Special counsel Robert Mueller may not have found the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, but plenty of Americans — wittingly or otherwise — have helped Moscow’s election meddling efforts in recent years. Secessionists, Jill Stein and her campaign, and members of groups organized around gun rights and far-right Christian movements have spent the past few years cultivating ties with those close to the Kremlin and using their platforms to promote Russia-friendly ideas.
None of these groups were mentioned by Attorney General William Barr, who issued a letter on Sunday confirming that Russia conducted coordinated campaigns to interfere in America’s elections.
According to Barr, Mueller’s report found that Russian operatives reached out to Trump’s campaign, but that no member of the campaign actively colluded with the Russian government. However, Barr wrote that Mueller also “determined that there were two main Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election.” Both of these efforts — social media interference, and stealing and disseminating internal Democratic documents and emails — were widely known before the report’s conclusion.
From fake Facebook pages to networks of Twitter bots, from posing as Romanian hackers to transferring stolen emails to Wikileaks, the details of these operations have been previously reported or described by intelligence analysts. And they’ve already resulted in numerous criminal indictments, for everything from illegally accessing emails to stealing Americans’ identities.
But those weren’t the only ways the Kremlin tried to put its fingers on American scales in 2016.
Russian cultivation of American secessionists — for example, groups who look back fondly on the days of the Confederacy or advocate for states separating from the U.S. to form their own country — date back to at least 2014, in the midst of the Kremlin’s attempts to disintegrate Ukraine. Multiple conferences held in Moscow in 2015 and 2016 brought separatists from places like Hawaii and Puerto Rico to Russia, gathering supporters with other secessionists from Italy and Spain. They were hosted and feted by Alexander Ionov, the head of an organization called the Anti-Globalization Movement of Russia (AGMR).
American secessionists came from two states in particular: Texas and California. Representing the dreams of an independent Texas Republic, representatives from the Texas Nationalist Movement — including Nate Smith, the self-styled “foreign minister” of an independent Texas — made multiple trips to Russia, with the AGMR helping pay for travel. (It’s also worth noting that during 2016, the fake Russian “Heart of Texas” page on Facebook began gaining more followers than the official Texas Democratic and Texas GOP pages combined.)
Before the 2016 trip, the AGMR began receiving funding from the Kremlin, with Ionov even boasting a signed letter from Russian President Vladimir Putin thanking Ionov for working “to strengthen friendship between peoples[.]”
— Александр Ионов (@antiglobalist1) June 23, 2015
From California, the secessionist group YesCalifornia sent Louis Marinelli to Russia in 2016 to stump for Sacramento’s independence. Like the Texans, Marinelli’s travel was covered, at least in part, by the Kremlin-backed AGMR. After the presidential election that year, Marinelli stayed in Moscow and opened a formal California “embassy” in space provided rent-free by the AGMR.
Fake Russian Twitter accounts had a field day stumping for California secession following the election as well, especially in the aftermath of Trump’s election. One BBC analysis found the explosion in pro-California secession tweets following the election was driven in no small part by fake accounts and bot networks.
While both movements fizzled — YesCalifornia crumpled under scrutiny of their Russian links, while there’s little interest in Texas secession with Trump in the White House — neither have fully given up their dreams of help from abroad.
A day after Barr’s letter, YesCalifornia announced it was preparing a “new referendum” for independence, and on Monday one of the leaders of the Texas secession movement posted a Russian “Heart of Texas” image calling for Texas nationhood.
And plenty of questions still surround links between Russia and the neo-Confederate League of the South, which recently expanded its Russian-language outreach and has its own links to the AGMR — both of which point to the ongoing, outsized interest America’s white supremacists have in Russia.
Ionov, meanwhile, has been busy. Not only has be apparently gained more cachet in Moscow — he recently had a meeting with the Venezuelan ambassador — but as journalist Dean Sterling Jones recently uncovered, he’s been helping raise money for Russian agent Maria Butina.
Among all of the Russian operatives thus far identified as part of Moscow’s influence efforts, only Butina has been jailed (she pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as a foreign agent). She’s still awaiting sentencing.
When viewed against the other influence efforts, Butina’s work stands out among Russia’s influence campaigns: she schmoozed directly with Republican higher-ups and the National Rifle Association’s leadership. She worked chiefly in the U.S., flying across the country to visit or host events, but maintained a direct line to Alexander Torshin, a Russian official who was later sanctioned directly by the U.S. (Torshin’s likewise been accused of overseeing massive money laundering in Europe.) Butina, working closely with Torshin, sought to ingratiate herself with the NRA — a group with outsized influence over Republican policy — with the goal of lifting sanctions on the Kremlin. Butina was very nearly successful.
But she apparently didn’t count on the blowback. Even while she was hosting multiple Republican congressmen in Feb. 2017, questions started to percolate about who had paid for the NRA’s trip to Russia in 2015 — which featured notable Trump backers like former sheriff David Clarke — or why NRA leaders seemed so close to Butina, despite Russia’s long-standing tradition of frowning upon individual gun ownership. By 2018, investigators had enough material to charge Butina with acting as an unregistered Russian agent.
Red Square near the Kremlin with a Russian officer. Met earlier with Russian Foreign Minister who spoke on Mid East. pic.twitter.com/ZcDdQB65lb
— David A. Clarke, Jr. (@SheriffClarke) December 10, 2015
The NRA is still in hot water over its Russia ties: Questions still hang about Russian donations the group received, as well as communications and details surrounding the group’s 2015 trip to Moscow. We may soon have answers on both fronts. But given how many headaches the NRA has endured over the past year for its Russia ties, the group may have outlived its usefulness as a potential front for pro-Moscow interests.
But if the NRA is no longer of much use to the Kremlin, the leaders of America’s Christian fundamentalists appear as eager to cozy up to sanctioned Russian officials as ever. And they, too, wield outsized influence over conservative policy-makers.
Ever since Putin’s return to the presidency 2012, which coincided with his efforts to turn Russia into a bastion of so-called “traditional values,” America’s religious right has eyed the Kremlin with increasing affinity.
The World Congress of Families (WCF), for instance, is the foremost bridge between the American religious right and sanctioned Russian officials. The fundamentalist WCF has in the past enjoyed financial support from Russian oligarchs now sanctioned by the U.S. By 2014, even as Russian troops were carving up Ukraine, the WCF’s higher-ups were praising Russia as the “hope for the world,” helping spread support for the Kremlin among America’s evangelical community.
Just last year, the WCF held its annual conference in Moldova, and it hosted sanctioned Russian official Yelena Mizulina as a featured speaker. Along the way Alexey Komov, the WCF’s Russian representative, has managed to use the WCF as a springboard for growing close to the U.S.’s leading right-wing homeschool movement, the U.S.’s largest Christian film-making organization, right-wing fundraising organizations, and even members of Trump’s cabinet like Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson. The catch? Komov works directly for sanctioned Russian billionaire Konstantin Malofeev.
These kinds of increasingly warm ties between Christian fundamentalists and sanctioned Russian officials aren’t limited to the WCF. Earlier this month, as ThinkProgress reported, Franklin Graham, arguably America’s leading evangelical, traveled to Moscow for a meeting with sanctioned Russian official Vyacheslav Volodin — a man widely seen as helping steer Moscow’s hard-right turn over the past half-dozen years.
I’ve been in Moscow this week & had the privilege of meeting w/Patriarch Kirill of Moscow & All Russia. It was also a blessing to meet w/evangelical leaders & other officials while there. Pray for them & for more opportunities to share the truth, hope, & life found only in Jesus. pic.twitter.com/ftXhav3glu
— Franklin Graham (@Franklin_Graham) March 7, 2019
Not only was it the highest-profile meeting between a religious-right figure and a Russian official specifically sanctioned by the White House, but Graham called the meeting an “honor.” He also claimed that Vice President Mike Pence signed off on the trip.
The far-left and third-party candidate supporters
Among all the presidential candidates in 2016, there was only one who actually traveled to Moscow during the campaign: Jill Stein, who attended a lavish gala for a Russian propaganda outlet on her visit.
In December 2015, Stein memorably sat at a table alongside Putin and former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn at an event celebrating the ten-year anniversary of RT. Stein called her visit “inspiring,” while her visit earned rounds of condemnation from leading Russian environmental activists.
The visit highlighted the fact that Russian propaganda outlets like RT and Sputnik have targeted their propaganda at America’s political fringe on both left and right. RT even managed to put on the Green Party’s 2016 presidential debate — a debate that other Green Party candidates, concerned about appearing to be supportive of the Kremlin, boycotted.
As 2020 looms, Stein — who once referred to Julian Assange as a hero in the lead-up to the 2016 election — is still mulling another presidential run. Whether she’ll once again select a vice presidential candidate who believes in “false flag” attacks designed to make Russia look bad, as she did in 2016, remains to be seen.