A fully integrated operation combined Trump's digital campaign and Russia's Internet Research Agency
In November, the special counsel’s office filed court documents stating that Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort had breached his plea arrangement with that office. In connection with that filing, both the government and Manafort’s attorneys have filed a series of documents. In the process, a number of items have come to light (including that Manafort’s attorneys don’t know how to use redaction).
What’s also emerged is that Manafort’s actions in support of the Trump campaign included traveling to Europe, meeting with Russian operative Konstantin Kilimnik, and providing him with internal polling data from the Trump campaign. The Russians clearly placed a high value on this information, or Manafort would not have offered it to them. It seems very likely that Russia used information collected by the digital operations team at the Trump campaign to feed and refine its models for social media operations—data that could easily include stolen information used by Cambridge Analytica.
Most recently, the special counsel’s office produced a response running to over 180 pages. Unfortunately for those wanting a peek, Mueller’s team does know how to use the redacted feature, resulting in pages that look a lot like this.
So much of the document is redacted that it sometimes feels as if the few words left visible are only there for the amusement of the attorneys marking up the document, an intentional tease for the would-be reader. But amidst all of these black bars and many, many pages that simply bear the word “redacted,” there’s one section that suggests, not for the first time, that the flow of information between the Trump campaign and Russia’s Internet Research Agency wasn’t simply a matter of Manafort dropping off some data in Madrid. Or even the occasional meeting in Trump Tower. It suggests that the Trump campaign’s digital operations and Russia’s efforts on behalf of the Republican candidate were combined in a closely integrated operation.
The opening of this suggests that it might pin Manafort as the author of the Republican platform plank on Ukraine. That’s still possible. There are also dates in this section that point to something happening after the election—happening, in fact, in early 2018. Manafort had already been indicted in the fall of 2017, and the purpose of the government’s document was to show instances in which Manafort lied to prosecutors. So the two dates in 2018 seem to be instances in which Manafort passed along false information. But underlying those lies is the information that Manafort “told the government that he was primarily responsible for drafting” … something. And at the bottom of this section, there’s a clue about what that something might be. Because one of the things Manafort provided was someone’s notes on a draft of “a survey.” Immediately following this, the next sentence indicates “Several of the questions in the ...”
Manafort was responsible for something. That something was described as a survey. It included questions.
It’s not much, but it’s enough to suggest that Manafort might not have been simply passing along polling data requested by the Russians. He may have been bringing back questions from the Russians to run through the digital operations assembled between the campaign’s digital operations under Brad Parscale and the data-crunching engines of Cambridge Analytica, created by Steve Bannon and Republican mega-donors Robert and Rebekah Mercer.
Even if the heavily redacted section is a red herring, it’s just one of several items showing that Russia’s Internet Research Agency and Trump’s digital operations weren’t ships that passed in the night. They were massive psychological-warfare engines that got together in the dark and aimed directly at the American public.
Trump’s digital coordinator, Brad Parscale, who is now the chair of Trump’s 2020 campaign, bragged about the effectiveness of Cambridge Analytica and its “psychographic targeting.” For the Trump campaign, being able to run its data through Cambridge’s engine allowed it to aim media buys and email campaigns directly at the voters most likely to flip in the regions most likely to prove vital. And Parscale had more than just Cambridge’s big-data tools at hand.
Republican strategist Aaron Nevins, working with Russian hackers going by the handle Guciffer 2.0, identified Democratic get-out-the-vote campaign plans in documents stolen from the DNC by Russian hackers. Nevins made this information available to both Russia and Republican campaigns in the United States, improving the effectiveness of their outreach—particularly when it came to suppressing Democratic votes, which was a major focus for both Trump and Russia.
It’s clear that the Russians used this information in their vote-suppression campaign, using the placement of ads and even boots-on-the-ground protests staged by kosmo-turf organizations in areas where they could lower support for Hillary Clinton. At the same time, they were able to place both pro-Trump information and information designed to inflame fears over immigration and racial issues in regions that were potential sources of votes for Trump. Their program was three-pronged: suppress votes among the Democratic base, drive up anger and fear among Trump’s base, and target marginal votes, often by showing them racially-tinged imagery and statements created by one of their false organizations.
The Russian operations did things that were clearly illegal, or at least out of the bounds of normal political campaigning, creating thousands of false social media accounts and tens of thousands of ‘bot-driven accounts; creating hundreds of false organizations that pretended to be everyone from Black Lives Matters to injured veterans; creating pop-up news sites that mimicked real sites like NBC or ABC but slipped in stories that heightened fears about Hillary Clinton or presented false endorsements for Trump. They did the dirty work of the Trump campaign, allowing Parscale and Trump to run their website, make their ad buys, and claim that their effectiveness was all in the genius of their modeling
More than a year ago, Vanity Fair noted the uncanny level of targeting from Russian operations that should have been data-poor when it comes to the kind of information that parties, and campaigns, spend years collecting, noting that “Analysts scoff at the notion that the Russians figured out how to target African-Americans and women in decisive precincts in Wisconsin and Michigan all by themselves.” Manafort was providing data to the Russians, and there’s no doubt the reason they wanted that data was exactly for the reasons that many speculated about in 2017. Trump campaign data, complete not just with internal polls, but with the numbers-crunching of Cambridge Analytica and the stolen data pointed out by Aaron Nevins, fueled the Russian targeting effort, giving their outreach added heft and effectiveness. And of course the Russians had all the data collected by the Republican Party, which was available to Trump once he became the nominee. In essence, the Russians were able to identify their targets based on information from both parties, plus anything else they or the Trump campaign picked up, or stole, along the way. And then, on top of it all, they had the engine created by Cambridge Analytica for the express purpose of “election inoculation.”
The document excerpt suggesting that Manafort was also involved in crafting polling questions could be a red herring. In fact, based on its connection to questions about Manafort’s work after the campaign, it very likely is unrelated.
But that doesn’t change the relationship. The Trump campaign provided the data and the analysis. The Russians provided their expertise in disinformation and deception. And both of them celebrated the victory over America.