Five Revelations from the Senate's First Russia Hearings

How Russian Twitter trolls targeted Republican rivals and covertly influence Trump

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Five Revelations from the Senate's First Russia Hearings
Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Sen. Richard Burr and Vice Chair Sen. Mark Warner at a Wednesday press conference to discuss their probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

As the smoldering wreckage of the House Intelligence Committee's investigation into Russia’s election meddling continued to flare up Thursday, a new investigation, this time in the Senate, was just getting underway.

To review: Last week, House intelligence committee chair Devin Nunes met in secret with an unnamed intelligence source on the White House grounds. The next day, he held an impromptu press conference during which he informed reporters that communications from members of Trump's transition team had been swept up during legal surveillance of a foreign national. Nunes left the press conference to share the information, which he had not shared with his co-chair, Adam Schiff, with Trump, on the advice of Speaker Paul Ryan.

Two days later, Nunes abruptly cancelled the testimonies of former director of national intelligence James Clapper, former CIA Director John Brennan, and former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, all three of whom were scheduled to appear before the committee on Tuesday. Any appearance of Nunes' impartiality was thus hopelessly compromised, but he refuses to recuse himself, so the responsibility for conducting a credible investigation has fallen squarely in the laps of Senate intelligence committee co-chairs Mark Warner (D-VA) and Richard Burr (R-NC).

"The vice chairman and I realize that if we politicize this process, our efforts will likely fail," Burr said at the start of Thursday's hearings. "The public deserves to hear the truth about possible Russian involvement in our elections, how they came to be involved, how we may have failed to prevent that involvement, what actions were taken in response, if any, and what we plan to do to ensure the integrity of future free elections at the heart of our democracy."

Despite their best efforts, Thursday's hearings were dogged by ongoing fallout from the House investigation. During the break between the committee's morning and afternoon sessions, news broke that Nunes' sources for the surveillance claim were two White House officials (something he'd previously denied) — one whom Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, the national security advisor who replaced Michael Flynn, had previously tried to fire before Trump blocked the dismissal; the other a White House lawyer who previously worked for Nunes. 

As if that weren't enough, that evening the reports emerged that Flynn, who recently retained a (seemingly) staunchly anti-Trump lawyer, has offered to testify in front of Congress, if he is given immunity. (Flashback to September, when Flynn, speaking then about Hillary Clinton, told Meet the Press, “When you are given immunity that means that you've probably committed a crime.")

Those revelations threatened to overshadow some of the truly eye-opening ones that came out of Thursday's hearing, including:

Trump's Republican Rivals Were Also Targeted
Clinton Watts, senior fellow at the George Washington Center for Cyber and Homeland Security, testified that rivals of Trump's were also targeted by the Russians. He name-checked Florida Senator Marco Rubio, a vocal critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, specifically as someone who "suffered from" Russian efforts. Later that day, Rubio confirmed that members of his campaign had been the targets of cyber attacks as recently as the day before the hearings.

"In July of 2016, shortly after I announced I would seek reelection to the United States Senate, former members of my presidential campaign team who had access to the internal information of my presidential campaign were targeted by IP addresses within an unknown location in Russia. That effort was unsuccessful," Rubio told the committee. He added, "I'd also inform the committee that within the last 24 hours, at 10:45 a.m. yesterday, a second attempt was made. Again, against former members of my presidential campaign team who had access to our internal information, again targeted from an IP address from an unknown address in Russia."

Russian Efforts Succeeded Because Trump Embraced Them
Russian use of "active measures" to attempt to influence in our elections aren't new. The practice has been used by both the U.S. and Russia since the 1960s, notably, as the New Yorker reported earlier this year, during Ronald Reagan's reelection campaign in 1982 when Soviet agents tried to infiltrate the headquarters of the Republican and Democratic National Committees. The reason the Russians appeared to succeed this time, Watts testified, was because Trump embraced them.

"I think this answer is very simple and is one no one is really saying in this room," Watts said in answer to a Why now? question from Sen. James Lankford (R-OK). "Part of the reason active measures have worked in this U.S. election is because the commander in chief has used Russian active measures at times against his opponents."

Watts cited the fact that Trump's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort spread a hoax about a terrorist attack that never happened during a CNN appearance in August – a version of a fake story popularized on Sputnik and RT, two state-controlled Russian media outlets. In October, Watts went on, Trump himself cited a fake news story from Sputnik on the campaign trail. Throughout the campaign and since, Watts asserted, Trump advanced narratives that were also pushed by Sputnik and RT – about U.S. intelligence reports on Russian interference being incorrect, about the election being rigged, and about mass voter fraud. "One of the reasons active measures work," he said, "is because they parrot the same lines."

Russian Bots Targeted Swing Voters
Watts' testimony bolstered reports that Russian intelligence spread disinformation using bots on social media throughout the 2016, and that those efforts were rather sophisticated.  

"Today, you can create the content, gain the audience, build the bots, pick out the election, and even the voters that are valued the most – in swing states – and actually insert the right content in a deliberate period. They pre-planned it, they were a year and a half out, they're doing it today in European elections," Watts said. He added that these methods weren't only used during the general election, but during the Democratic primary as well, when he says bots targeted Bernie Sanders supporters. "They play all sides."

Russian Trolling Is Still Happening...
Watts said that as recently as last week, in the wake of the president's humiliating healthcare defeat, Russian Twitter bots were training their focus on the speaker of the House – architect of the bill and an ostensible Trump ally. "This past week we observed social media campaigns targeting speaker of the House Paul Ryan, hoping to foment further unrest amongst U.S. democratic institutions," he told the committee.

...And They Are Targeting Trump's Twitter Account Specifically
Perhaps most interesting, Watts reported that bots have been observed tweeting dubious claims at Trump in an apparent effort to influence the president. "I can tell you right now, today, 'gray outlets,' Soviet-pushing accounts, tweet at President Trump during high volumes, when they know he's online, and they push conspiracy theories. So, if he is to click on one of those or cite one of those, it just proves Putin correct that we can use [this method] as a lever against the Americans," Watts testified. 

Trump's own advisers on the National Security Council have considered similar tactics, as the Times reported, the idea of "feeding suggested Twitter posts to the president so the council's staff would have greater influence" was discussed at an NSC meeting in February.