As we continue putting together the pieces of the 2016 Trump campaign’s cooperation with the Russian government, a pair of new reports produced for the Senate Intelligence Committee is making clear just how intense the Russian government’s effort on Donald Trump’s behalf was. In fact, it’s long past time when we stop talking about Russian “meddling” or even a Russian “attack” on our election, not because those characterizations are inaccurate but because they obscure the broader truth.
So let’s stop beating around the bush. The Russian government tried to get Trump elected, and Trump, his campaign, his close associates and even members of his family tried to help them. For all practical purposes, Russia was part of the Trump campaign. That is no longer in doubt. All we’re doing now is filling in the details.
But those details are appalling. Let’s begin with the first report, created by Oxford University’s Computational Propaganda Project and Graphika, a network analysis firm, and obtained by The Post, examining efforts by the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) to use social media in the service of Trump’s campaign:
“What is clear is that all of the messaging clearly sought to benefit the Republican Party — and specifically Donald Trump,” the report says. “Trump is mentioned most in campaigns targeting conservatives and right-wing voters, where the messaging encouraged these groups to support his campaign. The main groups that could challenge Trump were then provided messaging that sought to confuse, distract and ultimately discourage members from voting.” [...]
The Russians aimed particular energy at activating conservatives on issues such as gun rights and immigration, while sapping the political clout of left-leaning African American voters by undermining their faith in elections and spreading misleading information about how to vote.
Depressing African American turnout was plainly a top priority for Russian intelligence. In other words, their efforts offered a short-term reinforcement of one of the core elements of the Republican Party’s long-term electoral strategy. The GOP tries to erect barriers to registration and voting that fall particularly hard on African Americans, and then the Russians sweep in to tell those same voters that they shouldn’t bother even trying to go to the polls, because it won’t make a difference anyway.
This is clear in the second report that the Intelligence Committee commissioned from a cybersecurity firm called New Knowledge. Nicholas Thompson and Issie Lapowsky of Wired explain:
Among more than a dozen web domains the IRA registered, the vast majority, including DoNotShoot.us and Blacktivist.info, were aimed at black communities. Of the 33 most popular Facebook pages linked to the IRA, nearly half focused on black audiences. This effort was particularly successful on Instagram, where the account @blackstagram, amassed more than 300,000 followers and elicited more than 28 million reactions. Much of this content seemed designed to stoke distrust among black Americans in democratic institutions and depress black turnout for Hillary Clinton.
Whether or not the Russian officials managing this effort were in direct communication with the Trump campaign, they were certainly trying to push the same buttons. Let me refer you to this October 2016 article in which Joshua Green and Sasha Issenberg got unusual inside access to the Trump campaign’s digital strategy:
"Instead of expanding the electorate, [Steve] Bannon and his team are trying to shrink it. 'We have three major voter suppression operations under way,' says a senior official. They're aimed at three groups Clinton needs to win overwhelmingly: idealistic white liberals, young women, and African Americans." [...]
On Oct. 24, Trump’s team began placing spots on select African American radio stations. In San Antonio, a young staffer showed off a South Park-style animation he’d created of Clinton delivering the “super predator” line (using audio from her original 1996 sound bite), as cartoon text popped up around her: “Hillary Thinks African Americans are Super Predators.” The animation will be delivered to certain African American voters through Facebook “dark posts”—nonpublic posts whose viewership the campaign controls so that, as [Brad] Parscale puts it, “only the people we want to see it, see it.” The aim is to depress Clinton’s vote total. “We know because we’ve modeled this,” says the official. “It will dramatically affect her ability to turn these people out.”
So Russia picked up on one of the most despicable — and effective — parts of the GOP strategy, understanding that it was where its help was needed and where it could have an impact.
I suspect one of the reasons we can even still debate the magnitude of the Russia scandal is that people want a clearer, simpler conspiracy. They’d like to see a document titled “Plan For Collusion Between Russia and Trump Campaign” that lays out in specific detail what both parties would do and is signed at the bottom by Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. Even when we see Trump implore Russia on national television to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails and learn that they obeyed the instruction within hours, it somehow isn’t enough.
So we have to assemble the picture from disparate parts: the 16 (at least) Trump officials who had contacts with Russians during the campaign and transition, the Russian hack of Democratic emails, the carefully timed release of those emails to maximize damage to Clinton, the extraordinary social media effort the IRA mounted to amplify the Trump campaign’s efforts, and who knows what else.
When we speak now of “the Trump campaign,” we have to think about it as something larger than just those people who were working at the Trump Tower headquarters. The Trump campaign was also the National Enquirer buying the silence of an (alleged) Trump mistress, attempting to knock off Trump’s primary opponents and spreading lurid rumors about Clinton to every American who ever stood in a supermarket checkout line. And the Trump campaign was Russian intelligence, echoing the campaign’s messages and working for both the short- and long-term goals the campaign had set out.
Now what are we going to do about it?