Congress

Senate Intel's newest Russia report undermines pro-Trump conspiracy theories

Mark Warner and Richard Burr

The Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday unveiled a sweeping new bipartisan report detailing Russian efforts to boost Donald Trump's White House bid on social media during the 2016 U.S. elections, dealing an indirect blow to a push by the president and his allies to shift focus toward claims of anti-Trump meddling by Ukraine.

The report corroborates past findings by researchers and the intelligence community that the notorious Internet Research Agency troll farm, as the committee wrote, "sought to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election by harming Hillary Clinton's chances of success and supporting Donald Trump at the direction of the Kremlin."

The findings mark the second installment of the committee's five-part report outlining the scope of Russian election meddling in 2016, the result of an expansive investigation that has spanned over two years and included interviews with over 200 witnesses. The committee in July unveiled the first chapter, which detailed Russian efforts to attack state elections systems and spread disinformation. The second installment focuses on the Kremlin's documented attempts to sow political discord on social media.

The report arrives as Trump and his allies have sought to publicly downplay the role the Kremlin played in the 2016 elections and amp up scrutiny of unsubstantiated theories that Ukraine may have sought to interfere to undermine the president's candidacy. Some Ukrainian officials have been linked to anti-Trump messaging going into the 2016 election, but there's no evidence of collusion between Ukraine and U.S. Democrats, as Trump and some of his associates have proposed.

Such claims have played a key role in the House's rapidly unfolding impeachment inquiry, which centers on Trump's efforts to have Ukraine investigate 2020 Democratic frontrunner Joe Biden. Attorney General William Barr is also embarked on a probe into the origins of the Robert Mueller-led inquiry into Russian meddling, suggesting it may have been politically motivated rather than a sincere attempt to confront an actual threat.

The report dispenses with deflections, however, and reiterates the widely held consensus that Russia launched a coordinated attack on the integrity of the 2016 election. It comes with the sign-off of the full Senate Intelligence Committee, including members like Trump-friendly Sens. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and John Cornyn (R-Texas), who have taken to the press to explain the president's questioning of Russian meddling and apparent invitations to Ukraine and China to investigate Biden as either jokes or legitimate fields of inquiry.

And it stresses that the threat of foreign electioneering is far from over.

The GOP-led panel outlined recommendations for how legislators, the federal government and tech companies can combat future online meddling, including calling on the Trump administration "reinforce with the public the danger of attempted foreign interference in the 2020 election."

The committee called on candidates running for office and their campaigns to more carefully probe the information they share on social media to prevent the spread of election-related disinformation — an effort Democratic presidential candidates say has been under siege by Trump and his campaign’s postings on Ukraine and other issues.

“It’s time for Trump to stop using Twitter to play into our adversaries’ hands,” Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who sits on Senate Intel, tweeted after the report debuted. “With every deranged tweet, he advances foreign interests by dividing Americans.”

Additionally, the report urges tech firms to share more information with government agencies to thwart foreign disinformation efforts, and for lawmakers to consider legislation to better facilitate that sharing. It also calls on the executive branch to establish an interagency task force dedicated to monitoring and deterring foreign interference efforts online.

“Any solution has to balance America’s national security interests with our constitutionally-protected right to free speech," Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said in a statement. "Social media companies, federal agencies, law enforcement, and Congress must work together to address these challenges, and I am grateful for the cooperation our Committee has gotten from both the Intelligence Community and the tech industry."