Explained: The Russian effort to help Donald Trump

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Curt Johnson / Flickr Donald Trump goes on Russia Twitter...
Curt Johnson / Flickr

In 2013, Donald Trump went to Russia. He may, or may not, have had an experience in a Moscow hotel room while he was there. But even if that didn’t happen, something else surely did.

Trump: I was with the top level people, both oligarchs and generals and top-of-the-government people. I can’t go further than that, but I will tell you I met the top people.

Whatever happened, it seems to be around this same point that Russia decided to see if it could make Donald Trump the next president of the United States. That effort centered around turning the same tools it had used to attack the nascent democratic governments of former Soviet states into a systematic campaign that spread disinformation, stole real information and pried open America along fault lines of race and culture. Russia’s commitment to Trump meant devoting the full-time attention of hundreds of intelligence operatives, over a period of years. It included social media accounts that were carefully nursed along for over two years, until they weren’t just part of the landscape on both left and right, but were actually in positions of influence, and even leadership, in both communities. The effort that Russia launched following Trump’s 2013 visit to Moscow spanned continents and included social media, traditional media, false news sites, cyber espionage, clandestine meetings, and boots-on-the-ground organizing.

But that wasn’t the start of the story.

Americans have two stories they tell one another. For Democrats, a president should be Josiah Bartlett—thoughtful, decisive, and intensely moral—willing to make personal chances and throw away all political calculus when it comes to doing the right thing. For Republicans, a president is James Marshall, confident and cool as he takes on terrorists with his own fists and saves his family, and not incidentally the world, by never backing down.

But Russia doesn’t believe in either of those stories. For Russia, the United States is a country dominated by three features: racism, violence, and greed. In supporting Trump, Russia acted on those beliefs.

Russia’s favorite American

The Russian idea of the American president is someone like Andrew Wadsworth, the feckless goof who holds that role at the center of the 1985 Soviet film, The R Document. Wadsworth helms a government he doesn’t understand, in a country on the brink of collapse under the weight from its own corruption and lack of a cohesive center. In that film, based on a novel by Irving Wallace, Wadsworth mouths speeches about “law and order” in a plan to justify suspending the bill of rights, while beneath him the FBI and CIA form a secret cabal that destroys anyone who gets in the way of their tyrannical agenda.

That wasn’t just the theme of a popular Soviet movie, that’s the vision of the United States, as seen from Russia, going back to the time of Lenin. Racism, violence, greed—and an immense level of corruption. For Russia, Donald Trump is perfect. An archetype. And the romance between Russia and their perfect American went on for decades.

Trump had been talking about running for president since at least 1987. That same year, Trump also visited Moscow with his wife, Ivana. In Russia, he met with Soviet officials and discussed the possibility of building a landmark building in the capital. Later that year Trump met with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev in Washington. While no immediate real estate deal came about, Trump’s family and representatives continued to make visits to Moscow throughout the 1990s. In 1996, Trump applied for a trademarks on his name and logos with the new Russian government in advance of another proposed project.

He was still trying to make something happen in Moscow when he launched a token run at the presidency in 2000 as a Reform Party candidate. And he was openly mulling another attempt in 2004, just as he was renewing efforts to create a development in Russia. That was also the period where Trump, wiped out by repeated failures with his casinos, expanded his dealings with Russian oligarchs by serving as a conduit to bring funds into the United States. Trump was providing money laundering for Russia through his failing casinos, though he had a nasty habit of being caught and fined. And the numbers there could not match the millions that Trump escorted into the country on real estate deals. The real estate transactions were helped along by an extremely light regulatory environment, something that Trump had personally lobbied about, for decades.

As the Russian investments channeled through Trump moved from the millions to the billions, Trump was bailed out by Russia. At a time when Trump was still wrapping up his sixth bankruptcy, and dealing with the fallout from the death of his father, Trump suddenly launched a decade-long buying binge starting in 2006. By 2008, Donald Trump Jr. was ready to explain to real estate developers, just how the Trump Organization was coming up with the money for all these new projects.

Donald Trump Jr: In terms of high-end product influx into the U.S., Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets.

And it wasn’t just Junior. When talking about where the money was coming from to feed Trump’s sharp uptick in golf course acquisitions, Eric was clear on the sourcing.

Eric Trump: We have all the funding we need out of Russia.

By the time Trump made his 2013 visit, he was famous in Russia. His multiple efforts to build a tower in Moscow had forged connections with numerous oligarchs. His work in helping them funnel their money into New York had built even stronger conduits. Anyone who was anyone in Moscow had a connection to Trump.

The affair between Trump and Russia was longer lasting than any of his flings with porn stars. Or his marriages. By the time he made that visit in 2013, any extracurricular activities that Russia might have filmed between Trump and prostitutes were strictly beside the point. They already knew him. They didn’t need kompromat, because everything they knew about Trump was already compromising.

Donald Trump was Russia’s favorite American long before he was Russia’s candidate, and his frequent friendly statements toward Russia and Putin ensured that Trump got lots of favorable treatment in Russian media—generating a feedback loop of love from Trump. Russians weren’t celebrating Trump’s victory just because they thought he was under Vladimir Putin’s thumb. They knew Trump both as someone who had been expressing interest in Russia since Soviet days, and as an America who fit perfectly with their ideal of an American. From the way he acted to the stories he told, Donald Trump confirmed to Russia that they had been right all along about America. His victory was their victory.

The Manafort Plan

It would be 2016 before Paul Manafort became the chairman of Donald Trump’s campaign, but Manafort had a direct role in the actions that Russia took two years earlier. The plants that they would put in place, the deep cover operatives in social media, and the cyber intelligence operatives Russia deployed to begin fishing for opportunities, were both aspects of the campaign that Paul Manafort had managed for Russia in their takeover of Ukraine. Manafort hadn’t just helped Russia to package their candidate to grab the leadership of Ukraine, he had helped formulate the whole scheme—from planted news stories to social media attacks, to staged protests that included throwing rocks at U.S. Marines. Long before Donald Trump claimed that Americans were “rioting in California,” Paul Manafort had Ukrainians believing that the country was on the brink of social upheaval. Until it became true.

When Russia began seeding U.S. social media with their operatives, they didn’t know they would have Trump around as a focus point—at least, not in the general election. They knew they wanted to attack Hillary Clinton. They knew they could leverage racism, xenophobia, greed, and fear because all those things are central to Russia’s view of the United States. They are weaknesses that Russia didn’t have to create.

But as the primary season started in 2016, it was clear that Russia would have Trump, not just to mouth his fundamentally Russian view of the country at the outset of the campaign, but through at least the Republican convention. And that’s the point where it made sense to bring in the man who knew how to execute the plan. Because it was his plan.

Sometime early in 2016, Paul Manafort was in direct contact with Russia under instructions to take a leadership position in the Trump campaign. This is clearly not just because Manafort was in contact with his old boss, Oleg Deripaska, that summer, offering to give him inside information on the Trump campaign. That came later.

That Manafort was part of the plan was clear from the beginning. Between 2008 and 2015, Manafort visited Moscow at least 18 times and Ukraine an amazing 138 times. He was never out of contact with Deripaska or other Kremlin leaders and made visits to both countries late in 2015. But that’s not the key indicator that he was getting his marching orders from Moscow.

In January of 2015, Paul Manafort purchased an apartment in Trump Tower. It wasn’t the first time Manafort had made a purchase from Trump, he bought another Trump condo in 2006 at the height of Trump’s sales to Russia. This new apartment, for which Manafort paid $2.85 million, was a place he never lived. He bought it and in violation of New York law, claims that he immediately began renting it out. The money to buy this new apartment came through a bank in Cyprus—the traditional site for incoming Russian funds. It is not clear who actually stayed in the apartment that Manafort bought. He claimed the property had been rented through Airbnb, but while other Manafort-owned properties were shown on that site, this apartment was not. But that’s just an interesting side not. It’s still not the key indicator that Manafort was brought onto the Trump campaign by direct action from Russia.

On February 28, Paul Manafort sent Donald Trump a “pitch document,” proposing that he take a central role in the Trump campaign to bring Republican delegates in line behind Trump. That pitch was backed up by a recommendation from their mutual friend, Roger Stone. A month later, Manafort was brought on board the campaign.

What happened in between those two dates is the key.

Because what happened in those dates was that Russian operatives ramped up their efforts to penetrate the DNC and other Democratic officials. At nearly the same time, Manafort made a trip, but not to Moscow. According to reports in the Guardian, Paul Mannafort traveled to London, stopped by the Ecuadorian Embassy, and spoke with WikiLeaks leader Julian Assange. Manafort has denied the visit, but the Guardian reports that his name is on the register of visitors to the embassy at that time. Also during that same month, Trump’s deputy chair, Sam Clovis, began telling people that “good U.S.-Russia relations” were an important goal of the Trump campaign. And in that same time, George Papadopoulos was introduced to contacts who assured him that Russia had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton that they could provide to the Trump campaign.

But at the time Paul Manafort was meeting with Julian Assange, it’s not even certain that Russia had yet successfully penetrated security at the Democratic National Committee. Manafort was meeting with the man who would distribute the Russian message, a month before anyone was aware that Russia would have a message that needed to be distributed. And that, all on its own, is utterly damning.

In April, as word that the DNC had been hacked was just starting to emerge, Manafort made a strange phone call to Hope Hicks. He told Hicks to ignore questions that might be sent by the Washington Post—in particular, those that might ask about Manafort’s recent communications with Deripaska. But that didn’t mean Manafort was out of contact. He remained in touch through Konstantin Kilimnik, exchanging information frequently and meeting with Kilimnik in May.

In May, the Russian social media network broke cover, beginning a torrent of false stories and tweets. Identities that had solidified their position on the evangelical right by repeating religious themes suddenly morphed into pro-Trump mouthpieces and began peppering their posts with comments on guns and immigration and, of course, Hillary. Sites on the left that secured strong followings by repeating concerns of black voters, or made inroads with Sanders supporters, started salting their posts with word that Hillary Clinton had stolen the nomination, and had no real concern for African American voters.

On June 9, Manafort was on hand for the infamous Trump Tower meeting—a meeting that isn’t just significant because of the embarrassment lying about it has caused Trump and others. It’s increasingly likely that this was a critical meeting, one at which plans for future use of social media and dissemination of DNC information was discussed. Two weeks after that Trump Tower meeting, campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was fired and Manafort became campaign chair.

A week later, Manafort sent another note to Kilimnik, making his offer to brief Deripaska. The Trump campaign was, from the outset, Manafort’s design. And he was bringing it home.

Scope and Scale

It’s easy to pass off the social media efforts of Russia as a drop in the bucket. When Twitter has millions of posts a day, and Facebook even more, what difference can a few thousand more possibly make? But the accounts that Russia employed weren’t the pop-up bots that crowd around almost every Twitter user. Many of these had been carefully cultivated, passing along jokes and gifs and repeating messages for two years. These accounts had thousands of followers. In at least one case, hundreds of thousands of followers. And when they moved, they moved in a coordinated way, using bots to make posts appear more popular, which in turn made them more popular.

They were bolstered by messages that appeared not just in genuinely fake news sites generated to look like CNN, or ABC, or some other reputable site while passing on a message that was sometimes pro-Trump, but more reliably anti-Clinton. The stories that these posts told weren’t one-offs. They supported one another. They were part of an ecosystem of posts all leaning in the same way. Russia invested millions of dollars both in setting up the accounts that were used to generate a social media presence and in promoting their posts in the most direct way possible. They paid for it. As the recent Senate report shows, Google, Facebook, and Twitter all eagerly accepted Russian payments to help maximize the impact of the posts, including showing them ways to target specific regions and specific groups.

How do Facebook, Google, and Twitter make money? By selling the ability to get a message in front of the right people. In 2016, they sold that ability to Russia. And that’s not even considering whatever assistance that the Russians may have gained from their direct interaction with Cambridge Analytica and with the broader Trump digital campaign.

In addition to the tools provided to them by willfully blind U.S. social media companies, who were perfectly willing to sell access to data on U.S. voters related to U.S. elections even when the payments came—and this really happened—in rubles, Russia had additional tools to assist in this effort. In particular, they had a roadmap to those areas where Democrats expected to devote the most effort and where they thought they could turn out critical votes. This get-out-the-vote information was one of the documents that were stolen from the DNC. It was not published on WikiLeaks. It was, however, among a trove of documents that Russia provided to Republican strategist Aaron Nevins. Nevins spotted the document, explained it to the Russians, and assured them of its value.

Russia’s efforts in social media wasn’t puny. It was a major marketing campaign backed by decades of Russian intelligence on the U.S., by cyber-military efforts that stole critical information from Democratic sources, and by a direct connection to the Trump campaign. They used Twitter, Google, FaceBook, YouTube, and Pinterest, and every other platform. They devoted time and money.

And critically, unlike the billion or so other people posting cat videos and showing off their red hats, the Russians were not amateurs. They were, and are, professional propagandists who know how to package a message as effectively and powerfully as anyone on Madison Avenue. These are people who have experience in bringing down governments. They brought that experience to America.

The Media Edge

Russia had one other key factor that helped them in their 2016 effort. The media. Not the fake news, but the real news.

The Russian government understood very, very well that it the U.S. media was told “you ivory tower elites are missing the message of in real America” that the news would hurry to Sheboygan and Youngstown and Charleston to capture that message—even if the words were being shipped in from a St. Petersburg military post. Trump didn’t just win on a message of fear and racism. He won because the media was all too happy to showcase that message. Trump screamed that the media was lying—and they help up a camera so he could defame them, and Democrats, from coast to coast.

And, in its everlasting guilt about possibly, maybe, being caught being liberal, the media made damn sure that they kicked Hillary Clinton every day, twice a day. That James Comey thought there could be additional concerns about Hillary Clinton’s emails consumed every single column of the New York Times’s front page. Every column. It was still covering the front page days later when the Times had a page three article to explain that the FBI didn’t really think there was anything to this Trump conspiring with Russia nonsense.

Confronted to Trump’s lying, womanizing, racism, business failures, fake charity, broken contracts, fake university, and simple crookedness, the press was so anxious to find some equivalent scandal on the left, that the Associated Press spent days massaging the numbers before they came up with a way to claim that Hillary Clinton had given excess attention to people who donated to her charity. A charity that was, at the time, providing vital assistance to tens of millions. And to prove it the AP … never, ever released the data behind this claim. Or the method it had used to come up with the numbers that ran first page, top of the news, across the country. Never, ever.

The media was so anxious that Trump couldn’t run on a message of racism, hatred, and xenophobia, that they went out of their way to find someone, anyone, hanging around a BBQ stand somewhere who could expound on why locking up Hillary and shooting all the brown people were worth cheering. Major U.S. media ran articles on cool neo-Nazi haircuts and talked about the neatness with which the modern fascists dressed.

The Russian social media effort in 2016 was successful precisely because it both mirrored, and directed what the traditional media was telling everyone though that election year: Hillary Clinton’s email shows she’s a crook … somehow. Donald Trump’s connection with Russia … isn’t important. Donald Trump isn’t a racist because he wants to build a wall across the border and execute more African Americans. Hillary Clinton is suspect of being a racist because … well, isn’t she being just a little too nice to blacks?

It wasn’t until months after the election that the Times admitted they might have been a tad wrong in the weighting of their topics. And even then, they fit that news in between the latest editions of “let’s go out and talk to people who like Donald Trump.”

The Russian media effort wasn’t just a bunch of bots. It wasn’t just a few thousands of avatars. It wasn’t a “drop of posts in a great big sea” as some of those trying to dismiss it have said. The Russian effort to support Donald Trump was a professional propaganda campaign, conducted by experienced military operatives, framed by Paul Manafort based on experience gathered in toppling governments around the world, assisted by both Republican strategists in the United States and Russia supporters inside and outside the country. It was an effort that was conducted over years, at a cost of millions, that understood both where the cracks in American society are located, and the levers that we’d left lying around in the form of companies who would widen those cracks if that’s what it took to earn a dollar.

it’s impossible, or at least very difficult, at this point to measure the true impact of that effort. But one thing is clear—the people involved certainly expected it to have a big impact. And there’s certainly no evidence they were wrong.

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