Trump Administration Admits 2018 Elections Are Vulnerable To More Russian Interference

Administration officials are admitting that it's likely that Russia will try to interfere in the midterm elections just as it did in 2016, but they don't seem inclined to do anything about it.

Even while Robert Mueller and two Congressional committees are investigating the reports about Russian attempts to interfere with and influence the 2016 Presidential election, the Trump Administration is admitting that the United States is vulnerable to the same sort of interference this year, and perhaps even additional efforts that go beyond what happened in 2016, but the Administration doesn’t seem all that concerned with doing much of anything to stop it:

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned that any Russian interference in November’s midterm elections would “invite consequences,” but suggested the United States is still vulnerable to such meddling.

“Well, I don’t know that I would say we’re better prepared (than in 2016) because the Russians will adapt as well,” Tillerson told Fox News in an interview from, Bogota, Colombia Tuesday. “The point is if it’s their intention to interfere, they’re going to find ways to do that.”

“And we can take steps we can take, but this is something that, once they decide they’re going to do it, it’s very difficult to preempt it,” he said.

Tillerson said the Trump administration is seeing signs of meddling in European elections, as well as elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere, and suggested they could try to interfere in the upcoming US elections as well.

“I think it’s important we just continue to say to Russia, ‘look, if you think we don’t see what you’re doing, we do see it,'” said Tillerson. “‘You need to stop. If you don’t, you’re going to just continue to invite consequences for yourself.'”

Tillerson told CNN last month he’d seen no specific signs of Russian interference in the midterm elections so far.

Asked whether he thought they would meddle, Tillerson said, “I don’t know. I hope they don’t.”

His latest interview follows forceful statements by CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who recently told the BBC he had “every expectation” Russia would try to meddle in the midterms, but that he was “confident that America will be able to have a free and fair election [and] that we will push back in a way that is sufficiently robust that the impact they have on our election won’t be great.”

This news came the same day that Politico that Twitter accounts that were linked to Russia were already testing out viral campaigns aimed at supporters of President Trump that appeared to be designed to provoke anger and also points out the extent to which much of the social media noise behind the campaign to pressure Congress to release the memorandum prepared by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes was influenced by bots and accounts known to have ties to Russia:

After the success of the viral #ReleaseTheMemo campaign, Russian-influenced Twitter accounts are test-running other hashtags designed to stoke anger, particularly among supporters of President Donald Trump, against “deep state” forces, according to analysts at Hamilton 68, a website that tracks Russian-influenced Twitter accounts.

Last weekend, a host of new hashtags trended in the network of accounts monitored by Hamilton 68, including #fisagate, #obamadeepstate, #wethepeopledemandjustice, #thememorevealsthecoup and even #obamaslegacyisobamagate.

None of those have taken hold, but the flurry of new efforts indicated to Bret Schafer, an analyst for the Alliance for Security Democracy, which runs Hamilton 68, that the Russians would continue to push issues related to the “deep state.”

“There’s still a ton of activity,” Schafer said. “It does look like they’re looking for the next hashtag. … They’re clearly looking for the next step in this process.”

Some of the hashtags tied former President Barack Obama to the “deep state” resistance against Trump, a clear attempt to play on political divisions.

Schafer said he typically doesn’t put too much stock in a single trending hashtag, but when six or seven on the same theme bubble up, it usually indicates a broader strategy, he said.

These new efforts follow the striking success of #ReleaseTheMemo, which benefited from a particularly intense push, said Jonathon Morgan, the CEO of New Knowledge, the cybersecurity firm that built the Hamilton 68 dashboard.

“The activity around this hashtag was different in that it was much more concentrated, amplified and extended,” Morgan said. “I think it’s a good case study in what it looks like when somebody really turns on the machine and how vulnerable, frankly, Twitter still is to having its platform co-opted by someone who wants to push a particular narrative.”

The Hamilton 68 dashboard launched in August to track activity in a network of 600 Twitter accounts identified as being Russian-influenced. Some of those accounts are official Russian state propaganda, like RT or Sputnik; others are bots; and still others are independent voices consistently sympathetic to the Kremlin. While these 600 accounts represent just a fraction of Russian-influenced activity on Twitter, the idea is that they can provide insight into larger Kremlin efforts.

Typically, Schafer said, activity within the network of accounts has two purposes: first, to promote divisive social issues — whether around race or religion or abortion — and, second, to then hook followers onto accounts tweeting about them. That way, messages about issues important to the Kremlin, like Syria or Ukraine, can be mixed in.

But the viral #ReleaseTheMemo campaign targeting the FBI and Justice Department represented their first concerted attack against major U.S. government institutions since the 2016 election, Morgan said.

Though Hamilton 68 launched just last summer, Morgan said he felt comfortable making that claim based on additional research and analysis. The “deep state” has been a constant topic on the dashboard for months, but nothing like the past few weeks, as the #ReleaseTheMemo hashtag peaked. “It went from 5 percent of the content back in September to where it’s consistently around 15 percent,” Schafer said.

But between Jan. 19 and Jan. 30, the campaign went to another level, Schafer said. He said 38 percent of the 113 most-shared articles in the network focused on promoting a “deep state” narrative. For context, he said that Syria, one of the other most consistent topics in the network, was the subject of only 4 percent of the most-shared articles during that period.

Twitter declined comment for this story, but in a letter responding to a request from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) to investigate Russian activity related to #ReleaseTheMemo, the company’s general counsel said, “We performed a preliminary analysis of available geographic data for Tweets with the hashtag #ReleaseTheMemo. Our initial inquiry, based on available data, has not identified any significant activity connected to Russia with respect to Tweets posting original content to this hashtag.”

This news comes just a week after the Trump Administration failed to implement the sanctions that Congress had mandated at least in part in response to interference in the 2016 elections. To date, the Administration has not offered any real response to questions regarding why no action has been taken in this area despite the Congressional mandate. However, the lack of action does seem consistent with the generally lackadaisical attitude that Tillerson and others in the upper levels of the Administration seem to be approaching the prospect of more interference this year and in the years to come. Rather than doing anything, the Administration seems content to sit on its hands and act as if there’s nothing that can be done.

In reality, of course, the response to whatever Russia may be planning for the upcoming elections goes beyond exhortations to Twitter, Facebook, or other social media outlets to better police their members and what’s being posted. What Russia apparently did during the 2016 elections and is apparently ready to do again this year amounts to nothing less than a form of cyberwarfare for which we are clearly unprepared. In part, of course, this is because activities such as this don’t consist of hacking, disrupting computer networks, or attacking vulnerabilities via the Internet that we’ve traditionally been used to categorizing in that matter. Instead, what we’re seeing here is the use of above-ground albeit anonymous social media accounts and other means to spread propaganda and false news reports to the targeted audience in a manner that clearly seems to be designed to stoke anger and resentment and create chaos.

Indeed, it has been apparent for some time now that Putin’s objective in interfering in the 2016 election wasn’t necessarily to help Trump, although that may have played a part in it, but to sow chaos and uncertainty. Oh sure, there was probably some desire to get back at Clinton for the Russia policies she advocated and as Secretary of State, but it’s the chaos, uncertainty, and lack of trust in law enforcement and intelligence agencies by a large segment of the American public that I think was his goal. This seems apparent in actions such as the efforts to use Wikileaks to leak the email that was uncovered in the hacking of the computers of the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta and the various social media campaigns on Twitter and meme campaigns on Facebook. It also seems obvious in the news that has become public regarding the Russia investigation, such as the June 2016 meeting between Trump campaign officials and a lawyer tied to the Trump campaign, which was preceded by email suggesting that the lawyer had damaging information about Hillary Clinton, and in the apparent ties to Russia that parties associated with the Trump campaign such as Carter Page and George Papadopoulos appear to have had. Throughout all of it, the common thread seems to be a desire by the Russians to stoke chaos and division. Knowingly or unknowingly, Trump and his supporters have merely been a means to that end. Viewed in that light, Russia’s interference in the election has been an unparalleled success. Expect them to try it again in 2018, and 2020, unless we’re prepared to recognize and counteract it. Based on these reports, it’s clear that we’re entirely unprepared to act, and the Administration doesn’t seem to care about it at all.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2018, Donald Trump, Intelligence, National Security, Politicians, Russia Investigation, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. michael reynolds says:

    So, let me see if I understand this from a Trumpaloon perspective. The next election is vulnerable. Elections in other countries are vulnerable. The only election that was completely untouched by Russian interference is the one that elected a man literally in hock to Russians.

    Doublethink: The acceptance of or mental capacity to accept contrary opinions or beliefs at the same time, especially as a result of political indoctrination.




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  2. george says:

    America interferes in Russian elections. Russians interfere in American elections. Both interfere in elections of other countries around the world.

    This is the way power politics has worked for at least a century; and before that, countries would try to interfere in who came to the throne in other countries. There’s nothing new in this.

    The only thing different about the 2016 election (and even that has lot’s of historical precedents) is that the Russians almost certainly got support from Trump. But that’s not something you blame the Russians for accepting – of course they’d be happy to have one of the insiders giving them a hand. Everyone is when it happens. Does anyone really not know the long history of America interfering, even overthrowing elected gov’ts, to put a puppet in power.

    America should be taking it up with Trump, not with the Russians. The Russians are naturally going to keep doing it, for the same reason America continues to mess around in foreign govt’s – its what major powers do, and its the height of hypocrisy to sound outraged about it. Talk to anyone outside of America, and they think the outrage against Russia is a huge joke. What they don’t get is why its been so hard to pin it on Trump (meaning why he’s supported by the GOP).




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  3. michael reynolds says:

    @george:
    A related analogy:

    Pearl Harbor was not the first sneak attack in history. We’ve done it, other countries have done it.

    The difference is that in effect Trump and his cult have welcomed Pearl Harbor and shaded policy to favor the Japanese.




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  4. Moosebreath says:

    “Trump Administration Admits 2018 Elections Are Vulnerable To More Russian Interference”

    They view it as a feature, not a bug.




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  5. george says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Its a pretty good analogy, especially relating to Trump. The only part that doesn’t map well to the current situation is we weren’t attacking Japan at the time of Pearl Harbor, but we’ve been interfering in Russian (and before that Soviet) affairs for a long time. Sometimes very directly, as in with Yelstin.

    The only surprise in Russia’s attempt was that one of the US Presidential candidates went along with it; other than that it was business as usual. Machiavelli would say its even major power’s duties to interfere in rivals internal affairs, and clearly every major power does it just as a matter of course.

    My point being, putting the focus on Russia is a distraction – there’s nothing new in what they did, and we do the same. The problem is Trump. Putin doesn’t help us. Trump helps them.




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  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @george:

    America interferes in Russian elections.

    BWAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA….

    What Russian elections? You mean the ones where they get to vote for dear leader or spend the rest of their lives in a gulag?




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  7. michael reynolds says:

    @george:

    Yes, the problem is treason. American politicians have welcomed and profited by and are now covering up foreign meddling in our country. This may not fit the legal definition of treason, but it sure as hell fits the civilian understanding of the term.

    I’m sure foreign officials have collaborated with the CIA, but that’s their traitors and their problem. Our problem is our traitors.




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  8. CSK says:

    “Knowingly or unknowingly, Trump and his supporters have merely been a means to that end.”

    Trump doesn’t care, as long as he comes out on top. It’s all about him. And in any case, Putin owns him lock, stock, and barrel.

    As for Trump’s supporters, about one-half are nihilists. These are people in a constant state of such overwhelming rage that they want the country destroyed. They hate Republicans as much as they hate Democrats, because all politicians of any stripe are out to screw them personally.

    The other half are so bedazzled by what they choose to see as Trump’s strength, intelligence, and love for the common man that they’ll excuse anything he does. Putin’s a great guy! Any criticism of Trump is fake news.




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  9. george says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    You’re seriously suggesting we haven’t done illegal (according to their laws) things in Russia (and other places) to influence (or even change) governments to one more to our liking?

    That doesn’t mean we should accept it when they do it to us. But it makes us sound ridiculous when we express outrage at their attempts.

    Our outrage should be aimed at Trump, someone supposed to be on our side who went along with it. Russia we should try to stop from interfering with (while we simultaneously continue to interfere in them – because that’s what powers have to do). But can the hypocrisy. People around the world think its natural to try to score on your opponents while stopping them from scoring on you. But to express outrage because they’re also trying to score is just silly.




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  10. Mikey says:

    Trump Administration Admits Hopes 2018 Elections Are Vulnerable To More Russian Interference

    Much more accurate this way.




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  11. Kathy says:

    If the Branch Trumpidians do much about Russian interference in US elections, they are admitting their baby had a bastard birth.

    If they lose part or all of Congress in the mid-terms, they can spend the next two years accusing the Democrats of colluding with the Russians.

    This is very serious.Potentially half the country will consider any winning elections by the other half to be illegitimate. That’s the kind of thing that can lead to civil war. For a country with lots of weapons in private hands, a big military, well-equipped and trained national guard (essentially federalized state militias), not to mention nuclear weapons, that’s a frightening prospect.

    I don’t think Trump’s vanity is worth this much.




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  12. Jake says:

    RESULTS MATTER: President Trump’s Approval Rating Tops Barack Obama BY 4 POINTS at Same Time of His Presidency




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  13. Jake says:

    If you take the time to sit down to read the Nunes Memo, you start to realize that the claims being made on the political right aren’t just hyperbole. Nor are they a disingenuous attempt by the Trump administration to discredit the Mueller probe. It increasingly appears to be the biggest government scandal in U.S. history: the weaponization of the DOJ and FBI by the Obama administration to shield their presidential candidate and assail an opposing party’s presidential campaign and subsequent presidency. This is earth-shattering stuff. Yet, what are we hearing from the mainstream media (MSM)? Not just denial, but teeth-gnashing defiance. It leaves a reasonable person in a state of fear. What is happening? This is not our American system. Could they really be on the attack in the face of damning evidence and facts? And then I had a revelation.

    http://www.americanthinker.com/articles/2018/02/a_big_red_wave.html




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  14. gVOR08 says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    What Russian elections? You mean the ones where they get to vote for dear leader or spend the rest of their lives in a gulag?

    That’s not really how it works anymore. Opposition candidates and organizers may end in jail, but not voters. They’ll willingly vote for Putin because he has control of Russian media. Be thankful that in our country only about 40% are manipulated by state media, FOX etc.. So far.




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  15. gVOR08 says:

    @Jake: On the one hand, I appreciate you showing up here to illustrate the evils of the RW media bubble. .

    On the other hand, American Thinker FFS? Grow up.




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  16. Jake says:

    @gVOR08:

    Do you read. Russia how long are you going to believe this. Not evidence over a yr. Religious belief.




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  17. Jake says:

    No common ground with your types. Trump is always 100% wrong. That’s the answer to everything.

    Yet Trump is President.




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  18. Kathy says:

    @Jake:

    Trump is always 100% wrong.

    Of course not, no one’s perfect.

    Trump really comes close, though.




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  19. teve tory says:

    The set of things believed by exactly 27% of the American public, and the set of things believed by Jake, are a single overlapping Circle.




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  20. michael reynolds says:

    Trump is always 100% wrong. That’s the answer to everything.Yet Trump is President.

    Hitler is always 100% wrong. That’s the answer to everything. Yet Hitler is Chancellor.

    Attila is always 100% wrong. That’s the answer to everything. Yet Attila is is the Hun.

    Slavery is always 100% wrong. That’s the answer to everything. Yet we have slaves.

    I could go on ad infinitum. After a while I’d steer the examples into ever more surreal territory. Then I’d do some switchbacks where I confuse the moral of the story, see if I can’t manage a bit of rhyme. . . But I think this is probably enough to demonstrate the vacuity of your response.

    If Trump is right make the case. Make the case that Trump is not engaged in obstruction of justice. Do it without b.s. conspiracy sites and the usual nonsense. Than stay here and defend your position. Spoiler alert: you won’t be able to without 1) lies, 2) false equivalencies or 3) or indefensible notions like, electoral victory equals absolution.

    Go ahead and try. You want to be heard, make your case here in reality.




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  21. Jake says:

    @michael reynolds:

    You’re an idiot. I mean that in the nicest way.




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  22. michael reynolds says:

    @Jake:
    Coward. You could have at least tried. Just like your tin god: weak.




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  23. gVOR08 says:

    @Jake:
    @michael reynolds: challenged you.

    If Trump is right make the case. Make the case that Trump is not engaged in obstruction of justice.




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  24. An Interested Party says:

    RESULTS MATTER: President Trump’s Approval Rating Tops Barack Obama BY 4 POINTS at Same Time of His Presidency

    Apparently you are as delusional as the idiot you support…




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  25. Grewgills says:

    I know there really isn’t any point is this Jake, as you are completely immune to facts, but…
    Trump’s approval now is at 40% with 57% disapproval source
    Obama’s approval for the week ending Feb 7 2010 (the analogous point in his presidency was 50% approval with 43% disapproval source
    The rest of your tripe has no facts to refute, so I’ll leave it as the baseless ravings of someone with his head buried somewhere unpleasant.




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  26. Grewgills says:

    I know there really isn’t any point is this Jake, as you are completely immune to facts, but…
    Trump’s approval now is at 40% with 57% disapproval source
    Obama’s approval for the week ending Feb 7 2010 (the analogous point in his presidency was 50% approval with 43% disapproval source
    The rest of your tripe has no facts to refute, so I’ll leave it as the baseless ravings of someone with his head buried somewhere unpleasant.

    My original comment sourced Gallup daily tracking polls, but the moderation monster has eaten it. You can google the relevant polling data from Gallup, or wait on my comment to be released and follow the links.




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  27. Pete S says:

    @Grewgills: Jake already did check those, but he was holding them upside down…..still an improvement over his normal reading and comprehension




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