The U.S. intelligence community released an unclassified report on Russia's alleged effort to influence the 2016 election on Friday afternoon, shortly after briefing a skeptical President-elect Donald Trump on its findings and conclusions.
While the unclassified report is short on detailed evidence, it lays out a case for how and why Russia sought to influence the 2016 election — and specifically to benefit Trump, in the estimations of the CIA, FBI and National Security Agency.
You can see the whole thing here. Below, we pull out the key lines and explain the politics.
“We assess Russian 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.”
This is the big line — that Putin personally “ordered” the influence campaign. The Obama administration has, of course, been saying that this effort tracked back to the highest levels of the Russian government, but this hasn't been stated so bluntly before and is a notable inclusion in an intelligence report.
“We also assess Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him. All three agencies agree with this judgment. CIA and FBI have high confidence in this judgment; NSA has moderate confidence.”
This part says more directly that Russia actually worked to elect Trump and contrast him with Hillary Clinton in a way that would help him. Trump hasn't even acknowledged that Russia is behind the hacking, and he and his supporters have said it had no effect on the outcome of the election. But the intelligence community — the CIA and FBI with “high confidence” and the NSA with “moderate confidence” — say it was a pro-Trump effort.
“When it appeared to Moscow that Secretary Clinton was likely to win the election, the Russian influence campaign began to focus more on undermining her future presidency.”
The fact that Clinton was on track to win led to a ramping up of the effort to work against her, according to this report — further evidence that it was aimed at helping Trump, not just undermining the U.S. election. Clinton looked to be in particularly good shape in early October, when debates were in full swing and a video of Trump making lewd comments about women was reported by The Washington Post. At the time, the leaks picked up.
“Russian intelligence obtained and maintained access to elements of multiple US state or local electoral boards. DHS assesses that the types of systems Russian actors targeted or compromised were not involved in vote tallying.”
“We did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election. The US Intelligence Community is charged with monitoring and assessing the intentions, capabilities, and actions of foreign actors; it does not analyze US political processes or US public opinion.”
The idea that Russia pushed Trump over the line, of course, is a big reason he hasn't embraced the intelligence community's findings. It risks delegitimizing him. In the first statement here, the report says there is no evidence the actual vote was hacked. But it also says it can't conclude whether Russia's influence changed the result of the election (which is probably to be expected, given that's very difficult to determine and not the job of intelligence officials).
It's also worth noting here that a widely held Democratic belief — 52 percent, according to one poll — that Russia hacked the actual vote isn't supported.
“Moscow also saw the election of President-elect Trump as a way to achieve an international counterterrorism coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).”
This is one of the key motivating factors cited. Trump has always said he wants better relations with Russia, and Clinton has long run afoul of Putin. Those are the two most often-cited reasons for Russia's alleged preference for Trump.
It's also worth noting Russia's increasing presence in the Middle East and its propping up of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Both the United States and Russia are working against the Islamic State, but the United States isn't pro-Assad, only anti-Islamic State, and that has led to some uneasy situations.
The Obama administration has basically abandoned efforts to cooperate with Russia on ending the Syrian civil war and forming a common front against terrorists there.
“We assess that influence campaigns are approved at the highest levels of the Russian Government — particularly those that would be politically sensitive.”
In other words: It had to come from Putin, because such things always originate high up. This is what President Obama has been saying, essentially.
“Russia collected on some Republican-affiliated targets but did not conduct a comparable disclosure campaign.”
There has been chatter about whether Russia tried to hack Republicans. The report says it made some efforts against Republicans but didn't disseminate the information — another piece of evidence that leads to the conclusion it was helping Trump.
“Russia used trolls as well as [its state-funded television network] RT as part of its influence efforts to denigrate Secretary Clinton. This effort amplified stories on scandals about Secretary Clinton and the role of WikiLeaks in the election campaign.”
A less-publicized part of Russia's alleged efforts is the many social-media trolls who pushed stories and fake news unhelpful to Clinton.
“We assess with high confidence that the GRU used the Guccifer 2.0 persona, DCLeaks.com, and WikiLeaks to release US victim data obtained in cyber operations publicly and in exclusives to media outlets. . . . We assess with high confidence that the GRU relayed material it acquired from the DNC and senior Democratic officials to WikiLeaks. Moscow most likely chose WikiLeaks because of its self-proclaimed reputation for authenticity.”
The GRU, Russia's military intelligence service, is the apparent go-between that was reported Thursday. Trump has been praising WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and noting that Assange says he didn't get the hacked emails from Russia. This says otherwise.
“This report is a declassified version of a highly classified assessment. This document’s conclusions are identical to the highly classified assessment, but this document does not include the full supporting information, including specific intelligence on key elements of the influence campaign.”
This is a disclaimer. The report has far fewer details because it's unclassified. That lack of detail, of course, makes it harder to prove any one given point and easier for Trump to cast doubt. Which he apparently will continue to do.