Russia, Russia, Russia

You can almost picture it: Donald Trump, in a Jan-like tone, exasperated by the perennial rerun.

“Russia, Russia, Russia!” he gripes in fury.

The specter of collusion has, indeed, hung over him like a niggling cloud, overshadowing his every move in true Marcia-like fashion.

And, much to his chagrin, Russia is back in the news again this week, with the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s release of a declassified intelligence report on foreign threats to the 2020 elections.

As required by executive order, the Intelligence Community Assessment “addresses key foreign actors’ intentions and efforts to influence or interfere with the 2020 US federal elections or to undermine public confidence in the US election process.”

For purposes of the assessment, election influence is meant to include “overt and covert efforts by foreign governments or actors acting as agents of, or on behalf of, foreign governments intended to affect directly or indirectly a US election—including candidates, political parties, voters or their preferences, or political processes.” Election interference is targeted at the technical aspects of voter registration, the casting and counting of ballots, and the registering and reporting of results.

While the assessment found no evidence that foreign actors attempted to alter any technical aspects of the voting process, foreign actors such as Russia and Iran spread false claims about the compromise of such systems in an effort to undermine public confidence. These efforts were part of an organized influence campaign “aimed at denigrating President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party, supporting former President Trump, undermining public confidence in the electoral process, and exacerbating sociopolitical divisions in the US.”

In 2016, Russia’s efforts centered around gaining access to election infrastructure; in 2020, Russian proxies focused, instead, on pushing misleading or unsubstantiated claims about President Biden “to US media organizations, US officials, and prominent US individuals, including some close to former President Trump and his administration.” These proxies also sought to sow mistrust in the electoral process “by denigrating mail-in ballots, highlighting alleged irregularities, and accusing the Democratic Party of voter fraud.”

Andriy Derkach, the report reveals, played a prominent role in these influence activities, pushing a narrative of corrupt ties between President Biden, his family, and Ukraine, with the help of Konstantin Kilimnik and the pair’s U.S. contacts. These individuals also sought to “discredit the Obama administration by emphasizing accusations of corruption by US officials, and to falsely blame Ukraine for interfering in the 2016 presidential election.”

Derkach and Kilimnik, the report says, “sought to use prominent US persons and media conduits to launder their narratives to US officials and audiences.”

And launder they did.

“These Russian proxies met with and provided materials to Trump administration-linked US persons to advocate for formal investigations … They also made contact with established US media figures and helped produce a documentary that aired on a US television network in late January 2020.”

In addition, online influence actors “promoted conspiratorial narratives about the COVID-19 pandemic, made allegations of social media censorship, and highlighted US divisions surrounding protests about racial justice.”

While the report does not name the U.S. persons or media organizations involved, a brief examination of recent history is illuminative.

For the whole of 2020, Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump, and conservative outlets like OAN marched in lockstep with the Russian propaganda aims listed above.

The late January 2020 documentary referenced? OAN’s “The Ukraine Hoax: Impeachment, Biden Cash, And Mass Murder With Michael Caputo,” which aired on Jan. 25, 2020.

The “prominent U.S. individual” with ties to Derkach? Trump’s attorney, Rudy Giuliani, who worked in concert with Derkach to spread false narratives, even appearing together in an OAN segment.

The individual with ties to Kilimnik? Former Trump campaign chairman and chief strategist Paul Manafort. A man who the Senate Intelligence Committee labeled “a grave counterintelligence threat” due to his “close and lasting relationship” with Kilimnik.

These outlets and individuals not only demonstrated a commitment to spreading Russian propaganda; they were routinely rewarded for it by former President Donald Trump.

Less than three months after the aforementioned documentary ran, Trump named its host, Michael Caputo, to the Department of Health and Human Services top communications position.

He repeatedly promoted OAN on Twitter and in public appearances.

He pardoned Paul Manafort, circumventing the formal clemency process in a move that Republican Sen. Ben Sasse called “rotten to the core.”

According to the Associated Press, “Manafort and Stone are hardly conventional pardon recipients, in part because both were scolded by judges for effectively thumbing their nose at the criminal justice system as their cases were pending. Manafort was accused of witness tampering even after he was indicted and was accused by prosecutors of lying while trying to earn credit for cooperation.”

In fact, Manafort met few, if any, of the Justice Department’s standards for pardon petitions. Yet he was pardoned anyway.

And we needn’t discuss at length the manner in which Donald Trump elevated Rudy Giuliani, despite his public ties to a number of indicted individuals and still others under criminal investigation.

And not only did Donald Trump reward others for spreading Russian propaganda, he regularly spread it himself.

Russia’s goal of deflecting blame by arguing that it was Ukraine that interfered in the 2016 election? Propagated by Donald Trump.

Their plan to advocate for formal investigations of then-candidate Biden? Propagated by Donald Trump.

Their goal of sowing distrust in the electoral process by denigrating mail-in ballots? Propagated by Donald Trump.

Their goal of sowing distrust by pushing unfounded claims of voter fraud? Propagated by Donald Trump.

Their goal of undermining confidence by inventing the claim that systems had been compromised? Propagated by Donald Trump.

Their goal of discrediting the Obama administration by accusing them of corruption? Propagated by Donald Trump.

Their goal of promoting conspiratorial narratives about the COVID-19 pandemic? Propagated by Donald Trump.

Whether he was promoting the falsehood that the CDC, Democrats, and the media were lying about COVID-19 in an effort to influence the election and ravage the economy; that deaths were actually attributable to co-morbidities and not to COVID-19 itself; that the outbreak came from a China lab; or that doctors were improperly inflating COVID-19 deaths in an effort to drive up profits, Trump was one of the biggest purveyors of pandemic-related misinformation.

And he spent a significant portion of 2020 railing against the censorship of conservative voices on social media, long before he, himself, was banned.

In the end, Donald Trump somehow managed to parrot every last talking point propagated by the Russian government and regularly rewarded others who were willing to do the same — others who were close associates of his and also of Russian influence agents.

Is that prima facie evidence of collusion? Not necessarily. Despite the fact that his associates were used as conduits for propaganda, Donald Trump has personally managed to retain a sufficient level of plausible deniability. Regardless, in light of this new intelligence, it would appear that “Russia, Russia, Russia” is a plot point that’s here to stay.

And for a Bunch of reasons.

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