Following the indictments of Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, and George Papadopoulos, many people have questions about the role of Russia in the 2016 elections in the US. Many of those questions have already been answered on the record. But there is so much news and discussion, those answers can be hard to find. The mission of this page is to make it easier.
Did Russia tamper with any votes or the vote counting process?
Apparently not. The outgoing Obama administration insisted that the voting process was free of interference. Officials in the Obama White House later reported that they were very concerned about that possibility prior to election day, and that a big part of their response to Russia's activities was focused on preventing any vote tampering, including warning the Kremlin directly against such tampering over a modern-day “red phone.”
According to the declassified intelligence report issued by the FBI, NSA, and CIA, while "Russian intelligence obtained and maintained access to elements of multiple US state or local electoral boards. DHS assesses that the types of systems Russian actors targeted or compromised were not involved in vote tallying."
As described in a report in Bloomberg Politics: "In Illinois, investigators found evidence that cyber intruders tried to delete or alter voter data." However, from the same article: "Even if the entire database had been deleted, it might not have affected the election [...] Counties upload records to the state, not the other way around, and no data moves from the database back to the counties, which run the elections."
A recount of the vote in Wisconsin found no evidence of tampering.
However, there is some reason to suspect that tampering with the software used in voter registration databases and e-poll books may have kept people in some counties from voting. Further investigation is needed to examine the evidence for and against this possibility.
What did Russia hope to accomplish?
According to testimony in the Senate Intelligence Committee hearings, "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
• 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 break up of the North American Treaty Organization (NATO). Achieving these two victories against the West will allow Russia to reassert its power globally."
As a candidate Donald Trump called NATO "obsolete", and supported Britain's exit ("Brexit") from the EU. He also supported the French presidential candidate who wanted France to leave the European Union. Because of these positions among others, the Russian government preferred a Trump presidency.
The CIA, NSA, and FBI have said that "The Kremlin sought to advance its longstanding desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order, the promotion of which Putin and other senior Russian leaders view as a threat to Russia and Putin’s regime." In service of these goals, they say, "Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him."
In addition, the same declassified intelligence report states that: "Putin most likely wanted to discredit Secretary Clinton because he has publicly blamed her since 2011 for inciting mass protests against his regime in late 2011 and early 2012, and because he holds a grudge for comments he almost certainly saw as disparaging him."
Putin also had reason to believe that Trump would be more likely to end sanctions on Russia including especially the Magnitsky Act, and accept Russia's terms for ending the war in Syria.
Former CIA agent John Sipher believes "The attack against the 2016 U.S. presidential election is as much aimed at an internal Russian audience as at foreign rivals. The message to Russians is that Putin is a respected and feared force on the world stage and that they should stand in awe of his strength." The Atlantic's foreign policy correspondent, Julia Ioffe, believes that Putin is "really just a gambler who won big" and that "Putin’s fears of being deposed by the U.S.," which the U.S. did little to soothe, "Pushed him toward ever higher levels of antagonism. So has his political situation—the need to take ever larger foreign risks to shore up support at home, as the economy has struggled."
If they didn't tamper with votes, in what ways DID they interfere with the election?
From the declassified intelligence report: "The Kremlin’s campaign aimed at the US election featured disclosures of data obtained through Russian cyber operations; intrusions into US state and local electoral boards; and overt propaganda."
These "cyber operations" included "targets associated with both major US political parties. We assess Russian intelligence services collected against the US primary campaigns, think tanks, and lobbying groups they viewed as likely to shape future US policies. In July 2015, Russian intelligence gained access to Democratic National Committee (DNC) networks and maintained that access until at least June 2016." The DNC hired a security firm called CrowdStrike, who were able to watch the hackers in action. Stolen files, mostly e-mails sent or received by staffers for the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign, were released to the public through WikiLeaks and DC Leaks, and were released in batches, such that each new batch resulted in a new wave of news coverage.
Hackers also targeted election systems in at least 21 states and possibly as many as 39 states, and are known to have successfully hacked into systems in Arizona and Illinois. The report says the targeted systems were not involved in tabulating votes. Some were databases of voter registration and related information.
Experts have identified several possible motives for the voter-registration database hacking, including selling the data, casting doubt on the legitimacy of the election process (the declassified report mentions that "ProKremlin bloggers had prepared a Twitter campaign, #DemocracyRIP, on election night in anticipation of Secretary Clinton’s victory") probing for weaknesses to be used in future actions, and providing data to help Russian propaganda target Americans on social media. As mentioned above, it is also possible that another goal may have been to keep some people in some counties from voting, though it is not at all clear that this was successful, or even if it was attempted.
Finally, the declassified report describes significant social media operations. The Russian propaganda network RT (formerly "Russia Today"): "is making its social media operations a top priority.[...] Since its inception in 2005, RT videos received more than 800 million views on YouTube (1 million views per day), which is the highest among news outlets" - even higher than CNN's YouTube channel. Americans' access to English-language propaganda on Russian media is much greater than it was in the past, because of the internet.
But the report also says that Russia used fake social media accounts operated by paid "trolls" to spread divisive messages, and amplify stories from their propaganda operations: "Russia used trolls as well as RT as part of its influence efforts to denigrate Secretary Clinton. This effort amplified stories on scandals about Secretary Clinton and the role of WikiLeaks in the election campaign. The likely financier of the so-called Internet Research Agency of professional trolls located in Saint Petersburg is a close Putin ally with ties to Russian intelligence. A journalist who is a leading expert on the Internet Research Agency claimed that some social media accounts that appear to be tied to Russia’s professional trolls—because they previously were devoted to supporting Russian actions in Ukraine—started to advocate for President-elect Trump as early as December 2015."
The public now knows much more about the operations of that "troll farm" in St. Petersburg. The paid "trolls" bought ads on Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram, and even Pokemon Go. They ran Facebook groups and pages purporting to be based in the US which organized protests (including armed protests), sold merchandise, paid for activists' travel, and attempted to incite violence. They studied the US political system. They left comments on news stories. They operated a Twitter account called @Ten_GOP (among others) which billed itself as the “Unofficial Twitter account of Tennessee Republicans." A former employee has said “Our goal wasn’t to turn the Americans toward Russia. Our task was to set Americans against their own government: to provoke unrest and discontent, and to lower Obama’s support ratings.”
Facebook estimates that on their platform alone, Russian content may have reached up to 126 million users, about 40% of the US population. Twitter has calculated that Russia-linked accounts "generated approximately 1.4 million automated, election-related tweets, which collectively received approximately 288 million impressions" in 2016 from September 1 to November 15.
Among the groups Russia appears to have specially targeted on social media are veterans and military personnel. They also attempted to hack the Twitter accounts of up to 10,000 Defense Department employees and tweet using those identities - but these activities may be more related to disrupting the American military rather than the American political process.
How do we know Russia was involved in hacking the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign?
Some of the evidence was made public before the election: specific software tools familiar to the cybersecurity company Crowdstrike from attacks on other Russian targets, signs of a Cyrillic keyboard in the metadata of the leaks, the behavior of "Guccifer 2.0", malware which doesn't "call home" on Russian holidays, and bitly addressess created from the same account as attacks on other Russian targets.
After the election, the newspaper The Hill summarized some of the technical and geopolitical reasoning in "Five Reasons the Intel Community Believes Russia Interfered in the Election."
Enough detail is known now that prosecutors are considering bringing charges against specific Russians. Other targets of the attacks were linked only by Russian antipathy to them. The Associated Press has published a detailed account of who was hacked, and how.
Did Russian activities change the outcome of the election?
We will probably never know for sure.
Trump won Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by 0.2, 0.7 and 0.8 percentage points, respectively — by 10,704, 46,765 and 22,177 votes. Had he lost those three races, he would have lost the electoral college. These margins are small enough that all kinds of relatively small effects could in theory have changed the results one way or another. But we cannot measure exactly what reasons caused which voters to vote as they did, or to stay home.
We do know, however, that "Russia had every ability to create fake social media accounts by mimicking profiles of voters in key election states and precincts in the 2016 election, and use a mix of bots and real people to push propaganda from state-controlled media outlets like Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik [...] Clinton Watts, a senior fellow at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at The George Washington University, said many social accounts during the election pushing questionable news looked just like real voters in states like Wisconsin and Michigan." (From a CBS report on Senate Intelligence Committee testimony.) Indeed, Facebook has confirmed that some of the advertising purchased by Russian accounts targeted voters in Michigan and Wisconsin.
Is there evidence that Trump or his campaign did anything illegal?
Former National Security Adviser (and adviser to the Trump campaign) Michael Flynn has pled guilty to a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1001 (False Statements). While President Obama was still in office, Flynn spoke to the Russian ambassador, asking that Russia moderate its response to the Obama' administration's ejection of thirty-five Russian diplomats. Those diplomats were being expelled in response to Russia's election interference, especially the hacking of the DNC, which was already widely known to be a Russian action. Flynn also asked that Russia support the Trump administration's position on a vote in the UN. When asked about this conversation by the FBI, he denied having made those requests. The FBI had evidence that he had made them, and Flynn pled guilty to lying to the FBI on two counts. Flynn has promised “full cooperation” in the special counsel’s Russia investigation and is reportedly prepared to testify about Donald Trump's role in these negotiations.
Another member of the campaign has also pled guilty to a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1001 (False Statements). Trump campaign Foreign Policy Adviser George Papadopoulos said he lied to the FBI about when he became aware that the Russian government had obtained "thousands of emails," which could be used to damage the campaign of Hillary Clinton. He had "stated multiple times that he learned that information prior to joining the Campaign" but in fact his Russian contact "told defendant Papadopoulos about the 'thousands of emails' on or about April 26, 2016, when defendant Papadopoulos had been a foreign policy adviser to the Campaign for over a month."
Two other members of the Trump campaign have been charged with crimes: Paul Manafort and Rick Gates. Among the charges:
- Between at least 2006 and 2015, Manafort and Gates acted as unregistered agents of the Government of Ukraine, when it was run by a pro-Putin political party whose leader later fled to Russia.
-In order to hide Ukrainian payments from United States authorities, from approximately 2006 through at least 2016, Manafort and Gates laundered the money through scores of United States and foreign corporations, partnerships, and bank accounts.
They are accused of continuing to hide evidence of these actions through 2017, and hiding that evidence from the Department of Justice and the Department of the Treasury is itself a crime, "Conspiracy against the United States."
Other members of the Trump campaign may also be charged with "Conspiracy against the United States" if it can be shown that they interfered with a lawful government function by deceit or dishonest means. Likewise, other members of the campaign (including possibly Trump himself) may eventually be charged with money laundering or acting as unregistered agents of foreign governments.
The grand jury which indicted Flynn, Manafort, Gates, and Papadopoulous is still investigating related matters.
There are several other actions we know about which could be found to have violated the law, but have not yet resulted in subpoenas or indictments:
The meeting of Donald Trump, Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manfort with a Russian operative offering them information helpful to their campaign may be in violation of laws against conspiracy to commit election fraud, among others. In fact, if any American assisted a foreign campaign to influence American elections, that would violate election laws.
Another possible charge might be conspiracy to violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. If Trump associates worked the hackers who broke into the Democratic National Committee servers or the emails of Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman, John Podesta, that would violate the law. Even if they did not aid in the actual break-in, if they discussed the hacking and strategized about how to use the results, that would constitute "conspiracy" to violate the law.
One of the most clear-cut possible charges, based on what is publicly known at this point, would be obstruction of justice. Trump firing FBI Director James Comey would be illegal if he did so with the intention of interfering with an investigation. Both the Special Counsel and the Judiciary Committee are currently investigating this possibility. A draft letter stating different motivations for the firing than the eventual written documentation is in the possession of the Special Counsel. In addition, Trump admitted in an interview on NBC that frustration with the Russia probe was part of his motivation for the firing. Jeff Sessions will neither confirm nor deny that Trump asked him to intervene in Justice Department investigations. But the Trump-appointed Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coates, and several Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee report that he told them he hoped their investigations would be over quickly. He asked the NSA director he appointed, Mike Rogers, to push back on public reports about the FBI investigation. He also told the Russian ambassador and foreign minister that "I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off" after firing Comey. Trump apparently knew Flynn was probably guilty of a federal crime when he asked James Comey to go easy on Flynn. Finally, Trump fired US Attorney Preet Bharara and Acting Attorney General Sally Yates, as well as Comey. Both were involved in the Russia investigation, and Yates was fired shorty after she informed the White House that Flynn had lied to the vice president about the same phone call about which he lied to the FBI. Trump has been personally interviewing candidates to replace Bharara, which would not normally be the president's role. All of this could constitute evidence of intent to obstruct justice.
Lying on security clearance forms, as Jeff Sessions and Jared Kushner appear to have done, is against the law, and so is lying under oath, as Jeff Sessions is accused of doing in his confirmation hearing. In all of these cases, the apparent lies concerned whether the individuals in question had contact with Russian officials. We say they "appear to" have lied because, while we know the statements they made were false, making false statements is only a "lie" and illegal in these contexts if they knew that the statements were false. This is the part a court will need to decide.
Jared Kushner's attempts to set up a covert communications channel to Moscow through the Russian embassy may violate laws against espionage.
Finally, law suits have been brought asserting that the Trump administration is in violation of the "emoluments clause" of the constitution, which forbids US government officials from accepting payments from foreign governments.
Trump or his campaign team could potentially be charged with additional crimes depending on the outcome of the ongoing investigations.
Is there any evidence that Trump or his campaign colluded with Russia?
Yes. It is now a legally established fact that Russia "told defendant Papadopoulos about the 'thousands of emails'" Russia had collected "when defendant Papadopoulos had been a foreign policy adviser to the [Trump] Campaign for over a month." The Trump campaign did not report this information to US law enforcement, and continued to publicly deny that Russia was involved in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee until after the election. Papadopoulos was also in contact with another Russia-linked businessman who copied Jared Kushner on some of his e-mails.
Other evidence which is publicly known has not yet been brought to court.
In 2015, a Trump associate named Felix Sater had written an e-mail to Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, saying: “Buddy our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it [...] I will get all of Putins team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.” He was working to develop a Trump Tower in Moscow at the time. Cohen contacted the Kremlin's press secretary to ask for assistance with that effort.
Trump’s son, Donald Trump, Jr, along with Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort, met with a Russian operative after being promised damaging information on Clinton. The e-mails coordinating the meeting said, "This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump." On these terms, the Trump campaign agreed to a meeting. And indeed, according to the New York Times, the Russian lawyer "had discussed the allegations with one of Russia’s most powerful officials, the prosecutor general, Yuri Y. Chaika."
Donald Jr. also exchanged direct messages with WikiLeaks. They told him that cooperating with them was "strongly in his interest." He did not report these exchanges. He did tweet out a link they sent him, and ask around about the owners of a website they said they had hacked.
In addition, Trump adviser Roger Stone was in contact with WikiLeaks and Guccifer 2.0 and appeared to have advance knowledge of some of the leaks. And a Republican campaign worker named Andrew Nevins actually received Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee documents from Guccifer 2.0. The head of a firm contracted by the Trump campaign offered to help WikiLeaks organize the e-mails they were releasing. The same firm left sensitive voter-targeting information unprotected online.
Trump mentioned the WikiLeaks releases over a hundred times as his staff retweeted a Russian propaganda account in the final weeks of the campaign. And Trump called on Russia to release whatever they had from Hillary Clinton's server, even as he denied Russian involvement in the hacking of the DNC. According to the Wall Street Journal, there is also evidence of "Russian hackers discussing how to obtain emails from Mrs. Clinton’s server and then transmit them to Mr. Flynn."
We also know that Paul Manafort offered to provide briefings on the race to a Russian billionaire closely aligned with the Kremlin (his former employer, Oleg Deripaska) shortly before the Republican National Convention. He made the offer in e-mails addressed to a Russian intermediary suspected of ties with Russian military intelligence who had worked for Manafort and with whom Manafort had dinner in August, 2016. Emails from Manafort obtained by the Atlantic appear to indicate that he hoped to use his position as Trump's campaign manager to curry favor with Deripaska. Manafort was ultimately charged with money laundering and acting as an unregistered foreign agent, as described above.
Russia’s ambassador to Washington told his superiors in Moscow that he "discussed campaign-related matters, including policy issues important to Moscow, with Jeff Sessions." And then after the election, Michael Flynn discussed the sanctions that Obama imposed in response to the election interference with the same ambassador. Another Trump adviser expressed the opinion in email that, from Obama's point of view, the sanctions could make it much harder for Mr. Trump to ease tensions with Russia, “which has just thrown the U.S.A. election to him” and that Obama might shortly release a report that "catches Russians red handed." During the inauguration, Michael Flynn sent a text message to a colleague that they were "good to go" on plans to collaborate with Russia on a nuclear energy project in the Middle East which was being impeded by the sanctions.
While we don't know everything they said to each other, we do know that the Trump campaign had an unusual amount of contact with Russian officials during the run up to the election. As mentioned in the section above, several members of the Trump campaign and administration appear to have attempted to conceal those contacts: omitting them on security clearance forms, in Senate testimony, and in discussions with the FBI.
We also know that Acting Attorney General Sally Yates testified that she warned the Trump administration that Michael Flynn could be blackmailed by Russia because they could threaten to expose his lies about what he discussed with them during the transition. However, Flynn remained in office for 18 days, until after these lies were exposed by the US media. The Trump administration apparently did not object to having someone who was compromised by Russia at the highest levels of White House staff, until the public outcry caused Flynn to resign.
Evidence of Trump's friendly attitude toward the Putin government includes his sharing highly of classified intelligence with Russian officials, and the significant efforts made by the White House to scale back sanctions on Russia, return seized Russian property, and accept Russia's terms in Syria.
Is Russia planning to interfere in future elections?
Almost certainly. They appeared to do so Germany in late 2016: "After all, last year the same hackers who broke into the Democratic Party’s computers, known online as Fancy Bear or Sofacy Group, attacked the German Parliament’s network; they are also accused of stealing documents from individual members of Parliament." Some of the same social media accounts that supported Trump later attacked Angela Merkel.
They also attacked French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron. Macron said:“During the campaign, Russia Today and Sputnik were agents of influence which on several occasions spread fake news about me personally and my campaign. [...] They behaved like organs of influence, of propaganda and of lying propaganda." Russia may have been involved in a leak of e-mails stolen from Macron's campaign.
Other countries across Western Europe are responding to cyberthreats, and eastern countries like Finland and Lithuania are subject to disinformation campaigns which are designed to undermine support there for resistance to Russian military conquests in the region.
In particular Russia has a pattern of targeting propaganda at military personnel, in Eastern European countries. As mentioned above, they now seem to be targeting American military personnel.
In the US, as recently as March, 2017, experts "observed possibly fake social media accounts discrediting Speaker of the House Paul Ryan [...] as the health care bill collapsed."
There are likely non-electoral cyber attacks still to come as well. The Wall Street Journal reported that a Russian computer virus called "Crashoverride" in 2016 "took out electricity in Ukraine’s capital last year and could be repurposed to target U.S. systems." In 2014, the US government reported that the same hackers had targeted the networks of American power and water utilities. The ability of the US to respond to threats of this kind may be somewhat degraded since Russian hackers exploited a widely-used anti-virus program to steal many of the National Security Agency's cyber defense tools.
Disinformation, propaganda, and cyberwarfare are going to be threats to democratic governments around the world for the forseeable future.