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Opinion The big Russia questions loom even larger

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Following his extraordinary testimony last week, former FBI special agent Clint Watts appeared on “Meet the Press” on Sunday. This exchange, in which he explained Russia’s “active measures” during the 2016 campaign, was eye-popping:

What they want to do is use information as a weapon of warfare to undermine U.S. democracy, such that when we crumble from the inside out, we can’t take aggressive foreign policy or stop their foreign policy around the world. So the way they do that is by using what’s called a state-to-people and a people-to-people strategy. They’re going to bypass the U.S. government, go straight to our Democratic electorate, and try and undermine trust, create divisions, and foment chaos. . . .
The new social media that’s out there, Twitter, Facebook, and the way advertisements are done, the way you can demographically target people, the same way we see it with our own political campaigns in the United States, you can use that as an adversary as well. And so what they do is they create automated technology, commonly referred to as bots, to create what look like armies of Americans.
And they can reprogram those. They can make your biography look like you’re a supporter of one candidate or another, and then they’ll push a series of manipulated truths or fake stories through those accounts to where you think I’m talking to someone who supports my candidate, this makes it more believable, and I’m more amenable to that news.
Now there has been obviously part of the investigation is was there any collusion, was there any, essentially, any American support to this operation. What can you tell about that?
Well, I noted in my testimony the two times where there was obvious use of Russian propaganda. One was, Paul Manafort cited it in ’14 August, the fake ancillary campaign we talked about, and then President Trump mistakenly cited what everyone thinks is a Sputnik news story. But beyond that, the synchronization at times, how many times the campaign picked up on lines that were promoted by the Kremlin, or vice versa, created lines that were then the Kremlin promoted back into the U.S. base was ironic. It was hard to see that with any other campaign.
And so was Donald Trump specifically targeted by this Russian operation as a person to help spread this news?
I don’t think they saw him as a person to spread the news. They just knew that he was opportunistic during his campaign. So if you put stuff that helps his campaign, he will likely use it. And they really turned towards him in August of ’15. That’s when you started to see those stories pop up. But they also pushed for Bernie Sanders at times too. They would go on the left and the right. It’s bipartisan.

Understand what he is saying: The now president of the United States and his campaign team either wittingly or unwittingly helped carry Russian disinformation targeted at American democracy. The magnitude of that analysis has yet to sink in. Consider the number of questions that raises, and the implications for the investigation underway.

Why is Trump flailing? Because Americans hate his agenda, and it’s based on lies.

How did Paul Manafort, Carter Page and Michael T. Flynn, all enriched by surrogates of Russia (in Manafort’s case by the Kremlin’s stooge in Ukraine and in Flynn’s case, RT, among others) come to work on a single campaign? Did whoever put them there know the extent of their Russian connections? Did Trump? Never in any campaign have so many pro-Russian, Russian-paid advisers worked for a single presidential candidate — one who wound up refusing to criticize Russia and indeed echoing its disinformation.

In this context Flynn’s failure to reveal his payments from multiple Russian entities in initial financial filings submitted under oath become exceptionally troubling. As CNN reported, “Flynn’s initial disclosures, which he submitted in mid-February, left out that he received money from Russia’s state-funded television network, RT, for a speech in Moscow and from air cargo company Volga-Dnepr Airlines and cybersecurity firm Kaspersky Government Security Solutions Inc. for speaking engagements in the United States.” Flynn, you may recall, denied previously that RT was a Russian propaganda outfit.

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Trump’s inclination to pick up Russian propaganda themes is yet another deeply disturbing pattern. In addition to the specific story Watts cited, Trump also echoed familiar Russian themes (e.g., voter fraud, the system is “rigged”) and adopted Russian propaganda at one point by suggesting Russia would not go into Ukraine (when Russia had already seized Crimea). His message of a moral equivalence between the United States and Russia (on killing people, for example) was something that could have come from Vladimir Putin’s mouth.

The right’s jarring drift toward Russia

How did that come to pass? Did aides either intentionally or unintentionally pass tidbits on to him or was Russia so successful in getting conspiracy-minded right-wing outlets to pick them up that the Trump campaign got them indirectly and unknowingly?

And this brings it back to Trump and his own ties to Russia. He has fervently denied any association with Russians. And yet we know he had extensive ties to Russian oligarchs. “To expand his real estate developments over the years, Donald Trump, his company and partners repeatedly turned to wealthy Russians and oligarchs from former Soviet republics — several allegedly connected to organized crime, according to a USA TODAY review of court cases, government and legal documents and an interview with a former federal prosecutor.” Just among the deals discovered so far we know that “[t]he president and his companies have been linked to at least 10 wealthy former Soviet businessmen with alleged ties to criminal organizations or money laundering.”

Any one of these things — Russian-enriched advisers, echoing Russia propaganda and trying to conceal extensive business dealings with Russians — would be enough to set off alarm bells. The presence of all three is, well, astounding. What’s more, when this was all laid out to him first as a candidate and then as president he refused to concede the findings of months and months of U.S. intelligence in uncovering the Russian “active measures.” Such denial was blindness, at best, and potentially intentional misrepresentation seeking to end inquiry into Russia’s “active measures,” at worst.

No effort to investigate the extent of the cooperation between the Trump team and Russians therefore can go forward without a full inquiry into Trump’s finances, including his tax returns, which — wouldn’t you know it? — he has refused to disclose. It would be as if the FBI were investigating a small-town mayor for alleged corruption based on mob ties without examining the mayor’s finances. That would on its face be preposterous.

So far the Senate Intelligence Committee has demonstrated real bipartisanship and diligence. The test will come, however, when it becomes apparent that only Trump can answer certain questions and that his tax returns are a critical part of the investigation. Perhaps if the Senate falters, a combination of conscientious House Republican moderates, Freedom Caucus members and a unified Democratic caucus can demand the information. If not, only a change in control of the House with the threat of impeachment will pry the information out of Trump.