The Office of the Director of National Intelligence declassifies a report on foreign influence in the 2020 election. U.S. intelligence assesses with high confidence that Vladimir Putin authorized election interference and influence campaigns ahead of the 2020 election to benefit Donald Trump–and US public figures helped.
The report also finds that Iran tried to hurt Donald Trump’s election chances but did not favor one Democratic candidate over another. China considered influence campaigns but did not follow through.
There are no indications that any foreign government or other bad actor tried to alter any technical aspect of the election, such as vote tabulation or voter registrations.
In reviewing the report, Trump File was able to find ties between Russian interference and prominent U.S. figures. Some of these people appear to have been directly involved in Russia’s efforts. Others are connected indirectly. In some cases, that line is blurred. The list includes Rudy Giuliani, Paul Manafort, Roger Stone, Michael Caputo, Kashyap Patel, Sen. Ron Johnson, Sen. Chuck Grassley, Rep. Devin Nunes, Tucker Carlson, Ali Alexander, Jack Posobiec, Tulsi Gabbard, Jill Stein, Stop The Steal, and One America News Network.
At the end of this post, we’ve listed two dozen others who may have known about and possibly been involved in Russia’s influence campaign.
The paragraphs below are ripped directly from the declassified report. Lines in bold may be styled as such in the report or by Trump File for emphasis. Lines in italics and the section at the bottom of this post are our own input.
We assess that Russian President Putin authorized, and a range of Russian government organizations conducted, 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. Unlike in 2016, we did not see persistent Russian cyber efforts to gain access to election infrastructure.
A key element of Moscow strategy this election cycle was its use of proxies linked to Russian intelligence to push influence narratives–including misleading or unsubstantiated allegations against President Biden–to US media organizations, US officials, and prominent US individuals, including some close to former President Trump and his administration.
Kremlin Direction of Influence Activity
We assess that President Putin and other senior Russian officials were aware of and probably directed Russia’s influence operations against the 2020 US Presidential election. For example, we assess that Putin had purview over the activities of Andriy Derkach, a Ukrainian legislator who played a prominent role in Russia’s election influence activities… Rudy Giuliani worked with Andriy Derkach to smear Joe Biden and create a false narrative around Hunter Biden and Burisma. Giuliani’s involvement began as early as January 2019. Rep. Devin Nunes and Kashyap Patel were also involved with Giuliani and Derkach. Patel was placed in a high position at the Pentagon immediately following the 2020 election, and Trump tried putting him in charge of the CIA in December.
Actors, Methods, and Operations
We assess that Russia’s intelligence services, Ukraine-linked individuals with ties to Russian intelligence and their networks, and Russian state media, trolls, and online proxies engaged in activities targeting the 2020 US presidential election. The primary effort the IC uncovered revolved around a narrative–that Russian actors began spreading as early as 2014–alleging corrupt ties between President Biden, his family, and other US officials and Ukraine.
Russian intelligence services relied on Ukraine-linked proxies and these proxies’ networks–including their US contacts— to spread this narrative to give Moscow plausible deniability of their involvement… The goals if this effort went beyond the US presidential campaign to include reducing the Trump administration’s support for Ukraine… We have no evidence suggesting the Ukrainian Government was involved in any of these efforts.
A network of Ukraine-linked individuals–including Russian influence agent Konstantin Kilimnik–who were also connected to the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) took steps throughout the election cycle to damage US ties to Ukraine, denigrate President Biden and his candidacy, and benefit former President Trump’s prospects for reelection. We assess this network also sought… to falsely blame Ukraine for interfering in the 2016 US presidential election. Paul Manafort told the Trump campaign to blame Ukraine as early as summer 2016. Manafort was also working with Kilmnik during the 2016 campaign and gave him U.S. voter data. Manafort’s company, Event Strategies, was paid to put together the January 6th event that led to the insurrection at the Capitol.
Derkach, Kilimnik, and their associates sought to use prominent US persons and media conduits to launder their narratives to US officials and audiences–like when Rudy Giuliani and Andriy Derkach appeared on One America News Network.
These Russian proxies met with and provided materials to Trump administration-linked US persons to advocate for formal investigations; hired a US firm to petition US officials; and attempted to make contact with several senior US officials. Sens. Ron Johnson and Chuck Grassley have been accused of using investigations into Ukraine as a conduit for Russian disinformation. Johnson also met with and accepted documents from likely Putin proxy Andriy Telizhenko.[source]
They also made contact with established US media figures and helped produce a documentary that aired on a US television network in late January 2020. This is referring to ‘The Ukraine Hoax,’ a documentary produced by Russian asset and Trump official Michael Caputo. He also stars in the documentary, which aired on One America News Network.[source]
As part of his plan to secure the reelection of former President Trump, Derkach publicly released audio recordings four times in 2020 in attempts to impicate President Biden and other current or former US Government officials in allegedly corrupt activities related to Ukraine. Derkach also worked to initiate legal proceedings in Ukraine and the US related to these allegations. Ukrainian officials associated with Derkach sought to promote similar claims throughout late 2019 and 2020, including through direct outreach to senior US government officials.
We assess that Russia’s cyber units gathered information to inform Kremlin decision-making about the election and Moscow’s broader foreign policy interests…
Shortly after the 2018 midterm elections, Russian intelligence cyber actors attempted to hack organizations primarily affiliated with the Democratic Party. Separately, the GRU unsuccessfully targeted US political actors in 2019 and 2020; this activity aligned with the tactics of a larger intelligence-gathering campaign.
In late 2019, GRU cyber actors conducted a phishing campaign against subsidiaries of Burisma holdings, likely in an attempt to gather information related to President Biden’s family and Burisma.
We judge that Russian cyber operations that targeted and compromised US state and local government networks in 2020 (SolarWinds) –including exfiltrating some voter data– were probably not election-focused and instead part of a broader campaign targeting dozens of US and global entities.
Throughout the election cycle, Russia’s online influence actors sought to affect US public perceptions of the candidates, as well as advance Moscow’s long-standing goals of undermining confidence in US election processes and increasing sociopolitical divisions among the American people.
During the presidential primaries and dating back to 2019, these actors backed candidates from both major US political parties that Moscow viewed as outsiders, while later claiming that election fraud helped what they called “establishment” candidates. Hillary Clinton warned that Russia was interested in backing Tulsi Gabbard and that third-party candidate Jill Stein is a Russian asset. [source]
Throughout the election, Russia’s online influence actors sought to amplify mistrust in the electoral process by denigrating mail-in ballots, highlighting alleged irregularities, and accusing the Democratic Party of voter fraud–messaging tied to Stop The Steal. Stop The Steal 2020 was first mentioned online in September by Ali Alexander and Jack Posobiec of One America News Network. Posobiec has been accused of being a Kremlin mouthpiece before,[source] and Trump File has noted that he might be tied to a disinformation Twitter bot operation.
The Kremlin-linked influence organization Project Lakhta and its Lakhta Internet Research (LIR) troll farm–commonly referred to by its former moniker Internet Research Agency (IRA)–amplified controversial domestic issues. LIR used social media personas, news websites, and US persons to deliver tailored content to subsets of the US population. LIR established short-lived troll farms that used unwitting third-country nationals in Ghana, Mexico, and Nigeria to propagate these US-focused narratives, probably in response to efforts by US companies and law enforcement to shut down LIR-associated personas.
Russian state media, trolls, and online proxies, including those directed by Russian intelligence, published disparaging content about President Biden, his family, and the Democratic Party, and heavily amplified related content circulating in US media, including stories centered on his son. Many right-wing figures pushed these narratives, but Fox News’ Tucker Carlson deserves a mention. Carlson put himself at the center of Kremlin propaganda with his story of a missing USB drive that he alleged could prove Hunter Biden corruption. The story became the USB drive itself, and he never revealed the contents–even after he found it. [source] It doesn’t help his case that Russian state media uses his segments as evidence that their propaganda is real.[source] It also doesn’t help that Rupert Murdoch hangs out with Putin.[source]
These influence actors frequently sought out US contributors to increase their reach into US audiences… These influence actors also promoted conspiratorial narratives about the COVID-19 pandemic, made allegations of social media censorship, and highlighted US divisions surrounding protests about racial justice. Every GOP public figure pushed these narratives.
Russian online influence actors generally promoted former President Trump and his commentary, including repeating his political messaging on the election results; the presidential campaign; debates; the impeachment inquiry; and, as the election neared, US domestic crises.
Influence actors sometimes sought to discourage US left-leaning audiences from voting by suggesting that neither candidate was a preferable option…
LIR, which probably receives tasking and strategic direction from the Kremlin, pushed stories supporting former President Trump and denigrating President Biden after he became the presumptive nominee in April.
Evaluating Moscow’s Calculus on the 2020 Election
We assess that Russian leaders viewed President Biden’s potential election as disadvantageous to Russian interests and that this drove their efforts to undermine his candidacy. We have high confidence in this assessment…
Throughout the primaries and general election campaign, Russian influence agents repeatedly spread unsubstantiated or misleading claims about President Biden and his family’s alleged wrongdoing related to Ukraine. By contrast, during the Democratic primaries Russian online influence actors promoted candidates that Moscow viewed as outside what it perceives to be an anti-Russia political establishment.
Even after the election, Russian online influence actors continued to promote narratives questioning the election results and disparaging President Biden and the Democratic Party. These efforts parallel plans Moscow had in place in 2016 to discredit a potential incoming Clinton administration, but which it scraped after former President Trump’s victory… In the US, the one thing that the 2016 and 2020 elections had in common is Stop The Steal. The 2016 Stop The Steal propaganda campaign was led by Roger Stone, who admitted that Russia was behind the hacked emails released by WikiLeaks. In both years, Stop The Steal was planned months in advance of the election outcome.
As the election neared, Kremlin officials took some steps to prepare for a Biden administration, probably because they believed former President Trump’s prospects for re-election had diminished…
We assess that Moscow will continue election influence efforts to further its longstanding goal of weakening Washington because the Kremlin has long deemed that a weakened United States would be less likely to pursue assertive foreign and security policies abroad and more open to geopolitical bargains with Russia.
The report mentions Russian officials and proxies communicating with US officials and people close to the Trump Administration. Let’s talk about that.
In July 2019, Donald Trump fired the then-Director of National Intelligence for drafting a report that warned of Russia’s election influence efforts. In 2020, Trump fired another DNI just because an official said that Russia wants him to win.
Trump’s fifth and final DNI, John Ratcliffe, released a report in September that had already been identified as part of a Russian disinformation campaign. It claimed that Hillary Clinton orchestrated the Trump-Russia story. Ratcliffe promoted the document as factual.
In May 2020, Chad Wolf ordered a DHS official to end all reporting on Russian election interference. Two months later, Wolf blocked a report that identified Russia’s role in promoting the Joe Biden “cognitive decline” narrative.
Rep. Pete Sessions is the son of William Sessions, an attorney for Putin friend and Russian mafia leader Semion Mogilevich. He sat at the top of the FBI’s Most Wanted until James Comey removed him from the list.
One of Trump’s post-election lawyers, Joseph diGenova, began work for one of Putin and Mogilevich’s associates in July 2019. That relationship was arranged by Rudy Giuliani. DiGenova’s stepson, Brady Toensing, was positioned in Trump’s DOJ.
Sen. Rand Paul has personally delivered messages from Trump to Putin.
Sen. Mitch McConnell helped block sanctions on a Russian company known to be used by Putin as a proxy for election interference.
The Kremlin views Sens. Richard Shelby, Steve Daines, John Hoeven, Ron Johnson, John Kennedy, Jerry Moran, John Thune, and Rep. Kay Granger as allies after the group’s 2018 trip to Moscow.
Rep. Kevin McCarthy has received hundreds of thousands in donations from an associate of a Putin proxy.
Reps. Paul Gosar, Andy Biggs, and Mo Brooks worked with Ali Alexander on Stop The Steal 2020.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher met with Julian Assange in 2017 to try and clear Trump from Russian collusion claims. In 2016, Kevin McCarthy was recorded saying that he thinks Rohrabacher works for Putin.
In November, Sens. Lindsey Graham, John Cornyn, Marsha Blackburn, and Josh Hawley defended Russia, attacking the FBI and claiming the bureau invented the Trump-Russia story. Blackburn is also responsible for blocking two bills that were aimed at protecting the election from foreign influence.
Ezra Cohen-Watnick helped Devin Nunes shift blame from Russia to the FBI in 2017 and was believed to be a national security risk, like his former boss Michael Flynn. He was placed in the Pentagon in early 2020. He’s also married to Rebecca Miller, a former U.S. publicist for Putin.[source]
In August, Michael Caputo directed health department funds to the friend of a Russian spy family.
Also worth mentioning:
The two social networks promoted most by Trump Republicans — Parler and Telegram — have origins in Russia, making them a likely outlet for Kremlin propaganda and disinformation.
One of the biggest perpetrators of pushing election disinformation before and after the election is Michael Flynn, who we know has been working for Russian interests for years. Another is InfoWars host Alex Jones, who led the January 6th march to the Capitol and has a Russian visa.
Photo: Public Domain