All of this unfolded over a span of about an hour on Oct. 7, 2016 — four years ago Wednesday.
Around 3:30 p.m. A warning about Russian interference is published.
We are now closer to the 2020 election than the 2016 election was then. But it was still looming, with one debate between Trump and Clinton already in the books. That was one reason the release of the statement from the intelligence community sparked so much internal debate.
In 2017, The Post detailed the fight within the administration of President Barack Obama to counteract efforts by the Russian government to sway the presidential contest. Obama was leery of appearing to influence the outcome of the election, so his team largely relied on behind-the-scenes efforts to keep the Russian effort at bay. That sense was heightened, given senior Republicans’ opposition to publicly addressing the influence effort.
A month prior, a team of senior intelligence officials went to Capitol Hill to brief congressional leaders on Russia’s efforts, which were then known to have included probing state elections systems and stealing material from both Podesta and the Democratic National Committee.
“The meeting devolved into a partisan squabble,” The Post’s Greg Miller, Ellen Nakashima and Adam Entous reported the following year.
“ ‘The Dems were, “Hey, we have to tell the public,” ’ " recalled one participant. But Republicans resisted, arguing that to warn the public that the election was under attack would further Russia’s aim of sapping confidence in the system.”“Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) went further, officials said, voicing skepticism that the underlying intelligence truly supported the White House’s claims. ... Key Democrats were stunned by the GOP response and exasperated that the White House seemed willing to let Republican opposition block any pre-election move.”
Over the next few weeks, the agencies gained more confidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin was directing the effort, and it was decided that a statement would be released — but without Obama’s direct involvement.
“These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the US election process,” the final statement said of the hacks. “Such activity is not new to Moscow — the Russians have used similar tactics and techniques across Europe and Eurasia, for example, to influence public opinion there. We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.”
It didn’t take long for that assessment to be proved accurate.
Around 4 p.m. The “Access Hollywood” tape is published.
While government officials were preparing their statement, The Post was working on a story that would ensure it got little to no attention.
Our David Fahrenthold had obtained a video taped while Trump was preparing for a 2005 appearance on the entertainment-news show “Access Hollywood.” In it, Trump can be heard talking about how he kisses and gropes women without their consent.
When the tape was published, it immediately shook up an already tumultuous presidential contest. After a few hours of internal debate, Trump's campaign decided to take the unusual step of addressing the situation directly, recording a video in which Trump apologized for the comments — and then pivoted to attack Clinton.
It didn’t matter for many of his high-profile supporters. He was already trailing Clinton by about five points in the polling average, but in the wake of Trump’s poor performance in the first debate, that gap was widening. A number of Republicans disavowed Trump, including some who would later sheepishly rejoin the flock.
Within Trump's campaign itself, the tape served as a “litmus test,” as later described by then-campaign manager Stephen K. Bannon.
“Trump went around the room and asked people the percentages . . . of still winning” and what their recommendations were, he told CBS News’s Charlie Rose in 2017. “And Reince [Priebus, then-chairman of the Republican National Committee] started off, and Reince said: ‘You have two choices. You either drop out right now, or you lose by the biggest landslide in American political history.’ And Trump, with his humor, goes, ‘That’s a great way to start our conversation.’ ”
Bannon told Trump that he still had a 100 percent chance of winning, to Trump’s delight.
That day, Bannon said, “showed me who really had Donald Trump’s back to play to his better angels. All you had to do, and what he did, was go out and continue to talk to the American people. … People didn’t care. They knew Donald Trump was just doing locker room talk with a guy.”
“And they dismissed it,” he added. “It had no lasting impact on the campaign.”
Of course, that was in part because it, too, would eventually be buried in the news cycle.
4:32 p.m. WikiLeaks begins dumping the Podesta emails.
WikiLeaks and its allies had been teasing that it had more to say in regard to the presidential contest. In late July, shortly before the Democratic convention, it had published a bunch of documents stolen from the Democratic Party — by Russian hackers, as was already obvious at the time. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and others hinted that more was coming.
Then, on Oct. 7, 2016, it announced Part 2.
In short order, journalists and the public were poring over internal documents related to the Clinton campaign. The first gold nugget turned up was a set of excerpts from paid speeches Clinton had given to the financial firm Goldman Sachs, material that her critics had been seeking for months.
But WikiLeaks didn’t release everything at once. Instead, it released new material day after day, prompting new scrutiny and new stories, over and over. The “Access Hollywood” tape led to multiple news cycles itself, after Trump denied during the second debate that he had assaulted any women, prompting a number of women to come forward alleging that he had done exactly that. But WikiLeaks’ steady drip of new material gave conservative media and Fox News new story lines, however thin, day after day.
Over the last month of the campaign, coverage of WikiLeaks was far more common than coverage of the “Access Hollywood” tape — though both would eventually be washed away by then-FBI Director James B. Comey’s announcement that the bureau had uncovered new emails related to Clinton’s use of a private server while she was secretary of state.
The WikiLeaks release was an unqualified boon for Trump’s campaign and an overt expression of the influence that Russia’s interference effort would have on the presidential contest. Although it wasn’t known at the time, there were already investigations underway within the FBI considering whether people close to Trump’s campaign were in any way aiding the Russian effort. That someone like Roger Stone, a longtime adviser to the president, had tweeted in August that it would soon be “Podesta’s time in the barrel” drew new attention to that question.
Eventually, evidence would emerge that Stone and others supporting Trump had allegedly encouraged WikiLeaks to offset the “Access Hollywood” coverage by releasing its material.
In August of this year, the Senate Intelligence Committee released the final volume in its lengthy assessment of Russia's interference effort in 2016. That report documents communications between Stone and Jerome Corsi, a right-wing commentator who wrote for the conspiracy-theory site WorldNetDaily, on the afternoon of the WikiLeaks release.
“At approximately 4 p.m. on October 7, The Washington Post released the Access Hollywood tape. Witnesses involved in Trump’s debate preparation recalled that the team first heard of the tape about an hour prior to its public release. According to Jerome Corsi, however, news of the release also made its way to Roger Stone. Corsi and Stone spoke twice that day at length: once at 1:42 p.m. for 18 minutes, and once at 2:18 p.m. for 21 minutes. Corsi recalled learning from Stone that the Access Hollywood tape would be coming out, and that Stone ‘[w]anted the Podesta stuff to balance the news cycle’ either ‘right then or at least coincident.’ According to Corsi, Stone also told him to have WikiLeaks ‘drop the Podesta emails immediately.’”
In July, at the time of the first WikiLeaks release, Stone and Corsi had already been in contact about the group. Stone had allegedly given Trump a heads-up about the earlier release and was then told by “senior Trump Campaign officials” (according to a later indictment) to track what was in the pipeline. Corsi apparently had a connection to WikiLeaks through a London-based writer named Ted Malloch and in July gave Stone information about what WikiLeaks was planning — information that was not accurate and which he later claimed to have been inventing.
The Senate report continues:
It remains unclear whether WikiLeaks’ decision to begin releasing the Podesta material on Oct. 7 was a function of tips from Trump allies, though Trump allies admit to trying to encourage WikiLeaks to act. That all of this converged that afternoon may be a coincidence — or it may be been a series of toppling dominoes.
The lasting effects, though, were numerous. Trump eked out a victory in the presidential contest, necessarily being aided to at least some extent by the deluge of critical articles derived from the WikiLeaks releases. The flurry of accusations of assault against Trump continues to hang over him both politically and legally. Russia’s interference efforts in the 2016 election led to a series of investigations and counterinvestigations over which Trump still obsesses. A throwaway reference to pizza included in one of Podesta’s emails led to a bizarre conspiracy theory about child trafficking that then evolved into the mega-conspiracy QAnon.
In any presidential campaign, there are periods in which the direction of the country shifts. Rarely, though, is there one single hour in which American politics suddenly splits into a dozen different threads.