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Election meddling in Russia: When Boris Yeltsin asked Bill Clinton for help

Donald Trump is not the first politician to solicit foreign interference.

Boris Yeltsin was the president of Russia from 1991 to 1999. He died in 2007. (Lucian Perkins/The Washington Post)

As a presidential candidate, Donald Trump has reportedly asked Russia, Ukraine, and China to take steps that would help him electorally. But he is not the first politician to solicit foreign interference.

Back in May 1995, it was the Russians.

President Boris Yeltsin, polling in the single digits, met with U.S. President Bill Clinton in the Kremlin and complained that his prospects for reelection were “not exactly brilliant.” So began Yeltsin’s campaign to get an American president to influence Russia’s 1996 election.

His first request concerned NATO, which Clinton had been working to enlarge.

“Let’s postpone NATO expansion for a year and a half or two years,” Yeltsin suggested, according to newly released U.S. government transcripts. “There’s no need to rile the situation up before the elections.”

Clinton responded carefully, explaining that on this issue a win-win was possible. “I’ve made it clear I’ll do nothing to accelerate NATO [expansion],” he said. “I’m trying to give you now, in this conversation, the reassurance you need. But we need to be careful that neither of us appears to capitulate.”

Yeltsin, in that same meeting, had another request: for Clinton to “follow through on including us in the G-8.” The United States was a member of the Group of Seven (G-7), an international organization of seven democracies that Yeltsin wanted to join (hence, “G-8”). “This will help me on the eve of the elections here,” Yeltsin said. In another meeting, Yeltsin told Clinton that Russia’s joining the G-7 before its summit in Lyon, France, “would add 10 percent to my vote.”

When Russian meddling in the U.S. got so bad the ambassador got the boot

Clinton promised to try but in early 1996 came back with discouraging news. “All of us want to help you,” he told Yeltsin, according to the transcripts. “But the truth is that we cannot go to a G8 at Lyons.” Clinton pledged still to “make Lyons a big success for you,” in that there would be no “negative stories coming out of Lyons, only positive stories for you right before the election runoff. ... It has to be a hundred percent win for you.”

As the summer election approached, Yeltsin urged Clinton “not to embrace” his communist opponent.

“You don’t have to worry about that,” Clinton replied. “We spent fifty years working for the other result.”

Clinton wanted Yeltsin to win, to be sure, but he worried that saying so would backfire. “I’m trying to figure out a way to do this that will give you all the benefits and none of the disadvantages,” Clinton said, by expressing support “in the most appropriate way.”

Yeltsin pressed Clinton for financial assistance, too. He had phoned in January about a multibillion-dollar loan that the International Monetary Fund was issuing Russia. Yeltsin complained that the IMF had “delayed their payments to us and obligation of credits of $9 billion,” and he asked Clinton to “help and push them a little to make the payment.”

Clinton said he would do his best.

The next month, Yeltsin urged Clinton “to use [his] influence” with the IMF “to perhaps add a little, from nine to 13 billion dollars — to deal with social problems in this very important pre-election situation.” Clinton again said he would try, but Yeltsin was unsatisfied.

“Then there is the matter of finances, which is not proceeding very well,” Yeltsin said in early May, before dropping all pretenses and urging Clinton to interfere in the contest directly. “Bill, for my election campaign, I urgently need for Russia a loan of $2.5 billion.” Clinton suggested an alternative approach: getting the IMF, a third-party institution, to quicken its payments to Russia. “I’ll check on this with the IMF and with some of our friends and see what can be done,” he said. “I think this is the only way it can be done.”

Carlos Pascual, then the director for Russian affairs at the White House, said in an interview that he and his colleagues held an “extensive internal discussion” about Yeltsin’s request for a direct loan. “They wanted cash,” he recounted, so Clinton’s team debated whether to provide it — covertly, overtly or not at all. The decision was a near-unanimous no. “It obviously was not what the Russian side wanted to hear,” Pascual said, but “that kind of direct support for an individual candidate” would have marked “an inappropriate intervention in the Russian political process.”

Pascual said that Clinton instead instructed Lawrence Summers, the deputy treasury secretary, to continue working with Moscow in enacting market reforms that would expedite investment from the IMF. When asked about this period, Summers commented, “I don’t think I ever thought of myself as trying to manipulate the Russian election. It was a priority for the United States to support the reform movement in Russia and to try to make negotiations between the IMF and Russia work as effectively as possible, and so that was what my colleagues and I tried to do.”

In these months, Clinton rebuffed many of Yeltsin’s pleas but still lent some support. A few months before the election, the United States helped Russia finalize the multibillion-dollar IMF loan, in what the New York Times described at the time as “a major election-year boost” for Yeltsin. Behind the scenes, private American consultants (with marginal influence) advised Yeltsin’s campaign and provided regular updates to one of Clinton’s political advisers, who in turn updated the president. The levers of U.S. democracy promotion also operated overtly. “Throughout Russia’s various local, regional, and national campaigns were IRI-trained Russian political activists,” the International Republican Institute’s 1996 annual report said, “working on behalf of democratic candidates.”

Based on all available evidence, though, the CIA — which had interfered in many elections during the Cold War in competition with the KGB — did not assist Yeltsin’s campaign. “We didn’t sneak around about it,” Clinton told me in an interview, of the methods he used to support Yeltsin. “I thought it was okay for me to make my policy preferences clear in ways that everybody knew, and my preference for Yeltsin — everybody knew that.”

With the Soviet threat gone, Washington had moved away from the practice of covert electoral interference. Leon Panetta, then the White House chief of staff, explained that the risks of targeting Russia’s election covertly were too high. “There would have been a concern that if whatever the CIA was trying to do was discovered, that it could have a negative impact on what was happening there,” Panetta said in an interview, so it was “more cautionary than anything else not to have them play a big role.”

That July, Yeltsin won reelection by more than 13 percentage points, amid widespread reports of voter fraud. (Strobe Talbott, then the U.S. deputy secretary of state, said it was a “credible worry” and “probably a credible fact” that the vote was corrupted.)

Three and a half years later, Vladimir Putin succeeded Yeltsin as Russia’s president.

Clinton, in his final year in office, worried that Putin seemed neither to “care much” about democracy nor to approve of Yeltsin’s chumminess with Western leaders. Clinton said he concluded, over time, that “Putin thought I had played Yeltsin a little bit to increase America’s power in the post-Cold War world.”

Yeltsin had sought help from a foreign leader whose objective was to develop Russian democracy, while Trump has since solicited campaign assistance from authoritarian regimes that aim to undermine American democracy.

The legacy of Yeltsin’s reelection is not what the United States did for his campaign — rather than execute an operation akin to Russia’s in 2016, Clinton generally exercised restraint — but the dynamic that Yeltsin’s various asks created. Competing in an open election, Yeltsin was desperate for a foreign president to help him win. That president, therefore, held power over Yeltsin. Such is the case with any leader, from Yeltsin to Trump, who looks to another country for electoral support.

This article is adapted from “Rigged: America, Russia, and One Hundred Years of Covert Electoral Interference,” which will be published on June 30 by Knopf.

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