On Wednesday, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, released a list of Twitter accounts identified as being linked to Russians seeking to meddle in the 2016 presidential campaign. A review of that list, which included more than 2,000 usernames, found that on at least 11 occasions, four people close to Donald Trump had retweeted or engaged with those usernames between September 2015 and February of this year. Four of those tweets were sent in the last week of the campaign.
Because Twitter usernames can change, we can’t say with certainty that all of the tweets we identified (using an index of tweets compiled by the Trump Twitter Archive) were engaging with Russian users at the time they were sent. Most of the tweets, though, were retweets of an account called TEN_GOP, an account that purportedly was associated with the Tennessee Republican Party but that was later revealed to be part of Russia’s efforts to sway the election. (Many of these tweets have been reported previously, including by Vanity Fair.)
This account has been flagged before. On Wednesday, the Daily Beast reported that Michael T. Flynn, while advising Trump’s campaign last year, had encouraged his followers — about 57,000 accounts at that point — to follow the account.
Here are the other tweets we identified:
• Sep. 26, 2015: Roger Stone, longtime Trump ally and friend (@rogerjstonejr, 20,400 followers on the day of the tweet)
@zubovnik @realDonaldTrump @Karentalk @megynkelly FUNNY !
Stone replied to a Russian-linked account, zubovnik. The subject isn’t clear, given that both the Russian account and Stone’s have been suspended. Only people who followed both Stone and the Russian account would have seen this tweet.
• March 12, 2016: Roger Stone (39,000 followers)
@SouthLoneStar @AdiosLiberty and he voted for NAFTA !
Stone replied to another Russian-linked account, SouthLoneStar. As above, only people following both users would have seen this tweet.
• Oct. 20, 2016: Eric Trump, Trump’s son (@erictrump, 519,000 followers)
RT @TEN_GOP: BREAKING Hillary shuts down press conference when asked about DNC Operatives corruption & #VoterFraud #debatenight #TrumpB …
Eric Trump retweeted TEN_GOP. This tweet addresses Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton ending a press gaggle on her plane after being asked about videos released by conservative activist James O’Keefe. She’d answered several other questions before that one — including one to which she responded that she was “very concerned” that Trump refused to accept that Russians were interfering in the campaign.
• Oct. 26, 2016: Donald Trump Jr., Trump’s son (@donaldjtrumpjr, 742,000 followers)
RT @TEN_GOP: BREAKING Thousands of names changed on voter rolls in Indiana. Police investigating #VoterFraud. #DrainTheSwamp [LINK]
Trump Jr. retweeted TEN_GOP. Here, the Russian-linked account picked up a news story about incorrect registration information. In January, the Indiana State Police completed an investigation of the changed names, but no charges appear to have been filed.
• Nov. 2, 2016: Donald Trump Jr. (about 750,000 followers)
RT @TEN_GOP: BREAKING: #VoterFraud by counting tens of thousands of ineligible mail in Hillary votes being reported in Broward County, Florida
Trump Jr. again retweeted TEN_GOP. This tweet picked up a rumor that mail-in ballots had been altered to favor Clinton. The head of elections in the county denied the allegations, which were never found to be voter fraud.
• Nov. 6, 2016: Kellyanne Conway, then Trump’s campaign manager (@kellyannepolls, 264,000 followers)
RT @TEN_GOP: Mother of jailed sailor: ‘Hold Hillary to same standards as my son on Classified info’ #hillarysemail #WeinerGate [LINK]
Conway retweeted TEN_GOP. In this story, a woman whose son had been imprisoned for photographing a classified area of a submarine suggested that Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state wasn’t being treated in the same way.
• Nov. 7, 2016: Donald Trump Jr. (766,000 followers)
RT @Pamela_Moore13: Detroit residents speak out against the failed policies of Obama, Hillary & democrats #ImGoingToMissObamaBecause [LINK]
Trump Jr. retweeted Pamela_Moore13. It’s not clear what this tweet linked to.
• Nov. 8, 2016: Donald Trump Jr. (769,000 followers)
RT @TEN_GOP: This vet passed away last month before he could vote for Trump. Here he is in his #MAGA hat. #voted #ElectionDay [LINK]
On Election Day, Trump Jr. again retweeted TEN_GOP. There doesn’t seem to be a record of this story.
• Jan. 16, 2017: Donald Trump Jr. (1,110,000 followers)
RT @TEN_GOP: ‘Donald Trump can put America back to work, back to church, back to school!’ ~ Alveda King #MLKDAY [LINK]
Four days before the inauguration, Trump Jr. again retweeted TEN_GOP. Martin Luther King Jr.’s niece said a variant of this on Fox News Channel in August 2016 — although not specifically about Trump.
• Jan. 22, 2017: Roger Stone (139,000 followers)
@TEN_GOP @ostatni2016 Buy him a drink !!! @maggieNYT
Stone replies to TEN_GOP. Only people following both users would have seen this tweet.
• Feb. 21, 2017: Donald Trump Jr. (1,390,000 followers)
RT @TEN_GOP: BREAKING: Massive riots happening now in Sweden. Stockholm in flames. Trump was right again! [LINK]
After Trump’s inauguration, Trump Jr. again retweeted TEN_GOP, this time to support his father’s erroneous claim that there had been recent turmoil in Sweden. After Trump made that claim, however, there was unrest in Stockholm.
The critical consideration from these tweets is not that they happened; it’s the extent to which they helped drive voters’ attitudes during the campaign. There’s little to suggest that the retweets from Conway and Trump Jr. actually were significant factors in the outcome of the race.
Trump Jr., for example, has consistently embraced rhetoric and sketchy rumors that have nothing to do with Russian-linked accounts. In September 2016, he tweeted an easily debunked image comparing immigrants to Skittles, something he’d picked up somewhere online and decided to share with his followers.
What the Russian effort focused on was taking advantage of the existing rift in American politics and using exaggerated or divisive news to try to make that rift wider. In that sense, the tweets were just a few thousand in a sea of millions of similar messages and memes and videos that were already focused on the same aim — many of which also made their way into the retweets of Trump allies.
What’s not indicated here is a pattern of the campaign intentionally engaging with Russian-linked accounts. TEN_GOP was the most effective tool in the Russian arsenal, it seems, but that was apparently a function of whatever combination of luck and intent it is that makes social media accounts blow up. (The week after Election Day, the account had 48,000 followers.) If Trump allies were specifically and intentionally helping to boost Russian-linked accounts, we probably would have seen more examples than this. (The tweet archives we used for our analysis were compiled in February of this year.)
We also compared the list of Russian accounts to President Trump’s tweets. We found no overlap.