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Intel report makes clear: Russia tried to rescue Trump in 2020, too

If it sounds like the GOP enthusiastically embraced a Russian disinformation campaign, promoting garbage pushed by the Kremlin, it's not your imagination.
Image: Three policemen patrol Red Square in Moscow
Three policemen patrol Red Square in Moscow on May 17, 2020.Yuri Kadobnov / AFP - Getty Images

It was five years ago when the Russian government first targeted the U.S. presidential election, launching a multifaceted attack on our political system with a single goal in mind: putting Donald Trump in power.

As part of the fallout from this scandal, the nation's intelligence community is now required to do an assessment after every major election, reporting on possible foreign efforts to interfere in our political process.

And with that legal requirement in mind, the National Intelligence Council submitted a classified version of its report on the 2020 presidential election in January, the declassified version of which was released to the public yesterday. Among the many important revelations in the document: Russia took steps to help Trump last year, too. The New York Times reported:

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia authorized extensive efforts to hurt the candidacy of Joseph R. Biden Jr. during the election last year, including by mounting covert operations to influence people close to President Donald J. Trump, according to a declassified intelligence report released on Tuesday.... The declassified report represented the most comprehensive intelligence assessment of foreign efforts to influence the 2020 vote.

The Kremlin not only targeted our political system as part of a pro-Trump campaign twice, in some cases, it relied on an identical cast of characters. As Rachel explained in detail on the show last night, the U.S. intelligence community specifically focused attention on Russian influence agent Konstantin Kilimnik who was responsible for trying to "denigrate" then-candidate Joe Biden in order to "benefit" Donald Trump's re-election prospects.

If Kilimnik's name sounds at all familiar, it's partly because he's one of the stars of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report, and partly because this Russian intelligence officer is a longtime associate of Paul Manafort, Trump's former campaign chairman.

Indeed, remember when Manafort shared sensitive internal campaign information with a Russian operative during the 2016 race? The head of Trump's political operation was feeding the information directly to Kilimnik -- the same guy who also tried to help keep Trump in power last year.

As for the bigger picture, the new report from the intelligence community is amazingly straightforward in its conclusions:

"We assess that President Putin and the Russian state authorized and conducted influence operations against the 2020 US presidential election aimed at denigrating President Biden and the Democratic Party, supporting former President Trump, undermining public confidence in the electoral process, and exacerbating sociopolitical divisions in the US. Unlike in 2016, we did not see persistent Russian cyber efforts to gain access to election infrastructure. We have high confidence in these judgments because a range of Russian state and proxy actors who all serve the Kremlin's interests worked to affect US public perceptions. We also have high confidence because of the consistency of themes in Russia's influence efforts across the various influence actors and throughout the campaign, as well as in Russian leaders' assessments of the candidates. A key element of Moscow's strategy this election cycle was its use of people linked to Russian intelligence to launder influence narratives including misleading or unsubstantiated allegations against President Biden-through US media organizations, US officials, and prominent US individuals, some of whom were close to former President Trump and his administration.

U.S. intelligence officials further found that Russia's "primary effort" focused on falsely accusing Biden of Ukrainian-based corruption -- a popular Republican talking point throughout 2020.

The same report found that Kilimnik, Andriy Derkach, a pro-Russian member of Ukraine's Parliament, and others "sought to use prominent US persons and media conduits to launder their narratives to US officials and audiences. These Russian proxies met with and provided materials to Trump administration-linked US persons to advocate for formal investigations; hired a US firm to petition US officials; and attempted to make contact with several senior US officials. They also made contact with established US media figures and helped produce a documentary that aired on a US television network in late January 2020."

If it sounds to you like Republicans enthusiastically embraced a Russian disinformation campaign last year, promoting garbage pushed by the Kremlin, it's not your imagination.