National Security

Senator Endorses Intel on Russia (Except the Part About Trump)

The Senate Intelligence Committee's update on Kremlin interference wasn't much of an update.

They've got answers. You've got questions.

Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Leaving aside the bloviating protests of President Donald Trump, there are two ways to understand Russia's influence campaign against the 2016 election.

The first is obvious. The Russians tried to elect Trump. You don't need access to top-secret U.S. government documents to reach this conclusion. It happened in real time. Russians hacked the emails of leading Democrats and distributed them on the internet. Trump touted the disclosures in the final weeks of the campaign.

The other explanation of Russian meddling is that it was more insidious. The Russians aimed to undermine the public's faith in the electoral system itself. This is what former FBI director James Comey told the House Intelligence Committee early this year. He said the Russian hacks were "unusually loud," and that they "wanted us to see what they were doing." In this sense, the Russian operation succeeds by persuading voters that the vote was rigged, no matter who wins.

The intelligence community assessment of Russian electoral influence released by the Obama administration on Jan. 6 endorses both views. It says one aim of the Russian operation was to undermine "public faith in the U.S. democratic process." It also concludes the Russians helped try to elect Trump.

On Wednesday, the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Richard Burr, muddied the waters. On the one hand he said, "We trust the conclusions" of the Jan. 6 assessment, though he added the caveat that the committee had not yet closed its consideration of the matter. 

On the other hand Burr said he was still agnostic on whether Russia tried to help elect Trump. Indeed, a component of the Russian influence operation -- its purchase of advertisements on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter -- suggests their main goal was to sow chaos. When asked by a reporter about Russia's preference for Trump, he said: "We have not come to any determination on collusion or Russia's preferences. If we use solely the social media we have seen, there is no way you can say this was to help the right side of the political divide or vice versa." 

It's hard to square that answer with Burr's remarks that the committee trusts the conclusions of intelligence community assessment. The first bullet point of that document says: "Putin and the Russian government aspired to help President-elect Trump's election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him."

It's likely that the Russians initially hoped to simply undermine the election, but then modified their strategy as Trump gained momentum. 

There's an important lesson here for Democrats. Russia's intelligence agencies have no allegiance to either major U.S. political party. The next candidate Russia decides to help could be one of their own.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net

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