Months after President Trump took office, Russia’s disinformation teams trained their sights on a new target: special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Having worked to help get Trump into the White House, they now worked to neutralize the biggest threat to his staying there.
The Russian operatives unloaded on Mueller through fake accounts on Facebook, Twitter and beyond, falsely claiming that the former FBI director was corrupt and that the allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election were crackpot conspiracies. One post on Instagram — which emerged as an especially potent weapon in the Russian social media arsenal — claimed that Mueller had worked in the past with “radical Islamic groups.”
Such tactics exemplified how Russian teams ranged nimbly across social media platforms in a shrewd online influence operation aimed squarely at American voters. The effort started earlier than commonly understood and lasted longer while relying on the strengths of different sites to manipulate distinct slices of the electorate, according to a pair of comprehensive new reports prepared for the Senate Intelligence Committee and released Monday.
Russia’s tactics and Trump’s have been eerily aligned. Trump ran a campaign aimed to heighten racial resentment and persuade African Americans they had “nothing to lose” in voting for him. Russian social media efforts aimed to heighten racial resentment and suppress African American voting. Trump wants to smear Mueller; Russia wants to smear Mueller. Trump tries to obliterate the line between truth and propaganda; Russia’s “active measures” have tried for decades to do this, thereby sowing Americans' doubts and distrust of the government.
One doesn’t have to think Trump directed Russian activities or even that the two campaigns (Trump for himself, and Russia for Trump) were deliberately coordinated through explicit communication to see that their interests and methods were perfectly in sync.
Russian operatives were hardly the first to think about exploiting racial animosities in the United States. The tactic goes back to the days of the Soviets:
It was part of a plan put in place in 1928 by the Comintern—the Communist International, whose mission was to spread the communist revolution around the world. The plan initially called for recruiting Southern blacks and pushing for “self-determination in the Black Belt.” By 1930, the Comintern had escalated the aims of its covert mission, and decided to work toward establishing a separate black state in the South, which would provide it with a beachhead for spreading the revolution to North America.
The Soviets also exploited the oppression of Southern blacks for their own economic benefit. It was the height of the Great Depression, and the Soviet Union was positioning itself not only as a workers’ utopia, but as a racial utopia as well, one where ethnic, national, and religious divisions didn’t exist. In addition to luring thousands of white American workers, it brought over African-American workers and sharecroppers with the promise of the freedom to work and live unburdened by the violent restrictions of Jim Crow.
Fast-forward to the 2016 campaign. What was new (other than technology) was not the race-baiting Russia handbook but an unabashed racist presidential candidate determined to stir white resentment.
Clint Watts, a former FBI special agent who studied Russian interference, tells me, “Russian troll farm narratives mirrored the daily twists and turns of the election cycle. They were keenly attuned to what U.S. media and President Trump were saying. They helped spread his words.”
Russian propaganda circulated on social media, either put out directly by RT and Sputnik or by bots designed to originate spread anti-Clinton and pro-Trump messages ("RT, Sputnik and other Russian sites used social-media accounts to amplify misleading stories already circulating online, causing news algorithms to identify them as ‘trending’ topics that sometimes prompted coverage from mainstream American news organizations.') Some of these message would be picked up or amplified by the alt-right and Trump fanboys in the right-wing echo chamber. Soon is it was hard to distinguish who started conspiracy theories and who merely carried them. The result was an indistinguishable blob of propaganda:
A former U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael A. McFaul, said he was struck by the overt support that Sputnik expressed for Trump during the campaign, even using the #CrookedHillary hashtag pushed by the candidate.
McFaul said Russian propaganda typically is aimed at weakening opponents and critics. Trump’s victory, though reportedly celebrated by Putin and his allies in Moscow, may have been an unexpected benefit of an operation that already had fueled division in the United States.
What we now learn is that Russia’s scheme to help Trump and exploit divisions in the United States never ended. Why should it? For a small financial investment, Russia has gotten a result beyond its wildest hopes.
Now, possibly, Trump’s teams and Russia coordinated more closely than previously known. That is the subject of the investigation underway by Mueller and his team. Whether or not there was explicit coordination, however, one has to ask:
- Why did/is Russia so invested in Trump’s success?
- Why does Trump rarely, if ever, personally criticize Vladimir Putin?
- What did/is Trump getting out of the arrangement?
- Shouldn’t we be nervous about a president who’s the pet of America’s most formidable international rival?
For a while now, Trump critics have joked that RT and Fox News are hardly distinguishable. Both, you see, are in service of Trump, and both have discovered race-baiting and chaos-creation works especially well with this president. Both traffic in nonsensical conspiracy theories. Fox News is what used to be called in the Cold War, a “useful idiot” — a gullible and unwitting asset of the Russians.
The irony could not be greater. A president who campaigned on and still throws around the motto of “America First” is now not unreasonably suspected of working, if not at the behest of, at least to the benefit of and in sync with an enemy of the United States. Whatever Trump’s possible motivation (money is always the most likely), we now have a chief executive whose loyalty to the United States is unclear. That’s a first in American history — and something Republicans must confront.
As former FBI director James B. Comey said Monday: “People who know better, including Republican members of this body, have to have the courage to stand up and speak the truth, not be cowed by mean tweets or fear of their base. There is a truth, and they’re not telling it. Their silence is shameful.” And it contributes to the most unusual national security threat we’ve ever faced.