic Party — in July 2015 and maintained it until at least June 2016, when they began leaking the stolen 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. Emails leaked included personal information about Democratic Party donors, with credit card and Social Security numbers, emails by Wasserman Schultz calling a Sanders campaign official a "damn liar".
Intelligence analysis of 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 hacked e-mails on sites like DCLeaks.com and WikiLeaks are consistent with the Russian-directed efforts.
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, the Democratic National Committee, 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 may have become a "devastating weapon" against the Clinton campaign was the campaign's data analytics and voter-turnout models, extremely useful in targeting messages to “key constituencies" that Clinton needed to mobilize. These voters were later bombarded by Russian operatives with negative information about Clinton on social media.
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 and its founder Julian Assange have made a number of statements denying that the Russian government was the source of the material. However, an anonymous CIA offical said that Russian officials transferred the hacked e-mails to WikiLeaks using "a circuitous route" from Russia's military intelligence services (GRU) to WikiLeaks via third parties.
Hacking 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."
- Hacking of Republicans
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". In earlier statements, an FBI official stated Russian attempts to access the RNC server were unsuccessful, or had reportedly told the RNC chair that their servers were secure, but that email accounts of individual Republicans (including Colin Powell) were breached. (Over 200 emails from Colin Powell were posted on the website DC Leaks.) One state Republican Party (Illinois) may have had some of its email accounts hacked.
- 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".
Trump asserted in March 2019 that he had been joking when he made the remark. Katy Tur of NBC News had interviewed Trump immediately after the 2016 remark, noting she gave him an opportunity to characterize it as a joke, but he did not.
Targeting of important voting blocs and institutions
In her analysis of the Russian influence on the 2016 election, Kathleen Hall Jamieson argues that Russians aligned themselves with the "geographic and demographic objectives" of the Trump campaign, using trolls, social media and hacked information to targeting certain important constituencies.
Attempts to suppress African American votes and spread alienation
The Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) focused on the culture of Muslims, Christians, Texas, and even LGBTQ, to engage those communities as part of a broader strategy to deepen social and political divisions within the US, but no other group received as much attention as Black Americans, whose voter turnout has been historically crucial to the election of Democrats. Russia's influence campaign used an array of tactics aiming to reduce their vote for Hillary Clinton, according to a December 2018 report (The Tactics & Tropes of the Internet Research Agency) commissioned by the Senate Intelligence Committee.
30 Facebook pages targeting black Americans and 10 YouTube channels that posted 571 videos related to police violence against African-Americans.) The covertly Russian Instagram account @blackstagram had over 300,000 followers. A variety of Facebook pages targeting African Americans and later determined to be Russian amassed a total of 1.2 million individual followers, the report found. 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 and spreading misleading information about how to vote and who to vote for.
Arousing conservative voters
25 social media pages drawing 1.4 million followers were created by Russian agents to target the American political right and promote the Trump candidacy. An example of the targeting was the adding of Blue Lives Matter material to social media platforms by Russian operatives after the Black Lives Matter movement moved to the center of public attention in the America and sparked a pro-police reaction.
Jamieson noted there was reason to believe Donald Trump would under-perform among two normally dependable conservative 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, known for his three marriages and many affairs, but not for any religious beliefs, who had been and had boasted of groping women. Military personnel might lack enthusiasm for a candidate who avoided service in Vietnam  but who described himself as a "brave soldier" in having to face his "personal Vietnam" of the threat of sexually transmitted diseases, and who mocked Gold Star parents and former prisoner of war John McCain.
To overcome Trump's possible poor reputation among evangelicals and veterans, Russian trolls created memes that exploited typical conservative social attitudes about people of color, Muslims, and immigrants. One such meme juxtaposed photographs of a homeless veteran and an undocumented immigrant, alluding to the belief that undocumented immigrants receive special treatment.:84 CNN exit polls showed that Trump led Clinton among veterans by 26 percentage points and won a higher percentage of the evangelical vote than either of the two previous Republican presidential nominees, indicating that this tactic may have succeeded.
Influence on FBI investigation of email server
Some have argued Russian operatives also successfully targeted the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) to influence the election. In July 2016, FBI director James Comey 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. Three months later, 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 the 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.” The way Russians allegedly influenced Comey was through disinformation they sent to the FBI.
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 his superior Attorney General Loretta Lynch. Comey's behavior was later described by the inspector general of the Justice Department as “extraordinary and insubordinate”, and deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein later cited these actions as grounds for Comey's dismissal that Pres. Trump claimed he was following in dismissing Comey. Comey, however, believed it to be justified based in part on classified document given to the FBI alleging that Lynch sent emails to a member of the Clinton campaign team in which Lynch promised that she would go easy on Clinton.
The information was extremely suspect. Comey himself told investigators “he knew from the first moment” that the document “wasn't true” and the FBI was later unable to corroborate the document. Even so, according to “current and former" FBI officials "Comey relied on the document in making his July decision" to denounce Clinton's "extreme carelessness” because he feared its contents would be leaked, tainting the public's perception of the FBI investigation. A former Clinton campaign spokesman, Nick Merrill, describes this as a case of Comey basing "major decisions in the Justice Department" on a Russian forgery impugning Attorney General Lynch "because of the optics of it! ... The Russians targeted the F.B.I., hoping they'd act on it, and then he went ahead and did so."
Intrusions into state voter-registration systems
During the summer and fall of 2016, Russian hackers intruded into voter databases and software systems in 39 different US states, alarming Obama administration officials to the point that they took the unprecedented step of contacting Moscow directly via the Moscow–Washington hotline and warning that the attacks risked setting off a broader conflict.
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. Moreover, top elections officials of the states of Wisconsin and California have denied 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".
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.
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 $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.
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.
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.
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.
FBI has been investigating the Russian government’s attempt to influence the 2016 presidential election — including whether campaign associates of Donald Trump’s were involved in Russia's efforts — since July 2016.
An earlier event investigated by the FBI was a May 2016 meeting between the Donald Trump campaign foreign policy advisor, George Papadopoulos, and Alexander Downer in a London wine bar, where Papadopoulos disclosed his inside knowledge of a large trove of Hillary Clinton emails that could potentially damage her campaign.
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.
James Comey testimony
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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.
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. e 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".
The Senate Intelligence Committee began work on its bipartisan inquiry in January 2017. In May, the committee voted unanimously to give both Chairmen solo subpoena power. Soon after, the committee issued a subpoena to the Trump campaign for all Russia-related documents, emails, and telephone records. In December, it was also looking at the presidential campaign of Green Party's Jill Stein for potential "collusion with the Russians".
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, stating: "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."
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".
2018 committee reports
The Senate Intelligence Committee commissioned two reports that extensively described the Russian campaign to influence social media during the 2016 election. Both were based largely on data provided by involved social media companies like 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 New Knowledge report highlighted "the energy and imagination" of the Russian effort to "sway American opinion and divide the country", and their focus on African-Americans. The report identified over 263 million "engagements" (likes, comments, shares, etc.) with Internet Research Agency content and faulted U.S. social media companies for allowing their platforms to be co-opted for foreign propaganda".
U.S. House of Representatives
After bipartisan calls to action in December 2016, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence launched an investigation in January 2017 about Russian election meddling, including possible ties between Trump's campaign and Russia. The Senate Intelligence Committee launched its own parallel probe in January as well. Fifteen months later, in April 2018, the House Intelligence Committee's Republican majority released its final report, amid harsh criticism from Democrat members of the committee. The report found "no evidence" of collusion between the Russian government and the Trump campaign.
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. In March 2017, Democrat ranking committee member Adam Schiff stated that there was sufficient evidence to warrant further investigation, and claimed to have seen "more than circumstantial evidence" of collusion.
On April 6, 2017, Republican committee chairman Devin Nunes temporarily recused himself from the investigation after the House Ethics Committee announced that it would investigate accusations that he had disclosed classified information without authorization. He was replaced by Representative Mike Conaway. Nunes was cleared of wrongdoing on December 8, 2017
The committee's probe was shut down on March 12, 2018, acknowledging that Russians interfered in the 2016 elections through an active measures campaign promoting propaganda and fake news, but rejecting the conclusion of intelligence agencies that Russia had favored Trump in the election (although some Republican committee members distanced themselves from this assertion). The committee's report did not find any evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government's efforts; Conaway said they had uncovered only "perhaps some bad judgment, inappropriate meetings."
Democrats on the committee objected to the Republicans' closure of the investigation and their refusal to press key witnesses for further testimony or documentation that might have further established complicity of the Trump campaign with Russia. Schiff 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 conclusions of the U.S. Intelligence Community that Russia used cyberattacks to influence the election. 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.
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 in a December 15, 2016, interview by NPR journalist Steve Inskeep. 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 stressed 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.
Initially Putin refrained from retaliatory measures to the December 29 sanctions and invited all the children of the U.S. diplomats accredited in Russia to New Year's and Christmas celebrations at the Kremlin. He did reserved the right to respond adequately and stated that steps for restoring Russian-American relations would be built on the basis of the policies developed by the Trump administration. Later in May 2017, Russian banker Andrey Kostin, an associate of President Vladimir Putin, accused "the Washington elite" of purposefully disrupting the presidency of Donald Trump.
Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act
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.
Although Trump faced an overide if he vetoed the bill and Trump signed it into law he issued a statements saying :
″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."
and 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 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. 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.
Counter-sanctions by Russia
On July 27, as the bill was being passed by the Senate, president Putin pledged a response to ″this kind of insolence towards our country″. 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. 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 determine, or ignored in favor of other factors that led to Trump's victory. Joel Benenson, the Clinton campaign’s pollster, said we probably will never know, while Richard Burr, the Republican chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said "we cannot calculate the impact that foreign meddling and social media had on this election”. Michael V. Hayden, a former director of the CIA and the NSA, 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 were consistent with the reasons Clinton lost."
Clinton supporters have been more likely to blame her defeat on campaign mistakes, Comey's reopening of the criminal investigation into her emails, or to direct attention to whether Trump colluded with Russia.
Several high-level Republicans believe that Russian interference did not determine the election's outcome, including those who would have benefited from Russia's efforts. President Trump has asserted that "the Russians had no impact on our votes whatsoever", and 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 also said “the intelligence community's assessment is that the Russian meddling that took place did not affect the outcome of the election”. In fact, the official intelligence assessment of January 2017 did not evaluated whether Russian activities had any impact on the election's outcome, and CIA spokesman Dean Boyd stated that Pompeo's remark was erroneous.Paul Ryan also claimed it is "clear" that the Russian interference "didn’t have a material effect on our elections."
On the other hand, a number of former intelligence and law enforcement officials, and at least one political scientist, argue that Russian interference was decisive because of the sophistication of the Russian propaganda on social media, the hacking of Democratic Party emails and the timing of their public release, the small shift in voter support needed to achieve victory in the electoral college, and the relatively high number of undecided voters (who may be more readily influenced). James Clapper, the former director of National Intelligence, told Jane 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.”
Three states where Trump won by very close margins — margins significantly less than the number of votes cast for third party candidates in those states — gave him an electoral college majority. Mayer writes that if only 12% of these third-party voters "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. Political scientist Kathleen Hall Jamieson, in a detailed "forensic analysis" concludes that Russian trolls and hackers persuaded enough Americans "to either vote a certain way or not vote at all", thus impacting election results. Specifically, Jamieson argues that two events that caused a drop in intention to vote for Clinton reported to pollsters can be traced to Russian work: the publicizing of excerpts of speeches by Clinton made to investment banks for high fees stolen from campaign emails during the presidential debates, and the effect of Russian disinformation on FBI head Comey's public denunciation of Clinton's actions as “extremely careless” (see above).
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 immediately controversial and having "vast political ramifications" because of the Bureau's ongoing investigation into Russian activities in the 2016 election. 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. Comey himself 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."
During a meeting Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak on May 10, 2017, in the Oval Office, Trump told the Russian officials that firing the F.B.I. director, James Comey, had relieved "great pressure" on him, according to a White House document. Trump stated, "I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job ... 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
In March 2018, Anastasia Vashukevich, a Belarusian national arrested in Thailand, 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, a Russian oligarch with ties to Putin and business links to Paul Manafort, and asserted the recordings included Deripaska 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 claims Deripaska served as a liaison between the Russian government and Paul Manafort in connection with Russian interference efforts.
In August 2018, Vashukevich said she no longer has any evidence having sent the recordings to Deripaska without having made them public, hoping he would be able to gain her release from prison, and has promised Deripaska not to make any further comment on the recordings' contents.
Links between Trump associates and Russian officials
During the course of the 2016 presidential campaign and up to his inauguration, Donald J. Trump and at least 17 campaign officials and advisers had numerous contacts with Russian nationals, with WikiLeaks, or with intermediaries between the two. As of January 28, The New York Times had tallied over 100 in-person meetings, phone calls, text messages, emails and private messages on Twitter between the Trump Campaign and Russians or wikileaks.
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.
In 2017 Manafort was indicted in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia on various charges arising from his consulting work for the pro-Russian government of Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine before Yanukovych's overthrow in 2014, as well as in the Eastern District of Virginia for eight charges of tax and bank fraud. He was convicted of the fraud charges in August 2019 and sentenced to 47 months in prison Judge T.S. Ellis. Although all of the 2017 charges arose from the Special Counsel investigation, none of them were for any alleged collusion to interfere with U.S. elections.
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, and Steele 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 shared with Mother Jones magazine 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.
In 2016, the FBI used the dossier as part of its justification to obtain a FISA warrant to resume monitoring of former Trump foreign policy advisor Carter Page during the summer of 2016. However, officials would not say exactly what or how much was actually corroborated.
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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.
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. By June 2016 Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied any connection of Russian government to the DNC hacks that had been blamed on Russia. At the Valdai Discussion Club forum in October 2016, Putin denounced American "hysteria" over alleged Russian interference.
When a new intelligence report surfaced in December 2016, Sergey Lavrov, Foreign Minister of Russia, rejected the accusations again. During a press conference, Putin deflected questions on the issue by accusing the U.S. Democratic Party of scapegoating Russia after losing the presidential election. When ABC News wrote that Russian President Vladimir Putin was directly involved in the covert operation, Peskov called the report "rubbish" and called on the U.S. government to cease discussion of the topic unless they provide evidence to back up their assertions.
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.
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