Trump and Russia echo in presidential race


An hour after his rally began Thursday night in a Pittsburgh suburb, President Trump criticized states for expanding mail-in voting, a familiar target for his re-election campaign.“These postal ballots are a disgrace, and they know it,” he scoffs.

But Trump isn’t the only one trying to undermine confidence in mail-order votes. U.S. officials say a Russian disinformation campaign sends the same disruptive message to Americans four years after the Kremlin sought to help Trump win the White House.

A Homeland Security intelligence bulletin released hours before Trump spoke in Latrobe, Pa., Warned that a Moscow-backed operation involving state media and proxy websites had “denigrated voting processes by mail, alleging that they lacked transparency and procedural control, creating vast opportunities. for electoral fraud. ”

U.S. officials say the Russian operation includes false claims that the health of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden is in dire straits and that he acted inappropriately in Ukraine when he was vice president. Trump made the same allegations.

The overlap of messages between Trump’s rhetoric and Russian disinformation echoes in some ways the symbiotic relationship between the president’s first White House candidacy and Russian intelligence in the 2016 election.

Special Advocate Robert S. Mueller III spent nearly two years investigating these links, ultimately concluding that Trump and his key aides welcomed Russia’s release of hacked Democratic Party emails but failed to coordinate. not necessarily actively with Moscow.

Representative Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said Russian disinformation could accelerate if the November 3 election is near and it would take days or more to compile the results.

“You can imagine it will be even more treacherous in the wake of the election as the ballots are being counted,” he said in a telephone interview on Friday.

Schiff said Moscow’s election interference “looks a lot like what it was” four years ago.

“The Russians were not dissuaded,” he said. “If anything, they were prompted by the president to continue to agitate on his behalf.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, with President Trump, left, at their joint press conference at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland two years ago.

(Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)

It doesn’t matter whether Russia relies on Trump’s rhetoric, or if Trump exploits messages coming from Moscow, argued Marc Polymeropoulos, who retired from the CIA last year after overseeing clandestine operations in Europe and in Russia.

The president is “a shrewd collaborator in a Russian disinformation campaign,” he said.

Trump and the Russian operation both seek to raise doubts about the integrity of U.S. mail-in ballots, for example.

In August, Russian state media and proxy websites falsely claimed that “ineligible voters could receive ballots due to outdated voter lists, leaving a large number of ballots counted and vulnerable to voting. forgery, ”the Homeland Security Intelligence Bulletin noted.

Although the ballot did not cite examples, the Russian English-language Sputnik website also suggested that mail ballots would lead to rampant fraud.

Trump went further into Latrobe, claiming the ballots were addressed to dogs.

“The lists are inaccurate and people died and the dogs got ballots – they did,” he said. “The dogs got ballots and they know I’m right and everyone knows I’m right.”

There is no evidence of material fraud involving postal ballots. Trump and his wife vote by mail in Florida.

Robert C. O’Brien, the president’s national security adviser, did not respond directly to a White House press briefing on Friday when asked if Trump was amplifying Russian disinformation.

“It doesn’t matter what these countries want,” he said. “Any country that attempts to interfere with free and fair elections in the United States must be stopped.”

Tim Murtaugh, a spokesperson for Trump’s re-election effort, dismissed questions about Russian aid. “President Trump will beat Joe Biden in a fair and equitable manner, and we don’t need or want any foreign interference,” he said.

Facebook and Twitter have stepped up efforts to identify and remove fake or proxy accounts used by foreign influence operations. The two social media sites recently dismantled a network designed to promote stories from Peace Data, a fake news website connected to the Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg-based troll farm.

Nina Jankowicz, who studies disinformation at the Wilson Center, a non-partisan Washington think tank, said Trump’s constant stream of lies and unproven allegations has weakened defenses against outside interference.

“It makes us more vulnerable to Russian disinformation by floating these conspiracies from the highest office in the country,” she said.

Federal law prohibits foreign interference in a US election. Paul S. Ryan, vice chairman of Common Cause, an advocacy group that seeks tighter enforcement of campaign finance laws, compared Trump’s treatment of Russians to how a campaign would try to escape to the rules against coordination with a super PAC.

“The candidate, just in a public forum, announces what would be useful in a campaign,” Ryan said. “And then they hear it, and they act on it.”

He added: “I think it is outrageous that a candidate for public office in the United States even considers, let alone act, encouraging foreign interference in our elections.”

The Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee recently released a report concluding that Trump’s campaign capitalized on Russian aid in 2016.

“Trump campaign staff have requested advance notice of WikiLeaks releases, created messaging strategies to promote and share the documents in anticipation and post release, and encouraged further leaks,” the report said.

The Trump campaign, the Senate committee added, was “indifferent to whether it and WikiLeaks favored a Russian electoral interference effort.”

For his part, Trump downplayed or denied Moscow’s latest attempts to meddle in US politics even as he acknowledged the growing concern of others.

“I hear it’s starting again,” he told Latrobe. “Russia, Russia, Russia.”


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