Courtesy of new reports released by the Senate Intelligence Committee, we’re now learning new details about a major disinformation campaign that Russia ran against special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.
Prepare to sit down for this one: In an extraordinary coincidence, it turns out that Russia’s messaging about the Mueller investigation is eerily, strikingly similar to the attacks on it waged by a rather prominent American: President Trump.
We heard Trump’s attacks on Mueller once again on Tuesday morning, now that Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn is set for his sentencing hearing. Because it deeply concerns Trump when he sees innocent people get unfairly railroaded by the justice system, he just wished Flynn “good luck.”
“Will be interesting to see what he has to say, despite tremendous pressure being put on him, about Russian Collusion in our great and, obviously, highly successful political campaign,” Trump tweeted. “There was no Collusion!”
As legal experts immediately pointed out, the president of the United States is siding with a convicted felon against U.S. law enforcement. Trump also issued a convoluted tweet blasting the special counsel’s investigation as “highly conflicted,” a lie that Trump has already repeated at least 30 times.
In other words, with Trump facing a big moment in the investigation in the form of Flynn’s sentencing, he once again cast the probe as corrupt and fraudulent.
That would be par for the course, except that the new information now emerging about Russia’s disinformation campaign against the Mueller probe casts those attacks in a new light.
The Senate Intelligence Committee has released two reports prepared by outside consultants that detail the extraordinary scope of the Russian campaign of disinformation warfare conducted against the United States during the 2016 election. Much of this disinformation was spread on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram by Internet Research Agency, or IRA, a Russian company whose top officials have been indicted by Mueller. Among other things, the attacks were targeted toward African Americans and were designed to suppress Democratic turnout.
But it also turns out that the Russian disinformation warfare continued after the election — and it targeted the Mueller investigation. The Post describes the goal of the Russian “disinformation teams” as follows:
Having worked to help get Trump into the White House, they now worked to neutralize the biggest threat to his staying there.
As The Post notes, the Russian attacks were “unloaded on Mueller through fake accounts on Facebook, Twitter and beyond.” But when you dig into the report that details these attacks, you can’t help but notice the similarity in these attacks’ content with that of Trump’s. The report describes how these attacks were amplified on faked “right-leaning pages” (emphasis mine):
As articles began to emerge about election interference — pointing the finger at Russia — the IRA didn’t shy away or ignore it. It used derision and disparagement in content targeting the right-leaning pages, to create and amplify the narrative that the whole investigation was nonsense, that [James] Comey and Mueller were corrupt, and that the emerging Russia stories were a “weird conspiracy” pushed by “liberal crybabies.”
The report notes that IRA’s main goal was “to frame the Russian election interference as a paranoid fantasy of the Establishment and the left.”
Russian attacks on Mueller echo Trump’s
Indeed, if you scroll through the specific Russian attacks on the investigation detailed in the report, it’s remarkable how precisely they echo those of Trump and his allies. Among the themes: That Democrats and Hillary Clinton partisans are pointing to Russia to make excuses for her loss. That the corruption of the Clintons is the real story. That the media is hyping the investigation for its own corrupt purposes (Trump’s term “fake news” comes up regularly). That those defending the investigation are obsessed with Russia. That Donald Trump Jr. had every right to meet with Russians to secure dirt on Clinton. That the entire investigation is corrupt and a hoax.
This underscores two important truths. First, in undermining the Mueller investigation, Trump’s and Russia’s interests reinforced one another.
In this sense, Democratic campaign operatives who battled Russian disinformation in the 2018 cycle say that these post-election attacks on Mueller drew on a similar tactic to that used during the campaign. “The Russian influence campaigns often pour gasoline on a fire that is already burning,” said Simon Rosenberg, who worked to counter disinformation for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “It is far more efficient and effective to amplify and extend divisive narratives already in circulation.” Russian attacks on the Mueller probe appear to have echoed ones Trump was already making.
Second, in attacking Mueller, Trump’s and Russia’s interests actually overlapped. But even more crucially, those overlapping interests were served by the concerted undermining of U.S. institutions, something that both of them undertook to do.
Trump’s Flynn tweet suggest he’s still worried about what Mueller knows. Mueller’s sentencing memo says Flynn provided Mueller “substantial” assistance, including information about contacts between Russia and the Trump transition team. As Brian Beutler suggests, Trump may still be dangling a pardon before Flynn, perhaps in hopes that he’ll recant what he has told Mueller.
But whether or not Trump and his associates will be found criminally liable for conspiring with Russian sabotage of our election, let’s not lose sight of another larger point here.
Remember, Mueller is tasked with investigating Russian interference in addition to whether the Trump campaign conspired with it. Whether or not Mueller does find such a conspiracy, Trump’s attacks are undermining an investigation designed to learn the full truth about a foreign attack on our democracy irrespective of whether there was was domestic conspiracy with it. The goal is to strengthen U.S. democracy against future attacks.
Thus, as a Center for American Progress report details, Trump’s targeting of Mueller represents a corrupt effort to undermine law enforcement that is ongoing and has ramifications for future elections, and isn’t just a backward-looking matter concerning the 2016 election.
According to these new reports, Russia has tried to undermine the Mueller probe to keep Trump in office. But Russia also has done this because it has an interest, obviously, in dodging accountability for its attacks on our election, so it can continue to undermine future elections, something U.S. intelligence has warned will continue happening.
And so, whether or not Trump “colluded,” Trump’s attacks on the Mueller investigation don’t just overlap in content with Russia’s. They also serve Russian strategic goals as well, undermining public faith in law enforcement and the media and making future electoral sabotage more likely — all to the detriment of our political system.