On Thursday, the Wall Street Journal published a report that appeared to back up prior claims that Russia had helped derail Mitt Romney’s rumored candidacy for secretary of state in the Trump administration. Citing their own analysis, the Journal reported that Russian trolls “flooded social media to try to block Mitt Romney from securing a top job in the incoming administration.”
As the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer tweeted, the Journal report — which cited three fake Russian Twitter accounts, one fake Russian Facebook page, as well as one event and one petition organized by Russian trolls — “add[ed] credibility” to the report from former intelligence agent Christopher Steele that Moscow had “intervened” to block Romney’s nomination.
The story, in a sense, did add certain credibility to Steele’s memo. After all, the notion of the Kremlin making a move to discourage Romney’s nomination was never entirely far-fetched; Romney’s antipathy toward Moscow was no secret, and Donald Trump’s eventual selection, Rex Tillerson, had an uncomfortably warm relationship with Moscow.
The Journal report, however, doesn’t capture the full picture of Russian trolls’ campaigns against rumored Trump cabinet selections. As ThinkProgress’ survey of the hundreds of thousands of tweets from fake Russian accounts showed, these Russian trolls aimed not just at Romney, but also at U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Nikki Haley, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin — all of whom landed their positions despite the Russian campaigns.
What’s more, there’s no indication anyone actually showed up at the #NeverRomney protest outside Trump Tower, nor do we have any idea how many individuals, if any, actually signed the petition to block Romney’s nomination, each of which were promoted by Russian trolls. As far as the Russian social media efforts are concerned, there’s no evidence that campaign played any role in dissuading Trump from selecting Romney.
Much of the material shared by these fake Russian accounts wasn’t necessarily organic but was, rather, material they opted to retweet from other sources. (As Facebook and Instagram have both refused to release the Russian postings on their platforms, it’s impossible to gain a clear view on all of the posts from fake Russian accounts on these candidates — or on Romney, for that matter — over the past few years.)
By and large, the posts and and retweets by the fake Russian accounts pertaining to Romney opposed his candidacy. As one account retweeted in Nov. 2016, “Romney needs to disappear like Killery not be in our govt. NO NO NO.”
That same day, however, another fake Russian account retweeted a post from @NoParty2016, which read that “If Trump gives Romney /Haley Haley High Profile appointments….he serves 1 term. never be trusted again.” The next day, another fake Russian account retweeted a post from The New York Times’ Jonathan Weisman, which sarcastically noted that “Between Betsy DeVos, Wilbur Ross, Trump, Steve Mnuchin and maybe Mitt Romney, this is going to be quite the working class administration.”
Haley, like Romney, seems to have been an outsized target of the fake Russian Twitter accounts’ vitriol. Among the tweets shared by fake Russian accounts targeting her candidacy:
- “Nikki Haley NEVER ENDORSED Trump Qualified? You knew she was a snake before you let her in.”
- “Trump Campaign shouldn’t consider @nikkihaley she betrayed Trump pushed 4 Amnesty & Demands more Muslim Refugees”
- “@nikkihaley is as big a liar as the RUBE …Anyone surprised? BTW:Nik Tax Attorney disagrees with U”
A series of posts shared by the fake Russian Twitter accounts also tried to push assorted hashtags — like the #NeverRomney tag — aiming at DeVos, including #DumpDevos, #StopDeVos, and #NoDeVos. One post said she was part of Trump’s #SwampCabinet, while another addressed DeVos directly: “Dear @BetsyDeVos, I will not allow you to undermine public schools, and all its teachers and students.”
Mnuchin was another target of the troll campaign. While he didn’t garner the same attention as Romney, Haley, or DeVos, the fake Russian accounts retweeted multiple times a link to a piece from Activist Post, with the headline, “Trump Fills the Swamp With Steven Mnuchin”. (Activist Post was later outed for allowing a Russian operative, posing as a freelance journalist, to pen pieces for their site.)
Again, these tweets are a small part of a much larger operation, of which we still have relatively little understanding. And it of course remains possible that Russia voiced concerns to Trump about Romney’s possible selection as secretary of state.
However, these accounts also aimed at deflating the candidacies of DeVos, Mnuchin, and Haley — the latter of whom has been outspoken in her criticism of Russia. All three nonetheless found themselves as members of Trump’s team.
When it comes to U.S.-Russia relations, those cabinet officials don’t hold anywhere near the sway the secretary of state brings to bear, but their eventual nominations challenge the notion that Russia managed to veto Romney’s nomination — or that Russia’s social media efforts aimed at him alone. And given that the fake Russian accounts began promoting anti-Trump material and events themselves following the election, undercutting Trump’s candidates fits within the broader theme of sowing discord for discord’s sake — a reality the president, unfortunately, still questions.