What is most remarkable here is that none of this is particularly surprising. Russian interference in the 2016 election has been closely studied over the past four years, and America’s vulnerabilities have only worsened in that time. As my colleague Franklin Foer wrote recently, “Russia’s interference in 2016 might be remembered as the experimental prelude that foreshadowed the attack of 2020.” That OAN is now a player in such interference suggests an escalation that the Biden campaign has been bracing for.
Indeed, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul—who has recalled being secretly recorded himself, among other forms of harassment, when he was posted in Moscow—told me, "There’s never been a moment like this in American history.”
Read Putin is well on his way to stealing the next election
That includes 2016. McFaul said what he’s seeing now reminds him of tactics the Kremlin has used against its domestic political opponents. “It’s not to convince you of a different point of view. It’s to convince you that there is no truth,” he said. “When it feels like nobody’s telling the truth and there is no truth, the reaction to that is despondency and demobilization.”
It’s hard not to feel some déjà vu here. In 2016, Russian intelligence agents hacked the emails of Democratic National Committee staffers and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, and delivered them to WikiLeaks, as a way to get them into the American media. Some outlets learned a lesson from that episode, and have treated new Biden recordings out of Ukraine with care. Others have not. Andriy Derkach, who released the Biden tapes that have already come out, is a former member of a pro-Russian political party who graduated from a KGB-run academy in Moscow. OAN lends his efforts a veneer, however thin, of journalistic legitimacy.
The person now claiming to have more tapes is OAN’s Chanel Rion, the on-air personality who went with Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, on his December trip to Ukraine in part to find information on Biden to help Trump. Rion, who has become famous for her conspiracy-inflected questions at White House briefings, emailed the Biden campaign May 29 claiming that she was working on an “in-depth report” about recordings that appear to be of Biden speaking with Petro Poroshenko, then the president of Ukraine. “We have over five hours of these recordings (beyond what has been posted online by Nabu Leaks),” she wrote, referencing a Ukrainian website suspected of Russian links.
Derkach, a politician known as the “Ukrainian Putin,” has been a proponent of the conspiracy theory that Ukraine was really behind the interference in the 2016 election instead of Russia. And he has previously been eager to provide damaging material about Biden for Trump’s sake. Derkach released a batch of recordings three weeks ago, claiming that they had been made by Poroshenko and given to him by “investigative journalists.” (Poroshenko has said the audio is “fabricated.”) Most mainstream-media outlets have decided that the recordings that have emerged so far offer “little new insight into Biden’s actions in Ukraine,” as The Washington Post’s Carol Morello wrote after the recordings were first released.