How many times does it need to be said? What Donald Trump incessantly called the “Russia hoax” was not a hoax at all.
In the 2016 election, the evidence—a wealth of it—proved Moscow worked assiduously to denigrate the candidacy of Hillary Clinton and promote the candidacy of Donald Trump. The Mueller Report laid it all out, chapter and verse. Though Trump and his supporters continue to this day to deny it, Russian intelligence attempted to manipulate American public opinion through the use of materials it had hacked from the computer systems of the Democratic National Committee. And the Trump campaign, for its part, though never getting caught directly coordinating with Moscow, on numerous occasions both covertly and openly welcomed Moscow’s help. “Russia, if you’re listening,” Trump famously said, “I hope you are able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press. Let’s see if that happens.”
It is remarkable but ultimately unsurprising that the same playbook that worked so well the first time around would be put in action once again in the 2020 cycle. The National Intelligence Council (NIC) has now declassified its relevant report, titled “Foreign Threats to the 2020 US Federal Elections.” What it tells us is important because it has the official imprimatur of the intelligence community. But anyone following developments reported in the American press could have pieced together almost identical findings.
As in 2016, the NIC found “no indications that any foreign actor attempted to alter any technical aspect of the voting process in the 2020 US elections, including voter registration, casting ballots, vote tabulation, or reporting results.” But with “high confidence,” it did find something else. Russian President Vladimir Putin authorized influence operations “aimed at denigrating President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party, supporting former President Trump, undermining public confidence in the electoral process, and exacerbating sociopolitical divisions in the US.”
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As in 2016, as had been reported extensively in the press, hacking was involved. In late 2019, “cyber actors” under the control of Russian military intelligence conducted a phishing campaign against subsidiaries of Burisma, the energy company on whose board sat President Biden’s son, Hunter. Stating the obvious, the National Intelligence Council report says that the hacking was “likely in an attempt to gather information related to President Biden’s family and Burisma.” But the NIC report also makes plain that this was a significant effort, amplified by a variety of resources. These included the Kremlin-linked organizations Project Lakhta and its Lakhta Internet Research (LIR) troll farm—better known by their former name as the Internet Research Agency—which established pop-up subsidiary “troll farms that used unwitting third-country nationals in Ghana, Mexico, and Nigeria to propagate . . . US-focused narratives.”
As in 2016, Trump and his associates actively courted Russian assistance. Though not mentioned by name, Rudolph W. Giuliani, President Trump’s personal lawyer, appears in the declassified report as a central protagonist. Key to Moscow’s strategy, says the report, was the use of individuals “close to former President Trump and his administration” as the recipients of laundered “influence narratives,” which included “misleading or unsubstantiated allegations against President Biden.” Unnamed “media organizations”—presumably Fox News, Newsmax, and One America News (OANN), but perhaps also fringier outlets such as InfoWars—were also fed these same narratives and infused them into the American political bloodstream.
The NIC report states plainly that Putin had “purview” over the activities of Andriy Derkach, a Ukrainian legislator who played a prominent role in Russia’s election influence activities. Also centrally involved was Konstantin Kilimnik, the notorious associate of 2016 Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, and someone with ties to the Russian foreign intelligence service, the FSB.
In late 2019, Giuliani and Derkach appeared together on OANN, where they peddled allegations about Joe Biden’s corruption. Giuliani subsequently used clips of that segment in one of his podcasts. Derkach’s role became so blatant and transparent that even the Trump administration’s Treasury Department was compelled publicly to sanction him back in September, noting that he had “directly or indirectly engaged in, sponsored, concealed, or otherwise been complicit in foreign interference in an attempt to undermine the upcoming 2020 U.S. presidential election.”
The NIC report does not focus exclusively on Russian interference efforts. It also takes up both Iranian and Chinese activities.
In the case of Iran, the findings are not particularly flattering to President Biden. The ayatollahs strongly preferred him to Trump, with their preference driven by the “perception that the regime faced acute threats from the US” thanks of course to Trump’s maximum pressure campaign. In a sophisticated if somewhat comic operation employing reverse psychology, “Iranian cyber actors sent threatening, spoofed emails purporting to be from the Proud Boys group to Democratic voters in multiple US states, demanding that the individuals change their party affiliation and vote to reelect former President Trump.”
The Chinese, for their part, saw Biden and Trump as something like Tweedledee and Tweedledum, not to say they were identical but that they both came with serious drawbacks. As China’s dilemma is described in the NIC report, Beijing “did not view either election outcome as being advantageous enough for China to risk blowback if caught.” Interestingly, there is a dissent in the Chinese section of the NIC report, which comes from the National Intelligence Officer for Cyber. He found that the Chinese took at least some steps to undermine Trump’s re-election campaign, preferring Biden, a more predictable member of the American foreign policy establishment, to the hyper-unpredictable Trump.
Though Trump’s supporters can take some comfort in the fact that America’s adversaries Iran (and possibly China) preferred Biden over their hero, there is no getting away from the fact that Moscow was once again firmly in Trump’s camp. Trump and company will undoubtedly dismiss that aspect of the report as a continuation of the “Russia hoax.” But we did not need this National Intelligence Council report to understand the utter falsity of that tiresome claim.
Gabriel Schoenfeld, a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center and an opinion columnist for USA TODAY, is the author of Necessary Secrets: National Security, the Media, and the Rule of Law.