The National Intelligence Council has released an unclassified report assessing, retrospectively, foreign threats to the 2020 election. It has a few twists and turns: The Iranian government attempted to run some kind of online influence campaign; the Chinese government considered doing the same but then dropped the idea. But most of the report is about Russia. Unlike in 2016, Russian intelligence operatives weren’t in the business of hacking and leaking this time around. Instead they concentrated on planting what they would call kompromat. The NIC focuses in particular on the activity of Andriy Derkach, a Russian agent and Ukrainian citizen who used former President Donald Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to spread disinformation about Joe Biden and his family. The report also mentions Konstantin Kilimnik, another Russian agent, who was playing the same game.
When I read the report, my instinctive reaction was I know all of this already. No wonder the story is familiar—most of it appeared in newspapers as it was unfolding. Giuliani’s contacts with Derkach can’t be described as an open secret, because they weren’t secret at all. In 2019 the two men appeared together on the One American News Network, a far-right channel that breathlessly described Derkach as part of a group of “actual whistleblowers,” talked about the “impeachment hoax,” and referred to the FBI’s “personal hatred for Donald Trump.” Giuliani and Derkach provided the channel with doctored tapes and other material designed to create the impression that Biden was somehow involved in corruption in Ukraine.
Kilimnik, too, has become an old and familiar face in American politics, one that appears in election after election. During the 2016 campaign, Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, passed polling information to him. Although this fact turned up in former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of the 2016 election, nobody has ever explained why Kilimnik wanted this polling information or what he might have done with it. Now here he is, back again, front and center in 2020. The new report says that—in addition to providing kompromat to OANN—Kilimnik, Derkach, and others “met with and provided materials to Trump administration–linked US persons to advocate for formal investigations; hired a US firm to petition US officials; and attempted to make contact with several senior US officials.”
All of that helps explain why my second reaction was If I know this already, and none of it seems to matter, then something is seriously wrong with the American political system. If the link between Russian security services and the stories about the Biden family was bleedingly obvious at the time, why did anyone go along with it? Why were American journalists, American politicians, and the American president’s advisers messing around with Russian intelligence agents?
The problem is not only the outgrowth of the peculiar climate created by Donald Trump—however simple and satisfying such an explanation might be. Think, for a moment, about why the Russian state indulges in this kind of activity, year in and year out, despite the political costs and the risk of sanctions: Because it’s very cheap, it’s very easy, and a lot of evidence suggests that it works. [Continue reading…]