U.S. national security experts warned years ago that Russia would meddle in our 2020 elections. The reality is worse: President Trump’s supporters are mirroring Russian tactics.
In 2017, I was attacked by the far right as well as Russian actors after speaking publicly as President Obama’s deputy assistant defense secretary for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia; today, the campaign against me appears to be domestic, albeit aided by Russian trolls. The political stakes are higher for all Americans this year, not just me. The tactics behind these attacks reveal a frightening development for American democracy.
In President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, disinformation and intimidation tactics are commonly used to silence domestic opposition. (So is murder.) False allegations, followed by contradictory, also false, narratives are the norm in Russian media and political discourse. Misinformation is so prevalent that many Russians are largely indifferent to what is actually true. In Trump’s America, similar tactics are taking hold. What began as a disconcerting nexus between Russia and the reactionary right in this and other countries has become part of the American right-wing repertoire.
I sounded the alarm early regarding ties between Trump, his advisers, and Kremlin officials and cronies. During an interview on MSNBC in March 2017, I said that I knew there was more to the story when media reports and statements by Obama administration officials and the intelligence community began unearthing connections between Trump’s campaign and Russia. I drew conclusions based on my expertise about Kremlin policy and operations, and my analysis of Trump campaign actions and conversations.
Attacks against me came first on Twitter and other social media platforms, from far-right sources. Forensics data I was shown suggested at least one entity had Russian ties. The attacks increased in quantity and ferocity until Fox News and Trump-allied Republicans — higher-profile, and more mainstream, sources — also criticized me. They and other conservative outlets accused me of leaking classified information and even wiretapping Trump Tower, allegations that distracted attention from growing evidence supporting my point. I and colleagues from the Obama administration were summoned to testify before the Republican-controlled House Intelligence Committee.
Transcripts from that 2017 testimony were released this month. My testimony demonstrated that I had not leaked intelligence and that my early intuition about Trump-Kremlin cooperation was valid, as the findings of the Mueller report and the Senate Intelligence Committee’s recently released conclusions reinforce.
Right-wing figures swiftly launched another disinformation campaign: claiming that I said on television that I had access to classified information to inform my concerns about Trump-Russia connections. I had said no so such thing, but this new fabrication supported allegations that the recently released testimony demonstrated I had lied on TV. This audacious, false accusation is so convoluted I have trouble following it — and that’s the point.
Trump surrogates, including former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, Donald Trump Jr. and Fox News hosts such as Tucker Carlson have essentially accused me of treason for being one of the “fraudulent originators” of the “Russia hoax.” These attacks are part of Trump’s larger “Obamagate” allegations, a narrative that distracts attention from his administration’s disastrous pandemic response and attempts to deflect blame for Russian interference onto the Obama administration. This disinformation campaign seeks to color as illegal the Obama administration’s efforts to prevent and investigate Russia’s actions.
These high-profile accusations have been accompanied by a tsunami of online troll attacks targeting my congressional campaign. Our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts, email, and phone lines have been overwhelmed with a stream of vile, vulgar and sometimes violent messages, emotionally exhausting staff and volunteers. As our team interacts with supporters online, the attacks spread to them. These intimidation efforts have compromised our work, incentivizing people to keep a low profile at a time when our campaign depends on robust public messaging ahead of the June 23 primary.
There is evidence that Russian actors are contributing to these attacks. The same day that right-wing pundits began pumping accusations, newly created Russian Twitter accounts picked them up. Within a day, Russian “disinformation clearinghouses” posted versions of the story. Many of the Twitter accounts boosting attacks have posted in unison, a sign of inauthentic social media behavior.
Here’s the truth: I wasn’t silenced in 2017, and I won’t be silenced now.
Our country must be able to conduct safe and fair elections, free from foreign interference and domestic intimidation. Americans must demand an end to the rampant dissemination of fake news through social media. Now, more than ever, we must fight for truth and for those speaking truth to power.