At McClatchy, Peter Stone and Greg Gordon report today that Congressional and Justice Department investigators are looking at whether the Trump campaign, and in particular its digital operation that compiled detailed data for targeting voters with campaign messaging, worked with Russian operatives to help them identify precincts where Hillary Clinton could be vulnerable.
Investigators are seeking to determine whether this coordination took place, and whether it was done with the goal of helping Russian trolls and bots target voters, via social media, with false and disparaging stories about Clinton.
To put this more simply, federal investigators are looking at whether the Trump campaign helped Russia disseminate “fake news.”
This remarkable new revelation comes just as the Trump administration appears poised to ramp up its own campaign against the news media. Which means we are about to enter a new phase of escalation in Trump’s “fake news” wars, in which he will counter reports about investigations into whether his campaign coordinated with Russia to spread actually fake news by calling those reports “fake news.”
In a sense, the Trump team will be chasing his own tail — and if recent history is a guide, team Trump does not perform well when it gets tangled in its own deceptions about what is true and what is false, or what is real and what is fake. But this will amount to more than an escalation in absurdity: It may threaten to do still more damage to our democracy and a free press.
All of this is coming amid the intensification of the Russia probe, particularly the exposure of Donald Trump, Jr.’s (and now we know Trump’s own) ever-evolving explanations for Trump Jr.’s meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. Several news outlets, including The Post, have published deeply sourced stories about the chaos that is rapidly engulfing the White House, painting a portrait of an administration spinning out of control as the Russia scandal tightens around Trump’s inner circle.
This is leading Trump’s team to escalate its offensive against the press. As the AP reports this morning, Trump aides now “view clashes with the media as central to the president’s agenda.”
This campaign is now set to include undermining individual reporters. As Philip Rucker and Ashley Parker report in The Post, Trump allies plan a campaign “to try to discredit some of the journalists who have been reporting on the matter. They say they will “research the reporters’ previous work, in some cases going back years, and to exploit any mistakes or perceived biases. They intend to demand corrections, trumpet errors on social media and feed them to conservative outlets, such as Fox News.”
The goal is obvious: To produce an army of viewers and readers who are essentially programmed to dismiss any coverage of the Russia investigation that does not immediately exonerate Trump and all members of his campaign team. In a sense, the Trump team is attempting to pull off something similar to what the Russians did during the campaign: Inundate receptive audiences with disinformation that simultaneously cements a pro-Trump narrative and wreaks havoc on the audience’s trust in real media sources.
That Russian effort — and its possible overlap with the Trump team’s strategy during the campaign — is now the target of congressional probes. As McClatchy notes, Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), the ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, recently hinted that investigators are looking hard at the Russian effort to flood the zone with “fake news.” Russians, he said, targeted women and African-Americans in Wisconsin and Michigan before the election, while “the Democrats were too brain dead to realize those states were even in play.” Voters’ Facebook and Twitter feeds in these states were “overwhelmed,” said Warner, with stories about Clinton being “sick” or having stolen money from the State Department.
Did the Trump campaign help the Russians figure out who to target with these false and misleading stories? Investigators are hoping to find out. In the meantime, Trump and his allies seem ready to use the same sort of tactics — this time, spreading disparaging stories not about Clinton, but about reporters who cover the Russia investigation — and to use social media and friendly media outlets outlets to amplify them.
It’s hard to say where this will all end up. Perhaps Trump may end up sinking, and all the cries of “fake news” in the world won’t help stop it. Or perhaps he will have some success in further damaging the image and credibility of the press in the minds of voters. Whatever happens, it’s going to get very, very ugly. Regardless of whether Trump succeeds in exonerating himself and his team, there’s little doubt that he will sow division and distrust in our institutions, in the process helping to accomplish something that was perhaps a larger goal of Russian interference than even getting Trump elected.