Former FBI agent: Russia helped Trump get elected

Former FBI agent: Russia helped Trump get elected
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A former FBI special agent who tracked the online activity of extremist groups in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election said this week that he believes Russian hacking and disinformation campaigns in 2016 helped President TrumpDonald John TrumpEsper sidesteps question on whether he aligns more with Mattis or Trump Warren embraces Thiel label: 'Good' As tensions escalate, US must intensify pressure on Iran and the IAEA MORE get elected.

“Yes. I think just alone the hacking, particularly of the [Democratic National Committee] and the time to release by WikiLeaks and DCLeaks and others of hacked materials offset the media narrative,” Clint Watts said on the Yahoo News podcast “Bots & Ballots" when asked if Russian hacking efforts helped Trump get elected.

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“If you go back to the infamous ‘Access Hollywood’ tape of Donald Trump, it was immediately followed by the release, within an hour I believe, of hacked emails to try and distract from that narrative, and to essentially inundate that media space with other coverage," he added.

Watts, who has been a staunch critic of Trump, looked into the online activities of groups like al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) during the 2016 presidential campaign, Yahoo reported. He was also among the first to track Russian bots operating social media campaigns and he testified on his findings before the Senate Intelligence Committee in March 2017.

Watts added that the FBI had taken note of Russia's disinformation campaign on social media in 2014. 

“That’s when you saw the message start to pop up that the [Syrian President Bashar] Assad regime needs to stay in power, and the signatures didn’t look quite right,” Watts said. “So when we stayed on that storm of social media accounts, they always supported a narrative that was always pro-Russian." 

Watts said the messaging from those accounts gradually began to shift, with the themes being about social issues inside the U.S. He added that many agents in the FBI believed the biggest goal for Russia was to advance Trump's presidential bid. 

His comments, which align with the U.S. intelligence community's assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 election with the goal of helping Trump win, come as Trump continues to attack special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerTop Republican considered Mueller subpoena to box in Democrats Kamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump MORE's probe into Russia's election interference.

Trump and his allies have railed against the special counsel investigation and have launched broader attacks against perceived bias among law enforcement officials who were connected to the early stages of the probe.

Conservative lawmakers have blasted the FBI over private, anti-Trump text messages between agents during the 2016 election. They've also pointed to a Justice Department Inspector General report, released in mid-June, that criticized the FBI's handling of the probe into Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonWhy Trump's bigoted tropes won't work in 2020 The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by JUUL Labs - House to vote to condemn Trump tweet GOP put on the back foot by Trump's race storm MORE's use of a private email server while secretary of State.

The inspector general's report said the conduct of the two FBI officials who exchanged the critical texts was “antithetical to the core values of the FBI and the Department of Justice” and cast a “cloud” over the Clinton email probe, but found no evidence that political bias affected the investigation.

Trump initially refused to denounce Russia for interfering in the 2016 election while appearing in a joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin in July. He walked back the comments multiple times in the following days, but has continued to criticize the investigation. 

On July 22, Trump tweeted, "So President Obama knew about Russia before the Election. Why didn’t he do something about it? Why didn’t he tell our campaign?"

"Because it is all a big hoax," he said, "that’s why, and he thought Crooked Hillary was going to win!!!" 

Trump has continued to label the Russia investigation a "witch hunt" and on Wednesday called for Attorney General Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsPress: Acosta, latest to walk the plank The Hill's Morning Report — Trump retreats on census citizenship question Alabama senator says Trump opposed to Sessions Senate bid MORE to end it "right now."

Sessions, who previously served as an adviser to the Trump campaign, recused himself from probes involving Russia last year, leaving Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod RosensteinFeds will not charge officer who killed Eric Garner The Hill's Morning Report — Trump retreats on census citizenship question Judiciary issues blitz of subpoenas for Kushner, Sessions, Trump associates MORE to oversee the special counsel probe.