Don’t forget: The Trump campaign gave its most sensitive data to a Russian spy
To foreign spies, President Trump’s relentless assault on the “Russia hoax” is the gift that keeps on giving. Last week, spymasters from Moscow to Beijing no doubt cheered as Trump injected foreign disinformation into the American political system – sowing ever more division in a bitterly divided country – for his personal political gain.
Perhaps worse, Trump’s desperate attempt to rewrite the Russia probe amid a sinking reelection campaign has given hostile intelligence agencies unprecedented visibility into how America’s spies (and spy catchers) conduct their ultra-secretive work.
There can be little doubt that foreign governments have spliced together three years’ worth of selective, politically-motivated disclosures of secret documents to identify and exploit weaknesses in America’s intelligence capabilities.
Worse yet, the cherry-picked release of surveillance transcripts, internal communications, sensitive testimony and meticulously detailed inspector general reports, among a host of other documents, is just the tip of the iceberg.
Trump’s quest to undermine the Russia probe is all the more egregious in light of one simple fact: The investigation was not a hoax. Quite the opposite, in fact. Parts of it did not go nearly far enough.
For one, the Republican-controlled Senate Select Committee on Intelligence found circumstantial evidence that Trump’s 2016 campaign chairman was personally involved in Russia’s assault on the election.
Of the endless Trump-Russia developments over the last four years, Republicans merely raising the possibility of Trump’s top campaign adviser colluding with a hostile foreign power to pervert American democracy is a monumental revelation.
Why this bombshell has not received more attention, nor been deployed every time Trump rambles on about the “Russia hoax,” is inexplicable.
Paul Manafort’s obfuscation and lies to investigators mean that we may never know the true extent of his potential involvement in Russia’s election interference campaign.
But we do know that he used four different encrypted messaging applications, “burner” phones, coded signals and a surreptitious method of passing messages – all hallmarks of espionage tradecraft – to communicate with a Russian spy at the height of the 2016 campaign.
We also know that Manafort’s Russian handler would discuss some topics only in person and repeatedly flew to the United States just to meet with Manafort. After their meetings, they used “separate routes to avoid being seen together.” Perfectly normal behavior of the chairman of a presidential campaign at the height of election season, right?
The chairman of an American presidential campaign maintaining close, surreptitious contact with a Russian spy linked to the Kremlin’s brazen attack on the 2016 election bears repeating – and should raise no shortage of alarm bells. More importantly, it demolishes Trump’s increasingly frantic claims of a Russia “hoax.”
Thanks to Senate Republicans, we also know that “on numerous occasions” Manafort and his deputy passed sensitive Trump campaign information directly to a Russian spy.
It is difficult to overstate the importance of the polling and strategy data that Trump’s top campaign advisers handed to Russian intelligence.
Brad Parscale, who ran the Trump campaign’s data operation in 2016 (and served for a time as Trump’s 2020 campaign manager), testified that a whopping “98 percent” of Trump campaign resources were allocated based on the polling information that Manafort passed to a Russian spy. Indeed, the data was so critical that Parscale kept it at his fingertips to quickly tell Trump where to conduct his next rally.
Manafort, in short, handed the crown jewels of Trump’s game-changing data operation directly to Russian intelligence.
Worse yet, Manafort explained to his Russian confidant exactly how the Trump campaign could win the 2016 election by targeting blue-collar voters in select Democratic-leaning states and counties. Between this information and the ultra-sensitive polling data Manafort gave to his Russian handler, Russia’s spymasters had all they needed to interfere in the election to Trump’s advantage. Indeed, there can be little doubt that the information that Manafort passed to a Russian intelligence was used by operatives in Moscow to micro-target vulnerable voters in key states with millions of dollars in pro-Trump, anti-Hillary ads and messaging.
Since many “interactions between Manafort and [the Russian spy] remain hidden” and Manafort’s motives for lying to investigators are “unknown,” one conclusion seems obvious. Contrary to Trump’s claims of a “Russia hoax,” the FBI’s investigation of Trump’s campaign chairman did not go nearly far enough.
By overruling career intelligence officials – including his own CIA and NSA directors – and ordering the release of Russian disinformation, Trump demonstrated that he has no qualms furthering Moscow’s strategic goal of stoking political division in the United States. He also appears perfectly content to undermine critical institutions – such as the intelligence community – that keep America safe.
All that seems to matter to Trump is scoring a few political points in an increasingly desperate bid to win reelection.
Should he lose on November 3, we can only hope that, for once, Trump places country over his own political and financial fortunes. Unfortunately, the president’s temperament and personality, coupled with an impending $421 million debt bill and potential tax evasion charges, make such an outcome less than likely.
Marik von Rennenkampff served as an analyst with the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation, as well as an Obama administration appointee at the U.S. Department of Defense. Follow him on Twitter @MvonRen.
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