In a remarkable moment, one key witness, Clinton Watts, a senior fellow at the George Washington Center for Cyber and Homeland Security, bluntly informed Sen. Marco Rubio, who serves on the Intelligence Committee, that as one of Trump’s presidential primary opponents, Rubio “suffered from” Russian disinformation efforts. (Although Watts wasn’t specific about those efforts, later in the day Rubio charged that Russian hackers have conducted unsuccessful cyber attacks on his former presidential campaign staffers.)
According to Watts (who was backed up by other witnesses who testified), the Russians have been using “active measures,” which are built on propaganda tactics that date back to Soviet times, to spread disinformation, fear, confusion, and chaos in multiple democratic countries, including the United States.
These efforts include the use of visible Kremlin propaganda outlets, such as RT and Sputnik, to publish false news stories and conspiracy theories. Russian actors then deploy social media bots to spread these false stories far and wide. In the U.S., Watts said, the goal has been to provoke the Trump into repeating them or retweeting them to his millions of followers.
In a moment that stunned the hearing room, Watts flatly stated that the president himself has become a cog in such Russian measures. When asked by Oklahoma Republican James Lankford, who appeared visibly dismayed, why, if Russians have long used these methods, they finally worked in this election cycle, Watts’ answer was extraordinary.
“I think this answer is very simple and is one no one is really saying in this room,” he said. Part of the reason, he went on, “is the commander in chief has used Russian active measures at times against his opponents.”
To buttress the claim that Trump (unwittingly or not) aided Russian disinformation efforts, Watts cited several instances. Among them: Trump’s citation of an apparently false Sputnik story at an October 2016 campaign appearance; his ongoing denial before and after the campaign of U.S. intelligence of Russian interference in the election; his claims of voter fraud and election rigging, which Watts said was pushed by RT and Sputnik; and Trump’s questioning of the citizenship of former President Barack Obama and even his primary rival Ted Cruz.
Watts added that one of the reasons such tactics are working is that Trump and/or his surrogates have repeated some of the claims, further spreading them through social media accounts that are owned both by real people and bots. Thus, the disinformation is kept alive and gradually becomes more real and plausible. “Part of the reason active measures work is because they parrot the same lines,” Watts said.