On Monday, the New York Times reported that former Trump campaign official Rick Gates solicited proposals to manipulate social media and steal information from both Trump’s primary opponents and Hillary Clinton. The nature of Gates’ communication with an Israeli firm suggests that the Trump campaign wasn’t just trying to practice digital dirty tricks, but that they may have had a much more complete picture of Russian operations in support of Trump than anyone has so far admitted.
Gates has often been treated as little more than Paul Manafort’s sidekick when talking about their relationship to the Trump campaign. But Gates was embedded in the campaign for months longer than Manafort, with positions that continued into the transition period. And there were activities initiated by Gates which may have had no involvement from Manafort, even during the period when their terms overlapped.
In April 2016, Gates began an email exchange with an company called “Psy-Group,” which was created by former operatives from Israeli intelligence. Together, Gates and Psy-Group put together a plan that would use fake accounts on social media, and close targeting of swing districts, to not just spread a pro-Trump message, but deliberately plant stories that caused schisms among supporters of Trump’s opponents. Psy-Group also proposed to conduct intelligence operations on opposition campaigns including the campaign of Hillary Clinton, to obtain information not available to the public.
The proposal—which detailed a plan stretching out over months—was remarkably similar to the tactics used by the Russian government in support of Trump’s candidacy. The Russians established thousands of both manned and automated accounts to dominate conversations and promote topics on social media, just as Psy-Group proposed. The Russians created a series of false-fronts and non-existent organizations that appeared to be related to everything from Black Lives Matter to gun safety groups, and issued statements from these groups intended to drive Democrats away from supported legitimate organizations. They even arranged actual protests inside the United States supported by Russian operatives. The Russians hacked into the accounts of both the DNC and Democratic operatives related to the Clinton campaign, and not only released information they felt was embarrassing to Democrats, but provided Republican operatives with information on Democratic strategies and get-out-the-vote plans.
It’s not clear that anyone at the Trump campaign carried forward on the proposal hacked out in conversations between Gates and Psy-Group. But the Russians absolutely did execute a campaign of theft and misdirection that was in all ways very similar to those proposals. It may almost seem that Gates took the plan put together by the Israeli firm … and gave it to someone else. But in reality, the opposite seems true.
While the first exchange of documents between Gates and Psy-Group appears to have happened in April, it’s clear that Russian efforts to assist Trump in the election date back many months earlier. Even if the Trump campaign might claim to be unaware of Russian preparations in 2014 and 2015, they were absolutely aware of Russian efforts by March of 2016, when George Papadopoulos both discussed Russian offers of “dirt” against Hillary Clinton and suggested that Trump meet with Russian officials.
Russian theft of information from the DNC and Democratic operatives took place on multiple occasions in 2015 and 2016, but was apparently complete by May of 2016, shortly after Gates began communicating with Psy-Group. Also at that point, approximately 80 Russia hackers working out of St. Petersburg were already responsible for thousands of false accounts on Facebook and Twitter, as well as false news sites, and websites mimicking those of both social and political organizations. The build up to that operation began in 2014.
If anything, the proposal worked out between Gates and Psy-Group seems to borrow heavily from the operation that was then already well underway by the Russian government team. Which opens the question: Did Gates know that?
Gates was certainly among those who knew that the Russians had a project underway to gather information about Clinton. Papadopoulos spread that information both by email and in person. Also, the June 3 exchange between publicist Rob Goldstone and Donald Trump Jr. mentions “Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump” as if it’s something that would not be a surprise to Trump Jr. It’s clear that at least some aspects of the Russian operation were known within Trump’s campaign.
But what’s especially interesting is that the first document between Gates and Psy-Group isn’t a proposal—it’s a request for a proposal that went from Gates to Psy-Group. Gates asked Psy-Group to put a price tag on an operation that bears a striking similarity to the Russian campaign. That certainly suggests that Gates, and perhaps many members of the Trump campaign, was aware not just of the “dirt” being gathered by Russian operatives, but of the efforts to use targeted social media to disrupt opposing campaigns and open rifts among Trump’s opponents.
If Gates was not aware of the Russian operation, in detail, then his proposal to Psy-Group certainly represents an astounding coincidence.
Considering that Gates has signed a cooperating agreement with Special Counsel Robert Mueller, it’s likely that whatever the Trump campaign knew about the Russians—Mueller knows it now.