In recent weeks, Trump administration officials have described attempts by Russia to undermine Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. Yet, contrary to official statements and actions by his own officials, President Donald Trump said that Russia “probably” wants Biden to win.
The president made his remarks during a Sept. 15 interview on “Fox & Friends.”
Trump, Sept. 15: And China is hoping that Biden gets in. Russia? Probably they want Biden, because, look, nobody’s been tougher to Russia than me. Nobody.
Later in the day, at a joint White House appearance with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump repeated his remark about Russia.
“There is nothing [Iran] or China or, probably, Russia would like better than to have Sleepy Joe Biden become the president, because if Sleepy Joe won, they would own the United States, all of them,” he said.
Russia, of course, “interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion” to help elect Trump, as detailed in a report last year by special counsel Robert S. Mueller.
And Russia appears to be at it again.
On Aug. 7, National Counterintelligence and Security Center Director William Evanina issued an “election threat update” that said: “Russia is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden.” The intelligence assessment also said that “[s]ome Kremlin-linked actors are also seeking to boost President Trump’s candidacy on social media and Russian television.”
Russia’s opposition to Biden is tied to his “role in the Obama Administration’s policies on Ukraine and its support for the anti-Putin opposition inside Russia,” the report said.
Evanina’s release gave one example of how Russia is helping to “undermine” Biden’s campaign.
NCSC press release, Aug. 7: For example, pro-Russia Ukrainian parliamentarian Andriy Derkach is spreading claims about corruption – including through publicizing leaked phone calls – to undermine former Vice President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party.
A little more than a month later, the Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Derkach and three other Russian agents “for attempting to influence the U.S. electoral process.”
In a Sept. 10 release, Treasury identified Derkach as “an active Russian agent for over a decade” who has been spreading “false and unsubstantiated narratives” since last year as part of a “covert influence campaign” against “U.S. officials in the upcoming 2020 Presidential Election.”
Although no U.S. officials were named in its release, the Treasury Department provided details that identify Biden as one of those officials. Specifically, Treasury said that between May and July 2020 Derkach “released edited audio tapes and other unsupported information with the intent to discredit U.S. officials, and he levied unsubstantiated allegations against U.S. and international political figures.”
In May, Derkach released audio tapes of conversations between Biden and former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, in an attempt to advance a discredited narrative that Biden improperly pressured Poroshenko to remove Ukraine’s top prosecutor for personal reasons. As we have written, Trump made the same baseless accusations about Biden in a Fox News interview and a TV ad.
Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, had worked with Derkach in an attempt to uncover material damaging to Biden. After Derkach was sanctioned by the Treasury Department, Giuliani told NPR that “my work with [Derkach] was over months ago.”
In addition to Derkach, the Treasury Department sanctioned Russian nationals Artem Lifshits, Anton Andreyev and Darya Aslanova — all employees of the Internet Research Agency, a Russian government online propaganda agency that played a major role in Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
In February 2018, the IRA, two Russian companies and 13 Russian nationals were indicted for waging an extensive social media influence campaign to help Trump in the 2016 election against then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The U.S. indictment said that the IRA and other defendants in April 2016 “began to produce, purchase, and post advertisements on U.S. social media and other online sites expressly advocating for the election of then-candidate Trump or expressly opposing Clinton.”
The interference operation was known as “Project Lakhta,” according to the indictment.
On Sept. 10 — the same day that Treasury sanctioned Derkach and the three other Russian agents — the Department of Justice announced that one of those sanctioned, Lifshits, had been charged with wire fraud conspiracy. Lifshits “serves as a manager in ‘Project Lakhta,’ a Russia-based effort to engage in political and electoral interference operations,” the Justice Department said.
The latest criminal complaint said that Project Lakhta members “continue to use social media platforms … to sow discord in the United States,” citing social media posts “since August 2019 up until the present” on divisive issues, such as “the Second Amendment, Black Lives Matters, and LGBTQ issues.”
That is also what the IRA did in 2016, when it worked to help Trump, according to the special counsel’s report. “[T]he IRA created accounts in the names of fictitious U.S. organizations and grassroots groups and used these accounts to pose as anti-immigration groups, Tea Party activists, Black Lives Matter protestors, and other U.S. social and political activists,” the report said.
As in 2016, the latest Russian attempts at election interference are part of a covert operation. The criminal complaint says that Project Lakhta members “are using sophisticated methods to obfuscate the origins of their social media activity, including the use of virtual private servers, software enabling anonymous communications, and single use or ‘burner’ email accounts linked to social media accounts.”
As for Trump’s claim that China wants Biden to win, it is true that Evanina’s Aug. 7 statement said the U.S. intelligence officials assess that “China prefers that President Trump … not win reelection.” But there was no mention in the statement about Chinese covert actions to undermine Trump. Instead, Evanina said the U.S. intelligence assessment is based on China’s “public rhetoric over the past few months,” which “has grown increasingly critical of the current Administration’s COVID-19 response, closure of China’s Houston Consulate, and actions on other issues.”
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