President Donald Trump and his supporters on social media are citing unverified “Russian intelligence” from 2016 as evidence that Hillary Clinton “was behind the entire Russian collusion hoax.” But that so-called intelligence is largely a reflection of publicly available information at the time. Federal investigations since then have documented multiple links between Trump associates and individuals tied to the Russian government.
Hillary Clinton ran for president four years ago, but dubious claims about her continue to churn as the Trump administration rekindles allegations that ties between the president’s 2016 campaign and Russia are part of a “hoax.”
One such claim arose shortly before the first presidential debate on Sept. 29. Clinton, of course, is not a candidate. But Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe wrote a one-page letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham on the day of the debate that said “Russian intelligence” in July 2016 had claimed that Clinton “approved a campaign plan to stir up a scandal against U.S. Presidential candidate Donald Trump by tying him to Putin and the Russians’ hacking of the Democratic National Committee.”
Ratcliffe followed with an important caveat, writing that the U.S. intelligence community “does not know the accuracy of this allegation or the extent to which the Russian intelligence analysis may reflect exaggeration or fabrication.”
Despite that unverified and questionable provenance, partisan websites and social media pages seized on the claim as proof that Clinton was responsible for the appearance of links between the Trump campaign and Russia. President Donald Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., was among those who initially spread it on social media, saying, “The Russia hoax was Hillary’s plan.”
In reality, the connections between Trump campaign associates and individuals tied to the Russian government during the 2016 election have been well documented in reports from special counsel Robert S. Mueller and the Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee. Both found evidence that justified the investigation into those ties, although neither report found evidence of a criminal conspiracy.
“In sum, the investigation established multiple links between Trump Campaign officials and individuals tied to the Russian government. Those links included Russian offers of assistance to the Campaign. In some instances, the Campaign was receptive to the offer, while in other instances the Campaign officials shied away,” the Mueller report said. “Ultimately, the investigation did not establish that the Campaign coordinated or conspired with the Russian government in its election-interference activities.”
The Senate report, which was released Aug. 18, detailed former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s connections to Russia and Ukraine, and found “his high-level access and willingness to share information with individuals closely affiliated with the Russian intelligence services … represented a grave counterintelligence threat.”
Manafort was one of six men involved with Trump’s 2016 campaign who have either pleaded guilty or been found guilty of crimes uncovered during the Mueller probe.
It is also well documented that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered computer networks and accounts related to the Democratic Party to be hacked in order to leak damaging information about Clinton and help Trump’s campaign. A joint assessment by the CIA, FBI and the National Security Agency resulted in a 2017 report that detailed the extent of the Russian influence campaign.
WikiLeaks released the information hacked by Russian government intelligence operatives and, according to the final volume of the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report, “the Trump Campaign sought to maximize the impact of those leaks to aid Trump’s electoral prospects.”
The committee report said: “Staff on the Trump Campaign sought advance notice about WikiLeaks releases, created messaging strategies to promote and share the materials in anticipation of and following their release, and encouraged further leaks.”
Campaign officials looked to Trump’s longtime associate and adviser Roger Stone for insights about WikiLeaks’ plans to release information, and Stone would relay his purported knowledge to Trump or senior aides, according to the report. The committee, however, couldn’t “reliably determine the extent of authentic, non-public knowledge about WikiLeaks that Stone obtained.”
Neither the Mueller report nor the Senate Intelligence Committee report suggest that Clinton orchestrated any of this.
But on Oct. 6, a week after his letter to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Ratcliffe, who served as a Republican congressman from Texas until he became the director of national intelligence on May 26, said the president instructed him to declassify “additional documents.”
Trump took to Twitter the same day, announcing: “I have fully authorized the total Declassification of any & all documents pertaining to the single greatest political CRIME in American History, the Russia Hoax. Likewise, the Hillary Clinton Email Scandal. No redactions!”
So far, this has included a heavily redacted memorandum from the CIA to the FBI and two pages of heavily redacted notes that former CIA director John Brennan had taken in 2016.
According to Ratcliffe’s letter, Brennan’s notes said that the Russian intelligence analysis included the “alleged approval by Hillary Clinton on July 26, 2016, of a proposal from one of her foreign policy advisers to vilify Donald Trump by stirring up a scandal claiming interference by Russian security services.”
Brennan dismissed the publication of those documents as being politically motivated. In an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper, he called Ratcliffe’s move “selective declassification” that is “designed to advance the political interests of Donald Trump and Republicans who are aligned with him.”
Brennan explained, “These were my notes from the 2016 period when I briefed President Obama and the rest of the national security council team about what the Russians were up to and I was giving examples of the type of access that the US intelligence community had to Russian information and what the Russians were talking about and alleging.”
But what “the Russians were talking about” in late July 2016 merely reflected what was playing out in public at that time.
In mid-June of 2016, the Democratic National Committee disclosed its servers had been hacked and the firm it hired to analyze the breach traced the hack to Russia. On July 22, 2016, WikiLeaks released nearly 20,000 DNC emails, and two days later Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook said in an interview with CNN that the timing of the release — shortly before the Democratic National Convention — suggested that Russia was trying to help Trump’s campaign.
At a July 27, 2016, press conference, Trump said he doubted that Russia was responsible for hacking the DNC computer network, but invited Russia to find Clinton’s personal emails that had been deleted before she left office. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he said.
Four days later, Clinton suggested in an interview on Fox News Sunday that Russia was helping Trump.
“We know that Russian intelligence services hacked into the DNC and we know that they arranged for a lot of those emails to be released and we know that Donald Trump has shown a very troubling willingness to back up Putin, to support Putin,” she said.
Clinton’s campaign also criticized Trump’s call for the Russian government to “find” her emails.
But that’s not a scandal that Clinton “stirred up.” She was responding to Russia’s actions and Trump’s words.
There is no evidence that she was responsible for the federal counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign ties with Russia. The fact is, multiple federal reports, including the Mueller and Senate reports, trace the origins of the investigation to Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos.
As we have written, the Department of Justice’s inspector general said the FBI launched its investigation after Papadopoulos told a “Friendly Foreign Government” (an Australian diplomat in London, according to the New York Times) that the campaign had received information about Russia having dirt on Clinton.
So, claims like this one — “Hillary Clinton was behind the entire Russian collusion hoax all along” — made by Republican Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, along with a call to “#LockHerUp,” are unfounded.
But that hasn’t stopped such claims from spreading. Collins’ original tweet was shared more than 14,000 times, and a conservative group called FreedomWorks made the quote into a meme that’s been shared tens of thousands of times on Facebook.
Other major Trump allies are spreading similar messages.
Kayleigh McEnany, the White House press secretary, wrote on Facebook, with a link to the Fox News story about Brennan’s declassified notes, “CROOKED Hillary denied our country a peaceful transition of power. SHE concocted the Russia hoax!”
Anti-Muslim activist Brigitte Gabriel asked for “nationally televised hearings about how the Russian probe was a HOAX.” And Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida claimed on Facebook, “The Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Hillary Clinton regime completely fabricated the Russia hoax. It was all FAKE.”
All of those assertions ignore the findings of multiple federal investigations and they eschew confirmed U.S. intelligence in favor of unverified Russian intelligence.
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Ratcliffe, John. Director of National Intelligence. Letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham. Judiciary.senate.gov. 29 Sep 2020.
Trump, Donald Jr. (@DonaldJTrumpJr). “OMG JUST DECLASSIFIED: The Russia hoax was Hillary’s plan, and the Obama-Biden White House was briefed on it.” Twitter. 29 Sep 2020.
Mueller, Robert S. III. “Report On The Investigation Into Russian Interference In The 2016 Presidential Election.” U.S. Department of Justice. Mar 2019.
U.S. Senate. Select Committee on Intelligence. Report on Russian Active Measures, Campaigns and Interference in the 2016 U.S. Election. 2020.
Office of the Director of National Intelligence. Background to “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections”: The Analytic Process and Cyber Incident Attribution. 6 Jan 2017.
Singman, Brooke. “DNI declassifies Brennan notes, CIA memo on Hillary Clinton ‘stirring up’ scandal between Trump, Russia.” Fox News. 6 Oct 2020.
Trump, Donald (@realDonaldTrump). “I have fully authorized the total Declassification of any & all documents pertaining to the single greatest political CRIME in American History, the Russia Hoax. Likewise, the Hillary Clinton Email Scandal. No redactions!” Twitter. 6 Oct 2020.
Cohen, Zachary and Alex Marquardt. “Former CIA director accuses intel chief of selectively declassifying documents to help Trump.” CNN. 6 Oct 2020.
Kiely, Eugene. “Timeline of Russia Investigation.” FactCheck.org. Updated 20 Feb 2020.
C-SPAN (@cspan). “Donald Trump: ‘Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.’” Twitter. 27 Jul 2016.
Kiely, Eugene, et al. “How Old Claims Compare to IG Report.” FactCheck.org. 10 Dec 2019.