The Science of Making Americans Hurt Their Own Country

Silhouettes of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin
BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / AFP / Getty

The National Intelligence Council has released an unclassified report assessing, retrospectively, foreign threats to the 2020 election. It has a few twists and turns: The Iranian government attempted to run some kind of online influence campaign; the Chinese government considered doing the same but then dropped the idea. But most of the report is about Russia. Unlike in 2016, Russian intelligence operatives weren’t in the business of hacking and leaking this time around. Instead they concentrated on planting what they would call kompromat. The NIC focuses in particular on the activity of Andriy Derkach, a Russian agent and Ukrainian citizen who used former President Donald Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to spread disinformation about Joe Biden and his family. The report also mentions Konstantin Kilimnik, another Russian agent, who was playing the same game.

When I read the report, my instinctive reaction was I know all of this already. No wonder the story is familiar—most of it appeared in newspapers as it was unfolding. Giuliani’s contacts with Derkach can’t be described as an open secret, because they weren’t secret at all. In 2019 the two men appeared together on the One American News Network, a far-right channel that breathlessly described Derkach as part of a group of “actual whistleblowers,” talked about the “impeachment hoax,” and referred to the FBI’s “personal hatred for Donald Trump.” Giuliani and Derkach provided the channel with doctored tapes and other material designed to create the impression that Biden was somehow involved in corruption in Ukraine.

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Kilimnik, too, has become an old and familiar face in American politics, one that appears in election after election. During the 2016 campaign, Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, passed polling information to him. Although this fact turned up in former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of the 2016 election, nobody has ever explained why Kilimnik wanted this polling information or what he might have done with it. Now here he is, back again, front and center in 2020. The new report says that—in addition to providing kompromat to OANN—Kilimnik, Derkach, and others “met with and provided materials to Trump administration–linked US persons to advocate for formal investigations; hired a US firm to petition US officials; and attempted to make contact with several senior US officials.”

All of that helps explain why my second reaction was If I know this already, and none of it seems to matter, then something is seriously wrong with the American political system. If the link between Russian security services and the stories about the Biden family was bleedingly obvious at the time, why did anyone go along with it? Why were American journalists, American politicians, and the American president’s advisers messing around with Russian intelligence agents?

The problem is not only the outgrowth of the peculiar climate created by Donald Trump—however simple and satisfying such an explanation might be. Think, for a moment, about why the Russian state indulges in this kind of activity, year in and year out, despite the political costs and the risk of sanctions: Because it’s very cheap, it’s very easy, and a lot of evidence suggests that it works.

For decades now, Russian security services have studied a concept called “reflexive control”—the science of how to get your enemies to make mistakes. To be successful, practitioners must first analyze their opponents deeply, to understand where they get their information and why they trust it; then they need to find ways of playing with those trusted sources, in order to insert errors and mistakes. This way of thinking has huge implications for the military; consider how a piece of incorrect information might get a general to make a mistake. But it works in politics too. The Russian security services have now studied us and worked out (it probably wasn’t very hard) that large numbers of Americans—not only Fox News pundits and OANN broadcasters but also members of Congress—are very happy to accept sensational information, however tainted, from any source that happens to provide it. As long as it suits their partisan frames, and as long as it can be used against their opponents, they don’t care who invented it or for what purpose.

As a result, supplying an edited audiotape or a piece of false evidence to one of the bottom-feeders of the information ecosystem is incredibly easy; after that, others will ensure that it rises up the food chain. Russian disinformation doesn’t succeed thanks to the genius of Russians; it succeeds thanks to the sharp partisanship of Americans. Russian disinformation works because Americans allow it to work—and because those same Americans don’t care anymore about the harm they do to their country.

You can argue, of course, that these 2020 efforts don’t need to be taken so seriously, because they failed. Biden won. At least half the population did not believe the false accusations, or weren’t swayed by them. The Hunter Biden saga faded. But that misses the more insidious, longer-term effect of these kinds of games—or rather, the insidious, long-term effect of the behavior of the Americans who play them. Just because the Russian security services didn’t achieve their most important goal, the reelection of Donald Trump, doesn’t mean that they and their American partners didn’t do some collateral institutional damage along the way.

For one, they have successfully undermined the reputation, the morale, and maybe even the capacity of the FBI. Last summer Peter Strzok, the FBI’s former chief of counterespionage, told me that, under Trump, the bureau and the entire Department of Justice had a “motivation not to get on the wrong side of a vengeful president.” That meant they had a motivation not to stop Giuliani and Derkach, for example, even though Derkach was known to be a Russian operative. The two men peddled disinformation together with impunity. The FBI and the DOJ didn’t have a motivation to investigate Trump’s role in these matters either, even though that was pretty obvious too. He was paying Giuliani, after all, to do what Giuliani was doing. America’s counterintelligence teams, when faced with open collaboration between close associates of the president and known Russian agents, were rendered helpless.

In the long term, the absence of accountability for all the Americans involved could have consequences. Trump successfully intervened in the Mueller investigation, openly hinting at a pardon for Manafort in exchange for his silence. He made good on that promise in December. Though Mueller’s report concluded that Trump had obstructed the investigation, the special counsel declined to recommend prosecution, which he felt was not part of his job description. (“Because we determined not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment, we did not draw ultimate conclusions about the President’s conduct,” Mueller wrote.) He left the decision to Congress; Congress did nothing. And so everyone involved, including Kilimnik and Giuliani, felt perfectly free to stay in the game.

Others will surely draw the same conclusions. The National Intelligence Council found no Chinese involvement in November’s U.S. election. But because nothing all that bad really happened to anyone who collaborated with Russian foreign intelligence, either in 2016 or in 2020, maybe the Chinese and their potential American partners will grow a little bolder. The lesson of the past four years is that money is to be made and advantages are to be gained by accepting foreign help in American politics. Perhaps 2024 will be the year to try again.