Follow the trail of dead Russians

02 04 17

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The Adults in the Room

When I first looked into the so-called alt-right and its relationship to the Trump campaign, it was through a partisan lens. I was curious about their impact on Trump, and the Republican Party, and how their ecosystem functioned, and how understanding all of this could help Democrats win elections. But as I’ve studied and observed this movement for nearly a year, my thinking has evolved. I no longer see this as a partisan issue. Winning elections isn’t enough when you’re fighting an opponent whose goal is to destroy democracy.

My thinking has also evolved on Russia too. I now consider Russian intelligence part of the so-called alt-right’s coalition. I still have more questions than answers about how their online ecosystem functions as a whole, but each day, we learn a bit more. These days we’re learning a lot. Last week, I joked about the frog squad’s mascot Pepe being a Kremlin asset, but as we learn more that feels less and less like a joke.

The Senate Intelligence Committee began their own hearings related to Russia’s attempts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential elections this week. From the start, Committee Chair Richard Burr and Vice Chair Mark Warner have made it clear that they intend to put country before party. Unlike the circus Rep. Devin Nunes has turned the House Intelligence Committee’s own investigation into, they agree that Senate investigation won’t be a political circus. Whereas Nunes and his Republican colleagues seemed mostly interested in giving the Trump administration cover, Senate Republicans seem to actually understand the gravity of the situation.

The star witness from the Senate hearing was former FBI agent and counterterrorism expert Clinton Watts. Watts has previously detailed how Russian operatives were attempting to influence the U.S. election, in a lengthy article he co-wrote published two days before Election Day. In his opening statement, Watts laid out Russia’s influence campaign tactics as well as their goals in a clear and easily digestible way. Watts’ entire testimony is worth reading (or watching, he starts just before the 1 hour mark) but I want to highlight this section in particular:

“Russia certainly seeks to promote Western candidates sympathetic to their worldview and foreign policy objectives. But winning a single election is not their end goal. Russian Active Measures hope to topple democracies through the pursuit of five complementary objectives:

  • Undermine citizen confidence in democratic governance;
  • Foment and exacerbate divisive political fractures;
  • Erode trust between citizens and elected officials and democratic institutions;
  • Popularize Russian policy agendas within foreign populations; and
  • Create general distrust or confusion over information sources by blurring the lines between fact and fiction.

From these objectives, the Kremlin can crumble democracies from the inside out, creating political divisions resulting in two key milestones: 1) the dissolution of the European Union and 2) the breakup of the North American Treaty Organization (NATO).”

I’ve written a lot about how the so-called alt-right sees their movement as global and how the American left generally doesn’t. They’re obsessed with far right candidates in other countries because they see them as an opportunity to promote white supremacy and fight back against globalism. They’re for the disruption of democratic institutions of which they don’t trust, or they simply don’t believe in democracy at all. The so-called alt-right’s interests align pretty closely with Russia’s as described by Watts in his testimony.

More Watts highlights worth noting:

  • When asked how the Senate committee could follow the money trail, Watts responded that they could “follow the trail of dead Russians.
  • Watts outlined how President Trump used Russian disinformation in his speeches, tweets, and talking points: “I think this answer is very simple and is what no one is really saying in this room. The reason active measures have worked in this US election is because the Commander-in-Chief has used Russian active measures at times against his opponents.”
  • Watts also pointed out that “gray outlets” tweet propaganda and disinformation at Trump with high volume at times when he’s known to be online.

A few more things from the Senate Committee (It’s a lot this week!):

  • Michael Flynn offered to testify in exchange for immunity. The Senate Intelligence Committee turned him down.
  • Per Senators Burr and Warner, 1,000 paid Russian trolls spread fake news about Hillary Clinton in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan in the final days of last year’s election.
  • Republican Senator Marco Rubio said that Russian hackers have targeted him and his staff as well.

While I’m excited to learn more about Russia and the so-called alt-right’s special relationship, the core question America needs answered is whether President Trump and/or members of his team were in collusion with Russia. I’m hopeful that the Senate Intelligence Committee gets us closer to an answer, but what we really need is an independent investigation. If nothing else, because it looks like the guy running the House investigation should actually be a target. But more broadly, because this wasn’t an attack on Democrats or Republicans. America was attacked, and we need to know which team our President and figures in his administration are playing on.

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Thanks as always to the wonderful Nicole Belle for copy editing. Don’t forget to take our reader survey!

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