Russia’s election interference began well before the general election. It started during the GOP primaries and clearly in support of Donald Trump over his GOP opponents. Thanks to investigative reporting by the New York Times, we now know, at the very least, the Trump campaign was open to support from the Russian government by early June 2016 when senior campaign members met with Russians purporting to have information from the Kremlin that would harm Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid, discussed timing for implementing Russian support, and failed to report any of this to U.S. authorities. Many have raised the question whether the Trump campaign’s knowledge of Russian government support and these kinds of exchanges began before June 2016. Yet to truly understand the scope of Russian interference in the U.S. election, we must ask a more specific question: did the Trump campaign know about, accept, or work with the Russian government when the Kremlin interfered in the GOP primary?
The publicly available information on this matter should prompt Congress, Robert Mueller, news media, and others to pursue that question with utmost concern. Let’s take a closer look.
I. Russia’s election interference during the Republican primary
Before we explore whether the Trump team was working with Russia during the primaries, it’s worth briefly reviewing the Russian government’s overall involvement in in the 2016 GOP primaries. Russian election interference reportedly took effect during the primaries in an effort to undercut GOP candidates whose positions were hostile to Moscow’s interests and, more specifically, in an effort to boost Donald Trump. The Russian operation included (at least) two prongs: a propaganda effort to spread fake news and cyber operations to steal confidential information.
When exactly did the Russian influence campaign begin? In an interview with Just Security, former FBI special agent Clint Watts explained that the Russian approach to its influence campaign involved an earlier starting point than many assume. Watts said:
“What many people miss is that a first principle of effective information wars is to win over the audience first. The Russians developed an alt-right audience in the United States, including testing how they would respond to different messages, well before the primaries began. The Russians were then ready for whichever candidate suited them.”
During a March 30, 2017 Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, Watts testified about how the Russian operation took shape once the primary got underway:
“Through the end of 2015 and start of 2016, the Russian influence system began pushing themes and messages seeking to influence the outcome of the U.S. presidential election. Russian’s overt media outlets and covert trolls sought to sideline opponents on both sides of the political spectrum with adversarial views towards the Kremlin. They were in full swing during both the Republican and Democratic primary season that may have helped sink the hopes of candidates more hostile to Russian interests long before the field narrowed.”
Departing from his written testimony, Watts told Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), “in my opinion, you anecdotally suffered from these measures.” Following the hearing, Watts told reporters, that the Russian activities were combined in the form of “pumping up Trump while tamping down the others,” and specifically identified Rubio, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Jeb Bush.
— Sputnik (@SputnikInt) January 7, 2016
An important caveat here is that similar to the general election, it is a separate exercise to determine what effect Russian interference might have had on the electorate. Other candidates each had their flaws and made missteps, and Trump had his strengths and undeniable appeal to segments of voters. Whether the Russian actions may or may not have altered the outcome of these races is simply not the question I am analyzing here. I am focused here only on what actions the Kremlin took during the primary and whether the Trump campaign knew about or otherwise colluded with the Russians in those actions.
The propaganda prong of the Kremlin’s “active measures” campaign in the 2016 election involved use of Russian media outlets like Sputnik and RT along with Russian-affiliated social media bots to shape public understanding of the primary candidates. But when did the Russian efforts turn specifically to supporting Trump?
According to the U.S. intelligence report, that part of the Russian government operation “began openly supporting President-elect Trump’s candidacy” in March 2016. [Update: the Special Counsel’s indictment of 13 Russians and 3 Russian organizations also states: “On or about February 10, 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators internally circulated an outline of themes for future content to be posted to [Russian] ORGANIZATION-controlled social media accounts. Specialists were instructed to post content that focused on ‘politics in the USA’ and to ‘use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump- we support them).'”]
March was an important month in the primaries. That month included: the first and second Super Tuesdays, the field narrowing to three candidates (Trump, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Ohio Gov. John Kasich), and the rise of the question whether Trump’s opponents could deny him the 1,237 delegates needed to clinch the nomination.
Clint Watts and Andrew Weisburd mark an earlier date for the start for the Russian propaganda campaign in support of Trump. After exhaustive research, they assess that as “early as August 2015, Russian English-language outlets and their social media allies were promoting Trump.”
What about the second prong in the Russian campaign—malicious cyber operations—and when did those begin? Those operations ramped up during the primary season. An important line in the U.S. intelligence report reads, “Russian intelligence services collected [information] against the US primary campaigns … they viewed as likely to shape future US policies.” In October 2016, NBC reported that Russian efforts to steal emails and other data got underway in 2015 and included “top Republicans and staffers for Republican candidates for president.”
II. Mutual interests and organization
Any thorough analysis of whether the Russian government and the Trump campaign engaged in collusion would need to examine whether, if such activities occurred, they began during the primary season. A starting point, however, is to identify the actors’ motivations and capacities.
The motives of the two sides would apply to the primaries just as much as to the general election. If the Trump campaign was open to Russian support in the second phase of the election, it would presumably not repel such assistance in the primary race. Also, Putin would have known by then that Trump offered an exceptionally pro-Russia position compared to other Republican presidential candidates. Trump would also likely be valued by Putin as a disruptor, even if the thought at the time was that Trump could not win the primary. Trump’s tapping into and galvanizing nationalist, anti-globalist, and alt-right sentiments would suit Putin.
Kremlin support would not need to depend on a quid pro quo (though Putin would likely see the benefit of a Trump campaign indebted for his help). Putin would have clearly appreciated the Trump’s campaign shaping the Republican party’s principles. Some of Trump’s foreign policy views had been relatively clear for years in that regard. For instance, Trump wrote multiple books and spoke many times strongly in favor of reducing America’s security commitments around the world. In his 2000 book, The America We Deserve, Trump wrote: “The cost of stationing NATO troops in Europe is enormous, and these are clearly funds that can be put to better use. Our allies don’t seem to appreciate our presence anyway.”
Trump may of course have other ties to Moscow. His financial dealings include many connections to Russia that date back at least to 1987. He has strongly and categorically denied them despite the publicly available record.
The Trump organization was also similar to the general election in its potential channels of communication and exchange with the Russians. During the primaries, the Trump campaign included several individuals with “deep connections to the Putin regime” (including less familiar names like Michael Caputo). Most notably, this list includes Paul Manafort who quickly resigned after revelations of past unreported and potentially illicit financial dealings with the Kremlin-supported political party in Ukraine, and Carter Page, who resigned within days after the media reported that U.S. intelligence officials were investigating his contacts with Russia. Notably, Christopher Steele’s dossier identifies Manafort and Page as key intermediaries between Putin’s government and the Trump campaign. Manafort, whose relationship with Trump goes back decades, may be especially significant. Based on interviews and business records it obtained, the Associated Press reported in March 2017:
“Before signing up with Donald Trump, former campaign manager Paul Manafort secretly worked for a Russian billionaire with a plan to ‘greatly benefit the Putin Government,’ The Associated Press has learned.
Manafort proposed in a confidential strategy plan as early as June 2005 that he would influence politics, business dealings and news coverage inside the United States …. Manafort pitched the plans to aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska, a close Putin ally with whom Manafort eventually signed a $10 million annual contract beginning in 2006.”
III. Data points: Russia-Trump interactions and the GOP primaries
What information exists about Russian interactions with the Trump campaign during the GOP primary?
Donald Trump Jr. emails and June 9, 2016 meeting
It does not require an intelligence analyst to see the signs of a pre-existing understanding of Russian government cooperation with the Trump campaign in Donald Trump Jr.’s email exchange with Rob Goldstone. In his first email on June 3, Goldstone referred, as though it were a common understanding on both sides, to “very high level and sensitive information” that was “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Trump Jr.’s response did not react to this statement, which is also consistent with treating that aspect as a common understanding. CNN political analyst Kirsten Powers similarly observed that Goldstone’s referring to the Russian government’s support for Trump in the initial email, “does not seem to be a shocking revelation to Donald Trump Jr., this is like … mid-conversation,” and Anderson Cooper agreed, the email reads as a “second reference” to a pre-existing understanding. That is perhaps the most important element in the email exchange. Furthermore, in his one interview on the subject, Trump Jr. failed to provide a persuasive explanation for why he did not respond with surprise or concern to the statement in the email that this is part of an existing Russian government effort to support his father.
There are several additional indications that the June 9 meeting was based on a pre-existing understanding and determination that the Russians would deliver something of value to the Trump campaign. First, the meeting does not appear to have been simply the naive or rogue decision of a political neophyte. Campaign manager Paul Manafort, a veteran of four major presidential campaigns (Ford, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and Dole) and steeped in Russia, was included in the entire email chain and participated in the meeting. Second, for an initial meeting, it would be unusual to secure the time of three principals – Manafort, Kushner, and Don Jr. Having all three involved is more consistent with a pre-existing trust on these kinds of issues between the two sides. Third, based on Trump Jr.’s statements and interview with Sean Hannity, the Trump campaign principals did not appear to consult a lawyer or others within the campaign ahead of the meeting – they instead handled the emails and the setup for the meeting in a manner consistent with the campaign principals’ having previously settled on the legal and political risks. All that said, in general, the Trump campaign did not follow many of the usual norms and procedures of a political campaign, which makes it difficult to draw inferences from seemingly aberrant behavior.
Several commentators have noted that after the initial email exchange with Goldstone, Trump publicly announced that he would reveal incriminating information about Hillary Clinton in the following week. If he was acting on the correspondence from Goldstone, what would give Trump enough confidence to make the promise? A plausible explanation, though certainly not the only one given Trump’s penchant for risk taking, is that the Russians had reliably delivered in the past.
Christopher Steele’s reporting
It deserves emphasis that several revelations over the past weeks and months should add to confidence in former MI6 operative Christopher Steele’s now famous dossier on Russian connections to the Trump campaign. The focus here is on the primary season, and it is useful to recall that Steele said he was first hired to investigate Trump by a Republican source during the primary.
Stunningly, Steele’s dossier anticipated the recent revelations about the Trump campaign’s meeting with Russians in June 2016. Specifically, Steele’s reporting refers to the Trump team receiving information from the Russians about Hillary Clinton. But what’s more significant for our purposes is that Steele seems to be referring also to information on rival primary candidates. His first report, dated June 20, 2016, states: “he [Trump] and his inner circle have accepted a regular flow of intelligence from the Kremlin, including on his Democratic and other political rivals.”
Trump interactions with Russians prior to announcing his run for the presidency
Another data point involves Russian communications about Trump and potential meetings with Trump’s circle leading up to his run for president. According to the Wall Street Journal, the recent revelation of the June 9, 2016 meeting has government investigators returning to intercepts of Russian officials’ conversations in spring 2015 which contained an unusual volume of references to Trump associates – enough to raise questions among U.S. intelligence officers at the time. According to the reporting by the WSJ’s Shane Harris, the Russians discussed “meetings held outside the U.S. involving Russian government officials and Trump business associates or advisers.”
It is also notable in this regard that two of the players in the center of the Trump Jr. email and June 9, 2016 meeting — Rob Goldstone and Emin Agalarov — were also apparently privy to Trump’s decision to run for President before it was publicly announced. The Guardian reported that “in June 2015, Goldstone claimed to have already been briefed on Trump’s intentions during a meeting he and Agalarov enjoyed at Trump Tower the previous month.”
Trump’s signals to Putin
The day Trump announced his run for President, June 16, 2015, Bill O’Reilly said Trump “wanted his first post announcement interview to be on The Factor,” the show that O’Reilly hosted on Fox News at the time. During the interview, Trump made headlines by signaling strong support for Putin and the relationship he said he would forge with Putin if he became President of the United States:
TRUMP: Well, Putin has no respect for our president whatsoever. He’s got a tremendous popularity in Russia. They love what he’s doing, they love what he represents.
So we have a President who is absolutely, you look at him — the chemistry is so bad between those two people.
I was over in Moscow two years ago and I will tell you – you can get along with those people and get along with them well. You can make deals with those people. Obama can’t. He’s not —
O’REILLY: So you could make a deal with Putin to stop his expansion?
TRUMP: I would be willing to bet I would have a great relationship with Putin. It’s about leadership.
Trump’s statements in weeks leading up to his announcement also signaled favorable views of Putin.
[Update: Subsequent to this article, the New York Times and Washington Post reported on business dealings involving Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen and Felix Sater, in which Sater wrote in an email, dated November 3, 2015, “I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected. … Buddy our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get all of Putins team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.” In addition, Sater and Cohen also ran a back channel project involving a plan to potentially undermine the current government in Ukraine and lift Russian sanctions on terms favorable to Moscow. As I wrote more recently, there is reason to think those back-channel discussions on Ukraine began early in the Republican primaries. For more on those developments, read “Trump’s Moscow Tower and Back-Channel Ukraine Dossier: Both Began During the Election, Evidence Suggests.”]
* * *
In sum, there is ample information suggesting Trump campaign connections to the Russian government during the GOP primary for investigators and others to raise the question and find the answers.
With respect to Russia’s actions to influence U.S. elections, will history repeat itself? There is no evidence that the Kremlin’s efforts at election interference are on the wane. In his interview with Just Security, Watts explained how effectively the Russians develop their audience and maintain it during lull periods. Watts said:
“The Russians are also good about keeping their audience even after the time they have used them has passed. So they are ready for the next opportunity. That’s another lesson in information warfare that the United States itself has not understood well.”
In the 2018 mid-term elections, once again, the Kremlin’s targets may first be the primaries before the general elections even get started. They are ready, but America isn’t.
[Editor’s note: For more on their recent writings on this topic, read these three pieces: (1) Trump Tower Meeting Helps Show Collusion Up To Election Day; (2) Mowatt-Larssen and Goodman, “The Media Is Not Asking the Right Questions on Trump Jr. Emails and Meeting with the ‘Russian Government Lawyer,’” and (3) Mowatt-Larssen, “The Making of a Russian Spy: A Roadmap for the FBI to Resolve Russia Gate”]