The Mueller Report: Russia’s Online Interference Campaign

With anticipation typically reserved for a new Harry Potter book, special counsel Robert Mueller submitted his 448 page report into Russian interference in the 2016 election to the Department of Justice in March. Separated into two volumes, the report is breathtaking in its detail and a surprisingly fast read.

Volume one addresses the issue of Russian interference and potential collaboration by members of the Trump campaign. Volume two focuses on acts of obstruction of justice that may have been committed by President Trump during the investigation (narrator: he did). In this entry, I’m going to focus specifically on Russia’s online interference campaign.

Grab a plate of pierogi as we take a crash course look into volume one of the Mueller report!

Getty Images

Credit: Getty Images

Did Russia interfere in the 2016 election?
Yes. With the bluntness of a Star Wars opening crawl, Mueller writes on page one: “The Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion.” This counters multiple public statements made by President Trump, denying Russia’s involvement (even after Mueller had charged 12 Russian officers with interference in June of last year).

Does the Mueller report determine that there was “no collusion”?
No. Because “collusion” is not a specific offense in the U.S. code, the special counsel did not investigate it:

“In evaluating whether evidence about collective action of multiple individuals constituted a crime, we applied the framework of conspiracy law, not the concept of “collusion.”

Wondering what that specifically entails? The report elaborates:

“We understand coordination to require an agreement – tacit or express – between the Trump campaign and the Russian government on election interference.”

Mueller and his team ultimately determined there was no coordination between the campaign and Russia… however, the investigation found that the campaign did interact with Russia throughout the election. 

Russia Election Interference: Operation One
Russia ran two operations to interfere in our nation’s 2016 election. The first operation’s goal was to amplify our political discord on social media and use the same platform to carry out a campaign “that favored presidential candidate Donald J. Trump and disparaged… Hillary Clinton.”  This operation was carried out by the Internet Research Agency (IRA).

The IRA is a Russian troll farm. It’s financed by “Yevgeniy Viktorovich and two Concord companies.” Viktorovich is the head of Concord (a Russia-based management and consulting organization) and is noted for having ties to Vladimir Putin.

troll_dolls_a_l

Credit: Hollywood Reporter

The IRA began its online operation in 2014 (which means Russia’s 2020 interference campaign is well underway) using “fictitious U.S. personas.” By 2015, the organization was creating social media pages “to pose as anti-immigration groups, Tea Party activists, Black Lives Matter protestors and other U.S. social and political activists.”

In February 2016, the operation further evolved. IRA internal documents began directing the troll farm operators to support Donald Trump and attack Hillary Clinton. One document cited by the Mueller report breaks it down as: “Main idea: Use any opportunity to criticize Hillary [Clinton] and the rest (except Sanders and Trump – we support them).”

Yep, that’s a reference to candidate Bernie Sanders. Bolstering Sanders’ campaign was another tactic to use against Hillary Clinton.

The special counsel’s investigation discovered “dozens of U.S. rallies organized by the IRA.” Even trolls need a little sun. The IRA organized pro-Trump rallies in New York, Pennsylvania and Florida. The Trump campaign even promoted the Miami rally on then candidate Trump’s Facebook page.

Posing as U.S. political activists, members of the IRA would even contact Trump campaign officials to help organize rallies. Mueller states the investigation has “not identified evidence” that members of the Trump campaign knew that they were actually responding to requests from the Russians.

Using the Facebook groups “Being Patriotic,” “Stop All Invaders,” and “Secured Borders,” the IRA also purchased ads on the social media platform.

Facebook identified 470 IRA-controlled accounts. The accounts made 80,000 posts between January 2015 and August 2017. Using the accounts, Facebook estimates that the IRA reached 126 million people. To put that number in perspective, 137.5 million voted in 2016.

Twitter identified 3,814 IRA-controlled accounts. Donald Trump Jr., Eric Trump, Kellyanne Conway, Brad Parscale (current Trump 2020 campaign manager), Michael Flynn, Michael Flynn Jr., Roger Stone and Sean Hannity, “retweeted or responded to tweets” posted by IRA-controlled accounts. The special counsel found “no similar connection” between the IRA and the Clinton campaign.

Russia Election Interference: Operation Two

The goal of the second operation was to hack “entities, employees and volunteers” working on the Clinton campaign. Russia wasted no time in doing so.

In April 2016, the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Army (GRU) hacked the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Democratic National Committee.

In June 2016, the GRU used the online names DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0 to release the stolen material. Mueller writes: ”Releases were organized around thematic issues, such as specific states (e.g., Florida and Pennsylvania) that were perceived as competitive in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.” Both states cited by Mueller were won by Trump.

In order to “expand its interference” operation, GRU used the DCLeaks persona to contact WikiLeaks about coordinating future releases on June 14, 2016 via private message on Twitter. Around the same time, WikiLeaks initiated contact with Guccifer 2.0.

On June 22, WikiLeaks told Guccifer 2.0 via direct message on Twitter: “[s]end any new material [stolen from the DNC] here for us to review and it will have a much bigger impact than what you are doing.”

On July 6th, WikiLeaks contacted Guccifer requesting “anything Hillary related.” The Democratic National Convention would begin on July 25th. WikiLeaks was concerned that if they waited until after the convention to release more documents, Bernie supporters would start backing Clinton. At the time, WikiLeaks/Julian Assange told Guccifer they believed Trump only had a 25% chance of winning the presidency, adding: “so conflict between Bernie and Hillary is interesting.”

On July 14th, Guccifer sent WikiLeaks what would later be confirmed in a later e-mail as a “1Gb or so archive.” On July 22, WikiLeaks released over 20,000 documents stolen from the DNC.

As reports began to link the WikiLeaks releases to Russian hacking, Assange implied in an August 2016 Fox News interview that the leaked  information had come from deceased DNC staffer Seth Rich. There’s one small problem with that: Rich was murdered (in what police believe to be an attempted robbery) on July 10th – 4 days before Assange received the July 14th email.

Unfortunately, Assange’s blatant lie would grow legs as a full blow conspiracy theory that would be echoed by Sean Hannity and other right-wing personalities.

Addressing Assange’s statements, Mueller writes that they were “designed to obscure the source of the materials that WikiLeaks was releasing.” 

Deputy campaign manager Rick Gates told the special counsel that by late summer, “the Trump Campaign was planning a press strategy, a communications campaign, and messaging based on the possible release of Clinton emails by WikiLeaks.”

In September, WikiLeaks began directly private messaging Donald Trump Jr. on Twitter. 

In their first message, WikiLeaks provided Trump Jr. with the password to a PAC operated anti-Trump site (before it launched). Trump Jr. notified senior campaign staff about the message and that the password worked. He also attached a screenshot of the site’s “About” page (identifying who was behind it, though the Mueller report doesn’t reveal this information). Trump Jr. responded to WikiLeaks the next day: “Off the record, I don’t know who that is but I’ll ask around. Thanks.”

Win McNamee Getty Images

Credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Trump Jr. would have two more interactions with WikiLeaks (including the group presenting Trump Jr. with a link that assisted in “digging through” the stolen emails, which he tweeted out two days later).

Having successfully hacked the DNC, DCCC and multiple Clinton campaign employees (including chairman John Podesta) via spearphishing, the GRU had yet to go directly after the candidate herself… until they received direction from Donald Trump.

On July 27th, Trump said before the media: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” Mueller notes that within five hours, the GRU attempted to hack Clinton’s personal office for the first time.  The GRU targeted fifteen non-public email addresses associated with Clinton. The investigation could not determine how the GRU found these addresses.

In August, the GRU installed malware on the network of a voting technology company “used by numerous U.S. counties to manage voter rolls.”

In November, the Russians sent malicious emails to over 120 addresses used by Florida county officials who managed the election. An FBI investigation believed this action successfully gave the GRU access to one Florida county government  network. The special counsel did not attempt to verify the FBI’s belief. 

This feels like a good time to remind you that the White House blocked a bipartisan election security bill last year.

On May 29, 2019, Robert Mueller addressed the nation for the first time since being named special counsel. He closed his statement with a stark warning:

“I will close by reiterating the central allegation of our indictments — that there were multiple, systematic efforts to interference in our election. That allegation deserves the attention of every American.”

This is happening RIGHT NOW.

If this entry does anything, I hope it inspires you to read a copy of the Mueller report. I highly recommend the Washington Post edition, which you can purchase on Amazon. You can also read it right here.

Pour yourself a cold one for the next entry when I’ll discuss the Mueller report and obstruction of justice.

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