Last week, special counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russians who are accused of helping orchestrate the greatest foreign threat to U.S. democracy in modern history.
In his first year in office, President Donald Trump incorrectly called Russia’s attack on American democracy a hoax 44 times. He tweeted that “Russia talk is FAKE NEWS put out by the Dems.”
The indictment document blows up such absurd myths once and for all. It connects names with dates and events, describes Russian-organized real-world rallies that Americans attended, and chronicles stolen identities and nefarious bank transfers.
Americans of all political stripes must see this charging document as a wake-up call. We must not let partisan divides between Republicans and Democrats blind us to the threat, nor bind us to inaction.
We’re in a fight to save our democracy from foreign attacks - and currently we are doing absolutely nothing to fight back.
Mueller’s indictment outlines a sophisticated operation with three primary goals: to help elect Donald Trump as president of the United States; to undermine faith in our democratic institutions; and to stoke polarization by turning Americans against one another. Each of these goals shares a common overarching aim: to weaken the United States by sowing chaos and division in ways that benefit Russia.
According to the federal charges, Russians organized pro-Trump rallies. Their operatives were directed to “use any opportunity to criticize Hillary” Clinton on social media. They communicated with “unwitting members” of the Trump campaign and got them to spread Russia-created content. They worked to spread lies about voter fraud around the same time that Trump began spreading those lies himself. And they even paid Americans to attend pro-Trump rallies, including one who was paid to attend a rally dressed up as Clinton in a prison uniform.
Millions of people, online and offline, had interactions with people they believed to be Americans who were actually Russians, bots created by them or actual Americans unwittingly paid by Russians.
We will never know for sure whether the Kremlin’s influence campaign proved decisive in a close election decided by roughly 80,000 voters across three states. But that’s beside the point; we don’t absolve attempted murder just because the victim happens to survive.
But to suggest, as many in Trumpworld do, that not a single American voter was swayed by this three-year-long, carefully orchestrated, wide-reaching information-warfare campaign is a dangerous fantasy - because it downplays the menace that this new kind of threat poses to our democratic system. I
f you successfully attack the democratic system, you attack the mechanism by which every other decision is made, from tax policy to nuclear weapons. Imagine Pearl Harbor, except that the proverbial flames could engulf our ability to make our own free-thinking democratic choices for years.
Trump and his ardent supporters, of course, are eager to downplay the threat. Because the Russians tried to help Trump win, they want to pretend it was minor, unimportant and unworthy of a response.
That helps explain why Trump failed to impose sanctions that Congress passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, why he bizarrely proposed setting up a joint cybersecurity task force with the same government that conducted a major cyberattack against the United States and why he keeps acting as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s chief apologist in the West.
But we cannot afford to view foreign attacks on U.S. democracy through a partisan lens. U.S. intelligence leaders warned this week that the Kremlin’s operations continue today.
It’s striking that the indictment says the Russian operatives stoked polarization by backing left-wing political events after Trump was elected, hoping to drive a wedge between Americans. Russia benefits if American society tears itself apart, holding rallies to attack one another rather than rallying together to protect democracy from foreign attacks.
Brian Klaas is a fellow in Comparative Politics at the London School of Economics and Political Science.