Here Come the Russians, Again

The director of national intelligence recently warned that Russia remains “the most active foreign threat to our elections.”

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines testifies to the Senate on May 2. Mark Schiefelbein/AP

Editor’s note: The below article first appeared in David Corn’s newsletter, Our Land. The newsletter comes out twice a week (most of the time) and provides behind-the-scenes stories and articles about politics, media, and culture. Subscribing costs just $5 a month—but you can sign up for a free 30-day trial of Our Land here.

Sometimes I’d rather not be right. In January, reacting to Donald Trump affectionately referring to the trio of tyrants Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Kim Jong Un as “very fine people,” I wrote that two constants in the Trump Era are his affection for murderous authoritarians and Russian efforts to screw with American politics. The former is well-known, the latter, less recognized. Moscow mounted information warfare operations to boost Trump during both the 2016 election—most notably, the hack-and-leak attack in which Russian cyber-operatives swiped Democratic emails and documents and WikiLeaks released them—and the 2020 election, when Russian intelligence operatives spread disinformation about Joe and Hunter Biden and Ukraine. The first op helped the Putin-friendly Trump reach the White House; the second failed to keep him in office, but it had the side-benefit of fueling the House Republicans’ baseless (and now fizzling) impeachment crusade against President Biden. Putin went one for two.

I noted in that Our Land issue: “[I]t’s a good bet that Putin this year will try once again to mess in an American election…[As Putin] continues to commit horrendous war crimes in Ukraine, he has even more reason to clandestinely boost Trump and win the rubber match.” At long last, official warnings have arrived.

Two weeks ago, Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee that Russia remains “the most active foreign threat to our elections.” She noted that the Kremlin’s “goals in such influence operations tend to include eroding trust in US democratic institutions, exacerbating sociopolitical divisions in the United States, and degrading Western support to Ukraine.” All of this, obviously, would be to Trump’s benefit. She pointed out that artificial intelligence and deepfakes will presumably be deployed in this effort, and she cited China and Iran as other threats.

Russia’s latest attack on the United States is already underway. As the Associated Press reported in March:

Russian state media and online accounts tied to the Kremlin have spread and amplified misleading and incendiary content about US immigration and border security. The campaign seems crafted to stoke outrage and polarization before the 2024 election for the White House, and experts who study Russian disinformation say Americans can expect more to come as Putin looks to weaken support for Ukraine and cut off a vital supply of aid.

The New York Times reported recently that a disinformation operation—most likely mounted by Russians—has been circulating a video that purports to disclose the existence of a troll farm in Ukraine that is being run by the CIA and targeting the US election to prevent Trump’s election. It’s a clever instance of cyber-gaslighting, for it is Russian trolls who are disseminating fakery to hurt Biden and help Trump.

Microsoft, according to the Times, concluded this video “came from a group it calls Storm-1516, a collection of disinformation experts who now focus on creating videos they hope might go viral in America. The group most likely includes veterans of the Internet Research Agency, a Kremlin-aligned troll farm that sought to influence the 2016 election.” Another recent video from this gang—or a similar one—claimed to show Ukrainian soldiers burning an effigy of Trump and blaming him for delays in military aid shipments to Ukraine. The aim was to bolster MAGA’s opposition to aid for Ukraine. (You can’t send money to those anti-Trump ingrates!) Alex Jones’ conspiracy site posted the video that was not hard for experts to spot as a ruse. (The Ukrainian soldiers had Russian accents.)

A disinformation operation has been circulating a video that purports to disclose the existence of a troll farm in Ukraine that is being run by the CIA and targeting the US election to prevent Trump’s election.

At the Senate hearing, Haines testified that combatting disinformation “from foreign influence or interference is an absolute priority for the intelligence community” and that the US government is prepared “to address the challenge.” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the chair of the intelligence committee, said, “We’ve got to do a better job of making sure Americans of all political stripes understand what is very probably coming their way over the next…less than six months.”

In fact, disinformation experts in and out of government regularly say a crucial element in thwarting such operations is to alert the public that it is being targeted by bad-faith actors with false messages. Basically, you have to educate people about the big picture and then try to counter the specific instances as they occur. Here’s the rub: In a time of political division, not all major players are keen to do this. Especially when they, too, are engaging in similar activities.

Let’s rewind to the summer of 2016. When the Obama administration determined that Russia was covertly assaulting the US election, the White House reached out to Sen. Mitch McConnell, then the majority leader, to form a united front against the Kremlin’s interference. McConnell told President Obama to take a hike. At the time, Trump, the GOP presidential nominee, was falsely claiming there was no Russian intervention underway. McConnell didn’t want to cross-swords with Trump, and, ever the cynical political operative, he suspected the White House wanted to use this issue to undermine the Republicans. Consequently, he took a powder and placed party over country.

Since then, it’s only gotten worse. Republicans have generally waved away concerns about Putin’s war on US elections, echoing Trump’s phony assertion—disinformation—that it’s a big hoax concocted by Democrats and the media. Moreover, as noted above, many Republicans have gone further, embracing and amplifying Russian disinformation about both Biden and the war in Ukraine. Don’t take my word for it. Recently, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, groused, “Russian propaganda has made its way into the United States, unfortunately, and it’s infected a good chunk of my party’s base.” And Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, complained that anti-Ukraine messages from Russia are “being uttered on the House floor.”

Republicans have generally waved away concerns about Putin’s war on US elections, echoing Trump’s phony assertion—disinformation—that it’s a big hoax concocted by Democrats and the media.

Theirs is a minority position. Most Republicans don’t want to broach the subject of Russian meddling. Putin’s operations are useful for these useful idiots. And their Dear Leader certainly desires no discussion of this. Any such talk is a reminder of how he slid into the White House with Russian assistance, which, in an act of grand betrayal, he aided and abetted by claiming no such thing was happening. Of course, conservative media and ex-lefty Trump-Russia denialists (Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, and others) will pooh-pooh this and pump up the conspiracy theory that countering Russian disinformation is a scheme to impose state-sponsored censorship.

Given all this, how can a strategy to counter Russian information be implemented? If the Biden administration or congressional Democrats elevate these concerns, Trump and his minions will insist this is a plot to undermine him. The Trumpers don’t need to win the argument; they succeed if they turn this matter into yet another political mud-wrestling match that confuses or confounds voters. Still, Haines and others ought to keep trying.

The media has an important role to play. The more attention it can cast upon the Russian efforts, the greater the odds that a slice of the electorate will comprehend the threat and perhaps be inoculated from being unduly influenced by these operations. But how many of you saw coverage of this hearing? How about of the recent Russian actions? The New York Times did not consider this threat to American democracy front-page news, and buried its account of that phony video and the hearing on the bottom of page A19. (The Washington Post did not assign its own reporter to the hearing; it ran an AP account.) My hunch is that Trump’s ceaseless grousing about the “Russia hoax” has made some in the media gun-shy about this stuff.

As McConnell demonstrated eight years ago, it is tough to devise an effective and nonpartisan counter to a foreign threat when an entire political party denies that threat or, worse, sees benefits from it. The Russians aren’t coming, they’re here. Preserving democracy could depend on making sure Putin doesn’t win this round.

David Corn’s American Psychosis: A Historical Investigation of How the Republican Party Went Crazy, a New York Times bestseller, is available in a new and expanded paperback edition.

MOTHER JONES NEEDS YOUR HELP

We have about a $200,000 funding gap and less than a week to go in our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, this week so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

payment methods

MOTHER JONES NEEDS YOUR HELP

We have about a $200,000 funding gap and less than a week to go in our hugely important First $500,000 fundraising campaign. We urgently need your help, and a lot of help, this week so we can pay for the one-of-a-kind journalism you get from us.

Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” where we lay out this wild moment and how we can keep charging hard for you. And please help if you can: $5, $50, or $500—every gift from every person truly matters right now.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate