Before she was ousted by President Donald Trump, former Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen said: “Two years ago, a foreign power launched a brazen, multi-faceted influence campaign … to distort our presidential election. … Let me be clear: Our intelligence community had it right. It was the Russians.”
Everybody knows this. The only person who still has doubts is President Trump.
When he testifies before Congress on Wednesday, former special counsel Robert Mueller has a unique opportunity to set the record straight and lay out the case for Russian election interference before the American public. Mueller’s testimony will be a watershed moment if facts still matter.
Mueller’s testimony is important not because he’s a Democrat or a Republican, not because he delivers snappy soundbites or long, carefully constructed sentences, and not because one may favor impeachment or oppose it: It matters because the country must come to grips with the things Mueller found that should trouble us about an adversary Russia, and a campaign and a president who welcomed Russia’s help.
What to expect from the testimony
Here’s what we can expect from Mueller’s testimony about election interference:
First, Mueller will remind us of Russia’s social media influence campaign. Facebook identified at least 470 fake accounts that were controlled by the Internet Research Agency — a company allegedly founded and controlled by a Russian “businessman,” Yevgeny Prigozhin, who is so close to dictator Vladimir Putin that his nickname is “Putin’s chef.” These accounts posted more than 80,000 updates between January 2015 and August 2017 that reached as many as 126 million people. The IRA also purchased 3,500 Facebook ads that reached more than 10 million people.
Meanwhile, Twitter identified 3,814 IRA-controlled accounts that likewise reached millions of people with their tweets, retweets and “likes.” Overall, there can be no doubt — none whatsoever— that Russian efforts to reach Americans and influence them were extensive and pervasive.
Second, as Mueller will also remind us, two units of the Russian intelligence services breached 29 computers at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and 30 computers at the Democratic National Committee. The Russians siphoned off more than 70 gigabytes of information from the DCCC and stole “hundreds of thousands” of documents from compromised email accounts and networks.
That information was in turn passed by the Russians to the American news media, directly through a fake Russian persona (named Guccifer 2.0) and indirectly through Julian Assange and WikiLeaks.
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Finally, Mueller will remind us that none of this happened in a vacuum. All of it was with the knowledge of senior officials in the Trump campaign. Trump supporters can take little comfort in Mueller’s conclusion that there was no criminal conspiracy because what there was, was almost as bad: a pattern and practice of conscious parallelism and mutual support. The Trump campaign were fellow travelers to Putin’s disruption efforts.
Former special counsel Robert Mueller in Washington, D.C., on May 29, 2019. (Photo: Carolyn Kaster/AP)
Trump denied it, he lied
Recall that Trump denied that there were ever any contacts between his campaign and the Russians. He denied it categorically. That was a lie. There are at least a hundred contacts between Trump campaign associates and the Russians.
These ranged from Michael Cohen’s extensive Trump Tower negotiations for a property in Moscow (which continued during the campaign) to Trump adviser George Papadopoulos’ efforts to dig up “dirt” on Hillary Clinton; to the infamous Trump Tower meeting in June 2016 where Donald Trump Jr., campaign manager Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner all met with Russians who were peddling “documents and information that would incriminate” Clinton. Manafort even met with Konstantin Kilimnik (who had ties to Russian intelligence) to float a peace plan that would allow Russia to keep the portions of eastern Ukraine that it had stolen by force.
Meanwhile, Trump campaign officials and allies like Trump Jr., Eric Trump, Kellyanne Conway, Michael Flynn, Roger Stone, Brad Parscale, Michael Flynn Jr. and Sean Hannity all interacted with the Russian troll, IRA-run Twitter accounts seeking to amplify their message.
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Any normal campaign would have rejected even the hint of foreign assistance. Mueller’s investigation tells us that the Trump campaign was not in any way, manner, shape or form normal. Nor was it in the least bit moral or ethical.
As Mueller put it: “The presidential campaign … showed interest in WikiLeaks’ releases of documents and welcomed their potential to damage candidate Clinton. … The investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.”
It is cold comfort indeed to the American public that Mueller stopped short of establishing a conspiracy or direct coordination with the Russian government in its election interference activities. Has the bar really fallen so low? Do facts really matter so little? We can only hope that the public reaction to Mueller’s testimony proves otherwise.
Paul Rosenzweig was senior counsel to Kenneth Starr in the Whitewater investigation and a deputy assistant secretary of Homeland Security in the George W. Bush administration. Follow him on Twitter: @RosenzweigP
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