Questions and Answers

Many of the questions people are asking about the role of Russia in the 2016 elections in the US 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.)

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."

But "When it appeared to Moscow that Secretary Clinton was likely to win the presidency the Russian influence campaign focused more on undercutting Secretary Clinton’s legitimacy . [...] ProKremlin bloggers had prepared a Twitter campaign, #DemocracyRIP, on election night in anticipation of Secretary Clinton’s victory."

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 the Magnitsky Act, and accept Russia's terms for ending the war in Syria.

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 were released to the public through WikiLeaks and DC Leaks.

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, probing for weaknesses to be used in future actions, and providing data to help Russian propaganda target Americans on social media. 

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." By contrast the report says CNN has received less than 100 million views on YouTube in the same period.

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."

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?

This is for the court system to decide, after an investigation. A grand jury has been impaneled to investigate this question. And subpoenas have been issued for the records of Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort, so far. In addition, a search warrant has been issued (indicating that a judge found probable cause to believe that the search would yield evidence of a crime) and served against Paul Manafort.

There are several actions we know about which could be found to have violated the law:

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.

Trump firing FBI Director James Comey because he was frustrated with the FBI investigation of the election could be a violation of  laws against obstruction of justice (as could his firing of a US Attorney). 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 and may constitute evidence of obstruction.

Lying on security clearance forms, as Jeff Sessions and Jared Kushner and in particular Michael Flynn appear to have done, is against the law, and so is lying under oath, as Sessions appears to have done in his confirmation hearing. Lying to the FBI in an interview, as Michael Flynn appears to have done, is also illegal. 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.

The discussions of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn with the Russian ambassador during the transition could violate the Logan Act, which forbids private citizens (which Flynn was at the time) from negotiating with foreign powers, but no one has ever been prosecuted for breaking that law.

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. Trump’s son, Donald Trump, Jr, along with Jared Kushner and Paul Manafortmet 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.

Prior to this, 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 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.

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. The e-mails were  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 his Deripaska.

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." A Republican contractor contacted people about those documents, saying "I’m talking to Michael Flynn about this—if you find anything, can you let me know?" And during the campaign, US Intelligence intercepted Russian officials bragging about their close relationship to Flynn.

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.

We also know that Trump mentioned the WikiLeaks releases over a hundred times in the final weeks of the campaign, and 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.

And while we don't know what 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.

Finally, Trump himself and the Trump administration as a whole has unusually close personal and financial ties to Russia. Further details can be found on our page "the story so far".

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, and now seem to be targeting American military personnel. In addition, they have been hacking the personal cell phones of NATO forces.

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."

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 stole 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.