In a series of exclusive interviews, former Fox News Channel chief political correspondent Carl Cameron explained to ThinkProgress how the Russians coordinated their cyber attack on the 2016 election with the Trump campaign.
“Trump confidant Roger Stone’s success was having the connections and creating the opportunities for [Russian intelligence officer] Guccifer2.0 and other Russian groups to really start taking advantage of social media and pounding these negative memes that Hillary’s a crook, et cetera,” Cameron explained to ThinkProgress’ Joe Romm — as related in the new book, How to Go Viral and Reach Millions.
Russian interference was decisive in electing Trump, as former director of national intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. told PBS in late May. “To me, it just exceeds logic and credulity that they didn’t affect the election, and it’s my belief they actually turned it,” Clapper said.
How the Trump campaign and the Russians coordinated their message
In his interviews with ThinkProgress, Cameron, who covered the Trump campaign for Fox News, connected the dots between the campaign, Russian intelligence, and the various Russian trolls around the world who were creating and viralizing memes and fake news on social media to help elect Trump.
Cameron explained that getting Trump elected had been a major goal of long-time Trump adviser and surrogate Roger Stone. Stone had encouraged Trump to run for years, and in 2000 he worked on Trump’s brief run for the Reform Party presidential nomination. He worked for Trump’s presidential campaign in 2015 before transitioning to a more informal advisory role.
Cameron has followed this dynamic for decades. After working in New Hampshire radio and TV starting in 1985, Cameron was one of Fox News’ original hires. He has covered every presidential campaign for them starting in 1996.
In 2016, Cameron explained, Stone helped Guccifer2.0 — who worked for Russian intelligence — and other Russian-backed groups boost an anti-Clinton narrative online targeted at key groups. Stone direct-messaged with Guccifer2.0 and WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange on Twitter in August 2016.
Stone denies this was collusion, but as Cameron explains, “it’s important to know that Roger’s entire career was based on doing dirty tricks. He boasted about it from the time he was in college until today.”
Guccifer2.0, who claimed credit for giving WikiLeaks the DNC’s stolen emails, had been masquerading as a self-described “lone hacker.” Stone amplified that phony narrative in an August piece for Breitbart News, Steve Bannon’s viral pro-Trump fake news site. In a piece headlined “Dear Hillary: DNC Hack Solved, So Now Stop Blaming Russia,” Stone asserted: “I think I’ve got the real culprit. It doesn’t seem to be the Russians that hacked the DNC, but instead a hacker who goes by the name of Guccifer2.0.”
But FBI investigators were able to track Guccifer2.0 online and determined he was an officer of Russian military intelligence, as the Daily Beast reported in 2018. Significantly, on August 4, 2016, Stone sent an email to former Trump adviser Sam Nunberg saying, “I dined with my new pal Julian Assange last nite.”
The email also suggested Assange had material that could help Trump overcome Clinton’s big lead in the polls. On the same day, Stone appeared on the conspiracy theory pro-Trump InfoWars radio show and explained Assange had “devastating” information about “Clinton Foundation scandals.”
Stone claimed that while the Clinton campaign argued there was no proof of those scandals, “I think Julian Assange has that proof and I think he is going to furnish it for the American people.” Stone also said he spoke with Trump a day earlier, on August 3.
On August 10, Stone told a local Florida GOP group, “I’ve actually communicated with Julian Assange.” CNN points out that on August 12, Stone said he knew Assange had some of Clinton’s emails, “and I believe he will expose the American people to this information in the next 90 days.” On August 14, Stone exchanged direct messages with Guccifer2.0. And on August 21, Stone tweeted, “It will soon be Podesta’s time in the barrel,” implying Stone had early inside knowledge that Podesta’s emails had been stolen — which they had been, also by the GRU.
Late last month, emails obtained by the Wall Street Journal revealed that Stone withheld documents from the House Intelligence Committee that showed he lied about his communications with radio host Randy Credico, who he viewed as a back channel to WikiLeaks during the campaign.
In mid-September, Stone emailed Credico, who had interviewed Assange weeks earlier, and asked him to “Please ask Assange for any State or HRC e-mail from August 10 to August 30 — particularly on August 20, 2011.” That contradicts Stone’s September 2017 House testimony that he “merely wanted confirmation” from Credico that Assange had information about Clinton.
Indeed, in one of his responses, Credico made clear he was a back channel to Assange’s team: “That batch probably coming out in the next drop… I can’t ask them favors every other day. I asked one of his lawyers… they have major legal headaches right now..relax.”
On October 1, Stone tweeted “Wednesday@HillaryClinton is done. #Wikileaks.”
Within days, the Podesta emails were made public by WikiLeaks with perfect timing for Trump — one hour after Trump’s infamous Access Hollywood tape was made public on October 7. They became a key part of the narrative used to drown out the negative attention Trump’s remarks were getting with a deluge of social media alternative story lines.
And no one did more to help WikiLeaks go viral than Trump himself — as ThinkProgress pointed out in a piece headlined, “Trump mentioned WikiLeaks 164 times in last month of election, now claims it didn’t impact one voter.” Trump spoke about the WikiLeaks emails or their content over and over again from October 10 to election day in speeches, media appearances, and debates. He said: “Boy, that WikiLeaks has done a job on her, hasn’t it?”; and “We love WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks.”; and “The media is an extension of the Clinton campaign as WikiLeaks has proven, and they will not talk about WikiLeaks.”
Of course, Trump had publicly asked for Russian help with Clinton’s emails. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press,” Trump said on July 29. Hours later, he tweeted “If Russia or any other country or person has Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 illegally deleted emails, perhaps they should share them with the FBI!”
But Stone and Trump were hardly the only members of the campaign working to coordinate messaging with the Russians and their operatives. George Papadopoulos, a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser, told an Australian diplomat in May 2016 that the Russians had a lot of dirt on Clinton in the form of thousands of emails stolen to embarrass her — and that he had learned about this weeks earlier directly from Russians associated with the Kremlin.
On March 27, 2018, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team filed court documents asserting that Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort and his deputy, Rick Gates, were communicating with someone (“Person A”) who the FBI said “has ties to a Russian intelligence service and had such ties in 2016.” The filing indicates one of Gates’ associates stated “that Gates told him Person A was a former Russian intelligence officer with the GRU.”
Manafort and Gates had both been indicted by a grand jury in 2017 and 2018 for multiple counts of bank fraud and conspiracy committed during their years working as “unregistered foreign agents” for the pro-Russian government of Ukraine. Gates pleaded guilty to two felonies — lying to investigators and conspiracy. A 2018 court filing by Mueller revealed that Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had written a memo in August 2017 authorizing Mueller to investigate Manafort for alleged “crime or crimes colluding with Russian government officials with respect to the Russian government’s efforts to interfere with the 2016 election.” In the filing, Mueller explains “the investigation covers ties that Manafort had to Russian-associated political operatives, Russian-backed politicians, and Russian oligarchs.”
Manafort was in the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting where Donald Trump Jr. and the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, met with a Russian lawyer connected to the Kremlin (and four other Russians) after being promised in an email “official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.” Trump Jr. responded to that email, “if it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer” — yet another example of message coordination.
Later, when the news of that meeting broke, the White House issued a statement claiming it was about adoption of Russian babies. We subsequently learned that Trump insisted on putting out this false statement — and Mueller is likely investigating whether that might be part of an obstruction of justice case against the president.
But while the White House had repeatedly denied the president wrote his son’s statement, the New York Times reported Saturday that Trump’s legal team wrote a memo to Mueller in in late January admitting Trump did dictate it.
The president, Roger Stone, and other campaign officials have put a lot of effort into lying about their meetings and contact with Russians linked directly to the Kremlin and its cyber attack on the United States. But they put even more effort into coordinating their message with the Russians. It will be up to Mueller to determine just how extensive that coordination was.
As Cameron explained to ThinkProgress, a key goal of this coordination was to create opportunities for Russian intelligence and Russian trolls. The point was to viralize the anti-Clinton memes and narratives to suppress the vote for her.
It’s no secret the Trump campaign was running a major effort to suppress Clinton’s vote through negative messaging. In fact, nearly two weeks before the election, Bloomberg ran a lengthy article on the Trump campaign that quoted a “senior official” saying, “We have three major voter suppression operations under way.” The article explains that “Trump’s invocation at the debate of Clinton’s WikiLeaks e-mails… was designed to turn off Sanders supporters.”
The role of Cambridge Analytica
Cameron added one more key point involving Cambridge Analytica, the “big data” firm that the Trump campaign had hired to help micro-target voters with messages tailored and tested to persuade them.
The company had built a vast database of more than 10 million persuadable voters to target using its analysis of their demographic information and psychological profiles developed from Facebook and other data. But in March, a major New York Times investigation revealed that much of that data was obtained fraudulently.
Cambridge Analytica, which had been backed by billionaire conservative donor Robert Mercer and had former Trump strategist Steve Bannon on its board, was already under investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller for possible connections to Russian interference in the election.
The Trump campaign paid the company millions of dollars in the closing months of the campaign. But they were worth the price, Cameron explained to ThinkProgress — according to the senior campaign officials he spoke to at the time.
The campaign knew Trump was behind in the key states of North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan with over two months to go, but they were not able to budge the numbers despite all of Trump’s efforts, including repeated campaign visits. Too many voters simply didn’t like Trump.
But with the help of Cambridge Analytica’s voter profiling, the campaign could identify a core group of voters who didn’t much like either Trump or Clinton, particularly blue-collar voters, and micro-target them with tailor-made anti-Clinton messages aimed at swinging some toward Trump and depressing the vote of the rest. Cameron said the senior people in the campaign believe this final push made the difference.
Indeed, as CNN noted after the election, the nearly 18 million voters who disliked both candidates “may have decided the election.” CNN explained that “this disillusioned group — 14 percent of all voters — broke heavily for Trump: 69 percent to 15 percent.” In addition, “About 1 in 7 in this group voted for someone other than the major party candidates.”
In short, the Russian efforts to viralize anti-Clinton memes and the campaign’s efforts to micro-target voters with Cambridge Analytica appear to have been decisive. That’s quite a sobering thought given that both efforts were fraudulent and possibly even illegal.
This post has been updated.
NOTE: Former Fox News correspondent Carl Cameron is now Chief Communications Officer at New Frontier Data, a big data company for which ThinkProgress’ Joe Romm is an adviser. The views expressed here are theirs alone.