In the 2020 elections, the Kremlin was still helping Trump — and Americans were helping the Kremlin

ODNI’s assessment of “Foreign Threats to the 2020 US Federal Elections” is a stark warning for US national security 

[Please note: The images in this article capture block quotations which it is helpful to read in the context of the text. You will want to have them visible while reading, or read on the site]

Just about two months into the new administration, President Biden’s newly-confirmed Director of National Intelligence has released the unclassified version of the intelligence community’s assessment of “Foreign Threats to the 2020 US Federal Elections.” It is a concise document, but one nonetheless dense with information about how foreign powers were influencing — and thinking about influencing — the 2020 US elections. It also clarifies, without saying it is doing so, some of the misrepresentations of intelligence that were previously made by Trump appointees. 

In reading through the report, it strikes me how long ago this election seems — how is it possible that it has only been four months?? — and how much has happened since. It’s a distant road sign in the rearview mirror, obfuscated now by the smoke of countless brushfires large and small and flashing neon signs that we’ve sped past since. And in all that noise — insurrection, conspiracy, denial, impeachment — it is very easy to lose sight of how very significant this ODNI report is. Objects in the mirror are closer than they appear. So let’s go through what it says — and what it doesn’t. 

My top-line takeaways from the report are this: 

  • President Trump’s denial of Russian election interference in 2016, his requirement that members of his administration echo this belief, and his refusal to act on intelligence assessments of past and ongoing Russian influence operations targeting America helped normalize the use of election interference by a broader range of actors who perceive there will be few real costs. This is now just another tool in the toolkit for whoever thinks the potential rewards of deployment outweigh the risks.

  • Russian efforts remain more expansive, daring, integrated, and better-resourced than other foreign campaigns. Russian activities in 2020 were more aggressive than previously disclosed by intelligence reports, but also far more overt.

  • Moscow is increasingly relying on proxies and dupes to do its heavy lifting — and finding far too many willing participants in certain target audiences in the United States. This network of actors is highly integrated and self-amplifying, and has significant reach into key audiences in the United States.

  • The clarity of the report — which avoids naming US persons, but their actions expose their identities — should make us question why there has been so little cost to the elected Republicans, Trump political appointees, Republican operatives, and panoply of media personalities who are identified as working with and as proxies of Russian intelligence. 

  • The report assessed that China saw no benefit in attempting election interference — but it isn’t precisely good news that China thinks its existing levels and levers of influence in the United States are successful enough without needing higher-risk behaviors. We need to be more focused on the resources China is pouring into influence, intelligence gathering, and recruitment in the United States.

  • There must be clear costs for any foreign threats to US elections. A lot of actors are trying to get in on this game, but it actually requires significant state resources and focus to make it successful — so far. This must be a target for deterrence. 

Now, let’s look at each of the key judgments — on technical interference, Russia, Iran, China, and other actors. 

Key Judgment 1: technical interference 

The “nothing to see here, move along” nature of this key judgment really belies the heroes’ work was done in this space — by government agencies, private sector interests, independent monitors, and other volunteers — which really should not be discounted when it comes to protecting both states and multitudinous individual campaigns across the country. It was a kicked anthill of activity for months on end. 

In 2016, extensive attempted hacking efforts targeting election systems failed to yield significant results — maybe by luck, or maybe because they were never really the point anyway. But to the extent that nothing significant happened in this area in 2020, it’s because of truly massive effort — a ton of people actively monitoring and defending against these cyber efforts. Not enough of it is public, but we shouldn’t think our adversaries have moved on, or that we’ve permanently closed off this vulnerability. Vigilance will be needed in every respect during future elections.

Key Judgment 2: Russia

Basically, the key judgment says, Russia is still Russia-ing, in ways remarkably consistent to 2016 and again under the mindful eye of Putin as he swims his daily laps in the pool — but Russia is doing it shamelessly, out in the open through dupes and proxies who serve the Kremlin’s interests. There is still performative deniability — but actually, the Kremlin doesn’t really care that we know as long as it can animate these muppets to perform their tasks.

Two huge statements in the report: 

Russian intelligence was relying on a network of Americans to do their dirty work, and those Americans carried out the necessary tasks against other Americans over time — if not knowingly still willingly, in many cases gleefully, even if they were in denial about what they were doing, even after being told that what they were doing was pushing Kremlin narrative to the American audience. 

This allowed the Kremlin to spend far less time worrying about deniability and cover, or discovery and removal by social media networks. The use of the Americans evaded many of the defensive measures. (This nativization push, by the way, was something the Mueller report highlighted as a next phase of what the Kremlin would try to do for precisely this reason.)

But can we go back to the thing where a bunch of prominent Americans — mostly right-wing, but there were a few horseshoe counterparts in the mix — were flacking Kremlin information operations throughout the election cycle, including flying to Ukraine to “collect” more information from known Russian operatives — and no one stopped them? It was a bad play in 24 acts with no intermission, and after living with this reality so long, we’ve all exhausted our incredulity reserves and it’s easy to gloss over this point as if it is not pretty damned remarkable. But prominent Americans and US officials were, in partnership with Kremlin proxies and pass-throughs, pushing Kremlin narrative into American brains for the purpose of influencing the outcome of an election, and there was no mystery or question about what they were doing, then or now. 

And this does matter. Gone is the 2016 “oh maybe they didn’t know what they were doing when they accepted help from Russia” excuse. In 2020, the American “helpers” are often the parties seeking the meetings and information with Russian agents, rather than the other way around. 

These activities included the efforts of an expansive group that centers around “Russian influence agent Konstantin Kilimnik” and his networks, which started in Ukraine but worked their way outward: 

KK may now be holed up in Russia, but he has long-cultivated a network of Western journalists and friends in relevant places that he remains in communication with, some of whom pass along his playful denials as if this were still 2013. There are several interesting points relating to the Kilimnik group. First, the rehash of some of the Mueller report star players. Second, that Kilimnik is now openly operating as what he has always been: a Russian agent connected to other Russian agents running complex influence operations against a rage of targets. Third, the importance and complexity of the narrative construct designed to damage both the US and Ukraine. And fourth, the targeting of Republican lawmakers and the capture of the legislative process. 

On the first two points, there are still so many unanswered questions — but that’s for another time. 

On this third point, the construction of the narrative: Russia worked hard to use this opportunity to maximally damage US relations with Ukraine, in both directions. Americans got to see Ukraine as a porous, corrupt pass-through for Russian intelligence instead of a nation fighting for its right to be free of Moscow’s meddling, and Ukrainians were encouraged to believe the return of “corrupt” Obama-era officials would be against their interests. The “Ukraine is against you” narrative was used first to target Trump in the early days after his election; this later morphed into the “Ukraine was actually responsible for the 2016 election attacks” fiction. The storytelling about “corrupt Americans who don’t care about Ukraine,” the report notes, started all the way back in 2014, when Russia had just invaded and annexed Crimea and then launched a war in eastern Ukraine and was heavily invested in making sure no one would provide the necessary aid to the Ukrainians, as people like Joe Biden and John McCain were pushing a reluctant President Obama to do. 

These narratives pull at elements of truth and grow gardens of headily-perfumed flowers from seeds of doubt — but both the US and Ukrainian sides should now be working hard to talk over this Kremlin noise and to evade capture into a cycle of cynical behavior that the Kremlin has been happy to point us toward. It would also be very helpful in particular if the Biden administration were to accelerate its appointment of key officials and assistant secretaries at the State Department, as well as focus on the appointment of essential ambassadors — especially in posts like Ukraine which have been vacant for some time. Only real policy and high-level engagement will shine a light through the murk created by all the Kremlin flailing. 

The broader pattern of activity by the Kilimnik team — by both its Ukrainian and American members — over time has been to make Ukraine untouchable and undesirable for the US and the Europeans. It’s the standard “no good guys” narrative, making everything seem too opaque to engage, too tedious to figure out. We owe it to ourselves not to let this shell game succeed. 

But that brings us back to the fourth thing: it should not pass without notice that Russian intelligence operatives were directly targeting Republican lawmakers, media personalities, and administration officials and friends with little shame or deniability. That they knew they would find open doors and willing partners because of relationships built over time, because of cynicism, because why not. 

This is a major, ongoing national security threat to the United States. 

If this election report was the Mueller report, it would have to name Steve Bannon and Roger Stone and Rudy Giuliani, Ron Johnson and the House Clown Caucus, Jack Posobiec and Mike Cernovich, OAN and the New York Post and Gateway Pundit and Fox News, the former president and his idiot son, and so many others. It would have to name all the people yucking it up with Kremlin agents in cigar bars and naked saunas, all the “journalists” taking Kremlin info and running it for American audiences — up to and through the election and right on until January 6th. It would have to challenge Americans to question why they believe what they believe now, about their government and each other and the world. 

And god forbid really, that we upset this fine cart full of the shiny apples of denialism now, after five straight years of platforming “it didn’t do anything”ism about what happened in 2016. Even now, on Twitter and op-ed pages, you will find analysis of the details of the election report that then conclude “oh yeah there was all of this stuff but it wasn’t strategically important and it didn’t accomplish anything.” If getting close aids to the president and elected US officials to willingly amplify a Russian intelligence operation against Americans that convinces a significant portion of the country that the election is invalid isn’t “strategically relevant,” then maybe we’re just too screwed for it to matter anymore anyway. 

For years, those of us working in the countries around Russia have sat, jaws agape, as Ukrainians and Estonians and others explain to us who the open Kremlin assets sitting in their parliaments and positions of power are. If you know this, why are they still there?  But now it is as if we have also become a former Soviet satellite state, replete with Kremlin shills and propagandist ghouls who live comfortable lives next door to us, and they go to each other’s parties and exploit the security clearances of their higher-status ilk to compromise the national security of the nation. They openly panhandle for funds to support their lifestyles, and blend in money and influence from other foreign creepies as well — Bannon and Giuliani are prime examples of how well you can do being equal opportunity launderers of creepy foreign narrative and cash. Other Americans not central to this mire visit it when they find it useful to their interests, drop in on their podcasts and parties, tacitly endorsing who these people are and how the operate, admiring their reach and power and resources. 

Now these American versions of post-Soviet shills and ghouls walk among us, and they create and fund the parallel reality that is eating the minds of Americans, helping convince them to do things like invade statehouses if lawmakers try to implement basic public health regulations, or attempt to take members of Congress hostage because of the “stolen election” narrative, because I guess what else is there to do, really, when nothing matters anymore and you have hoovered in all the psyop and you are itching to use the barrels of emergency rations buried somewhere in the hills behind your house. 

But no, we won’t talk about this. We don’t talk about how Trump pardoned the central figures in this odious sh*t circus before he left office, leaving them free agents for ongoing Kremlin operations. We don’t talk about how the bottom-of-the-barrel intelligence appointees lied to the American public and twisted intelligence before the election to create false perceptions of threats to the nation. None of these people have faced any scrutiny or costs for their actions. Nay, they are heroes in the split-world information domain where the attack on the Capitol was staged by antifa. Everyday they fight to prove they are really the good guys after all.

Well, the election report should blow all that up. 

This is a major, deep, serious national security emergency facing our nation. Why aren’t we treating it that way?

Yes, Russia was still trying to amplify divisions in American society, and viewed Biden as worse for them than Trump, and dusted off the “how to discredit the election if Clinton wins” playbook. But the key point in the section on Russia was that the Kremlin does these things to influence US decision-making. To alter and impact how we assess our interests and our policies. And all I can say is: the Biden administration needs to resist this urge for interests-based dealmaking with Russia that excludes addressing core issues like attacks on the American homeland, public, and elections. 

Right now, the report assesses, it is low risk for the Kremlin to continue all these operations because the situation is already bad. We have to raise the cost and change that math. For the Kremlin — and for Kremlin proxies. 

Key Judgment 3: Iran 

Trump was surrounded by Iran-obsessives who at various points threatened and planned a range of strikes and measures against Iran. That Tehran was glad to see the backside of them is no mystery. 

These Iranian efforts are not at all comparable in scope, scale, resources, reach, or tactics as the Russian operations. They were sitting way outside the Green Zone lobbing in grenades with cyber tools, not trying to replicate the Russian ground game or infiltration. That Supreme Leader Khamenei “probably authorized” these operations is notable. While Russian influence and interference efforts remain the most aggressive and highly-integrated around parallel lines effort, these Iranian efforts must remain an issue of discussion in any renewed bilateral dialogue with Iran, just as they should with Russia. 

This description of direct emails sent by Iran to Americans is an interesting example of how malign actors can try to evade attempts to prevent their interference, and an example of how actors other than Russia seek to exploit our perceptions and biases. But this chess was definitely too many dimensions and targeting the wrong audience, in my opinion. The psychology behind it was lazy, not properly leveraging any of the activated narratives and triggers in the right way. 

In this space, though, we must be cautious, because it is hard to observe without reporting from targets — and Americans must be able to more easily report and flag suspected influence efforts received via email, text messages, and encrypted comms to authorities who collect and map them. 

Key Judgement 4: China 

Again, the assessment here is that China saw no benefit in active, specific election interference and relied instead on other influence efforts already in place to influence US policy and gather intelligence that can inform those efforts. You may recall how many Trump administration officials and allies tried to represent this intelligence as China being the greater threat during the elections. Turns out that was not actually true. None of this is to minimize serious, systemic efforts by China to cultivate assets and gather intelligence. But the attempts by the Trump administration to divert attention from Russia to China should be called out for what they were. 

As stated above, it isn’t good news that China thinks its existing influence efforts in the United States are sufficient to preclude higher-risk behaviors. We need to understand these lines of effort in much more granular detail. And it’s notable, for example, that China believes its elite-focused engagement strategies preempt the need for broader direct public influence — though certainly this influence is exerted in other ways, especially in sports and entertainment and academic investments that aim for longer-term rewards. 

Chinese activities are defined by caution and a longer-term horizon. They can wait rather than take unnecessary risks, and they can invest significant resources in how they seek to influence US decision-making. They were over the chaos of Trump, ready for a “normal” administration again. “Predictable” seems to be the word of focus in this and earlier assessments. The way I think about it is that Russia is always the disruptor, happy to burn down the rules, while China is best at the rules, understanding how to use the cover of the rules to their advantage as they advance their strategic interests in equally malign ways. But their calculus was that “keep calm and carry on” delivered the best value for them during the US elections — which we should understand as meaning that they are invested in many other means of influence, rather than absent from the scene. 

Key Judgment 5: other actors

This last section runs through a handful of state and non-state actors that may have been active during the period of the US elections — though I will just say, I don’t think this list is comprehensive, highlighting the clumsy efforts of some b-tier adversarial powers that had been noted in other reporting. The note about likely informal state affiliations of “independent” hacker groups is an important one. 

The bottom line is: lots of people will try to influence US opinion as it relates to important events like elections as long as they perceive few costs for doing so. 

This is essentially the summary, from earlier in the report: 

We’re watching more closely so we see more activity, but more actors are using these tools to shape outcomes and no longer view them as particularly off-limits. 

This is a terrible state affairs. 

* * * * *

So, what now? A few thoughts for the new administration: 

  • We must be aggressive and creative in defining costs for election interference and malign influence campaigns, and ensure those issues are always on the agenda when engaging foreign powers who are using them to target Americans, particularly in the context of great power competition. In a recent interview, President Biden said that Putin will pay a price for this interference. It needs to be visible if it is going to discourage other from emulating these tactics. 

  • The 30,000-foot placeholder concepts provide positive framing for potential policy developments, but essential personnel are urgently needed on key portfolios in foreign affairs. The Biden administration should closely coordinate messaging and responses to foreign interference and malign influence efforts so they are consistent throughout all US engagements.

  • Foreign influence operations, particularly those by Russia and China, should be better mapped and assessed consistently by US intelligence with a whole-of-government collaborative effort, not only focusing on elections but other strategic objectives. And the more that the government can communicate to the public about these efforts, especially their tactics and objectives, the better off we will be. Within government, these assessments should be clear about how these efforts seek to shape US policy decision-making. 

But, finally, we must consider what to do about the Kremlin shills and ghouls — particularly those with security clearances who maintain elected office and committee assignments where they can influence lawmaking and tie up legislative process in ways we should have deep questions about. If they do not have the judgment to understand how they have been instrumentalized as the asset of a foreign power, then how are they fit to serve? We’re far beyond the days of the Rohrabachers and Gabbards and Pauls loitering around the fringes and carrying messages back and forth for unsavory dictators. There are now a series of politicians who have built their domestic influence around their foreign collaborations. And this is deeply troubling. 

And what about all of those in the public domain? The media outlets and personalities and influencers running Kremlin narrative to American audiences without needing disclaimers. The political operatives and strategists who helped connect all the pieces and field the campaign, turning energy in the information domain into kinetic action, when necessary. The people meeting directly with Russian operatives like it was all no big deal. Who carry everything forward to the right of every boom. Because, to be clear, many of them were doing the same things in 2016, too. 

We have seen the cost. We need a whole-of-society resilience-building effort to limit the ability of foreign influence campaigns to pull us awry. 

The findings of the election report remind us how very far we are from achieving this goal. It must be a top priority for the new administration.