Before Russian propaganda and fake news targeted Hillary Clinton, it went after Republican opponents of Donald Trump, including Sen. Marco Rubio and Sen. Lindsey Graham, as well as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, according to a cyber security expert who testified before the Senate Thursday.
Clint Watts, of George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security, said during a break in a rare Senate Intelligence Committee public hearing that the one constant of the Russian campaign was “pumping up Trump.”
Watts was one of six experts brought before the committee Thursday as Congress’ efforts to investigate Russian election meddling moved to the Senate after 10 days of drama and chaos in the House Intelligence Committee’s probe that appeared to freeze that investigation.
After a public hearing on March 20 where FBI director James Comey said his agents were investigating possible collusion between Russia and the Trump presidential campaign, the House committee’s momentum all but disappeared over the actions of its Republican chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes of California. Nunes announced that he had seen classified documents that suggested Trump transition figures’ names had been shared improperly by intelligence officials, then canceled a public hearing set to take testimony from former Obama officials.
On Thursday, Nunes and Rep. Adam Schiff, the senior Democrat on the committee, agreed to a new witness list. But a “dark cloud” still hung over the House committee, Schiff said, after the New York Times reported that Nunes had been given the classified documents by two White House officials.
Schiff said the White House had invited him and other senior House leaders to view classified documents to determined if the material had dealt properly with the names of Trump transition team members, but he did not know if they were the same documents Nunes had seen last week.
The leaders of the Senate probe had pledged to avoid similar tension in their investigation, and the first day of public testimony seemed intended to do that, offering testimony from experts to help define the history, scope and methods of Russian, or Soviet, efforts to interfere in U.S. politics.
Committee Chairman Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., introduced the testimony as a way to help Americans “establish a foundational understanding” of Russian activities in the 2016 election.
Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., the committee’s senior Democrat, said the Russians in 2016 hacked into Democratic emails, then used the information they obtained to attack Clinton. The also spread false news reports, often targeted to users of social media, to drown out legitimate coverage and “to diminish and undermine our trust in the American media by blurring our faith in what is true, and what is not.”
“This Russian ‘propaganda on steroids’ was designed to poison the national conversation in America,” Warner said. He said that Russian meddling included an intense effort to reduce turnout among likely Clinton voters in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
The experts said research on social media sites might be able to prove or disprove whether the Russian effort was successful in depressing turnout by Clinton voters, but that no one has undertaken such a study. Still, the experts agreed that Russia had attempted to swing the American election with a social media push aimed at hurting Clinton’s credibility.
During his testimony, Watts also said that the Russians had targeted Rubio, who is a member of the committee, in the first public reference to suggest that the meddling also had taken place during the hard fought Republican primary. Afterward, interviewed by reporters, he added that Bush and Graham were targeted in the same way.
Russia’s efforts, he said, were a combination of “pumping up Trump while tamping down the others.”
Watts said that he could not recall the dates and titles of specific propaganda pieces without referring to his records. But he said the other Republican presidential candidates were placed at a disadvantage by a constant flow of pieces that painted Trump in a positive light.
“Sure, the Russians put out some negative information on Trump as well, but it was 90 percent positive,” he said. “They had to put out some negative pieces to maintain credibility for the positive stories.”
Rubio declined to comment on whether he was targeted during the primaries. But he told the committee that in July 2016, after his presidential run had ended, he learned that “former members of my presidential campaign team had been targeted by IP addresses somewhere in Russia.”
He said the attacks happened twice and had been unsuccessful at penetrating their computers.
Kevin Bishop, a spokesman for Graham, who has often maintained that the Russian scandal should be viewed not as a partisan problem but an American one said the senator was “not surprised.”
“Senator Graham has long been one of Putin’s most vocal critics,” he said.
A spokeswoman for Bush, responding to an emailed request for comment, said the former governor had no knowledge of being targeted by a Russian campaign and had not been contacted by the FBI or the Senate committee.
During the hearing, the experts provided examples of the Trump campaign citing Russian propaganda or fake news.
One of those examples was a false report of a terror attack on the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey that Trump’s campaign manager Paul Manafort raised during an August interview on CNN. When asked about another topic, Manafort had tried to change the tone of the discussion. “You had the NATO base in Turkey being under attack by terrorists,” he said.
Trump later made a reference to the same false report at a campaign rally – a week after, Watts said, the reports had been disproved. There had been no attack, though there had been a small, non-violent, protest at the base.
When asked if he thought Trump knew he was quoting Russian propaganda when he talked about Incirlik, he responded “no,” but he had a caveat.
“What I don’t understand is the synchronization,” Watts said, who said he’d been the target of Russian cyber attacks in the past. “I don’t understand how his campaign manager after we had outed the Incirlik incident as fake, after the news had reported it as a fake campaign, one week later cites it on CNN. I don’t understand how he calls that a terror attack, I don’t understand how that ends up on stage.”
Eugene Rumer, an expert from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, testified that “selective naming and shaming – or targeting of political adversaries with false allegations of misconduct – has been used by Russian propaganda to discredit political adversaries in the West.”
“Russian propaganda, and Putin personally, has sought to deflect attention from the fact of the intrusion into the (Democratic National Committee) server and the top leadership of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign,” he said. And, he added, in the end, “Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election is likely to be seen as a major success, regardless of whether its initial goal was to help advance the Trump candidacy.”