Russian meddling in American democracy didn’t start with Donald Trump’s election to the presidency, and, new reporting makes clear, it hasn’t ended with his inauguration.
The New York Times and the Intercept reported Friday that a Russian intermediary attempted to sell compromising material on the president to American intelligence agencies last year. What started in an effort to recover American hacking secrets apparently turned into an offer by a shadowy Russian to provide the Americans a “video of Mr. Trump consorting with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel room in 2013,” according to the Times. The Russian, in other words, apparently intimated that the infamous “pee tape” was real. He offered to sell it to the very intelligence agencies that Donald Trump has personally attacked over allegations that his election victory was tainted.
None of the new reporting gives any additional reason to believe that the pee tape is real. But it suggests Russian agents are taking advantage of American divisions over questions like the existence of compromising information about the president in order to keep the United States off balance. The Russian intermediary’s attempt to sell dirt to American intelligence officials, wrote the Times’ Matthew Rosenberg, “raised suspicions among officials that he was part of an operation to feed the information into United States intelligence agencies and pit them against Mr. Trump.” Those agencies are deeply divided. The Intercept’s James Risen reported, “U.S. intelligence officials are torn about whether to conduct any operations at all that might aid Mueller’s ongoing investigation into whether Trump or his aides colluded with Russia to win the 2016 presidential election.” They fear, he continued, “blowback” from Trump if they got involved.
Some parts of the American government are openly concerned. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned this week that Russia is targeting the American midterms. “I think it's important we just continue to say to Russia, ‘Look, you think we don't see what you're doing. We do see it and you need to stop. If you don’t, you’re going to just continue to invite consequences for yourself,” he told reporters in Bogota.
Tillerson has good reason to be worried. Russia has been interfering with his department with few consequences since long before he became secretary of state. The State Department’s email system has been serially hacked. Back in 2014, the Russians intercepted and leaked an embarrassing phone call between senior State Department official Victoria Nuland and a colleague. It was a sign, Nuland told Politico recently, that “the gloves were coming off and the knives were coming out.” But the Obama administration couldn’t agree on an aggressive response. There was a debate, she said, about whether there “should have been countermeasures taken that would have raised the cost at the time, and preempted further interference.” Obama took a few symbolic measures over the course of his presidency, including personally confronting Vladimir Putin and expelling Russians from diplomatic compounds in the U.S. But the response didn’t satisfy American officials alarmed by the Russian interference campaign. “I feel like we sort of choked,” one official told The Washington Post.
America’s political system remains dangerously open to exploitation even as foreign efforts to to enflame political divisions continue. “Russia has one simple goal: to erode trust in democratic institutions,” wrote former CIA officer and current Republican congressman Will Hurd. “The current highly charged political environment is making it easier for the Russians to achieve their goal.” The push to release Hurd’s House colleagues’ intelligence memos is the latest front in that political war. Bot armies sympathetic to Russian goals were mobilized to demand the release of Rep. Devin Nunes’s memo, researchers found. Russia’s disinformation efforts are effective, argues Ben Ninmo of the Atlantic Council, because it engages in “full-spectrum” propaganda efforts that use state media outlets like RT to amplify the work of social-media troll factories, all aimed at the same goal. And that has continued well past the 2016 election, regardless of RT’s formal registration as an agent a foreign power in the U.S.
This week marked exactly four years since Russia openly leaked Nuland’s call. The 2016 election came and went. If anything, Americans have become only more divided about Russian meddling since then. U.S. intelligence agencies are vulnerable to disinformation campaigns intended to divide them from their president. Looking at what he has wrought, one has to imagine, Putin must be asking, “Why stop now?”