The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Through email leaks and propaganda, Russians sought to elect Trump, Mueller finds

Some of the Facebook and Instagram ads linked to a Russian effort to disrupt the American political process and stir up tensions around divisive social issues during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Some of the Facebook and Instagram ads linked to a Russian effort to disrupt the American political process and stir up tensions around divisive social issues during the 2016 presidential campaign. (Jon Elswick/AP)

In what will stand as among the most definitive public accounts of the Kremlin’s attack on the American political system, the report of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation laid out in precise, chronological detail how “the Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion.”

The Russians’ goal, Mueller emphasized at several points, was to assist Donald Trump’s run for the White House and to damage Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. And the Republican candidate took notice, looking for ways to turn leaks of stolen emails to his advantage and even telling campaign associates to find people who might get their hands on Clinton’s personal emails.

“The Trump Campaign showed interest in WikiLeaks’ releases of hacked materials throughout the summer and fall of 2016,” Mueller’s investigators wrote. The anti-secrecy website became the major outlet for Russia’s pilfered material, and Trump campaign staffers were engaged in discussions about pending leaks and how to capi­tal­ize on them, Mueller found.

Here's what we know about the Kremlin's playbook for creating division in the U.S. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: MICHAEL KLIMENTYEV/SPUTNIK/KREMLIN POOL/POOL/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock/The Washington Post)

Investigators did not establish a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russians. But both sides used similar tactics. Through social media and selective leaking, the Russians stoked deep societal divisions and aroused Americans’ suspicions of politicians and the integrity of the electoral process, Mueller found.

Read the Mueller report: The full redacted version, annotated

Trump, too, tried to divide voters, exacerbating political fault lines, and he insisted that something was rotten in the way the country elects its president, calling the process a “rigged” system.

Mueller’s findings build on a set of indictments he issued last year against Russians who allegedly participated in the active-measures campaign.

The level of detail in those charges was achieved through highly sensitive intelligence sources, current and former officials have said. The final report is no different and contains several blacked-out passages marked “investigative technique,” indicating that U.S. officials are not prepared to tell the world — and the Russians — how they know what they know about the Kremlin’s actions.

Two operations lay at the heart of Russia’s unprecedented interference, Mueller found: a social media campaign “designed to provoke and amplify political and social discord in the United States” and a hacking effort led by a Russian intelligence agency, which stole emails from the Democratic National Committee and a key Clinton campaign aide and released them to disparage the Democratic candidate.

The email “hacking-and-dumping operations,” as Mueller’s investigators called them, were epitomized by disclosures by WikiLeaks, which in July 2016 posted messages stolen from the DNC and then in October trickled out emails taken from the account of John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman.

Trump campaign staffers and supporters discussed pending releases of emails by WikiLeaks on several occasions, the report shows. Many passages are blacked out because, Mueller noted, they could harm an ongoing matter.

That could be a reference to the prosecution of Roger Stone, the longtime Trump aide whose claims to be in touch with WikiLeaks during the campaign drew scrutiny.

By the late summer of 2016, after the first WikiLeaks release, the campaign “was planning a press strategy, a communications campaign, and messaging based on the possible release of Clinton emails by WikiLeaks,” Mueller found.

The report cites a conversation between Trump and then-deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates during a car ride to LaGuardia Airport. The section is redacted, but the visible part reads, “shortly after the call candidate Trump told Gates that more releases of damaging information would be coming.” Where Trump was getting that information is unclear, but his interest was obvious.

Mueller also found that Trump repeatedly requested that his aides find people who could gain access Clinton’s private emails.

Trump had fixated on Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was secretary of state, saying it revealed a lack of judgment and disregard for secrecy rules that bordered on criminal negligence. “Lock her up!” Trump supporters shouted when he spoke about the server on the campaign trail.

At a July campaign stop, Trump expressed his hope that Russia would find some 30,000 emails that Clinton had said she deleted because they were of a personal nature and not related to government affairs. After that, “Trump asked individuals affiliated with his Campaign to find the deleted Clinton emails,” Mueller’s team found.

Trump made the request repeatedly, former national security adviser Michael Flynn told Mueller’s investigators. Eventually, Flynn contacted two GOP operatives who were running their own hunts for Clinton’s emails. One of them kept Flynn and another senior campaign official, Sam Clovis, aware of the project, which ultimately did not produce any purloined messages.

“Gates recalled candidate Trump being generally frustrated that the Clinton emails had not been found,” Mueller wrote.

Gates pleaded guilty to conspiracy and lying to the FBI and cooperated with Mueller’s probe. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States. He also cooperated with the investigation.

Mueller also took note of direct communications that people in the Trump campaign had with WikiLeaks that suggested the group wanted to work on behalf of the Republican candidate.

On Sept. 20, 2016, Donald Trump Jr. emailed senior campaign staffers saying, “Guys I got a weird Twitter DM [direct message] from wikileaks.” He said the group asked him about an unlaunched anti-Trump “conspiracy” site. “Seems like it’s really wikileaks asking me,” he said. The email had not been previously reported.

The next day, after the site had launched, Trump Jr. sent a direct message to WikiLeaks: “Off the record, I don’t know who that is but I’ll ask around. Thanks.”

On Oct. 3, WikiLeaks sent another message to Trump Jr., asking “you guys” to help disseminate a link alleging candidate Clinton had advocated using a drone to target WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. Trump Jr. replied that he already “had done so” and asked, “What’s behind this Wednesday leak I keep reading about?” WikiLeaks did not respond.

On Oct. 12, several days after WikiLeaks began publishing emails hacked from Podesta’s account, WikiLeaks wrote him again, saying it was “great to see you and your dad talking about our publications. Strongly suggest your dad tweets this link if mentions us...” Two days later, Trump Jr. tweeted the link.

While Russian hackers chiseled away at the Clinton campaign, another group was setting up fake social media accounts — and making inroads with the Trump campaign and its supporters.

The social media campaign began in 2014 as a “generalized program” to undermine the U.S. election system, Mueller wrote. But it evolved into “a targeted operation” that by early 2016 “favored candidate Trump and disparaged candidate Clinton.”

At the center of the operation was an organization based in St. Petersburg, called the Internet Research Agency, a “troll farm” that churned out tendentious and manipulative posts and images.

The organization, which received funding from an oligarch with ties to Russian President Vladi­mir Putin, used fictitious personas to open accounts on Twitter and Instagram and to start group pages on Facebook. They were all designed to attract followers with polemic content on race, gender and other often-polarizing topics.

The Russians’ following grew, and they eventually reached millions of Americans with their messages, Mueller found. The content was even spread by U.S. political figures, who retweeted messages from Internet Research Agency-controlled Twitter accounts.

Some employees from St. Petersburg traveled to the United States to obtain information and gather photographs to use in their posts. They are among those Mueller indicted last year.

“On multiple occasions,” Mueller wrote, “members and surrogates of the Trump Campaign promoted — typically by linking, retweeting, or similar methods of reposting — pro-Trump or anti-Clinton content published by the IRA through IRA-controlled social media accounts.”

A single Twitter account, @TEN_GOP, purporting to represent Tennessee Republicans but actually operated by the Russian troll farm, was retweeted by Donald Trump Jr., Eric Trump, campaign manager Kellyanne Conway, digital operations chief Brad Parscale and national security adviser Flynn.

Mueller also noted that Russian operatives directly contacted Trump supporters “in a few instances” to help coordinate political rallies inside the United States. Mueller ultimately chose not to bring prosecutions because the Americans did not realize that they were in contact with Russians.

Getting the Trump campaign — or better yet, Donald Trump himself — to tweet or retweet material put out by the Russian disinformation campaign was a closely watched goal for the operatives at the Internet Research Agency, Mueller found.

The report recounts the celebration when Trump applauded an event in Miami the Russians had organized in August 2016, by tweeting, “THANK YOU for your support Miami!… TOGETHER, WE WILL MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”

A Russian account on Facebook, posing as an American named Matt Skiber, sent a message to an American tea party activist afterward saying, “Mr. Trump posted about our event in Miami! This is great!”

Russian disinformation teams used social media to recruit Americans across the political spectrum to help push their themes online and also to participate in real-world political rallies and other events, Mueller found.

The recruiting of Americans started in 2014 and continued even beyond the November 2016 election. An African American “self-defense instructor” in New York offered classes for the Russian-created social media group “Black Fist” in February 2017.

Conservative activists participated in a range of political events organized by the Internet Research Agency, including appearing as Santa Claus while wearing a Trump mask in New York City.

Overwhelmingly, such efforts were intended to help Trump and hurt Clinton, Mueller’s investigators concluded. They found no similar contact between Russians and Americans supporting Clinton.