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A blockbuster document purportedly from the Kremlin raises lots of questions — about itself

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 7/15/2021 Philip Bump
Vladimir Putin wearing a suit and tie sitting in front of a curtain: Russian President Vladimir Putin answers journalists' questions about his article titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” in Saint Petersburg on July 13. (Alexey Nikolsky/Sputnik/AFP/Getty Images) © Alexey Nikolsky/AFP/Getty Images Russian President Vladimir Putin answers journalists' questions about his article titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians” in Saint Petersburg on July 13. (Alexey Nikolsky/Sputnik/AFP/Getty Images)

Since the Russian effort to interfere in the 2016 election first emerged that year, there’s been a lot of blurriness about the two main activities it involved. There was the social media push, centered on elevating and exacerbating existing tensions in American society, particularly on race. Then there was the hacking of the email account of a senior staffer for Hillary Clinton’s campaign and the computer networks of the Democratic Party. The latter, that hacking, was quickly linked to the Russian government; the former — what many people think of as the critical interference effort, incorrectly — more belatedly was tied to a Kremlin-linked business executive.

There's no serious question it happened, particularly in the wake of subsequent investigations into the interference. There is some question, though, about how it all worked.

On Thursday morning, the Guardian published a document which, if authentic, would answer some of those questions. It purports to be an internal Kremlin memo prepared for a January 2016 meeting and focused on establishing an effort to interfere on Donald Trump’s behalf in the November elections.

Why? For the same reason that the social media effort was apparently undertaken: “A Trump win ‘will definitely lead to the destabilisation of the US’s sociopolitical system’ and see hidden discontent burst into the open, it predicts,” according to the Guardian’s Luke Harding, Julian Borger and Dan Sabbagh.

It has been understood for years that Russian President Vladimir Putin himself authorized the interference effort and that the U.S. government learned this thanks to a person close to the Russian leader. (It’s not clear if this was the person who was extracted from Russia in mid-2017.) If real, the document obtained by the Guardian would seem to bolster confidence in that assessment. (The newspaper reports that “Western intelligence agencies are understood to have been aware of the documents for some months and to have carefully examined them.”)

But it's hard not to be skeptical of the document, for a number of reasons.

First and foremost, it's very neat. As described by the Guardian, it reads like one of those viral Twitter threads from a guy with 4.4 million followers whose bio describes him as “resister-in-chief.” It purportedly describes Trump as “unstable” and “mentally unstable,” descriptors that will make any number of Trump haters throw up their hands in exasperated appreciation. The Guardian goes out of its way to explain this as “characteristic of Kremlin spy agency analysis,” but, again: convenient for generating enthusiasm.

More to that point is the vague reference to compromising material on Trump collected during “non-official visits to Russian Federation territory,” the long-sought kompromat of legend. But while the document takes great pains to detail Trump's psychological quirks, it shunts this damning evidence off to an attachment — an attachment that, lamentably, wasn't included with the leaked document.

As reported by the Guardian, the document also shows a remarkable perspicacity on the part of the Russian government.

In retrospect, the prediction that a Trump victory would “lead to … destabilisation” and push “hidden discontent” to the surface seems to be accurate. But that’s with the hindsight of reading it in 2021. In January 2016, before Trump was the Republican nominee, much less the president-elect, that prediction becomes far more impressive. Almost unbelievably so.

There's no telling why a secret government document might emerge at any particular time, but it is odd that this document, so closely related to the national discourse over the past five years, only emerged now. It was purportedly leaked from within the Kremlin, but that happened only now? Or it only trickled down to the media now, when so many other things emerged more quickly? It's curious.

The document doesn’t do much to confirm what we know about the interference effort, but it does help bolster the idea that Russia had a deep understanding of U.S. politics, an array of information about its leaders and the ability to insert itself into our system. It gives Russia renewed credit for its efforts at a moment when there’s a new American president who has confronted Putin and Russia. Of course, it also stimulates the divisive debate about the dossier of documents compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, the original source of the idea that Russia held incriminating material targeting Trump.

A more interesting question about timing goes back to the original distinction between the social media effort and the hacking. The latter began in mid-March 2016, according to the investigation conducted by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, though there was evidence of an intrusion the prior year. The social media effort began even earlier, with participants traveling to the United States in 2014 and the effort itself beginning with paid ads on social networks in 2015. Weirdly, the Guardian document reportedly includes a discussion of “how Russia might insert ‘media viruses’ into American public life” — an effort that had already been underway since the first half of 2014.

At the start, the focus of the social media push was largely on race. On Feb. 10, 2016, staff at the Internet Research Agency, the group running the program, began circulating a memo focused on politics, including a call to “use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except [Sen. Bernie] Sanders and Trump — we support them).” If the Guardian document is accurate, this suggests that an existing program was repurposed to new ends. The meeting in the Kremlin at which that document (which apparently doesn’t mention Clinton) was first discussed, though, was on Jan. 22, 2016. According to the Guardian, those present for the meeting were sent away with the mandate that they return with concrete ideas to boost Trump by Feb. 1. Just over one short week later, this had apparently trickled down to the Internet Research Agency as a mandate.

Maybe. But now we have to point out an earlier time that the Guardian had a big scoop on the question of Russian interference in the election. That was the November 2018 report that Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, had traveled to London and met with Julian Assange at the Ecuadoran Embassy a few months before the release of material hacked by Russia on WikiLeaks, the outlet founded by Assange.

It, too, was a massive allegation — but one that was never substantiated. The evidence was thin at the outset, and it was not corroborated in Mueller’s research or in subsequent reporting. It was quickly embraced for how tightly it tied Trump’s campaign to the Russian effort, but it’s hard to assume that it’s accurate. No correction or retraction was offered, so the Guardian clearly stands by it.

The lead reporter on that report was Harding, also the lead reporter on the Kremlin document story.

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