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Who was behind Russia’s ‘information warfare’ campaign

There is no doubt that Russia’s government attempted to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. As William Brangham reports, once the U.S. intelligence community reached that consensus, as well as high confidence that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally ordered the cyber and social media “disinformation” campaigns, a major investigation and dozens of indictments followed.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    One of the main missions of the special counsel's investigation was to determine Moscow's actions in the 2016 election.

    As William Brangham reports, on that front, the evidence has been quite clear.

  • William Brangham:

    Over the past two years, special counsel Robert Mueller's team, along with America's top intelligence agencies, have demonstrated one clear fact: The Russian government meddled in the 2016 presidential election.

    The first glimpse we got into Russia's election interference was in the summer of 2016, when hacked and stolen e-mails from the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee are publicly released, some via the Web site WikiLeaks. Cyber-security experts quickly suggest Russians were behind the hack, but no evidence is provided.

    Candidate Donald Trump routinely downplayed suggestions that Russia was interfering.

  • President Donald Trump:

    It could be Russia, but it could also be China. It also could be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK?

  • William Brangham:

    As the presidential campaign continues in the fall of 2016, American intelligence officials brief members of Congress that the Russian government is looking to interfere in the election.

    In September, at the G20 meeting in China, President Obama warns Russian President Vladimir Putin to stop his nation's interference. Two months later, Donald Trump wins the presidency, but, before his inauguration, the Obama administration publicly points the finger at Russia for the Clinton e-mail hack, and, in retaliation, levies sanctions on Russia and expels 35 Russian nationals from the U.S.

    The next month, a declassified intelligence report from the FBI, the CIA, and the NSA states with high confidence that Vladimir Putin personally ordered a cyber and social media campaign to disrupt the recent U.S. presidential election.

    And it states that Putin had a clear preference for Donald Trump. According to the report, Putin — quote — "aspired to help president-elect Trump's election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him."

    In February of 2018, Robert Mueller's first indictment against the Russians drops.

  • Rod Rosenstein:

    The indictment charges 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies for committing federal crimes while seeking to interfere in the United States political system.

  • William Brangham:

    Mueller's team lays out a sweeping case, directly accusing Russian citizens and companies of a massive coordinated disinformation campaign to sabotage the election.

  • Rod Rosenstein:

    The defendants allegedly conducted what they called information warfare against the United States, with the stated goal of spreading distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general.

  • William Brangham:

    The indictment accuses the Russians who worked out of this building in Moscow of stealing American identities, setting up fake accounts on Facebook and other social media sites, and spreading false and inflammatory information with countless online posts.

    In 2017, the "NewsHour"'s Nick Schifrin spoke to one of the men who worked there, worker Marat Mindiyarov.

  • Marat Mindiyarov:

    Suddenly, you see a lot of comments at night, and they're all the same, yes? And it's exactly the people are doing their job. They have their topic. They have a time to do it. They write it, and you see it.

  • William Brangham:

    U.S. intelligence says this so-called troll factory was financed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a businessman with catering companies who's been called Putin's personal chef.

    According to the indictment, the trolls' work wasn't limited to the Internet. Russians allegedly traveled across the U.S., hid their identities and staged political rallies. The indictment also confirms the Russians had a favored candidate — quote — "By early to mid-2016, defendants' operations included supporting the presidential campaign of then candidate Donald J. Trump and disparaging Hillary Clinton."

    Five months later, another Mueller indictment. Twelve more Russians are indicted by Mueller's team, including members of the GRU, a unit of Russian military intelligence. That's their headquarters. They're accused of hacking and stealing the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign e-mails.

    Three days later, at his summit with the Russian president in Helsinki, President Trump again downplays the evidence that Russia interfered in the election.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I have President Putin. He just said it's not Russia. I will say this. I don't see any reason why it would be. I will tell you that President Putin was extremely strong and powerful in his denial today.

  • William Brangham:

    Throughout the course of the Mueller investigation, there are repeated questions about when and why various members of the Trump campaign and White House met with people connected to the Russian government.

    Attorney General Jeff Sessions, former advisers Carter Page and George Papadopoulos, former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, longtime Trump confidant Roger Stone, longtime fixer Michael Cohen, who negotiated with the Russian government to create a Trump Tower in Moscow, and even the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and the president's son, Donald Trump Jr., took a meeting with a Russian lawyer, because she said she had dirt on Hillary Clinton.

    Each of these men faced intense scrutiny over their Russian connections. But, according to Attorney General William Barr's summary, Mueller's investigation ultimately determined none of it added up to collusion.

    Barr's letter yesterday offered yet another opportunity for Moscow to dismiss the suggestion it did anything nefarious.

    Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov put it this way. "It's hard to find a black cat in a dark room," he said, "especially if it isn't there."

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham.

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