What the Mueller report tells us
Reading the Mueller report is an eye-opening experience. With excruciating detail, he and his team make three things clear. First, that the Russians interfered in the 2016 election with the aim of helping elect Donald Trump. Second, that there were repeated contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russians dating from 2015 until after he took office. And third, that Trump intentionally obstructed efforts to uncover this election interference.
People will continue to debate whether the report cleared Trump of criminal conspiracy or not. For the latest argument on this issue you can look to George Stephanopoulos’s interview of Trump himself.
With all the debate about the President’s potential criminal liability, it seems we have forgotten the underlying crime, that our election was hacked, and the sacred foundation of our democracy was brought into question. As Mueller wrote, “[t]he Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion.” All Americans should be disturbed.
How did the Russians do it? The report details what was actually a military operation by the Russians aimed at undermining our system that started in 2014. Per the report, “the Russian intelligence service known as the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Army (GRU) carried out these operations.” The report is so thorough as to designate the specific Russian Army units involved in the attack: “Military Units 26165 and 74455.”
The guiding principle of this operation was stated succinctly in a document obtained by the Office of Special Counsel (OSC): “Main idea: Use any opportunity to criticize Hillary [Clinton] and the rest (except Sanders and Trump — we support them).”
While Mueller asserts that there were two primary avenues through which the Russians attacked our election, his report actually reveals three successful attacks, any of which could have swung the election to Donald Trump.
The first front of this attack is what most people know about. The Russians set up an organization called the Internet Research Agency (IRA) and financed by “Russian oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin and companies he controlled. Prigozhin is widely reported to have ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.” This organization fraudulently set up hundreds of false Facebook, Instagram and Twitter profiles through which it engaged in “information warfare.”
“According to Facebook, in total the IRA-controlled accounts made over 80,000 posts before their deactivation in August 2017, and these posts reached at least 29 million U.S persons and “may have reached an estimated 126 million people. In January 2018, Twitter publicly identified 3,814 Twitter accounts associated with the IRA,” according to the report.
To build a following, the IRA spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on advertising in support of positive messages for Trump or negative attacks on Hillary Clinton. The positive messages aimed to generate enthusiasm for Trump among key Republican constituencies were certainly inflammatory, but more critical were the negative attacks.
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Some of the negative attacks took an obvious approach. “For example, on March 18, 2016, the IRA purchased an advertisement depicting candidate Clinton and a caption that read in part, ‘If one day God lets this liar enter the White House as a president — that day would be a real national tragedy,’” wrote Mueller.
Others were chilling in their political sophistication. In addition to their efforts to create enthusiasm among potential Trump supporters, they created social media accounts designed to mimic legitimate organizations working within key parts of the Democratic party, such as “Black Matters,” “Blacktivist,” and “LGBT United.” The aim of these groups was to emphasize these groups’ legitimate grievances and in so doing convince them not to vote in the election.
Remember that to a Republican, it is just as useful to convince a Democrat not to vote as it is to convince an undecided voter to support your candidate.
The next front in their war was to steal internal electronic documents from Democratic organizations and release them at times designed to embarrass the Clinton campaign or to divert attention from Trump scandals.
Obviously, such documents would including internal strategic memos that might reveal the seamier side of politics, things such as opposition research that all campaigns engage in. Not surprisingly, some of these documents might reveal that most establishment Democrats favored long-time activist Democrat Hillary Clinton over proud independent Bernie Sanders.
The key thing to look for in these activities is the timing. Releases of documents were made to cause the most trouble for Clinton and the Democrats.
As the Democratic National Convention was starting, Bernie supporters were hurting, upset that their candidate would not be the nominee. To Sanders’s credit, though, he worked to support Clinton, understanding that a Trump presidency would be catastrophic. However, to undermine Bernie’s efforts to unify the party, on July 22, 2016, WikiLeaks released over 20,000 emails and other documents stolen from the DNC computer networks. The Democratic National Convention began three days later. The release of these emails sowed division at a time the Democrats needed to be unified.
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Similarly, on October 7, 2016 the Washington Post revealed the infamous Access Hollywood video (“Grab ’em by the pussy!”). Less than an hour after the video’s publication, WikiLeaks released the first set of emails stolen by the GRU from the account of Clinton Campaign chairman John Podesta. The aim of this release was to divert attention away from the Access Hollywood tape that was so embarrassing to Trump.
Together these efforts point to a unified campaign aimed at depressing turnout among people the Democrats needed to vote for Clinton, including Bernie supporters, African-Americans and LGBTQ individuals, while at the same time diverting media attention at times of maximum Trump embarrassment. There was no similar misdirection when, for example, James Comey announced that he was reopening the investigation into the Clinton emails days before the election.
The final front on the assault against our democracy was deemphasized in the report, but in some respects, is even more disturbing. It involves an effort to infiltrate our voting systems.
Part of what makes the American voting system so hard to damage is that it is so diverse. Literally, every one of the 3,142 counties across the United States has its own voting system. Nevertheless, a very targeted effort could cause problems, and that is exactly what it appears the Russians did.
The report reveals that “the FBI believes that this operation enabled the GRU to gain access to the network of at least one Florida county government.” This information is quite disturbing. Trump won Florida by less than 113,000 votes out of over 9.4 million cast. There are several counties where that number of votes could have been changed. Pinellas county, for example, which includes St. Petersburg, voted for Obama in 2012, but Trump won it by 492,403. As of now, we don’t know which county was infiltrated, but if it was a larger county like Pinellas, it might cast into doubt Trump’s Florida victory, and without Florida, Trump would have lost.
Certainly, Clinton lost for a number of reasons not worth enumerating here. Her campaign reminds me of one I worked for years ago in which everything went wrong. But her loss was razor-thin. Remember that she lost Florida and its 29 electoral votes by 1.2 percent of the vote. She similarly lost Michigan (.23%), Pennsylvania (.72%) and Wisconsin (.77%), and winning those would have changed the electoral college totals.
In such an environment, even a small impact from Russian interference could have changed the result. Clearly, such interference occurred. The only question that remains is whether we will allow it to happen again.
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