How Trump is helping Russia help Trump again

Author : Zach Dorfman

The efforts by presidential associates like Rudy Giuliani in Ukraine are helping set up a 2020 disinformation campaign
13:48, 28 October 2019

U.S. President Donald Trump
Open source

Washington is consumed by the impeachment inquiry that has followed the release of the whistle-blower complaint in late September alleging that Trump administration officials and associates sought to coerce Ukraine into politically motivated investigations. Meanwhile, in a parallel effort that appears designed to undermine the integrity of the Mueller report, Attorney General Bill Barr recently traveled to Italy (at least twice) and Britain to gather information as part of his review of the origins of the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

But there is yet another, perhaps more unnerving effect of these efforts by Trump affiliates like Rudy Giuliani to generate dirt on the Biden family and to taint the findings of the Mueller investigation: It is providing immense tinder for the pyre of propaganda that the Russian intelligence services may ignite for the 2020 election.

Wittingly or unwittingly, the president and his allies are helping to propagate another disinformation campaign — one that will most likely aid Russia, yet again, in its efforts to intervene corruptly in the American electoral process.

This state of affairs was laid bare in the explosive congressional testimony last week of William Taylor, the acting ambassador to Ukraine, who described the operation of two diplomatic channels there — one normal and proper, Mr. Taylor said, the second “highly irregular.” The second channel, led by Rudy Giuliani and some State Department officials, involved holding arms shipments to Ukraine hostage to demands that the Ukrainian president “go to a microphone” and announce investigations into the Biden family and Ukraine’s role in the 2016 presidential election.

It’s worth emphasizing that Ukraine is currently battling Russian proxies in a conflict that, as Mr. Taylor pointed out, has claimed over 13,000 lives. The coercive scheme by Mr. Trump and his associates weakened Ukraine’s warfighting capabilities and strengthened Russia’s hand — all to induce Ukrainian interference into the domestic politics of the United States.

The Russian intelligence services could not have conjured up a more fertile environment for their influence apparatus. This effort to coerce Ukraine into staining Mr. Biden with corruption allegations provides a ready-made — and officially United States government-sanctioned — line of attack for its disinformation operations. And Mr. Trump’s allies’ parallel efforts to discredit the Mueller investigation and advance the theory that the “real collusion” in 2016 was somehow perpetrated by the Clinton campaign and Ukraine provides Russia with a potent narrative of deniability about its own malign activities.

In fact, Russia has already found ways to weaponize Mr. Trump’s words. Earlier this month, the Russian Embassy in Britain cited Mr. Trump’s reported skepticism over Russia’s role in an attempted assassination — using a deadly chemical weapon that only Russia is known to possess and widely attributed to Russian intelligence — of a Russia defector living in England in 2018 as the “the best evidence” of Russia’s innocence.

Russia’s plans for 2020 seem clear. In a July appearance before the Senate Judiciary Committee, the director of the F.B.I., Christopher Wray, said Moscow was still “absolutely intent on trying to interfere with our elections.” Officials have repeatedly briefed the National Security Council on these election interference plans, Mr. Wray said — plans that Senator Richard Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, called “very specific,” citing closed-door briefings on the subject. According to a recent unclassified intelligence assessment produced by the Department of Homeland Security and reported by Yahoo News, “Russian influence actors almost certainly will continue to target U.S. audiences with influence activities” and probably view the 2020 election “as a key opportunity to do so.”

It appears inevitable that Russia’s efforts in 2020 will involve producing, disseminating and amplifying disinformation through popular social media platforms. Indeed, a recent Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report cited a newer Russian group, linked to the Internet Research Agency, a Russian government-directed troll farm, that appears to be undertaking an “active measures” campaign focused on the 2020 election and that is allegedly gathering personal data on individuals potentially receptive to its propaganda. (This Russian group shares a “network of online assets” with the Internet Research Agency, said John Kelly, chief executive of the social networks analytics firm Graphika, which provided the report cited by the Senate committee.)

President Trump and his associates may also seize on this new surge of Russian propaganda (even if they do not recognize it as such) to advance debunked conspiracy theories, or even outright falsehoods, about their political foes.

In 2016, Donald Trump Jr., Eric Trump, Michael Flynn, Brad Parscale and Kellyanne Conway all shared content on social media created by the Internet Research Agency, according to the Mueller report. All in all, wrote Mr. Mueller, individuals affiliated with the Trump campaign shared “dozens” of pieces of agency-produced content.

For instance, in 2016, many of the Internet Research Agency’s Facebook and Twitter posts focused on the purported existence in the United States of systematic voter fraud — a widely debunked claim, though one that candidate Trump repeated on the stump.

It is easy to see how this dynamic could be replicated in 2020 with, say, a torrent of Russia-generated disinformation, amplified by Trump associates, with a crescendo of attacks over Joe Biden’s alleged (and unsubstantiated) intervention into Ukrainian politics to hinder an investigation into Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian energy company where Hunter Biden sat on the board of directors.

But the interplay could also be more direct. There is nothing to stop President Trump from publicly soliciting assistance from the Russian intelligence services. As the Mueller report revealed, “within approximately five hours” of Mr. Trump’s publicly calling for Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails in 2016 (“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing”), a unit of the Russian military intelligence agency known as the G.R.U. “targeted for the first time” email addresses associated with Mrs. Clinton’s personal office.

Mr. Trump could easily muse overtly on the 2020 campaign trail that Russia — or another adversary of the United States — would be “rewarded mightily by our press” (as Mr. Trump stated in 2016) if someone happened to locate, say, Hunter Biden’s business emails, or documents from Burisma Holdings related to Hunter Biden’s activities there. Even forgeries — an old specialty of Russia’s intelligence services — of these documents, released by Russian fronts, would be sufficient to further inflame our politics.

For the Russian government, the current miasma of American politics represents the best of all possible worlds. Not only have United States-Ukrainian relations been thrown into chaos — a major win for Moscow — but the American president himself, and his closest confidants, are showing them precisely which political cleavages to target, which social fractures to aggravate and which narratives — however invidious — have already gained currency among a credulous subsection of the American electorate. All they have to do, for now, is sit back and wait.

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