Author’s note: I wrote this during the 2016 DNC because I was horrified at the lack of attention the Russia angle was getting. The names, deals, companies, events, and issues that I then wrote demanded attention—attention they scarcely got during the 2016 election, something for which the mainstream press has yet to take any meaningful responsibility—have now been dominating the headlines during the Trump Administration, particularly since Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe began and even more so as it has progressed. My conclusion below (and in the image just under this intro) from July, 2016 is particularly telling and is now the emerging pundit-class analysis in January 2019. But in 2016, I was one of only a handful of journalists screaming that these issues warranted far more coverage, and I was obviously far, far ahead of most mainstream outlets.
A close look at the tangled web of relationships involving Trump, his Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort, his campaign in general, Putin, Russia, and WikiLeaks in light of the DNC and Clinton-aimed related hacking is not reassuring. Trump is fond of using the phrase: “There’s something going on!” when he wants to imply a scandal without going into detail. Well, “There’s something going on” here and we will go into detail in this in-depth special report, more than any single article you will find anywhere, period. Here is the one article to read on Trump, Putin, the Russian hacks, and political cyberwarfare in election 2016.
Originally published on LinkedIn Pulse July 30/31, 2016, with major updates August 8 and 15, 2016
See major follow-up pieces: November 4, 2016 EXCLUSIVE: Top Trump Aides’ Deeper & Linked Roles in Putin Agenda Revealed; Russian Mafia Nexus With Trump & Aides Goes Back Years
Also, see his related piece from December 7, 2016: The (First) Russo-American Cyberwar: How Obama Lost & Putin Won, Ensuring a Trump Victory
Andrew Harnik/AP; Reuters; The Washington Post
AMMAN — When it comes to President Obama, Donald Trump is very fond of saying“There’s something going on!”, often in relation to the president’s views on, responses to, and efforts to fight Islamic terrorism, and most recently, regarding his body language…
Well, we can return Donald the courtesy: there’s something going on with Trump, Putin, Russia, WikLeaks, the DNC/Clinton hack/reveal, and the 2016 election, up to an including the possibility of some kind of secret deal between Putin and Trump or between some of their people, though Putin acting without coordination with Trump’s campaign—trying to undermine America and weaken America’s global standing and its position with its allies, most notably NATO allies—is also very much a possibility; so is some sort of combination of these.
Maybe this sounds ridiculous, and it should. But the facts of Trump and his associates’ ties to Putin and Russia are what are most disturbing of all.
As with any complicated situation, the best place to begin is the beginning…
Trump’s Business History with Russia & Russians:There’s Something Going On!
Starting in the 1980s, Trump began both seeking business opportunities in Russia, including a 1987 trip to Moscow and Leningrad, and began taking money from Russian investors, to the degree that, by 2008 his, one of his sons, Donald Jr., was able to remark to a business conference that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our [the Trump Organization’s] assets,” and that “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” Trump made numerous other trips to Russia since his first in 1987, as did Donald Jr., to pursue business interests there, exploring a variety of ventures. Trump’s business partners in one deal went to Moscow to sell Russian investors condos in 2006, and in 2008 Trump sold Russian oligarch Dmitry Rybolovlev a Palm Beach mansion for $95 million. Donald Jr. alone made over a half-dozen trips during the financial and sub-prime mortgage crises that began in 2008, when Russia was on the Trump Organization’s “A-list” for potential real estate deals.
Around this time, Trump also went into a deal structured to deprive the U.S. government of tens of millions of dollars in legitimate tax revenue that involved the construction and financing of Trump’s marquee SoHo property in New York City. The main partner driving this project was Bayrock, a company run by Tevfik Arif, a man who in the Soviet-era was an economic official for the USSR. His point man for the deal, Felix Sater, was a convicted Russian mobster; financing involved money from an Iceland firm known for drawing money from Putin-linked Russians (FL Group), as well as from a financier hailing from the former Soviet Republic of Kazakhstan named Alexander Mashkevich, who had been charged in a corruption case but settled in exchange for not having to admit any wrongdoing. Trump recalled only light, possible interaction with Sater, but evidence shows that Sater worked closely with Trump on the deal, as did Arif, who personally set trump up with Russian investors. The other major partner in the deal was from the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, one Tamir Sapir.
The deal did not go well. Trump was sued for defrauding buyers of condo units in the SoHo because he and his children Ivanka and Eric had falsely inflated the level of buyer interest, and settled late in 2011, refunding 90% of $3.16 million in deposits on condos, though not admitting that he or the Trump Organization had done anything wrong. Arif was later arrested in Turkey, charged with running a prostitution ring from a yacht in a situation that involved Mashkevich, but was later acquitted, though the details of the case remain murky. As for Sater, he was later brought into the Trump Organization, being given a business card that named him a “Senior Advisor to Donald Trump,” years after Trump is publicly said to have been aware of his earlier criminal record.
Perhaps most famously, in 2013, Trump even brought his Miss Universe beauty pageant to Moscow, invited Russian President Vladimir to the pageant, and publicly speculated on a new friendship between himself and the Russian president should Putin attend; a meeting was set up for the two men, and though Putin canceled just before the meeting, he sent a Trump a traditional Russian gift with a “warm” written message. In attendance of both the pageant an afterparty at a Moscow nightclub were many of Russia’s notorious business oligarchs, mingling with Trump, discussing potential future deals.
He Said, He Said: There’s Something Going On!
Fast forward two years later, to when Trump announced his candidacy for the U.S. presidency, and Putin and Trump have had something of a lovefest: neither has opted to criticize the other, instead choosing to hurl compliments at each other from opposite sides of the world:
Trump remarked last September that: “I will tell you that, in terms of leadership, he’s getting an “A” and our president is not doing so well.”
Trump also said: “I think that I would probably get along with him [Putin] very well. And I don’t think you’d be having the kind of problems that you’re having right now.”
Trump also released a statement praising Putin as “a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond” and that “I have always felt that Russia and the United States should be able to work well with each other towards defeating terrorism and restoring world peace, not to mention trade and all of the other benefits derived from mutual respect.”
When Putin said nice things about Trump, Trump said those compliments were an “honor.”
Trump also said he would not denounce Putin: “A guy calls me a genius, and I’m going to renounce?” and that “I’m not going to renounce him.”
Putin on Trump:
Putin recently said of Trump that “He is a bright and talented person without any doubt” and “an outstanding and talented personality.”
In response to Trump’s stated desire to improve U.S.-Russian relations, Putin remarked “What else can we do but to welcome it? Certainly, we welcome it.”
Putin also referred to Trump as “the absolute leader of the presidential race.”
When pushed on his compliments on Trump, Putin slyly doubled down and reiterated them.
The Russian Press on Trump
But it’s not just Putin saying nice things about Trump: Putin’s massive media propaganda machine now seems to have swung solidly behind Trump and his candidacy as well, lavishing praise on him across the boardwhile it clearly does not favor Clinton and demonizes her.
Putin’s choice in 2016 is clear: he dislikes Clinton and prefers Trump.
Trump’s Positions More Favorable to Russia than Any Other Candidate: There’s Something Going On!
In addition, Trump has put forward policies closer to the Kremlin’s policies than any other major candidate for the presidency. Notably:
Trump is against the U.S. taking a large role in helping Ukraine defend itself against Russian aggression, and his campaign people also aggressively saw to it that language calling for the U.S. government to supply arms to the Ukrainian government to help it defend itself against “Russia’s ongoing military aggression in Ukraine” and expressing American “admiration and support” for Ukraine in this struggle was removed from the 2016 Republican Party platform, shortly before the Republican National Convention, removing stances that virtually all Republican national security and foreign policy leaders shared; factoring in that the Trump campaign was pretty agnostic when it came to the platform in general, this is indeed curious (Trump’s people have distinctly avoided going into detailed or adequate explanations for this decision). Trump also just recently said at a press conference that he is considering lifting sanctions on Russia and recognizing its annexation of Crimea.
Trump also doesn’t think that there is enough evidence to blame Russia for the downing of MH17.
Trump defended Putin against accusations that he was behind the murders of numerous Russian journalists critical of Putin.
But ties to Russia in the Trump campaign don’t end with Trump and his family.
How Paul Manafort, Agent of Despots, Gave Ukraine to Putin, & Manafort’s Other Russian Ties: There’s Something Going On!
The Daily Beast
Trump’s Campaign Chairman, Paul Manafort, is a notorious spin doctor for Third World dictators, a leader of the “torturer’s lobby” who represented and lobbied for a true rogue’s gallery, including the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s (then Zaire’s) Mobutu Sese Seko, the Philippines’ Ferdinand Marcos, Somalia’s Siad Barre, Sani Abacha of Nigeria, and Kenya’s Daniel arap Moi; other clients include Jonas Savimbi, the leader of the Angolan human-rights-abusing rebel guerilla group UNITA, and the Kashmiri American Council: a front for the terrorist-dealing Pakistani government intelligence service ISI that had helped create the Taliban, among other nefarious dealings.
Manafort has also had dealings with Russian business oligarch and Putin ally Oleg Deripaska going back to 2005 on a project to help Montenegro secure independence from Serbia, a move that would help Deripaska economically but also advance Russian interests in extending Russian influence into Montenegro, which has coastline on the Mediterranean Sea. UPDATE 8/15: Another deal was later put together by Manafort and Deripaska using offshore accounts for almost $19 million, set up to launder money personally to Yanukovych’s and his closest associates to enable them to live like ostentatious royalty. This was the only deal the shell company they set up for it ever orchestrated. Later, Deripaska claimed in 2014 in a Cayman Islands court that Manafort, along with Manafort partner Richard (“Rick”) Gates, took that almost $19 million that was supposed to be invested jointly with Deripaska, but which disappeared without a trace, much like Manafort did at the time; Deripaska, even with the aid of private investigators, was unable to track down Manafort in the years before today, when Manafort emerged to work for Donald Trump. Deripaska is still seeking the money, which he has asked to be returned for eight years running now. Gates also works for Trump’s presidential campaign, and, incidentally, it was Gates whose ultimate responsibility it was to vet and approve Melania Trump’s now infamously plagiarized speech. UPDATE 8/15: Deripaska has also been denied a U.S. entry visa by the State Department on suspicion of being linked to the Russian mob.
Perhaps the most intense story of Manafort’s saga are his business dealings in Ukraine. Manfort’s Ukrainian career officially began over a decade ago when Manafort arrived to serve the interests of Ukrainian billionaire Rinat Akhmetov, then Ukraine’s richest businessman. Akhmetov was a close ally of Viktor Yanukovych, then the country’s prime minister, who was a close ally of Vladimir Putin in a Ukraine whose political fault lines very much ran (and still run) along the ethnic Ukrainian and ethnic Russian divide within Ukraine, with Yanukovych allying with the ethnic Russian camp that feels strongly tied to Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin in particular has a history of trying to manipulate, strong-arm, and dominate Ukrainian politics, with Yanukovych acting as key agent for advancing Russian interests in Ukraine.
Behind the scenes and unofficially, Manafort worked as a campaign consultant for Yanukovych, already surrounded by a cloud of corruption at this time, who was running for Ukraine’s presidency against Viktor Yushchenko in 2004; Yanukovych was running in part on a campaign to stay close with Russia, while Yushchenko was running in part on bringing Ukraine closer to the West. During the campaign, Yushchenko was even poisoned with dioxin and was incredibly lucky to live; the sitting president and Yanukovych colluded to falsify the election’s results, which in reality were a victory for Yushchenko, to hand the win to Yanukovych, who was quickly congratulated by Putin.
But the people roared to the street and independent observers cried fraud, and the Orange Revolution began, in which the Ukrainian Supreme Court sided with Yushchenko, a redo of the election was ordered, and Yushchenko rode a people-powered revolution over the course of about a month to victory (much to Putin’s chagrin). Paul Manafort had worked on behalf of Yanukovych, against democracy, against the overall will of the Ukrainian people.
But Manafort stuck around, helping to resurrect Yanukovych’s career over the course of the following years, sometimes working in direct opposition to express American interests and engineering Yanukovych’s 2010 comeback victory in Ukraine’s presidential election. Manafort even brought in Tad Devine, who would be one of the top senior staffers on Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign, to aid with Yanukovych’s 2010 election campaign, among other people. Manafort also helped to shape the strategy of Yanukovych’s political party, the pro-Russian Party of Regions. UPDATE 8/15: Evidence from Ukraine has emerged that the Party of Regions set aside unreported payments for Manafort for $12.7 million from 2007-2012. The evidence comes from a series of secret handwritten accounting ledgers (the “black ledger”) detailing illegal dealings with political overtones and include Ukrainian political officials. Just for one six-month period in 2012, the payments to all parties reached $66 million. Said one former leader in the Party: “This was our cash…They had it on the table, stacks of money, and they had lists of who to pay.” Overall, Manafort seems to have been one of the main driving forces behind the overall political reversal in Ukraine and return of Yanukovych to power.
Concurrent with much of his work for Yanukovych, Manafort also linked up closely with Ukranian power-broker Dmitry Firtash, who worked closely with Semion (or Seymon) Mogilevich, a godfather of the Russian mafia. But, even more importantly, Firtash was one of Putin’s top agents in Ukraine: Russia’s state-owned gas giant, Gazprom, would sell Firtash huge amounts of gas at a discounted rate, who would then sell that gas to Ukraine for a sizable profit, profit that Firtash funneled to pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine, including—yes—Yanukovych.
On top of this, Firtash used millions out of the billions he made from this scam to partner with Manafort and “a longtime Trump family aide” to hatch an elaborate business venture on prime real estate on New York’s Park Avenue, investing $25 million into the project in 2008; he also set up a $100 million investment fund, which Manafort and his associates were paid $1.5 million to run (that same year, Manafort was considered for the role of McCain’s campaign convention chair, but was not chosen because of these very relationships). This was at a time when Yulia Tymoshenko, who was a partner of Yushchenko during the Orange Revolution and was appointed as the Prime Minister under President Yushchenko, had herself recently returned to power again as Prime Minister, before Yanukovych’s 2010 comeback; Tymoshenko, who had first risen to prominence as a gas tycoon herself, moved to seize Firtash’s gas business assets and cut him out of the gas loop and thus cut off a source of Russian influence in Ukrainian politics. It should, thus, be no surprise that Firtash was suc enthusiastic a supporter of Yanukovych. Once Yanukovych came to power on the back of Manafort’s years of consulting and rehabilitating him, Tymoshenko was imprisoned as a result of a controversial, politically motivated trial (UPDATE 8/15: a trial and imprisonment that Manafort helped Yanukovych’s team publicly defend amid the controversy) while Firtash was awarded back $3 billion in gas assets, also reopening the Kremlin’s gas-scheme line to dominating Ukrainian politics at the expense of Ukrainian interests and sovereignty. In many ways, this set the stage for the 2014 Maidan protests that erupted into the current Ukrainian mess.
Tymoshenko could sense a money laundering scheme in that Park Avenue New York real estate deal, the end state of which never came to be and with much of the money going back to Ukraine, exactly what her government’s actions were trying to prevent; after she was imprisoned, she sued Firtash, Manafort, Mogilevich, and others in New York for racketeering whose proceeds had been used to persecute her, but the suit was dismissed on questions of procedure and jurisdiction; still, the U.S. District Court ruling acknowledged that foul play was indeed going on, that “the Court accepts as true the allegation that some of the money that passed through the U.S. Enterprise was ‘funneled back to Ukraine’ — albeit by unidentified actors — and somehow used as ‘financing’ for Tymoshenko’s ‘persecution.’” Manafort also helped Yanukovych’s team publicly defend its controversial prosecuction and imprisonment of Tymoshenko. (As for Firtash, there is currently a U.S. arrest warrant out for him on bribery charges, and as a result he is living in Austria in exile from Ukraine).
As Yanukovych became ever closer to Putin and tried to steer Ukraine closer to Russia, Manafort’s role was kept quiet and confidentiality agreements were signed, and he profited handsomely from this work (UPDATE 8/15), further made clear by this new New York Times story showing at least $12.7 million in authorized payments. His role in Ukrainian politics over the last few years is even cloudier. UPDATE 8/15: Some of Manafort’s subordinates were still operating in Ukraine even in 2016, and no evidence has come to light that Manafort has formally closed up shop there. But what is clear is that, fed up with the stagnation, corruption, and cronyism of President Yanukovych’s government, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets early in 2014 after he went back on pledges to increase ties to the EU, culminating with Yanukovych fleeing the country with Russian help and a new, more pro-Western government being formed. In response, Yanukovych, in exile in Russia and facing charges in Ukraine, requested Putin intervene militarily in Ukraine. Russia soon invaded, annexed Ukraine’s Crimea region and directly and indirectly assisting separatist rebels in eastern parts of Ukraine, where a state of civil war still exists today.
Both before and after the seismic recent events in Ukraine, Manafort maintained minimal contacts with his American friends and colleagues and avoided responding to media inquiries; for years his location and activities were not known with specificity. One of these colleagues, Roger Stone, a former Nixon advisor and close confidante of Donald Trump, sent an email to other mutual colleagues in the midst Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea early in March 2014 titled “Where is Paul Manafort?” The e-mail then included some options for answers to this question: A.) “Was seen chauffeuring Yanukovych around Moscow,” B.) “Was seen loading gold bullion on an Army Transport plane from a remote airstrip outside Kiev and taking off seconds before a mob arrived at the site,” and C.) “Is playing Golf in Palm Beach.”
If that was exhausting to go through, remember: that was just one person.
The Trump Campaign’s Additional Russian Relationships: There’s Something Going On!
Yes, there are others around Trump with ties to Russia.
Michael Caputo, a leader of Trump’s New York Republican primary campaign, lived in Russia and worked as political consultant there in 1990s, where he at least once butted heads with the U.S. State Department for working against U.S. interests there. When he came back to the U.S. at the end of the decade, he founded a PR firm and, through that firm, helped to lead an effort to improve the then-recently-newly-elected Russian President Vladimir Putin’s public image in the U.S. at a time when he was coming under criticism from the U.S. government for attacking free press in Russia. He has expressed regret for that work for Putin.
Then there is retired General and former Defense Intelligence Agency head Michael Flynn, a foreign policy advisor to Trump who gave an intense pep-rally-style speech at the recent Republican National Convention. In December 2015, he sat near Putin at a Moscow dinner celebrating Russia Today (RT), the international Russian TV network and website funded by the Russian government that is a notorious anti-U.S. propaganda machineadvancing Putin’s agenda. His appearance raised eyebrows, and he was invited to address the dinner, and both RT and Flynn at first declined to answer if he was paid for his speech, though Flynn later deflectively and evasively confirmed that he was. Gen. Flynn has also been a repeat guest on RT’s programming. He is a true hawk when it comes to ISIS and Islamic extremist terrorism, and has issued blistering criticism of the Obama Administration’s counterterrorism strategy for not emphasizing the Islamic nature of the threat (to do so would actually be a very counterproductive move), among other reasons. His strong stance against Islamic terrorism may be a posture that he feels he shares with Putin, and Gen. Flynn is on record advocating closer U.S. ties with Russia, in particular on the issues of Syria and terrorism. August 8th update: interestingly, the Green Party’s candidate for president for 2016, Dr. Jill Stein, also attended the RT gala dinner and proudly advertised this fact on her campaign website, addressed an RT-organized panel before the dinner (begging the question if she was paid by RT for this), and sat at Putin’s table along with Gen. Flynn. She recently suggested Clinton could be worse than Trump and has also been featured heavily on RT, and while in Moscow she very pointedlyand extensively criticized U.S. foreign policy, “American exceptionalism” (similar to Putin’s views on this subject), and U.S. human rights abuses while only offer relatively very muted criticism on the same issues of Russia, if at all.
On to Carter Page, who is another Trump foreign policy advisor. Page used to be the head of Merrill Lynch’s Moscow branch for three years, beginning in 2004, helping to advise the Russian state-run gas behemoth Gazprom. Gazprom was active at this time in Firtash’s political laundering scheme, funneling money to pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine, and throughout this period Firtash was working with Paul Manafort, raising the possibility that Manafort and Page might have connected during this period, even worked together on the Gazprom scheme (such a possibility surely deserves investigative scrutiny).
Today, Page is still an investor in Gazprom and attends its annual investor meeting, and seems to lament the effects of U.S. sanctions on Russia enacted in response to Putin’s invasive military moves in Ukraine. And just this month in Moscow, Page gave a speech heavily criticizing U.S. policy towards Russia that would have been completely in line with the editorial slant of RT, excoriating American “hypocrisy,” actions directed at regime change, and criticism of Russia for corruption, a corruption level that he opined was not any worse than corruption in the U.S. When asked by a Russian student if he really believed that America was a liberal democracy, Page noted with a smile that “I surround the word ‘liberal’ with quotes,” and that ”I tend to agree with you that it’s not always as liberal as it may seem,” concluding with an “I’m with you.”
Shortage of Big U.S. Investors for Trump = Opening for Russian Investment? There’s Something Going On!
Then there is the issue of Trump’s relationships with the banking industry.
Many major U.S. bank won’t lend to Trump anymore; after doing business with him throughout the 1980s and 1990s, today Wall St. banks have “pulled back in part due to frustration with his business practices but also because he moved away from real-estate projects that required financing, according to bank officials,” to quote The Wall Street Journal; these banks include Citigroup, J.P. Morgan Chase, and Morgan Stanley. Additionally, one Goldman Sachs executive noted that its people “know better than to pitch” any deals with the Trump name on them.
One of the banks with which Trump has one of his largest relationships is the German giant Deutsche Bank, which has loaned Trump billions ($2.5 billion in loans and $1 billion in loan guarantees to Trump/Trump-affiliated companies), but executives there, too, have found him difficult to deal with and the relationship has been rockier of late. Deutsche Bank, is, in fact, the only Wall Street bank of a larger scale that still loans to Trump, and overall, he owes “at least” $250 million to banks, mostly small banks.
But it should be noted that Deutsche Bank seems to have had a huge problem when it came to dealing with Russian transactions of an illegal or suspect nature: between 2012 and 2014, some $10 billion was found to have passed through Deutsche Bank from Russia fitting a “suspected money-laundering pattern” due to “systemic” failures of internal safeguards, and it was revealed that bank officials “ignored” or “dismissed” warning signs for a whole year. Included among the people whose money is being scrutinized are several close associates of Vladimir Putin, who, as the Panama Papers recently made abundantly clear (among other investigations), is hardly new to money laundering. The bank is currently under U.S. investigation. And, without access in recent years to major U.S. banks, the move by Trump to seek shadier investment from shadier sources, as with the SoHo deal, is not surprising, given Trump’s long history of flirting with and courting business with and in Russia and with Russians.
Individually, these aspects might raise an eyebrow but not more. But all of this taken together? Is it possible “there’s something going on,” as Trump is fond of saying? It seem reasonable to believe that, yes, “there’s something going on.”
But wait, this is even without going into the hacking…
The Other Democratic E-mail Scandal: There’s Something Going On!
This mid-June, the Democratic National Committee (DNC)—the national leadership and braintrust of the Democratic Party—and the cybersecurity company CrowdStrike announced that two different groups of Russian hackers working for two different Russian government intelligence agencies had been successfully hacking the DNC’s servers. A week later, it was announced that the same Russians seemed to have penetrated the Clinton Foundation’s network.
The first group planted spying software on DNC servers last summer in June, giving it full access to DNC communication passing through DNC servers for almost a whole year. The DNC eventually suspected it had been hacked and called in CrowdStrike early in May of this year to assess the situation. Hillary Clinton’s campaign headquarters in Brooklyn, NY, also seemed to have been attacked but without a clear picture as to if data was stolen. Crowdstrike was able to drive out the hackers from the DNC servers earlier that June. The DNC only seems to have had “standard cyberprotections” wholly incapable of protecting against focused and persistent hackers acting with the support of foreign governments and intelligence agencies. This first hacking group has been nicknamed Cozy Bear by CrowdStrike and is also known as APT 29, and seems to be the one that had previously hacked into unclassified e-mail systems of the White House and State Department; the cleansing process for the State Department infection resulted in a few shutdowns throughout 2014 and 2015, at the height of negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program and international sanctions. This group is tied to the F.S.B., the modern version of the K.G.B., from which Putin emerged years ago,and is thought to be the better of the two hacking groups. The other group, labeled Fancy Bear and also known as APT 28, apparently hacked the DNC this April; it is thought to be run by Russia’s military intelligence service, the G.R.U., and has hacked aerospace and military installations in the West (including in the U.S.), Japan, and South Korea. The two hacking groups do not appear to have coordinated their efforts. Among the many pieces of information stolen by the hackers was the DNC’s opposition research on Trump, stole in the second April hack.
The story basically faded from the public consciousness until a few days before the Democratic National Convention began and one day after the Republican National Convention ended; on that Friday, the quixotic activist organization known as WikiLeaks posted nearly 20,000 e-mails taken from the DNC servers. As is normal with WikiLeaks, the organization and its controversial founder and leader, Julian Assange, decline to offer any details on how they obtained the information, but experts suspect the Russian hackers were the ones who handed them over to WikiLeaks. The e-mails contained information that showed controversial hostility to Bernie Sanders and discussions as to how to put Sanders on the defensive on the part of seven DNC staffers, including some senior ones (one staffer whose comments were felt to be the most offensive offered an apology). While no evidence was found on the e-mails that demonstrated a concerted DNC policy of working actively against Sanders in a material way (as one old college friend summed up the incident on social media: “so, lemme get this straight: some staffers from a national political committee expressed personal political opinions on their work email? ok, gotcha.”), the revelations nevertheless led to a massive outrage, especially with Bernie Sanders’ supporters, a group already prone to conspiracy theories and victimized thinking and that often feeds off of outrage.
Almost lost in the scandal about the DNC’s impartiality coming into question was the issue of the timing of the leaks and who orchestrated then. Obviously, releasing this information the day after Trump’s Republican National Convention ended and just at the beginning of the weekend before Clinton’s Democratic National Convention is designed to provide maximum benefit to Donald Trump and the Republican Party while inflicting massive harm and embarrassment upon Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party. Especially after the embarrassment and disorganization of the divided and divisive Republican National Convention, Clinton and the Democrats were poised to begin their convention in a particularly strong position; with the e-mail leak dominating the headlines all weekend and even Monday as the Democrats’ convention began, focus was driven away from Clinton’s announcement of Virginia Senator Tim Kaine and Bernie Sanders supporters began to stew in a rage that fomented and grew and boiled over the weekend and on Monday before the evening’s Convention proceedings.
Because of the leak, the Democratic Party’s raw wound was reopened and was in danger of becoming seriously infected at the very moment when it was the most important time to project Party unity. The scandal threatened to blow up and ruin the Democratic National Convention, and possibly Hillary Clinton’s chances of winning the presidency, and only some furious and frantic last-minute scrambling on the part of both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, as well as their campaigns and the staff of the DNC, including the new interim DNC Chairwoman Donna Brazile who had taken over only on Monday, averted what could have been a historic disaster for Clinton.
The first and only tangible casualty thus far was DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a congresswoman from Florida, who tenure of late was marred by difficulty; this DNC e-mail leak was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back, and Sunday, not even 48 hours after the WikiLeaks release and on the day before the Convention, it was announced that she would be stepping down from her position at the DNC, but only after the Convention. This did little to assuage the concerns of Democrats, the Clinton campaign, and especially Bernie Sanders supporters, especially as Wasserman Schultz made clear she still planned to gavel-in and gavel-out the Convention and publicly address it while in session.
Reality seemed to set in Monday, when both Rep. Wasserman Schultz and Sen. Bernie Sanders were booed loudly and continuously during dayime meetings, making clear the reality that more had to be done. Within a few hours, all talk of Rep. Wasserman Schultz gaveling and appearing at the convention disappeared and she agreed to stay away from the Convention; as a face-saving gesture for her long years of hard work on behalf of the Democratic Party, the Clinton campaign named her an honorary chair of the campaign’s “50-state program,” a move that failed to placate some and was seen by many in and of itself as a controversial mistake. Only deft political maneuvering, both behind the scenes and on the convention floor during the actual convention throughout the convention, up to and including Clinton’s culminating acceptance speech on Thursday, prevented far worse damage that might have resulted in a spectacle of sustained chaos and potentially ruined the Convention and Clinton’s candidacy, as the capacity of Bernie Sanders supporters for disruption had been well demonstrated several months earlier at Nevada’s Democratic Convention, which was closed out amid security forcing an end to the events as concerns for safety passed a red line.
Also on Monday as the Democratic National Convention’s first day unfolded, it was learned that government investigators had tried to warn the DNC of a possible intrusion months before the DNC took substantive action to address it, raising questions as to how competently the hacking problem was handled, and that the FBI was now investigating the hack.
In just a short period of time, WikiLeaks was able to do real damage to the Democratic Party, and nearly succeeded in doing far more damage. Was this all in the name transparency and fairness?
Questioning WikiLeaks’ Motives: There’s Something Going On!
As for WikiLeaks, its leader Julian Assange has made it abundantly clear that he harbors a great animus, both personal and professional, for Clinton, describing her and her policies in strident language—saying that a vote for Clinton is “a vote for endless, stupid war”—and making it clear that he deliberately timed the release of the DNC e-mails just before the Democratic National Convention to harm Clinton and her candidacy.
But beyond that, there are serious questions as to if WikiLeaks has a relationship with the Russian government. For starters, after Assange took up residence in the Ecuadorian Embassy to the UK in London to avoid arrest, the state-funded Russia Today (RT) network gave Assange a TV show for a time, which was extremely critical of the U.S. even as it praised the founder of Hezbollah. In one of this show’s episodes, Assange quite hypocritically supported the crackdown on Ecuador’s free media by the Ecuadorian president, who is increasing his ties to Russia. There was also an incident that saw documents in the possession of WikiLeaks given by a WikiLeaks staffer to the government of the pro-Putin dictator of Belarus, which it used to arrest and suppress Belarusian pro-democracy activists. Since Assange was close to that staffer, that staffer apparently was not criticized or reprimanded for this act.
It may very be that WikiLeaks is unwittingly playing into serving Russia’s interests, rather than in a spirit of collusion, but the picture is murky and either way, it does not look good; either way, it seems Russia has “weaponized” WikiLeaks for its own anti-American purposes. But this also fits what seems to be Assange’s agenda, which is more anti-American and anti-Western than anything else; Assange even criticized the Panama Papers leaks, which detailed a lot of embarrassing information about Putin’s private fortune and those of Russian elites, as serving American interests. Assange had promised to reveal information embarrassing for and damaging to Russia in 2010, but never did (perhaps because of thinly veiled F.S.B. threats from Russia? Perhaps he’s been intimidated and/or co-opted into serving Russian interests? We may never know for sure. Notably, he threatened to release that info before he was given his Russian TV show). Oh, and contrary to the many other sources agreeing that Russia is behind the DNC hacking, Assange claims there is “no proof” of that…
On a disturbing side note, the WikiLeaks DNC release was not very discriminating, including Social Security and credit card numbers of DNC donors, certainly violating their right to privacy, with even Edward Snowden (who has been helped greatly by WikiLeaks, especially in his getting asylum in Russia) criticizing this aspect of the leak.
The DNC Hacks: Putin Penetration? There’s Something Going On!
As the political drama around the hacks faded away with the fading away of Debbie Wasserman Schultz, more oxygen was given to the other aspects of the hack, which pundits seemed to miss the significance of at first, but slowly (at least in terms of a 2016 24-hour news cycle) it began to dawn on them: an outside force was trying to alter the outcome of a U.S. election, tipping the scales in favor of Donald Trump and against Hillary Clinton, in a clear, substantive, and indisputable way.
So people started caring again about who had hacked the DNC servers.
Wait, didn’t people say that it was the Russian government? Does that mean Russia and Putin are messing with an American election? Is this cyberwarfare??
At first, that suggestion seemed conspiratorial and the media and public seemed reluctant to embrace it, as if that narrative was perhaps mostly a plot by Democrats to divert attention away from their internal scandal, another “he said/she said” in a long war of words between Trump and Clinton. Maybe the delay was in part because the story broke over the weekend, maybe it just seemed too fantastical for people to take seriously. But as expert opinion began weighing in, and it seemed to be consistently unanimous when it came to those with direct knowledge of the hack, it became clear that it is very likely that Russia and Putin aremessing with the current U.S. election, with American intelligence reaching a consensus with “high confidence” that Russia was the culprit of the crime.
It could be that they are out “to stir the pot” and destabilize the U.S. political landscape; it could also be that they are trying to get Donald Trump elected (many would argue that that itself is tantamount to destabilization).
How are we almost certain it’s Russia?
The details pointing to Russia are numerous and clear. The initial findings by CrowdStrike, citing the Russian government-backed hacking groups APT 28 and APT 29, were later confirmed by two other private-sector cybersecurity firms. Relative to other similar cases, the evidence linking the hacking to these two groups was significantly more compelling. Apt 28 often uses a tactic of setting up a domain spelled very similarly to the actual domain in a bid to get users to unknowingly disclose their usernames and passwords. For the DNC hack, APT created misdepatrement.com (as opposed to misdepartment.com), to confuse staff at MIS Department, which managed the DNC’s network. And previous hacks by the group has used the same IP address and malware software, a discovery that helped to point to patterns. This process “sometimes included unique security or encryption keys, a kind of digital fingerprint,” a fingerprint found in other significant attacks, which both government intelligence and private sector experts believe are also tied to APT 28.
Both hacking groups use also approaches and technology “consistent with nation-state level capabilities” and choose foreign military entities and military contractors in a way that “closely mirrors the strategic interests of the Russian government,” according to a CrowdStrike report and echoed by other reports. Another firm noted that the hackers seemed to operate during the Moscow and St. Petersburg time zone business hours and to take holidays during official Russian holidays.
Within on day of the DNC disclosing to The Washington Post in mid-June, a person styling himself Guccifer 2.0 began a WordPress blog and claimed that he, and only he, was behind the hack, and to back up his claim, he posted DNC documents on the blog and leaked others to the press and to WikiLeaks. He chose the name Guccifer to honor an imprisoned Romanian hacker of that same name, who earned; the original Guccifer claims to have hacked Clinton’s private e-mail server that has consumed American politics for the last year, but this claim has not been verified. However, we know Guccifer did hacked Clinton friend and confidante Sidney Blumenthal’s e-mail, which, in turn, revealed the existence of Clinton’s oft-criticized private e-mail server to congressional investigators in the first place.
Kind of crazy how all this ties together, right?
While Guccifer 2.0 claimed Russia had nothing to do with the hackings, his very actions provided investigators with evidence backing up the initial claims that Russia was behind the hackings: metadata from the information he posted had Russian digital signatures and showed that systems running on Russian language setups had accessed the files; one document had been modified by a user named Felix Edmundovich, the letters spelled out in Cyrillic and an obvious homage to Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky, the founder of the Soviet Union’s secret police. This information was exposed by a researcher on security issues operating under the Twitter handle @pwnallthethings, who also exposed the fact that error messages in the documents were in Russian; all these imprints were made before WikiLeaks obtained the files. The aforementioned points were echoed by another analystwriting for Ars Technica soon after.
Other telling evidence indicated that Guccifer 2.0 might be little more than a Russian public relations smoke-and-mirrors operation: Guccifer 2.0 made himself accessible to the media for interviews, a rarity for criminal hackers who tend to be paranoid of being caught and therefore reclusive; he strongly asserted that Russia had never penetrated the DNC, but that is something that he would be incapable of knowing as an independent hacker, as he claimed to be; he claimed to be Romanian, but then seemed unable to converse in Romanian without using only short statements and making repeated grammatical mistakes as noted by native Romanian speakers; metadata in his e-mails indicated he sent them from Russian networks, and some evidence even pointed to the use of the same or similar networks used by APT 28. It seems Guccifer 2.0 was concocted by Russian intelligence right after The Washington Post reported that DNC officials and investigators suspected Russia, a tactic of “deception and disinformation” or “denial and deception” that is standard operating procedure for Russia and codified officially in Russian military doctrine. A few such examples were noted in a just-released RAND report:
“Russian propagandists have been caught hiring actors to portray victims of manufactured atrocities or crimes for news reports (as was the case when Viktoria Schmidt pretended to have been attacked by Syrian refugees in Germany for Russia’s Zvezda TV network), or faking on-scene news reporting (as shown in a leaked video in which “reporter” Maria Katasonova is revealed to be in a darkened room with explosion sounds playing in the background rather than on a battlefield in Donetsk when a light is switched on during the recording).”
The Rand Report notes how incredibly common and prolific these propaganda efforts have become since at least Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia and how current, traditional counterpropaganda efforts are falling short in correcting this “firehose of falsehood.” All this just points even more strongly to the Russians being behind the DNC hack.
Hacking and Political Warfare: Russia’s Newest Weapons System, Eagerly Deployed: There’s Something Going On!
Hacking and cyberwarfare are also certainly part of the new Russian way of foreign policy and hybrid warfare, including (mis/dis)information and propaganda operations like those noted above. But another major aspect of Russian policy involves trying to meddle with foreign elections and politics, and the hackings of the DNC can be seen to be part of just such a larger effort. In fact, Paul Manafort can even be thought of as a (indirect?) mercenary general in this exact type of political warfare, where he was on the front lines of Putin’s operations in Ukraine from the Orange Revolution until (and possibly even after) Yanukovych’s 2014 overthrow.
But such operations were hardly limited to Ukraine, as there are other examples in Eastern Europe; lately, Putin has actually been funding right-wing, pro-Russian parties and demagogues all over Europe, helping to fuel an ongoing continental right-ward drift. Perhaps most notably, this Russian support has been a factor in France, which is lurching even more rightward in the wake of recent terrorist attacks like the one in Nice and where Putin’s chosen candidate, Marine Le Pen, may very well win France’s 2017 presidential election, but Putin has also been trying to destabilize German politics using the issue of refugees to weaken Chancellor Angela Merkel and empower German extremists.
Another factor that must be acknowledged is that Putin is still simmering over Western expansion of NATO, over two Western military interventions against Russian ally Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia in 1990s, against support for Kosovo’s independence from Serbia. Putin also seen the U.S. as having orchestrated the “color revolutions” of the last decade rather than viewing them a natural expression of post-Soviet peoples’ desires to be free from Russian domination and to not be ruled by Putin’s corrupt puppets; Putin similarly blames the U.S. for the 2014 overthrow of Yanukovych. The Russian president also in particular blames the U.S. for massive demonstrations in Russia in 2011 that erupted after fraudulent parliamentary elections. In fact, at the time, he specifically blamed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Seen in this context, the hacking of the DNC, the DCCC, and the voter database used by Clinton’s presidential campaign serve multiple purposes: in the eyes of Putin and many Russians, this is revenge for U.S. support for democracy in former Soviet republics and the continued post-Cold War expansion of NATO, for perceived U.S. aggressive roles in countering Russian interests, and against Hillary Clinton specifically, who enraged Putin when she called him out on Russian election fraud in 2011.
Conclusion: There’s Something Going On!
Arnau Busquets Guàrdia/POLITICO (Source images by Getty Images)
Interference in U.S. elections and politics would not be unprecedented: the UK intelligence at Churchill’s direction interfered to try to empower Roosevelt against Republican isolationists; South Vietnam played with peace talks to give Nixon an edge in 1968 after it negotiated secretly with Nixon’s campaign; Iran’s ayatollahs may have conspired with Reagan in 1980; and Israel worked to undercut the Obama Administration’s standing in the U.S in 2012 and 2015 over the Iran issue. Russia even seems to be supporting a secessionist movement in Texas that is still sizable while also only being a fringe minority.
Of course, Russia has categorically denied any involvement in the recent hacks.
As for Trump, he has a lot of questions to answer about Russia, both in terms of him and his family but also about his associates. Trump’s taxes may or may not yield information about his business ties to Russia, and for now, the Trump team denies it has any ties to Russia, but provides no evidence to support this, only repeated assertions.
Even now as I write some of this, Trump is baselessly speculating at a press conference that the entity behind the hacking is “probably not Russia, nobody knows if it’s Russia,” contrary to all the expert analysis given. At this same press conference, he seemed to actually invite Russia to hack Hillary Clinton, even tweeting that call in writing on his Twitter account soon after (and later unconvincingly claiming he was being “sarcastic” after massive shock and outrage ensued).
Since then, just yesterday, one week after the WikiLeaks DNC release, we learned that there were new hacks, likely by Fancy Bear/APT 28, of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, a congressional fundraising group for Democrats, and of a voter information database used by the Clinton campaign and other Democratic organizations. The U.S. is trying to determine how to respond to these cyberattacks as the FBI and Department of Justice investigate. And there are likely to be more hacks, with WikiLeaks’ Assange promising are more “a lot more” information on American politics coming from files he already has.
To be sure, hacking a U.S. political party’s central leadership organization at the height a presidential election cycle is dangerous, unsettling new territory for an already fraught American-Russian relationship. If Congress is to even retain an ounce of non-partisan credibility, a major investigation must be undertaken as soon as possible, and Republicans must put as much zeal into it as they put into their Benghazi “investigations.”
What we do know is that Trump and his family tried to do business for many years in Russia; that he sought to have a relationship with Putin; that both men have been publicly supporting each other as Trump seeks the American presidency; that Trump is by far the most pro-Russian, pro-Putin of the major presidential candidates of this entire election cycle; that he did business with Russian nationals (some of ill repute) and took massive amounts of money coming from Russia; that his Campaign Chairman has a sordid history of helping Putin allies of ill repute to the detriment both of Western interests and, more specifically, of democracy in Ukraine, help that helped precipitate bloodshed and war; that other Trump campaign staff and advisors have questionable links to Russia; that Russia has a pattern of hacking America and others for political purposes; that Russia has a pattern of interfering in elections; that Putin clearly prefers Trump over Clinton; that all the evidence points towards the hacks being committed by the Russian government; that the Russian government, along with WikiLeaks, had the means and motive to harm Clinton and the U.S. and have thus far acted to do so; and that Russia and WikiLeaks have a suspect relationship.
Thus, taken together, there does seem to be some sort of relationship between Trump, his confidantes, and his presidential campaign on one side, and Putin, Putin-linked Russian operatives, and key Putin-and/or-Russian-oriented business and political operatives on another. It remains to be seen how direct, conscious, and centralized these relationship are, and while the sheer number of connections all but rules out sheer coincidence, the likely relationship can range from direct coordination between Putin and Trump themselves at the top, to between low-level staffers working directly or indirectly for both parties with no knowledge of or approval on the part of higher ups; the intent, also, can range from conspiring to tilt an election and to work in the interests of Russia to simple personal enrichment on the part individuals.
More likely than not, none of these extremes are probably the case, and the truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Given everything I’ve discussed here, it’s possible there is some sort of coordinated effort going on between Trump or people in his campaign and Putin or people associated with him. But I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if we also have two groups of actors here acting mostly independently yet with common purpose. I also wouldn’t be surprised if some of Trump’s associates, especially Manafort, are part of some sort of deal (tacit or otherwise) to promote Putin’s agenda within Trump’s campaign between several staffers or just himself on one side and Putin’s agents on the other, given Manafort’s and several staffers’ histories. And it’s certainly believable—in fact, almost certain—that Putin would like to see Clinton defeated and Trump in the White House, since it would be hard to envision a leader that would or could play more into Putin’s hands than Trump.
This may yet backfire on and Trump and Putin, since the Russian interference is so obvious that it might cause more Americans to rally against Trump and for Clinton, riled up by an American presidential candidate being the target of Russian intelligence operations. But that remains to be seen, and for now, America is under attack from Russia in a way never seen before, something that is an objective, bi-partisan, national security issue that should concern all Americans. We may never know all the details, but one thing is for sure: this is one of the most disturbing, worrisome, and troubling developments in a year brimming with disturbing, worrisome, and troubling developments, and there must be both fierce consequences and fierce investigations because, clearly, there’s something going on, to quote Donald. Trump.
© 2016 Brian E. Frydenborg all rights reserved, no republication without permission, attributed quotations welcome
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