WASHINGTON ― On July 27, 2016, Donald J. Trump stood behind a lectern in a Miami suburb and asked the Russian government to intervene in the 2016 election.
“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump told a crowded press conference, referring to messages his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, kept on a private server and deleted. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
Twelve months later, top U.S. intelligence officials have said Russian state-backed entities did something similar to what Trump asked for: They hacked and released internal Democratic Party emails to embarrass Clinton and aid Trump. The leaked materials dominated media coverage for weeks, notably in the lead-up to Election Day itself.
What’s unclear ― and currently under investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller and three congressional committees ― is whether Trump and his campaign were involved in that foreign interference effort.
Trump himself says the remark last year was sarcastic, and there is no proof yet of criminal collusion. But a pile of evidence that’s drawn attention since he made the comment shows a pattern of open cooperation. And the latest big story about Trump-Russia contacts ― regarding a June 2016 meeting between Donald Trump Jr., other campaign aides and a well-connected Russian lawyer ― proves there was a willingness in the Trump camp to accept Russian help even before Trump’s statement.
In March testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, former FBI agent Clint Watts explained that the Trump team and Moscow-linked media, including the site Wikileaks, spent months amplifying each other’s sharing of false information and conspiracy theories, helping the Kremlin get more bang for its buck.
“Part of the reason active measures [by Russia] have worked in this U.S. election is because the commander-in-chief has used Russian active measures at times against his opponents,” Watts said. He described Trump’s Oct. 11 promotion of a fake news report published on Russia’s Sputnik News, and how former Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort pushed a different false story that Watts traced back to Russian sources.
“He denies the intel from the United States. He claims that the election could be rigged,” Watts said. “They parrot the same lines.”
Trump’s source for his October statement (actually made on October 10) remains unclear: whether he or someone on his team saw the erroneous Sputnik report, or viral tweets making the claim in the hours before Sputnik posted its story, or some other source. Sputnik deleted its article shortly after publication, and investigative website Bellingcat noted pro-Trump social media had spread the claim widely.
The Russian social media influence campaign also spent time trying to boost disaffection among supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), targeting a constituency Trump repeatedly reached out to, Watts noted.
A few days after that hearing, the popular blog Lawfare shared a similar assessment in a post titled “Of Course There’s Evidence Trump Colluded With Russian Intelligence.” They provided an appendix listing the many, many times candidate Trump praised the leaks and denied growing U.S. intelligence suggesting Russia was behind them ― something he has continued to do as president.
And in May, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, issued a reminder that there’s more than enough smoke to suggest a fire.
″What we do not have right now is conclusive proof that President Trump’s team colluded with the Russian government. But a lack of conclusive proof is not the same thing as a lack of evidence, and we should not confuse the two,” Smith said in a press release. “There is sufficient evidence to justify the appointment of a special prosecutor, there is enough evidence for Congress to continue investigating, and there is enough evidence that the American people should be deeply concerned about the President’s dealings with Russia. We do the truth a disservice when we blur those two questions, and it is important that we make every effort to keep this distinction clear.”
Smith noted the case of Manafort, who ran Trump’s presidential campaign until the New York Times revealed in August of last year that Ukrainian investigators believed he had received $12.7 million in undisclosed payments from a pro-Russian political party. (The Times has since shown that Manafort was in debt to pro-Russian interests just before he began working for Trump, and Manafort has spoken with Senate investigators about his role in the meeting with the Trump son.)
Smith also mentioned Carter Page, a Trump foreign policy adviser who flew to Moscow last July to deliver a speech slamming the U.S. approach to the world and promoting Russia’s foreign policy. In 2016, a Foreign Intelligence Service Court judge determined that the FBI was probably correct in considering Page a Russian agent. And he cited Roger Stone, who was a Trump adviser for decades and loud promoter of the materials taken from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chair John Podesta. Smith also noted the multiple undisclosed meetings between Trump officials like Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
It’s also become clearer over time how desperate Trump is to quash the Russia investigation. To that end, he has already fired FBI director James Comey, threatened Mueller and Sessions despite support for them within the GOP, and repeatedly attempted to switch the focus back to Clinton’s alleged wrongdoing.
It’s striking that all this is often still forgotten in coverage and conversations of the affair. In discussing Trump’s links with Russian media election efforts, Lawfare’s writers attempted to explain why this is the case. ”We have collectively discounted this cooperation for two related, and quite perverse, reasons: It was overt and public and it was legal,” they wrote. “The consequence has been that we largely ignore it in discussing the matter.”
Contributing to the confusion is the public fascination with uncovering something secret, the real desperation to find that one damning clue that will explain it all, and the difficulty reporters and the public have in realizing that the traditionally hawkish GOP could now share interests with Moscow.
But the current tendency to forget Trump’s public call on Russia to hack his opponent is a worrying sign. Russian interference is far from over, and Moscow does its best to make its efforts public ― to take advantage of the way open liberal democracies work, and avoid clear incrimination of Russia or its partners, experts on Kremlin strategy argue. Unless Americans gain a better understanding of how this kind of influence works, there’s little reason to believe it will end, no matter how the Trump-Russia case concludes.
This story has been updated to clarify the date of a Trump statement referred to in the testimony of a witness at a Senate hearing, and to add information as to the campaign’s possible sources for that incorrect statement.