Politics & Government

Russia intervened in 2016 and has sights on 2018 elections, Senate Intelligence says

WASHINGTON – After conducting more than 100 interviews and reviewing over 100,000 pages of documents, leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee still cannot rule out the possibility that Donald Trump’s presidential campaign colluded with Russia’s cyber operation aimed at helping him win the White House.

“The issue of collusion is still open,” said Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., the committee’s chairman. “We continue to investigate both intelligence and witnesses. And we’re not in a position to come to any type of finding.”

In a rare press conference, the top lawmakers on the committee — Burr and Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia — said the American intelligence community was correct that Moscow launched an extensive information and influence campaign against American voters in 2016. Critically, Burr said the Russian interference did not change the outcome of the presidential election.

But Burr and Warner warned that Russian operatives aim to affect the 2018 congressional elections as well.

“You cannot walk away from this and believe that Russia is not currently active in trying to create chaos in our election process,” Burr said.

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation aims to uncover how Moscow interfered and whether Trump’s campaign worked with Russian operatives. While the senators confirmed Russian interference, they stopped short of saying Moscow acted specifically to ensure Trump would win the White House.

But Warner painted a picture of widespread Kremlin-driven activity.

“They hacked into political files, released those files, in an effort to influence the election,” Warner said. “We think they actively tried to at least test the vulnerabilities of 21 states’ electoral systems and we feel that they used the social media firms both in terms of paid advertising and – what I believe is more problematic – created false accounts.”

Warner said the aim was to “sow chaos and drive division in our country.”

Burr characterized the 2016 attempts by Moscow as a “very expansive network of Russian interference” that wanted to “create chaos at every level.” He said the fact that Senate Intelligence is investigating shows that Moscow succeeded. He warned that the media has only gotten “glimpses” into their investigation.

Burr added that the committee has “hit a wall” on an unconfirmed dossier on Trump and his relations in Russia written by Christopher Steele last year. Burr said they still don’t know who commissioned the dossier or who Steele’s sources are.

Trump has repeatedly referred to suggestions that Russia interfered in the presidential election as a “hoax” invented by Democrats. Special counsel Robert Mueller has been investigating for months the Trump team’s connections to Russians, and even the possibility of collusion.

Russia-based hackers targeted 21 states during the presidential election – including large political battleground states such as Florida – attempting to gain access to elections systems, according to the Department of Homeland Security.

In closed sessions, the senators have interviewed several key players in the sprawling Russia controversy, including Paul Manafort, the onetime Trump campaign chief who resigned abruptly last August amid press reports that he earned many millions working for the former pro-Russian president of Ukraine who fled to Moscow in early 2014. They’ve also interviewed Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and confidant. Later this month, longtime Trump lawyer Michael Cohen is slated to testify in open session before the Senate committee.

More recently, investigators for the committee and the House Intelligence Committee have sharpened their attention on Russia’s use of social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook. After initially saying their networks played only minor roles in Russia’s disinformation campaigns, both companies are under pressure from the committees to provide more information about Russian-backed messages and ads that sought to pit Americans against each other before, during and after the election.

Facebook officials have said that 10 million people saw Russia-linked advertising that sought to sway the U.S. presidential election on the social media platform, and 44 percent of those were seen before the election. Facebook turned over the 3,000 involved ads to congressional investigators.

The committee would not be releasing any of the ads Facebook provided to the public, Burr said Wednesday, though the social media company was free to do so.

Reports by CNN and NBC News that Russia bought Facebook ads that targeted battleground states including Michigan and Wisconsin, two of the three states that narrowly vaulted Donald Trump into the White House, were confirmed to McClatchy by a source familiar with the matter. The source also said, as NBC reported, that Russian ads appeared to be aimed at states where there had been violent clashes between police and African Americans over police shootings of black people.

Mark Warner criticized Twitter last week for its response to Russian meddling, calling the company’s briefing to congressional investigators “deeply disappointing.” Twitter officials have said they found about 200 accounts that seemed to be part of a Russian campaign to influence the 2016 presidential election, and cybersecurity firms have projected that number is higher.

Twitter’s presentation “showed an enormous lack of understanding from the Twitter team of how serious this issue is, the threat it poses to democratic institutions and again begs many more questions than they offered,” Warner said after that hearing. “Their response was frankly inadequate on every level.”

Russia Today, the Kremlin-backed television network, spent $274,000 on more than 1,800 tweets on Twitter’s network that “definitely or potentially targeted the U.S. market” during the 2016 presidential campaign, Twitter officials have also said.

Google officials said in a statement Friday that they are looking for evidence of Russian meddling within their system, but have not announced any findings.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has invited Google, Facebook and Twitter officials to appear at a public hearing on Nov. 1.

McClatchy Washington reporter Greg Gordon contributed to this report.