BY STEVEN HARPER | AUGUST 24, 2020 (billmoyers.com)
A Note from Bill
The evidence is spread across nearly 1,000 pages, proving that Russia, with top Trump henchmen playing right along, sought to spread confusion and distrust among American voters, influence the outcome of the election, and undermine the legitimacy of our democracy. Vladimir Putin, according to the report – the same Putin before whom Trump groveled long before he became president – even ordered the hacking of Democratic organizations.
And the Russians are up to some of the same tricks in the 2020 election now underway.
The report is indeed long and detailed. Its implications are potent.
A bombshell explodes in our midst and few people seem to notice or care.
It sinks out of sight, and an embattled democracy misses yet another wake-up call.
This time it was a stunning report from the Senate Intelligence Committee. A Republican – yes, Republican — majority controls the committee, but by a 14-1 bi-partisan vote the Senators agreed that Donald Trump and his allies worked with Russian spies in 2016 in an effort to help Trump win the presidency.
To help you grasp the essentials, we asked the able Steven Harper to prepare a “brief” highlighting key elements of it.
The Senate Intelligence Committee just released the fifth and final volume in its three-and-a-half year investigation into Russian election interference. Over 940 pages, it proves that Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin joined forces in the 2016 US presidential election to attack our democracy. From now through Election Day, the Report’s bipartisan findings should dominate headlines throughout the country.
Because it’s happening again. In fact, it never stopped.
#1: Trump’s Campaign Manager was a “Grave Counterintelligence Threat”
Putin has the leading role in the story. His supporting cast for this first episode included:
Oleg Deripaska: Russian oligarch, a top Putin confidant, and Paul Manafort’s former business partner
Paul Manafort: Joined the Trump campaign in March 2016, served as campaign chairman from May to August 2016, and remained in contact with Trump representatives thereafter
Konstantin Kilimnik: Deripaska’s associate and Manafort’s business partner
This chain of influence from Putin to Trump was:
While Paul Manafort was managing Trump’s campaign, he was in constant contact with his long-time business associate Konstantin Kilimnik, the manager of his political consulting business in Ukraine:
“Kilimnik is a Russian intelligence officer.” (Report, p. iv)
Kilimnik was also Manafort’s primary liaison to Oleg Deripaska, Manafort’s former business partner to whom he owed millions of dollars. As one of Putin’s top oligarchs and close confidants, Deripaska conducts political influence operations, frequently in foreign countries where he does business:
- “The Russian government coordinates with and directs Deripaska on many of his influence operations.” (Report, p. vi)
- “From approximately 2004 to 2009, Manafort implemented these influence operations on behalf of Deripaska, including a broad, multi-million dollar political influence campaign directed at numerous countries of interest to Deripaska and the Russian government.” (Report, p. vi)
- Manafort “shared sensitive internal polling data” and “campaign strategy” with Kilimnik, including information about the “‘battleground’ states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota.” (Report, pp. vi, 80)
All of that and more led the Senate Intelligence Committee to this remarkable finding:
- “Taken as a whole, Manafort’s high-level access and willingness to share information with individuals closely affiliated with the Russian intelligence services, particularly Kilimnik and associates of Oleg Deripaska, represented a grave counterintelligence threat.” (Report, p. vii, 30)
The Committee also found information suggesting that Kilimnik may have been connected to Russia’s “hack-and-leak operation targeting the 2016 US election,” but that section of the Report is redacted. So is the section raising the “possibility of Manafort’s potential connection to the hack-and-leak operations.” (Report, pp. 29, 89-91)
Which takes us to the next bombshell.
#2: Trump Lied to Mueller
Again with Putin in the leading role, his supporting players in this episode were:
Russia’s Military Intelligence Unit (GRU): The GRU is Russia’s military intelligence service. Before entering politics, Putin was a senior officer in the Soviet KGB, another Soviet intelligence agency.
Wikileaks: An international organization that publishes news leaks and classified information, often from anonymous sources
Julian Assange: The founder of Wikileaks
Roger Stone: Trump’s long-time adviser and confidant who has known Trump for 40 years and began urging him to run for President in 1988. During the 1980s, Stone and Paul Manafort were business partners and worked for Trump on various matters.
This chain of influence from Putin to Trump was:
Putin→Russian Military Intelligence (GRU)→Wikileaks/Assange→Stone→Trump
In Putin’s hack-and-leak operation, Russian military intelligence (GRU) penetrated the computer systems of both the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee. Wikileaks then disseminated the stolen emails at the direction of its founder, Julian Assange, who was in contact with Trump’s long-time confidant Roger Stone. One key question in the Trump-Russia story has always been whether Stone communicated directly with Trump about Wikileaks’ planned dissemination of those emails. In response to special counsel Robert Mueller’s written questions on that subject, Trump answered:
- “I do not recall discussing WikiLeaks with [Stone], nor do I recall being aware of Mr. Stone having discussed WikiLeaks with individuals associated with my campaign.” Trump further claimed that he had “no recollection of the specifics of any conversations I had with Mr. Stone between June 1, 2016 and November 8, 2016.” (Report, p. 245)
Relying on detailed records and testimony, the Senate Intelligence Committee didn’t buy it:
- “Despite Trump’s recollection, the Committee assesses that Trump did, in fact, speak with Stone about WikiLeaks and with members of his Campaign about Stone’s access to WikiLeaks on multiple occasions.” (Report, p. 245)
In November 2019, Stone was convicted of lying to Congress in connection with the Trump-Russia investigation, but Trump commuted his sentence.
#3: During Trump’s Impeachment, Congressional Republicans Knew the Truth and Didn’t Care
In December 2019, the House of Representatives impeached Trump for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. He was accused of withholding crucial military aid from Ukraine as it defended its struggling democracy against Putin’s attacks. In exchange for aid that Congress had already appropriated and that the Defense Department had approved, Trump wanted Ukraine’s newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to pursue investigations into former Vice President Joseph Biden’s son, Hunter, and into the false conspiracy theory — promoted by Russia — that Ukraine, rather than Russia, had interfered in the 2016 US presidential election.
For this episode, the chain of influence seeking to shift blame for Russian election interference went from Putin all the way to congressional Republicans and others defending Trump:
When Republican members of the Senate Intelligence Committee sat through Trump’s impeachment proceedings, they heard evidence that had a familiar ring.
They knew that when Trump had asked Ukrainian President Voldymyr Zelensky to pursue groundless claims that Ukraine — rather than Russia — had meddled in the 2016 US election, Trump was promoting Russian propaganda that Putin, Deripaska, Kilimnik, and Manafort had pushed into public discourse years earlier:
- “From late 2016 until at least January 2020,” one of Russia’s foreign political influence operations “sought to discredit investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 US elections and spread false information about the events of 2016.” (Report, p. 106)
- “Manafort, Kilimnik, Deripaska, and others associated with Deripaska participated in these influence operations. As part of these efforts, Manafort and Kilimnik both sought to promote the narrative that Ukraine, not Russia, had interfered in the 2016 US election.” (Report, p. 106)
- “These influence efforts took place in the larger context of existing Russian information operations targeting Ukraine and the United States.” (Report, p. 107)
- “Manafort embraced and promoted the narrative of Ukraine’s alleged involvement in the 2016 elections. For example, in a February 2017 meeting with Donald Trump Jr., Manafort discussed how Ukraine, not Russia had meddled in the election.” (Report, p. 112)
As Trump’s impeachment proceeded, Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee knew that their congressional colleagues and Trump’s lawyers were parroting that Russian propaganda in the House hearings and at the Senate trial.
They knew that the Ukraine scandal of 2020 was a sequel to the 2016 election interference story.
They knew what Trump had done, knowingly, in 2016.
They knew that this time he was abusing the awesome powers of the presidency. Trump had put the quid pro quo bluntly: “I’d like you to do us a favor though….”
And they voted to acquit him.
#4: The Cover-up Continues
The final chain of influence is still running — from Putin through Trump and Senate Republicans to the general public:
There was already plenty of other news dominating the media when, on the second day of the Democratic National Convention, the Senate Intelligence Committee released its 940-page volume of findings. With the ongoing convention, pandemic, post office crisis, economic recession, and widespread racial unrest, the Report did not receive the wide and deep coverage that it deserved. Within hours, a handful of the Committee’s findings became brief filler material for cable news programs. Within days, the story was hardly mentioned at all.
Republicans were hoping that no one would read the Report. Now Trump and his minions have a week of Republican National Convention coverage to keep the truth buried as they reassert Trump’s Big Lie that the whole Trump-Russia investigation was a “hoax.” It wasn’t.
Among other things, the Senate Intelligence Committee found, just as special counsel Robert Mueller had:
- “The Committee found that the Russian government engaged in an aggressive, multi-faceted effort to influence, or attempt to influence, the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.” (Report, p. v)
It found that Putin wanted Trump to win and worked to achieve that objective. It found that Manafort was a “grave intelligence threat.” It found that despite Trump’s claimed lack of recollection in sworn answers to Mueller, he had communicated with Roger Stone about Wikileaks document dumps targeting Hillary Clinton during the campaign. It found voluminous evidence of other episodes that together painted a damning picture of Trump-Russia cooperation during the 2016 campaign. And it described the obstacles that Trump and his defenders erected in obtaining additional evidence that the Committee sought.
But according to the “Additional Views” of five Democrats on the Committee, the Report did not seek “to draw overarching conclusions about its investigation, opting instead to let the reader determine the significance of these events.” (Report, p. 943) Perhaps that approach facilitated near unanimity among the Committee members, all but one of whom voted in favor of the Report. But it created an opening for all Republicans to distort it.
Only Sen. Jim Risch (R-ID) voted against the Report. He also joined five of the eight Republicans on the Committee who voted for it — Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Roy Blunt (R-MO), Tom Cotton (R-AK), John Cornyn (R-TX), and Ben Sasse (R-NE) — in appending a set of GOP talking points under the guise of “Additional Views.” Those talking points are at odds with the facts in the Report itself. The six Republican senators opened with this line:
“[T]he Committee found no evidence that then-candidate Donald Trump or his campaign colluded with the Russian government in its efforts to meddle in the election…”
And they closed with this refrain:
“After more than three years of investigation by this Committee, we can now say with no doubt, there was no collusion.” (Emphasis in original) (Report, pp. 941-942)
They know better. They know collusion when they see it. They just refuse to see it.
They know that Russia wanted Trump to win in 2016 and that his campaign welcomed the help.
They know that campaign manager Paul Manafort made himself a “grave counterintelligence threat” by working with a Russian intelligence officer and a Putin oligarch to secure Trump’s election victory.
They know that Trump and 18 of his associates had at least 140 contacts with Russian nationals and Wikileaks or their intermediaries during the campaign and presidential transition.
They know that Trump and others on his behalf obstructed the investigation into the campaign’s interactions with Russia.
They know that there is no fact-based narrative of innocence for Trump.
They know that their misleading new talking points perpetuate public confusion and a coverup that continues to this day.
#5: It’s Happening Again
Perhaps most important of all, based on warnings from Trump’s own intelligence community, they know that Russia is pursuing the same objective in 2020 — to help Trump win again:
“We assess that Russia is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment.’… For example, pro-Russia Ukrainian parliamentarian Andriy Derkach is spreading claims about corruption… to undermine former Vice President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party. Some Kremlin-linked actors are also seeking to boost President Trump’s candidacy on social media and Russian television.”
Senate Republicans know that Trump himself has declared publicly his desire for any assistance he can get.
They have known all of this while repeatedly blocking the implementation of a key recommendation in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Report that would send every campaign a simple message: If you see something, say something. In June 2020, Senate Republicans forced removal of a provision from the must-pass National Defense Authorization Act that would have required that all presidential campaign officials report to the FBI any contacts with foreign nationals trying to make campaign donations or coordinate with a campaign. The reporting provision died in the Senate that Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) controls.
And they know that what happened before is happening again in Sen. Ron Johnson’s (R-WI) Biden-Ukraine investigation. He is scrutinizing a Ukrainian gas company’s hiring of Hunter Biden ontoits board and the activities of a lobbying firm it hired in Washington. Even then-Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) warned Johnson privately in December that he could be aiding Russian efforts to sow public distrust in the US political system.
Undeterred by the prospect of becoming a megaphone for Russian disinformation, Johnson hopes to issue his report by mid-September — just before early voting begins in many states.
So now that we all know what those Senate Republicans have known for months, what are we going to do about it? If Trump and Republicans have their way, Trump’s ongoing chaos will smother the story.
That can’t happen. From now until all of the votes in the 2020 election are counted, the truth deserves banner headlines, a trending internet hashtag, and what producers call the “A” block on news programs. Democracy in America cannot go gentle into Trump’s good night.
Steven J. Harper launched his acclaimed Trump-Russia Timeline on BillMoyers.com and it now appears regularly on Dan Rather’s News & Guts and Just Security, where it first appeared in December 2018. Harper is a lawyer who teaches at Northwestern University Law School, and the author of several books, including The Lawyer Bubble — A Profession in Crisis and Crossing Hoffa — A Teamster’s Story (a Chicago Tribune “Best Book of the Year”). Follow him at stevenjharper1