The recent Biden administration sanctions on the Russian government are part of an ongoing effort to push back against the Kremlin’s malign influence campaign against the West. Although the White House actions are related to Russian attempts to interfere with the 2020 election, included in the announcement is a detail that has reinvigorated interest in the 2016 election and the Trump campaign’s potential connivance with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intelligence services.
In the announcement, the Treasury Department disclosed that in 2016, Russian intelligence officer Konstantin Kilimnik “provided the Russian Intelligence Services with sensitive information on polling and campaign strategy” that he received directly from Trump campaign Chairman Paul Manafort in the summer of 2016.
It was already known that Manafort had passed confidential internal polling data to Kiliminik, who was described by the 2020 Senate Select Intelligence Committee report as a “Russian intelligence officer.” While it is not a great leap to assume a Russian intelligence officer would pass material to his bosses, the recent announcement was the first time the U.S. government acknowledged Putin’s intelligence services were the recipient of the campaign data.
Those who were already troubled by the Trump campaign’s apparent collusion with the Kremlin, like myself, will see this as yet further proof of Trump’s intent to use illicit means to sway the 2016 election. Those who have long shouted “no proof of collusion” will likely scoff at the detail, labeling it as just another piece of information from the U.S. government with little public evidence to back it up.
In determining one way or the other about the seriousness of the new information, it’s important to ask how and why domestic polling data could be of use to the Russian intelligence services, and determine the potential impact it could have.
First, it’s clear what the Russian government has been trying to do in the United States over the past five-plus years. The ongoing Russian effort to weaponize stolen material, spread disinformation, and subvert U.S. democracy has been described in the reports from Special Counsel Robert Mueller and the Senate Intelligence Committee, as well as a series of assessments from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The Kremlin’s desire to damage the United States by exacerbating existing divisions and support Trump over Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden are well established. However, despite the views of a few key commentators and academics, it is commonly assumed that the Russian effort did not ultimately alter votes, significantly sway voters, or have a significant impact on the outcome of the 2016 election.
As aggressive as the covert Russian influence campaign was, it is hard to imagine that fake Russian articles, tweets, and advertisements could persuade a Democrat to vote for Trump. Some researchers have echoed this assumption. Looking at the 2016 election, political scientist and Dartmouth professor Brendan Nyhan concluded that it is extremely difficult to change the minds of committed Democrats and Republicans. His research on the 2016 election suggests that fake news on social media was more likely to reinforce existing biases rather than change any minds.
While this theory makes sense as far as it goes, this is not what the Russian government – or the Trump campaign – were doing. They were doing exactly the opposite. They wanted to reinforce existing biases, not change minds. They were not interested in appealing to voters to consider alternatives. As information warfare expert Molly McKew explained in a February, 2018 article in “Wired,” following the Mueller indictment of the Internet Research Agency (often called the “troll factory”),
the indictment mentions that the Russian accounts were meant to embed with and emulate ‘radical’ groups. The content was not designed to persuade people to change their views, but to harden those views…The intention of these campaigns was to activate—or suppress—target groups. Not to change their views, but to change their behavior.
This strategy is outlined in Christopher Wylie’s book “Mindf*ck” about his time as an employee at Cambridge Analytica, the data analysis firm that provided advice to the Trump campaign and “used data improperly obtained from Facebook to build voter profiles.” The firm – where Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon served on the board – utilized massive data sets to target specific Americans with tailored content. As Wylie described it, Cambridge Analytica was not focused on traditional political advertising, but involved in a form of psychological warfare – “we were creating a machine to contaminate American with hate and cultish paranoia.”
In service of Trump winning the election, Cambridge Analytica and Russian intelligence were operating on the same strategy: not hoping to merely change the opinion of swing voters, but seeking to find and animate new voters – specifically, expand the electorate with voters who were fed up and had stopped engaging in politics, if they ever had in the first place. According to Wylie, “…the firm identified and targeted people with neurotic or conspiratorial dispositions, then disseminated propaganda to deepen and accentuate those traits.” By seeking people who felt oppressed by political correctness and who resented perceived changes in their societal status, Cambridge Analytica was looking to for a group of potential new voters, animated by the opportunity to punish immigrant groups and urban liberals, and put them in a punitive mindset. The strategy identified new voters in 2016, but it also led to the reinforcement of the alt-right, and the eventual creation Marjorie Taylor-Greene’s America First Caucus and a right-wing governing philosophy defined by a performative attitude of “owning the libs.”
At the same time, both Russian intelligence and Trump strategists were also committed to a strategy of voter suppression on the left, seeking particularly to confuse and disempower minority communities. Memes and Facebook posts aimed directly at communities of color sold the theme that both establishment political parties were equally racist, and it was better to opt out altogether than participate in the corrupt process.
While both Bannon’s Cambridge Analytica and Russian intelligence were following the same playbook and had detailed data on and access to tens of millions of Americans (thanks to Facebook), they needed to know where to focus their attack. Which key states and counties could swing the election in the electoral college?
This is where Manafort and Kilimnik come in.
To succeed in potentially impacting the election, Russian intelligence needed tailored polling information. According to Trump campaign associates quoted in the Senate report, Manafort shared data on “polls that identified voter bases in blue-collar, democratic-leaning states which Trump could swing.” While non-professionals might question the value of internal political polling, Manafort seemed to realize the potential value to the Kremlin. In his correspondence with Kilimnik, he suggested that the material might help absolve him of a $19 million debt to Putin-connected oligarch Oleg Deripaska.
While the new information from the Treasury Department does not prove that the Trump campaign conspired with Russian intelligence, the clear confluence of interests, surprising similarity of tactics and shared data suggest that there is still much to learn (although not from either Manafort or Bannon, who were pardoned by former President Donald Trump, and in the case of Manafort, refused to cooperate with federal prosecutors). Both groups exploited Americans’ fears and worries for their own ends; the Trump campaign to provoke and harness rage and resentment, and Russia for subversive purposes. Were the Trump and Russian strategies identical by chance? Even if so, they both relied on the same data (thanks to Manafort and Kilimnik), drew similar conclusions, and certainly found the effort worthwhile.