Putin’s Revenge

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NEWSCASTER: We’re now only a few days away from electing the next president of the United States─

NEWSCASTER: ─turning its attention back to the election─

NEWSCASTER: With the election just days away, the president─

NARRATOR: Election day, 2016. As Americans headed to the polls, U.S. intelligence agencies were on high alert.

NEWSCASTER: ─making the urgent push to get out the vote.

JOHN BRENNAN, CIA Director, 2013-17: Well, in the days before the elections, there was constant interaction between the experts at CIA, FBI and NSA. We were monitoring and using our collection capabilities to understand what the Russians might have up their sleeve at the 11th hour.

NEWSCASTER: Breaking news here. Wikileaks is about to release, quote, “significant material” tied to Hillary Clinton─

NEWSCASTER: The campaign is doing damage control tonight after Wikileaks released─

NARRATOR: The intelligence agencies had been tracking a multi-pronged effort to influence voters─ leaks of hacked emails, ads on Facebook and Google, on social media, trolls and bots spreading fake news, all they believed connected to Russian president Vladimir Putin.

JAMES CLAPPER, Dir. of Natl. Intelligence, 2010-17: This was the most aggressive and most direct and most assertive campaign that the Russians ever mounted in the history of our elections. And what characterized this were the variety and intensity of the techniques that they employed.

NARRATOR: Now they detected what they call OPE, operational preparation of the environment.

JOHN BRENNAN: The Russians will map the architecture and the environment of their targets.

NARRATOR: The target, state electoral systems, registration data bases, voter information.

JEH JOHNSON, Sec. of Homeland Security, 2013-17: I’ll never forget one day, John Brennan said to me, “I’m going to come brief you.” Now, it was not often that the CIA director by himself came to DHS to meet with me by myself to share intelligence.

NARRATOR: Brennan had told Johnson the cyber intrusions traced to Russia could be the first step in a plan to directly interfere with voting.

JEH JOHNSON: The thing that immediately has to come to you is, Hey, somebody might be trying to eliminate from the rolls voters in key states, in key precincts. Through a very targeted, careful effort, you could really do a lot of damage.

NEWSCASTER: ─going to the polls, casting their ballots─

NEWSCASTER: And history will be made today─

NARRATOR: Inside the administration, the question, just how far would Putin go?

JOHN BRENNAN: I didn’t know if the Russians were going to do anything at all. And I thought if they did, it clearly would be a sign that Putin had authorized an aggressive assault against this country that to me would have been tantamount to─ to war.

NARRATOR: It would be Vladimir Putin’s revenge for a lifetime of grievances.

Pres. RONALD REAGAN: Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

NARRATOR: Reviving the old cold war with new weapons.

Pres. BILL CLINTON: We have the responsibility to advance freedom and democracy─

NARRATOR: An epic struggle─

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: Everywhere that freedom stirs, let tyrants fear─

NARRATOR: ─between the leader of Russia and American democracy.

Pres. BARACK OBAMA: The United States will continue to stand up for democracy and the universal rights that all human beings deserve─

NARRATOR: The story begins on New Year’s Eve 1999. In Moscow, the future of Russia was about to change. With his country in turmoil, President Boris Yeltsin had an announcement to make.

MASHA LIPMAN, Russian Journalist: President Yeltsin rose on immense popularity, his sense of love and admiration, was progressively losing that.

NARRATOR: Across Russia, they tuned in.

BORIS YELTSIN: [through translator] I have made a decision. I’ve been thinking about it painfully for a long time. Today, at the last day of the departing century, I am resigning.

YEKATERINA SCHULMANN, Russian Political Scientist: I watched it on December 31st. I remember I was crying my eyes out. He just said, “Forgive me for what I haven’t managed to achieve.”

BORIS YELTSIN: [through translator] I want to ask your forgiveness, for many of our dreams have not come true and for the things that seemed easy, but turned out to be excruciatingly difficult.

MASHA GESSEN, Author, The Man Without a Face: He gave this absolutely heartbreaking speech. He said that he wished that he had done a better job by the Russian people. And he said, “I’m tired, and I’m leaving.” It was─ it was impossible not to cry.

NARRATOR: Yeltsin’s final act as president─ the father of Russian democracy turned over the country to his little known prime minister, a former KGB officer.

BORIS YELTSIN: [through translator] I have signed a decree giving the responsibilities of the president of Russia to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

NARRATOR: The new president escorted Yeltsin out of the Kremlin.

VLADIMIR RYZHKOV, Opposition Politician: [through translator] Next to him, a young Putin was standing. And Yeltsin shook his hand. And this famous footage, actually, the whole world saw. And Yeltsin said, “Take care of Russia.” Just those words,“Take care of Russia.”

NEWSCASTER: Yeltsin’s resignation came as a complete surprise to almost everyone.

NEWSCASTER: Even Yeltsin’s top ministers didn’t know about─

NARRATOR: From his first days as president, Vladimir Putin was obsessed with creating the appearance of a 21st century leader.

NEWSCASTER: ─decision to step down could not have come at a better time for Prime Minister Putin, Yeltsin’s choice to succeed him as president.

NARRATOR: He commissioned film and photo shoots.

JULIA IOFFE, The Atlantic: He is a man who is obsessed with TV. He watches tapes of the evening news over and over and over again to see how he’s portrayed, to see how he looks.

YEVGENIA ALBATS, Russian Journalist: He wears very good suits, like any other Western leader. He speaks fluent German and he understands English.

NARRATOR: Putin cultivated the image of a reformer and a democrat.

MASHA GESSEN: Russian narrative was the victory of democracy, the triumph of popular will, that sort of thing. So a young guy who speaks a foreign language fits into that narrative─ as long as you ignore everything else about him.

NARRATOR: Putin quickly learned how to sell himself with the help of his public relations guru.

GLEB PAVLOVSKY, Fmr. Adviser to Vladimir Putin: [through translator] He began to think that everything can be manipulated. Any kind of press, any TV program is all about manipulation. It was decided what TV channels would show what news.

NARRATOR: They made sure a dynamic, vital and charismatic Putin was on display for all Russians to see.

MICHAEL CROWLEY, Politico: He’s healthy. He’s young. He’s virile. He casts himself as a savior. Temperamentally and in style, he is the anti-Yeltsin. He’s bringing back a kind of dignity and strength to the Russian presidency that had been missing under Boris Yeltsin.

NEWSCASTER: President Clinton arrived in Moscow carrying a message of cooperation─

NARRATOR: Putin’s first test with the United States, a visit from the American president. Bill Clinton had come to the Kremlin to evaluate Putin for himself.

STROBE TALBOTT, Dep. Secretary of State, 1994-2001: President Clinton wanted to get a little bit of a feel. He wanted to meet him in the─ in the Kremlin as president.

NEWSCASTER: Two presidents, one near the end his term, the other beginning a new era─

NARRATOR: Putin seemed indifferent to the American president who had championed Yeltsin and liberalization and expanded NATO.

JAKE SULLIVAN, Dep. Chief of Staff, State Dept., 2009-13: Putin conveys a huge amount through body language. He tries to show you that he’s the alpha male in the room through the way he spreads his legs, through the way he slouches a bit in his chair, through the way that he will look at people and kind of give them a dismissive hand wave.

PETER BAKER, Co-Author, Kremlin Rising: Putin doesn’t have much time for him. And this is not what Clinton was used to when it came to Russia. He was used to having somebody he could relate to. And Putin is a cold fish and Clinton didn’t respond well to him.

NEWSCASTER: If Mr. Clinton was hoping for a foreign policy triumph, he won’t get it here.

NARRATOR: Later that day, Clinton received a warmer reception from Boris Yeltsin and issued a warning about Putin.

STROBE TALBOTT: Bill Clinton looked hard into Yeltsin’s eyes and said, “I’m a little bit concerned about this young man that you have turned over the presidency to. He doesn’t have democracy in his heart.” And he reached over and poked him in his heart. And I will never forget the expression that came over Yeltsin.

NARRATOR: Yeltsin’s confidantes say by the end of his life, he would come to agree with Clinton.

STROBE TALBOTT: Before Boris Yeltsin died, he told intimates that it was a great mistake for him to have selected Putin as his successor.

NARRATOR: At the Kremlin in those first months, Clinton’s fears were realized. Putin began to centralize his authority.

SUSAN GLASSER, Co-Author, Kremlin Rising: He more or less laid out the path that he was going to be taking, which was to reduce democracy, to consolidate authority back into the Kremlin. And he took steps, some of which were small and symbolic, like going back to the Soviet-era anthem.

NARRATOR: It was Joseph Stalin’s national anthem with the words rewritten by one of the original authors.

JIM COLLINS, U.S. Amb. to Russia, 1997-2001: What Putin did when he came in was said, “OK, I’ve got a different project. We’re going to make”─ if you will, to coin a phrase─ “I’m going to make Russia great again.”

NARRATOR: Behind Putin’s vision for Russia, a resentment built up over a lifetime of believing his country had been humiliated by the United States.

PETER BAKER: There’s this resentment, there’s this grievance that’s eating away at him, and it’s fundamental to his tenure, this sense of grievance.

NARRATOR: Putin’s project to make Russia great again would lead to conflict with the West and interference in an American election. But the seeds had been planted long before, when Vladimir Putin was a young man. He was trained in the Soviet secret police, the KGB, to see the United States as the enemy. It was drilled into all the officers.

YEVGENIA ALBATS, Russian Journalist: The KGB was a monopoly that produced violence. It was a monopoly that was responsible for political surveillance on an everyday basis of Soviet citizens. Nothing could go without the KGB.

NARRATOR: Putin’s first assignment wasn’t undercover espionage. They thought he was better suited to counterintelligence.

SUSAN GLASSER, Co-Author, Kremlin Rising: And a counterintelligence officer, right, is somebody for whom conspiracy theories and the enemy within are the job and rooting those out and carrying that kind of paranoid, everyone might actually always be out to get us.

NARRATOR: The job was a disappointment.

MASHA GESSEN, Author, The Man Without a Face: He’s an unhappy man. He has wanted to be a secret agent all of his life, as long as he can remember. And then he gets posted to East Germany, and not even to Berlin, to Dresden, which is just such a backwater.

NARRATOR: It was in East Germany that Putin first came face to face with the conflict between the USSR and the United States.

Pres. RONALD REAGAN: Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

NEWSCASTER: This protest movement may now be reaching a critical moment.

NEWSCASTER: ─remembered for communism’s loss of influence in the world.

NEWSCASTER: Here the feeling is the end of the cold war is at hand.

SUSAN GLASSER: For many people, there is a defining moment in their history, when all things after that moment refer back to it in some way.

NEWSCASTER: From ABC, this is “World News Tonight”─

NARRATOR: Lieutenant Colonel Vladimir Putin saw such a moment when the Berlin wall came down.

NEWSCASTER: They are here in the thousands, they are here in the tens of thousands.

NARRATOR: Marking the waning power of the Soviet Union.

NEWSCASTER: ─in Eastern Europe continue to─

DAVID HOFFMAN, _The Washington Post_/FRONTLINE: Putin sees that this thing that had always seemed to be glued together well, seemed to be impervious, that had gone from generation to generation of change in the top party officials, seemed to be a rock─

NEWSCASTER: ─one battle in a non-violent war─

DAVID HOFFMAN: It was starting to crumble before his eyes.

NEWSCASTER: 1989 will be a year remembered for communism’s loss of influence in the world.

JOHN BRENNAN: Mr. Putin joined Russian Intelligence during their waning days, in the latter years of the Cold War, when they really felt aggrieved and the much lesser power than the United States. So I think they just reinforced some of his feelings of insecurity.

NEWSCASTER: ─say they’ll never return to communism and promise free democratic elections─

NARRATOR: The protests spread to Dresden. The angry crowds marched on the German secret police, the Stasi headquarters, then Putin’s KGB building. It would be the first time Putin confronted a group of protesters.

JULIA IOFFE, The Atlantic: He calls Moscow, trying to understand what he is to do, trying to get orders. And Moscow doesn’t respond.

NARRATOR: A Soviet military officer told him, “Moscow is silent.”

JULIA IOFFE: And this is a massive, massive trauma for him, that this massive historical event is happening, Soviet influence is collapsing before his eyes, and he calls home. He radios home, and home isn’t there.

NEWSCASTER: Freedom and democracy are coming to parts of Eastern Europe and a rusty iron curtain is beginning to come down.

NARRATOR: By the time Putin returned to Russia, the USSR was falling apart. Even in front of the KGB headquarters, the statues were coming down.

DAVID HOFFMAN’ For many people, this was a time of great excitement and enablement and experimentation with democracy, and Vladimir Putin missed this.

NARRATOR: The American president, George H.W. Bush, declared it a triumph.

Pres. GEORGE H.W. BUSH: This is a victory for democracy and freedom. It’s a victory for the moral force of our values.

NARRATOR: But to Putin, the end of the Soviet Union was a humiliation.

PETER BAKER: The quote that he said once that really was so revealing, that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century. That’s how he saw it.

NARRATOR: In the new Russia, Putin had to reinvent himself. The former KGB officer became a political operative and a bureaucratic fixer.

JULIA IOFFE: He’s a master bureaucrat. Russia has always been a bureaucratic autocracy. This is how, for example, Stalin became the general secretary. He was an amazing bureaucrat. He out-bureaucrated all the other bureaucrats. And Putin does, too. He is very good at the bureaucracy of all of it.

NARRATOR: By the late ‘90s, he even earned the confidence of Boris Yeltsin. They were an odd couple, the former spy and a progressive politician who was trying to bring democracy to Russia.

DAVID HOFFMAN: Boris Yeltsin decided to break totalitarianism, to crush what was left of communism with a simple idea, which is maximum freedom first.

NARRATOR: Before long, Yeltsin promoted him to lead the KGB’s successor, the FSB.

SUSAN GLASSER: He undertakes this remarkable rise, basically, having nothing to do with the center of power in Moscow, to running its most important security agency, working in the Kremlin.

NARRATOR: Putin had convinced Yeltsin that he shared the president’s democratic goals.

YEVGENIA ALBATS: He’s a professional liar. To lie is what he was taught in the intelligence school. He was pretending that he was going to pursue the same development of Russia as Yeltsin did. But that’s all is just one big lie.

NEWSCASTER: Another major shakeup in the Kremlin. Yeltsin fires his entire cabinet again. Who’s in charge?

NARRATOR: Putin rose to become Yeltsin’s prime minister, the second most powerful man in Russia.

NEWSCASTER: ─a new prime minister, Vladimir Putin, a man of little political experience but─

VLADIMIR KARA-MURZA, Opposition Politician: The biggest and the initial reaction when people heard his name being announced as acting prime minister on the 9th of August, 1999, by President Yeltsin─ the first reaction was, “Who’s that?” Most people had never heard of this guy.

NARRATOR: But the perception of Putin would begin to change less than a month later.

VLADIMIR KARA-MURZA: Just a few weeks, really, after he became prime minister, we had a very suspicious slate of apartment bombings across Russia.

NEWSCASTER: A bomb destroyed an apartment building in Moscow, and it does appear to be─

NARRATOR: There were suspicions about who set off the bombs. The government claimed it was the work of separatists from the Russian republic of Chechnya.

MASHA GESSEN: Everybody’s home asleep in their beds. And these large apartment blocks just folded in on themselves, burying these people alive or dead, but burying everybody in the building.

NARRATOR: For Putin, it was a moment to show the Russian people just who he was.

MASHA GESSEN: This prime minister that most people don’t even remember his name, and suddenly, he comes on television. He says, “We’re going to hunt down the terrorists. And we’re going to wipe them out in the outhouse.”

VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russian Prime Minister: [through translator] We’ll be chasing the terrorists everywhere, at the airports or in the toilet. We’ll waste them in an outhouse. End of story.

JULIA IOFFE: When the apartment bombings happen, it gives him the excuse he needs to finally go after what has become a morass in Chechnya and neighboring Dagestan.

NARRATOR: Putin struck Chechnya with incredible force.

GLEB PAVLOVSKY, Fmr. Adviser to Vladimir Putin: This was his decision. He was angry, and he wanted to punish the separatists.

JULIA IOFFE: He is seen on TV as a doer, a man of action. He goes down there. He’s talking to the troops. He is in command.

NARRATOR: As Putin suited up for the cameras, his political fortunes were on the rise. And just a few months later, he was inaugurated as Russia’s new president.

Pres. VLADIMIR PUTIN: [through translator] The powers of the head of state have been turned over to me today.

NARRATOR: Putin’s first promise to the Russian people─ strength.

Pres. VLADIMIR PUTIN: [through translator] I assure you that there will be no vacuum of power, not for a minute.

NARRATOR: He moved quickly to consolidate power. One of his first targets, television.

DAVID HOFFMAN: One of the first things he did was to take control of television because more than 90 percent of Russians got all their news from television.

NARRATOR: During the Yeltsin years, independent television channels like NTV flourished even as they ridiculed political figures.

JULIA IOFFE: NTV has a comic show called “Kukly,” puppets, and when Putin comes to rise in public life, it features a Putin puppet, as well. And he’s never portrayed very flatteringly. Putin apparently was driven to madness by the show and by the way he was portrayed on it, the way he was mocked on it.

NARRATOR: NTV and its owner, Vladimir Gusinsky, were among the first to fall in the crosshairs of Putin’s government.

VLADIMIR KARA-MURZA: He sent armed operatives from the prosecutor general’s service and the tax police to raid the offices of Media Most, the parent company of NTV, which was at that time the largest independent media holding in Russia.

JULIA IOFFE: Gusinsky is imprisoned. And while he’s in jail, one of Putin’s lieutenants comes to visit him in jail and says, “You know, you could get out this mess if you sign over NTV.” Gusinsky eventually does that, hands over NTV to a Kremlin- friendly oligarch.

JOHN BEYRLE, U.S. Amb. to Russia, 2008-12: In doing that, Putin made clear the broadcast media, which is how most Russians get their news, was no longer going to be outsourced. This was going to be a state-run operation. And it’s remained that way throughout Putin’s term.

NARRATOR: He had seized control of the media. Now Putin turned his attention to making Russia powerful again.

WILLIAM BURNS, U.S. Amb. to Russia, 2005-08: When Putin became president, I think he did begin with the notion that he could help engineer the restoration of Russia as a major power, as a kind of partner of the United States.

NARRATOR: Putin had had a difficult relationship with President Clinton, but now he plotted a fresh strategy to win over a new American president, a Republican.

SUSAN GLASSER: There was an attitude about Republicans rather than Democrats were better for Russia because they’re not going to lecture us about our internal affairs. And they’re not going to meddle as much as those pesky Democrats who are always talking about democracy and human rights and things like that. And so they’re going to be realists, and that’s good.

NEWSCASTER: President George Bush has called for a new approach to a new─

NARRATOR: His first chance came in Slovenia as President George W. Bush arrived for a summit.

PETER BAKER: Well, what does Putin do? He studies George W. Bush. He spends time thinking about who this guy is, what motivates him, what works him. This is the old KGB officer whose job it is to basically turn people towards his interests, and he plays it that way.

NARRATOR: Putin decided to focus on the president’s strong Christian beliefs.

JOHN BEYRLE: President Putin told President Bush about the time his dacha burned down and a religious medallion which had belonged to his mother which had gotten lost, and he thought this was irretrievably gone, and then a fireman brought him this kind of almost like a holy relic. It was a very affecting, emotional story and had some effect on President Bush.

PETER BAKER: And he tells the story with some relish and connects with Bush, who’s a very religious Christian. Now, whether Putin himself is a Christian or religious is, I think, up to debate. But he recognized as a political actor that it was a way to make a connection to a guy for whom this would be very important.

NARRATOR: After their private meeting, Bush and Putin faced the press.

NEWSCASTER: Question to President Bush. Is this a man that Americans can trust?

NARRATOR: Putin’s story about his mother’s cross seemed to have had its desired effect.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward. I was able to get a sense of his soul. He’s a man deeply committed to his country and the best interests of his country.

DANIEL FRIED, Natl. Security Council, 2001-05: And Bush gives that line, right, that “I looked into his eyes and got a sense of his soul.” And we go, “Uh-oh.” And Condi does her version of not comfortable. She just reacts, just for a second.

Pres .GEORGE W. BUSH: I wouldn’t have invited him to my ranch if I didn’t trust him.

SUSAN GLASSER: I asked Rice about it recently. She claims it was not so much a gasp as an inward-looking, “Ugh.” These are smart people, and they understood this was a comment that would be wrapped around Bush’s neck as it was for as long as he was president.

NARRATOR: It looked like Putin had won over the American president and gained his respect.

But then─

NEWSCASTER: That looks like a second plane.

NEWSCASTER: That just exploded.

NEWSCASTER: We just saw another plane has crashed into the World Trade Center.

NEWSCASTER: This is a live picture. We are seeing the second─

NARRATOR: Bush’s presidency was transformed on September 11th, 2001.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: I can hear you, the rest of the world hears you, and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!

NARRATOR: To Putin, at first it seemed like an opportunity.

JULIA IOFFE: He is the very first foreign leader to reach George W. Bush on September 11th and to empathize with him, not commiserate, but empathize with him that, “You are finally feeling the scourge of terrorism that we’ve been feeling forever. Let’s work together on this.”

NARRATOR: But Bush would go his own way, countering the terrorist threat with an effort to spread democracy.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: It is both our responsibility and our privilege to fight freedom’s fight.

NARRATOR: The test case, Iraq.

EVAN OSNOS, The New Yorker: Vladimir Putin watched as an American president with whom he had some sort of fragile rapport embarked on a foreign policy adventure that the United States had not done in decades. And we turned it against a single man, Saddam Hussein.

NEWSCASTER: Tomahawk missiles targeting senior Iraqi leaders and possibly Saddam Hussein himself─

NEWSCASTER: Shock and awe is the phrase of the moment.

NEWSCASTER: A reference to the Pentagon’s much debated─

NEWSCASTER: ─shock and awe to describe the sweeping assault on Iraq.

MICHAEL CROWLEY, Politico: Putin resents the kind of promiscuous use of American military force abroad. As a Russian leader, and particularly a cold warrior and former KGB man, you just inherently don’t like seeing the U.S. military in action.

NARRATOR: Regime change at the hands of the Americans. As statues fell, echoes of the final days of the Soviet Union.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: The tyrant has fallen, and Iraq is free. Everywhere that freedom arrives, humanity rejoices. And everywhere that freedom stirs, let tyrants fear.

JULIA IOFFE: And Putin knows what this means for him. It means that at some point, it’s going to be his turn, that regime change is going to come for him, too. And this becomes the driving fear of the Putin regime.

EVAN OSNOS: Vladimir Putin concluded that the United States, when possible, would use its power and leverage to depose leaders that it did not agree with. And from Vladimir Putin’s perspective, that was an existential threat.

NARRATOR: Back in Russia, Vladimir Putin tried to use the perceived threat from America to his political advantage.

JON WOLFSTHAL, Natl. Security Council, 2014-17: For Putin, the sense of America as an enemy or an adversary was not only, I think, the way he views the world, but he uses it as a very potent tool at home, where he can say, “I’m the only person willing to stand up to the United States.” And that’s a very powerful message for Russians.

NARRATOR: It was a message Putin used during a tragedy that began in the small town of Beslan.

NEWSCASTER: Men and women wearing explosive belts attacked a school─

NEWSCASTER: This is definitely the worse hostage crisis that Russia has ever seen.

NARRATOR: It was the first day of school.

MASHA GESSEN: If you could imagine an even more shocking terrorist attack than the several large apartment bombings that killed people in their sleep, that was Beslan.

NARRATOR: As the students entered their school, the terrorists took them hostage, rigging the school with explosives.

SUSAN GLASSER: The school that’s normally meant to only hold a few hundred people is holding hundreds and hundreds of people. It’s children, and it’s little children, too, and their moms and dads and their older brothers.

NARRATOR: Putin was in a trap. The rebels demanded he withdraw his troops from Chechnya or the children would die.

GLEB PAVLOVSKY, Fmr. Adviser to Vladimir Putin: [through translator] And the plan was that Putin would either capitulate or he would lose his image, his reputation. This was a serious crisis. This was a really serious crisis.

NARRATOR: Putin acted and ordered his army in. Tanks and troops encircled the school. And then on the third day, an explosion and chaos.

MASHA GESSEN: The army shelled the school at point-blank range. They fired at it from tanks.

NARRATOR: Putin’s troops were armed with rockets, grenade launchers and flame throwers.

MASHA GESSEN: A lot of the children who burned alive burned alive because of a fire that raged.

SUSAN GLASSER: It turns into this debacle, and the end result is corpses of little children stacked like firewood.

NEWSCASTER: More than 320 people were killed, half of them children, in the tragedy in the town of Beslan in North Ossetia.

NARRATOR: Outrage at Putin over the tragedy was growing inside of Russia. But when he finally spoke about it, he blamed the United States who he had long accused of supporting the Chechen rebellion.

Pres. VLADIMIR PUTIN: [through translator] We demonstrated weakness, and weak people are beaten.

VLADIMIR RYZHKOV, Opposition Politician: [through translator] He said there are forces in the world which want to destroy Russia. He believes that the West played its role in two Chechen wars and that the West played its role in supporting terrorism.

Pres. VLADIMIR PUTIN: [through translator] Some want to tear off a juicy piece of our country. Others help them to do it.

THOMAS GRAHAM, Natl. Security Council, 2002-07: Well, the only country that he could have had in mind, although he didn’t say it directly, was the United States.

NEWSCASTER: More than a week after the (INAUDIBLE) Beslan school siege─

NARRATOR: Putin used that threat to justify forcefully expanding his own power and control.

NEWSCASTER: He’s demanded a radical shake-up of security and greater powers for the Kremlin.

NARRATOR: He canceled elections throughout the country.

NEWSCASTER: ─a stark message. Governors and leaders of Russia’s dozens of republics and provinces─

NARRATOR: And new rules forced out the most outspoken members of the parliament.

MASHA GESSEN: And it was a cynical move, but at the same time, it also expresses the way to respond to extreme violence and to extreme disorder is to create more dictatorial powers.

NEWSCASTER: He’s demanded a radical shake-up of security and greater powers.

NARRATOR: Now it was clear Putin had taken Russia on a very different course.

GLEB PAVLOVSKY, Fmr. Adviser to Vladimir Putin: [through translator] After Beslan, the Kremlin had full power. The government did not matter much any longer. This Kremlin, the power these days is always in singular. It doesn’t matter where it is. It belongs to the president. It comes from the president, flows out of the president.

NARRATOR: And in his own back yard, Putin was seeing a growing threat, popular revolutions in three former Soviet republics challenging Moscow’s influence.

MASHA GESSEN: People in the streets is a really frightening sight to Putin. People in the streets can make all sorts of things happen.

NARRATOR: They were called the color revolutions, and again Putin feared America was trying to export democracy.

STEPHEN HADLEY, Natl. Security Adviser, 2005-09: Putin concluded that these were efforts by the United States and intelligence services to, in fact, install in these neighboring countries regimes that would be anti-Russian.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: Because you acted, Georgia is today both sovereign and free and a beacon of liberty for this region and the world.

MASHA GESSEN: Putin is convinced that people don’t just come out into the streets. They have to be driven by somebody. There has to be a puppet master. Somebody’s funding them, and it’s probably the United States.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: Americans respect your courageous choice for liberty. The American people will stand with you.

NARRATOR: Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan─ Putin feared Russia was next.

MICHAEL CROWLEY: I think this makes him sit up and pay attention. Could that happen to me, and if it does, not only do I lose a job that I like, what else do I lose? Do I lose my freedom? Do I lose my life?

JULIA IOFFE: He freaks out. He’s terrified. It’s one thing to go after the leader of Iraq, which is in the Middle East. But it’s another to go into the former Soviet Republics.

DANIEL FRIED: Putin thought we were the puppet masters. Like, man, we are not that good. I even told Russian television once, when they were accusing me personally of being the “Grey Cardinal.” Are you kidding me? But they really thought we were doing it.

NARRATOR: The fall of the Soviet Union. Iraq, the color revolutions, NATO expansion. what the Bush administration was calling “the freedom agenda.” Vladimir Putin had seen enough.

NEWSCASTER: Russian president Vladimir Putin is speaking at an international─

NARRATOR: In February 2007, Putin decided it was time to make a stand. He traveled to Munich, Germany, to speak directly to Western leaders.

MASHA GESSEN: And so he comes to the Security Conference in Munich and says, basically, “I don’t have to mince words, do I? I can say what’s on my mind.” And then he─ he just lashes out, and he lists all these resentments.

Pres. VLADIMIR PUTIN: [through translator] First and foremost, the United States has overstepped its national borders in the economic, political and humanitarian spheres it imposes on other nations. Well, who would like this? Who would like this?

STROBE TALBOTT, Dep. Secretary of State, 1994-2001: My head snapped. It was so searing and blunt and I─ I felt this was the real guy.

Pres. VLADIMIR PUTIN: [through translator] This is, of course, extremely dangerous. It results in the fact that no one feels safe. I want to emphasize this. No one feels safe.

DANIEL FRIED: Americans were pissed, frantic, angry.

VICTORIA NULAND, U.S. Amb. to NATO, 2005-08: I was four rows back, and you could almost feel the humidity from the spittle that was spewing. Yeah, it was─ it was pretty shocking because it was pretty aggressive.

NEWSCASTER: Putin echoed cold war rhetoric by accusing the U.S. of making the world unsafe─

NEWSCASTER: Premier Vladimir Putin left no doubt who he sees is responsible for the current global crisis.

NARRATOR: The speech was a turning point.

DANIEL FRIED: Putin clearly in this speech was drawing a line and saying, “We’re not going to try anymore. We’re just giving up on you. And we’re going to make our own world in which we are the master.”

NEWSCASTER: It’s one of Putin’s harshest attacks on Americans─

NARRATOR: By the end of George W. Bush’s presidency, the relationship with Putin seemed broken.

THOMAS GRAHAM, Natl. Security Council, 2002-07: I remember the president saying, “You know, I don’t know how, but we’ve lost him.” Putin was going in a different direction. And there was little that the administration, in President Bush’s mind, could do to put Putin back on that course.

NEWSCASTER: President Putin’s comments today were quite provocative─

NARRATOR: Soon Putin would have a new American president to deal with.

NEWSCASTER: Mr. Obama’s first full day as president was a busy one─

NARRATOR: In 2009, Barack Obama arrived in Washington.

NEWSCASTER: President Obama meets with his National Security staff─

NARRATOR: He came with the hope he could change relations with Russia.

NEWSCASTER: Barack Obama won’t have much time to savor victory─

RYAN LIZZA: Obama came in and thought, “Well, this is another relationship that was probably a victim of─ of, you know, the neoconservative foreign policy. So let’s take a look at it, and let’s repair it.”

Editor's Note (01/26/2018): After this film aired, The New Yorker announced that it was firing Ryan Lizza for what the magazine described as “improper sexual conduct,” a charge Lizza denied. CNN also announced that it had suspended Lizza as an on-air correspondent pending an investigation. The network reinstated Lizza in January 2018, saying that based on the findings of the investigation, it "found no reason to continue to keep Mr. Lizza off the air.”

THOMAS GRAHAM: Each American administration has come to office thinking that it had to, and it could, build a constructive relationship with the Russians.

NEWSCASTER: This is, as Obama famously said, “Pressing the reset button”─

THOMAS GRAHAM: And the Obama administration comes in and does that.

NEWSCASTER: Now Mr. Obama wants to make Clinton the face of his foreign policy.

NARRATOR: Obama entrusted the job of building the reset to his secretary of state, Hillary Clinton.

NEWSCASTER: ─between Hillary Clinton and the Russian foreign minister, Lavrov─

JAKE SULLIVAN: Secretary Clinton met with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov of Russia in Geneva, and the goal of that meeting was actually to establish this thing called “the reset.”

HILLARY CLINTON, Secretary of State: I wanted to present you with a little gift which represents what President Obama and Vice President Biden and I have been saying, and that is we want to reset our relationship, and─

SERGEY LAVROV: Let’s do it─ let’s do it together.

HILLARY CLINTON: So we will do it together.

JAKE SULLIVAN: One of her staff members had the idea to actually memorialize the reset with physical handing over of a reset button.

DANIEL FRIED: Yeah, it’s this─ it’s this plastic button that says, “Reset,” and it was just─ it was kind of a gag gift, but it was also symbolic of what Hillary Clinton was trying to do.

HILLARY CLINTON: We worked hard to get the right Russian word─

JAKE SULLIVAN: Foreign Minister Lavrov looked at it and said, “That doesn’t say reset, that says overcharge.”

HILLARY CLINTON: You think we got it?

SERGEY LAVROV: You got it wrong.

HILLARY CLINTON: I got it wrong.

DANIEL FRIED: So, misspelled. That might have been prophetic. My Russian is a little rusty, and I trusted somebody else─ I won’t say who.

SERGEY LAVROV: It should be “Perezagruzka,” and this says, “Peregruzka” which means overcharged.

HILLARY CLINTON: [laughs] Well, we won’t let you do that to us, I promise.

SERGEY LAVROV: OK. Thank you very much.

HILLARY CLINTON: Thank you so much.

SERGEY LAVROV: Very kind of you. I’ll put it on my desk.

HILLARY CLINTON: Well, we mean it and─

NEWSCASTER: Headed to Russia, President Obama has a big meeting ahead─

NEWSCASTER: Shadows of the cold war will loom over his summit meeting in Moscow─

NARRATOR: Just a few months later, Barack Obama himself traveled to Moscow to meet with Vladimir Putin.

WILLIAM BURNS: I remember their first meeting in July of 2009 at Putin’s dacha, you know, just outside Moscow. They’re much different personalities. President Obama’s initial question, about 10 seconds, led to a 45-minute, you know, monologue by Putin.

JON FINER, Obama Adviser, 2009-13: You end up having to endure a bit of a history lecture. Deal with the- what we used to call “the airing of grievances” at the beginning of every meeting.

PETER BAKER: That tells Obama everything he needs to know about Putin, that this is somebody who is, in his mind, locked in the past, who is─ who is nursing resentment and who is going to never be a full partner of the United States.

NARRATOR: In the years that followed, Vladimir Putin would come to believe that Barack Obama was a threat just like the other American presidents.

NEWSCASTER: ─tracking this very serious development in the Arab World for the United States─

NEWSCASTER: Huge demonstrations broke out in the cities of─

NARRATOR: Putin saw proof in the Middle East, Tunisia, Syria, Egypt, the Arab spring.

PETER BAKER: Vladimir Putin looks at what’s happening in the Arab world, and he sees it as Dresden all over again. He sees it as the American meddling in other countries’ affairs to the detriment of Mother Russia.

NEWSCASTER: The sound of freedom─

NEWSCASTER: President Hosni Mubarak has stepped down.

NARRATOR: One of the first to fall, Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.

DAVID HOFFMAN: I think that particularly for Putin, what happened in Egypt was something that really went right to his heart.

NARRATOR: Especially after the president of the United States weighed in.

Pres. BARACK OBAMA: The United States will continue to stand up for democracy in Egypt and around the world.

ANDREI KLIMOV, Russian Senate: They’d like to spread American-style democracy, supported with the help of money from abroad, with the help of intelligence service, with the help of diplomatic service, and even in some cases, with the help of Pentagon.

JAKE SULLIVAN: Putin was personalizing the Arab Spring. He was seeing it through the prism of what could possibly happen to him in Russia. This had a distorting effect on Putin’s perception about what the United States was up to.

NEWSCASTER: The political mutiny that began in Tunisia, spread to Egypt and beyond and has reached Libya─

NARRATOR: The Arab spring conflict came to a head in Libya. It was there that Secretary of State Clinton took the lead. She built an international coalition to take on Putin’s ally, the Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

HILLARY CLINTON: Gaddafi must go, and the Libyan people deserve to determine their own future.

NARRATOR: Rebel forces captured Gaddafi and dragged him from his hiding place. As Gaddafi was being captured, Clinton happened to be in front of the cameras.

HILLARY CLINTON: Wow! Huh. Unconfirmed. Yeah, unconfirmed. Unconfirmed reports about Gaddafi being captured.

JONATHAN ALLEN, Co-Author, HRC: She found out about this as she was doing a television interview.

NARRATOR: The moments around Gaddafi’s death were also caught on camera.

JONATHAN ALLEN: Her response was─

HILLARY CLINTON: We came, we saw, he died. [Laughs]

INTERVIEWER: Did it have anything to do with your visit?

HILLARY CLINTON: No. Oh, I’m sure─

JONATHAN ALLEN: It was a moment of success and gratification for her. It tells you just how invested she was in the Libya mission and what she believed was going to be a great success for herself and for the United States.

EVAN OSNOS: Vladimir Putin talked about the fall of Libya over and over again. He would talk about the scene of Muammar Gaddafi, the “Great Lion” of Libya, reduced to a man hiding in a drainage pipe, cowering with his own gun in his hand, where he was dragged out by his people and was killed.

JULIA IOFFE: Putin watches that tape over and over and over again. It’s all he can talk about for quite some time.

NARRATOR: Vladimir Putin was determined Gaddafi’s fate would not be his own.

NEWSCASTER: Tens of thousands came out on the streets to tell Prime Minister Vladimir Putin they’d had enough─

NARRATOR: By late 2011, protests were breaking out in Moscow just outside the Kremlin.

VLADIMIR KARA-MURZA: More than 100,000 people came out to say, “No, enough. We are fed up with this.” This was the largest demonstration held in Russia in Moscow since the democratic revolution of August 1991.

NARRATOR: The protests had been sparked by claims that Putin’s party had rigged the parliamentary election, allegations of fraud captured for the first time on cell phone videos.

VLADIMIR RYZHKOV: They took their smartphones, and they recorded everything. And they immediately uploaded that on the Internet, and the whole country could see it. So the social networks have played a huge role in those protests.

NARRATOR: They saw ballot boxes being stuffed even before the polls opened.

JULIA IOFFE: Ballot stuffing. Suddenly, people saw this evidence with their own eyes, and there was no explaining it away.

NARRATOR: Ballots hidden in the bathroom, campaign officials filling out ballots, the pens at one polling place filled with erasable ink.

JOHN BEYRLE: The Russian people reacted to that by going out into the streets with signs that said literally, “President Putin must go.”

NARRATOR: Once again, Putin saw something else.

JULIA IOFFE: What Putin sees is here’s American regime change coming for him finally. He knew that the Americans would eventually come for him, that they would try to oust him.

ANTHONY BLINKEN, Obama Adviser, 2009-15: He was thrown by the protests. He was taken aback by the passion of the opposition, and had to look for a place to point the finger. He pointed it at us.

NARRATOR: In particular, Putin singled out Hillary Clinton.

HILLARY CLINTON: And we do have serious concerns about the conduct of the election─

NARRATOR: Clinton’s statements on the election were spreading on the Internet

HILLARY CLINTON: You know, the Russian people deserve the right to have their voices heard and their votes counted.

MICHAEL CROWLEY: He finds it incredibly provocative that Hillary Clinton feels the need to chime in at this moment of weakness, that it’s a kind of kick in the gut when he’s weak, for which he may never have forgiven her.

NARRATOR: And in the Kremlin, they believed it was a message directed to the protesters.

ANDREI KLIMOV: It was the first signal from the State Department that they’re really very serious in their attempts to interfere in our internal political life.

NARRATOR: Putin claimed that behind the scenes, Clinton was going even further.

YEVGENIA ALBATS, Russian Journalist: He said it was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who provided funds and means to the Russian opposition and made them to get out of the─ on the streets.

NARRATOR: The State Department said they were simply promoting democracy, not trying to steer the outcome. But to Putin, Clinton had crossed the line, threatening his hold on power.

PETER BAKER: No question he’s looking at revenge at Hillary Clinton. There’s no question that he sees Hillary Clinton as an adversary. And he wanted to─ like, you know, he wanted to get her back.

NARRATOR: But first, Putin decided to settle some scores inside Russia. He ordered a crackdown on protesters and dissidents.

GENNADY GUDKOV, Opposition Politician: [through translator] They started enacting searches, arrests, detentions, actions against opposition leaders, persecution in the mass media. And they launched individual persecution that applied to tens of hundreds, maybe thousands of people in the country.

JULIA IOFFE: This was a clear message that it’s over. You’ve had your fun. It’s done. It’s over. The election is over. I am the president. You are not toppling me. I am the law.

NEWSCASTER: Bad things often happen to opponents of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

NEWSCASTER: He was forced into exile in England after─

NARRATOR: Many of Putin’s opponents inside Russia fled the country. Others had died mysterious deaths.

NEWSCASTER: Vladimir Putin’s top opponent saying, quote “I’m scared that Putin will kill me”─

NEWSCASTER: ─death of a former Vladimir Putin aide─

NARRATOR: One who nearly died twice from poisoning was Vladimir Kara-Murza.

VLADIMIR KARA-MURZA: There’s been a very high mortality rate in the last several years among the people who have crossed the path of Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin─ independent journalists, anti-corruption campaigners, opposition activists, opposition leaders. Many people have died, some in strange and unexplained deaths, others in just straight-out assassinations.

NARRATOR: He had secured his power at home and now would deal with the threat from America.

THOMAS GRAHAM: For the Russians and for Putin now, they’re engaged in an existential struggle with the United States. This is, to the Russians’ mind, to Putin’s mind, about defending the survival not simply of Putin, but of the Russian state and the Russian people.

NARRATOR: Soon Putin’s Russia would have the capacity to strike at the heart of American democracy.

Pres. VLADIMIR PUTIN: [subtitles] We are a victorious nation. We’ll remember all our greatness. The battle for Russia continues. The victory will be ours. Thank you. [cheers]


NARRATOR: The cyber attack began with an email.

“Hi, John. Someone just used your password to try to sign in to your Google account.”

SCOTT SHANE, The New York Times: John Podesta, in his role as chairman of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, gets a lot of email. So he has other people who are, you know, checking out his email as it comes in.

‘Google stopped this sign-in attempt. You should change your password immediately.”

NARRATOR: But this was not from Google. It had been sent by Russian hackers, a computer phishing attack.

ELLEN NAKASHIMA, The Washington Post: Spear phishes are a term of art in the cyber world for emails that are meant to look legitimate. “Someone’s tried to use your password to get into your account. Please click on this link and change your password immediately.”

JOHN PODESTA, Clinton Campaign Chairman: A number of people had access to my email account, one of whom checked with one of our security people about whether it was a phishing email, was told no, it was real.

“This is a legitimate email. John needs to change his password immediately.”

DAVID SANGER, The New York Times: And he meant to type “illegitimate,” or so he says to us. So, but for a two-letter typo, the chairman of the Clinton Campaign’s emails may not have been spread to the world.

JOHN PODESTA: At the time, I was not aware that I had been hacked.

NARRATOR: 60,000 emails from Podesta’s account were a political gold mine, part of a campaign aimed at disrupting the presidential election that the American government linked to Vladimir Putin.

VLADIMIR KARA-MURZA, Russian Opposition Politician: If it were possible to create doubts and to create chaos with the political system of a major Western democratic country like the U.S., I think that will certainly serve the propaganda goals of Vladimir Putin’s regime.

NARRATOR: It would be Vladimir Putin’s revenge for a lifetime of grievances.

Pres. RONALD REAGAN: Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

NARRATOR: Reviving the old cold war with new weapons.

Pres. BILL CLINTON: We have the responsibility to advance freedom and democracy.

NARRATOR: An epic struggle—

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: Everywhere that freedom stirs, let tyrants fear.

NARRATOR: —between the leader of Russia and American democracy.

Pres. BARACK OBAMA: The United States will continue to stand up for democracy and the universal rights that all human beings deserve.

NEWSCASTER: We’ll give you a live look now at Sochi. Today’s opening ceremony takes place—

NEWSCASTER: It cost Russia close to fifty billion—

NARRATOR: In the winter of 2014, Russian president Vladimir Putin put on a show.


PETER BAKER, Co-Author, Kremlin Rising: For Putin, hosting the Olympics is the crescendo of his campaign to revive Russian greatness.

WILLIAM BURNS, Dep. Sec. of State, 2011-14: It was the kind of pageantry which Putin and Russians in general love. He was riding very high. This was, you know, a moment of personal and national triumph from his point of view.

NARRATOR: The games were an announcement that the world needed to pay attention to Russia and Vladimir Putin.

SUSAN GLASSER, Co-Author, Kremlin Rising: Sochi was a huge moment for Vladimir Putin, and it was meant to be his validation and crowning moment of acceptance on the world stage as, you know, sort of the new Russian czar.

NARRATOR: But Putin’s moment of glory was tarnished by troubles just over Russia’s border in Ukraine.

NEWSCASTER: Ukraine is stuck very much in the middle both geographically and—

NEWSCASTER: —with the protests in neighboring Ukraine, what is Russian president Vladimir Putin—

NARRATOR: To Putin, the crowds were a repudiation. The protesters demanded their government move away from Russia and toward the West. Coming in the midst of his Olympics, Putin saw something else.

MIKHAIL ZYGAR, Author, All the Kremlin’s Men: Putin was sure that that was a real conspiracy to rain on his parade, that his enemies wanted to steal his— his Olympics.

NARRATOR: As the crowds grew, Putin suspected the involvement of Russia’s long-time adversary, the United States.

YEVGENIA ALBATS, Russian Journalist: Putin himself believed that it was the United States. You know, he honestly doesn’t believe that people can get out on the streets just because they don’t like people in power.

NARRATOR: It was a view widely held in Putin’s circle.

ANDREI KLIMOV, Russian Senator: Mr. Obama and others, they decided that America can do whatever they like, to spread democracy, they call it. How many diplomats from the United States were at that time in Kiev? How many?

NARRATOR: American diplomats were in the midst of the protesters in Kiev’s main square, the Maidan. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland was one of them.

VICTORIA NULAND, Asst. Sec. of State, 2013-17: Ukrainians hit the street all over the country, including in Kiev. And that’s how Maidan starts, because they want Europe and they don’t want further dependency on Russia.

JULIA IOFFE, _The Atlantic: So you have Toria Nuland going out and handing out sandwiches on the Maidan, a gesture of, “We’re with you in your fight for democracy,” which is not different from the American stance traditionally all over the world.

NARRATOR: To Putin, Nuland’s presence was proof the Americans were pulling the strings.

VICTORIA NULAND: Putin is very, very good at weaving a narrative that suits his larger political purpose. It was very useful for him to make me and us the poster child for interference in another country’s affairs.

NARRATOR: His belief that Americans were interfering in Russia’s sphere of influence was not new. He had spent a lifetime wary of the United States. As a young KGB officer, he was trained to spot American conspiracies.

Pres. RONALD REAGAN: Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

NARRATOR: Posted to Dresden, East Germany, he watched first hand the crumbling of the Soviet empire.

NEWSCASTER: —will be a year remembered for communism’s loss of influence in the world—

PETER BAKER: The quote that he said once that really was so revealing, that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century. That’s how he saw it.

STADIUM ANNOUNCER: Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin!

NARRATOR: First as prime minister and then as president, he came to see America as a growing threat.

EVAN OSNOS, The New Yorker: Vladimir Putin concluded that the United States, when possible, would use its power and leverage to depose leaders that it did not agree with.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: The former dictator of Iraq—

NARRATOR: Putin had watched American regime change overthrow Saddam Hussein.

*Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: —beacon of liberty—

NARRATOR: And he believed they had engineered revolutions in former Soviet republics.

Pres. GEORGE W. BUSH: The American people will stand with you!

NARRATOR: In the Arab spring, he watched his ally, Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi, dragged through the streets.

JULIA IOFFE: Putin watches that tape over and over and over again. It’s all he can talk about for quite some time.

NARRATOR: Playing a role in Gaddafi’s downfall, the American secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

HILLARY CLINTON, Secretary of State: Gaddafi must go, and the Libyan people deserve to determine their own future.

NARRATOR: And in Russia, as massive protests broke out just outside the Kremlin walls, Putin believed America had crossed the line, and he blamed Hillary Clinton.

HILLARY CLINTON: The Russian people deserve the right to have their voices heard and their votes counted.

YEVGENIA ALBATS: Putin said it was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who provided funds and means to the Russian opposition and made them to get out of the—on the streets.

PETER BAKER: No question he’s looking at revenge at Hillary Clinton. There’s no question that he sees Hillary Clinton as an adversary. And he wanted to, like— you know, he wanted to get her back.

NARRATOR: Putin would wait for the right moment to strike back at Clinton and the United States.

NEWSCASTER: —the Winter Olympics in Sochi and with the protests in neighboring Ukraine—

NARRATOR: Two years later, he would test a new strategy during those protests in Ukraine that had overshadowed his Olympics. the first target, Assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland.

VICTORIA NULAND: What do you think?


NARRATOR: It began with an intercept of a phone call.

VICTORIA NULAND: Good. So I don’t think Klitsch should go into the government—

NARRATOR: As Nuland discussed the future of Ukraine, she uttered a profanity about the European Union.

VICTORIA NULAND: Ah, the famous barnyard epithet, yeah.

So that would be great, I think, to help glue this thing and have the U.N. help glue it. And, you know, [expletive deleted] the EU.

NEWSCASTER: [expletive deleted] the EU.

NEWSCASTER: The fallout from a top American diplomat’s very undemocratic expletive hurled at the European Union.

NARRATOR: The leak was designed to reveal America’s role in Ukraine and sow division between Nuland and the EU.

VICTORIA NULAND: Clearly, they were looking to discredit me personally as the main negotiator at that time, to thereby reduce U.S. influence.

NEWSCASTER: Not a word you would use typically to talk about an ally.

NEWSCASTER: Well, this is a major embarrassment. Look, this is the top U.S. diplomat for Europe—

NARRATOR: Intercepting diplomatic communications was nothing new.

NEWSCASTER: Russians are at the very least denying they posted the call.

NARRATOR: But leaking them on line was.

NEWSCASTER: —now tweets, “I was just monitoring the Internet.”

EVAN OSNOS: But it wasn’t a five-alarm fire. And in retrospect, some people think we should have taken this a lot more seriously than we did because it was the first demonstration that Russia was willing and able to use techniques against the United States that it had previously not dared to attempt.

NEWSCASTER: The recording of the phone call leaked on social media—

JULIA IOFFE: Of course, they’re listening to everything. But usually, they’re just collecting it for themselves. This is the first time they have gone out and weaponized that information against the U.S.

NARRATOR: The leak was only the beginning. Another tactic— in the Ukrainian territory of Crimea, Putin used disinformation, outright lies, as a weapon.

STEVEN PIFER, U.S. Amb. to Ukraine, 1998-2000: They moved in with what the Ukrainians call “little green men.” And they were clearly, by the way they handled themselves and their weapons, professional military wearing Russian-style combat uniforms, but no insignia.

NEWSCASTER: Forces in the thousands, seizing territory—

NARRATOR: Putin knew an invasion of Ukraine would be a clear violation of international law and inevitably provoke an American response. So the troops were disguised and he denied they were his.

DANIEL BAER, U.S. Amb. to the OSCE, 2013-17: I think it was a tactically impressive move that he was able to basically invade a huge chunk of a neighboring country.

NEWSCASTER: A tug of war in Ukraine where more soldiers reportedly—

DANIEL BAER: And do it in a way that made it difficult to figure out exactly what was going on until it was too late.

NARRATOR: Russia seized Crimea without firing a shot. Putin had successfully used disinformation and weaponized leaks. He was also testing something else, Russia’s cyber capabilities.

MICHAEL CROWLEY, Politico: There is a cheap way to intimidate other countries. What Putin has are armies of people at laptops harassing, intimidating and even manipulating the information and news that we read.

DAVID SANGER, New York Times: Ukraine, more than any other country, is the petri dish in which the Russians conduct their experiments in cyber operations, where they work on manipulating elections, where at Christmastime of 2015, turning off the power to a quarter of a million people. The Russians figured out just how far they could go without provoking a reaction from us.

NARRATOR: As the cyber attacks and disinformation ramped up, Russia began operating on a new front in eastern Ukraine.

NEWSCASTER: The new frontline of eastern Ukraine’s war, heavy fighting—

EVAN OSNOS, The New Yorker: The use of paramilitary forces, the use of cyber warfare, the use of conventional military, all of that— and disinformation— amounted to an entirely new form of warfare, what became known as hybrid war.

NEWSCASTER: Fighting in Eastern Ukraine—

NARRATOR: In Washington, the American government was struggling to devise a response to Putin’s actions.

*JAKE SULLIVAN, Dep. Chief of Staff, State Dept., 2009-13: How do you deter behavior when the other side is basically denying that it’s even taking place, when the other side is saying, “I don’t even know what you’re talking about. We’re not involved.”

NEWSCASTER: President Obama says he’s deeply concerned about that situation—

NARRATOR: In several phone calls, President Barack Obama confronted Putin about the little green men. Tony Blinken was in the Oval Office for those calls.

ANTONY BLINKEN, Dep. Sec. of State., 2015-17: Putin denied their presence. And it was striking, and flat out lying about Russia’s presence in Ukraine. And Obama would say to him, “Vladimir, we’re not blind. We have eyes. We can see.” And Putin would just move on, as if nothing had happened.

NARRATOR: At the Pentagon, some believed Putin only understood one thing: military force.

EVELYN FARKAS, Dep. Asst. Sec. of Defense, 2012-15: The most important thing that we could do was to deter Russia. And the best way to do that, we thought in my office, was to make the Russians afraid that they would have to pay a higher price for their military intervention. The higher price would be a price in Russian lives, that if we had anti-tank weapons, the Russian tanks coming at the Ukrainians would get hit and Russian soldiers would die.

NARRATOR: The CIA director agreed that tough action was needed.

JOHN BRENNAN, CIA Director, 2013-17: I remember being on the schoolyards of New Jersey, when I grew up, and bullies and tried to intimidate and they keep moving forward unless they get their— their nose bloodied a little bit. And I felt as though Mr. Putin really needed to get his nose bloodied, and I think it would have caused him to back off, because like most bullies, he knows that he can’t stand up to others. It’s a lot of bluster.

NARRATOR: But the president was reluctant to be drawn in to a conflict with Russia. He would not approve providing weapons to the Ukrainians.

PETER BAKER: Obama responds to Ukraine by imposing sanctions. And they begin to penalize Russian businesses and Russian individuals that they blame for being part of this.

NARRATOR: Some who had dealt with Putin worried sanctions would not stop him.

VICTORIA NULAND: I think that Putin successfully calculated that the hammer would not come down on him in a critically painful way if he did things deniably, stealthily, if he probed and if he sort of boiled the frog hotter and hotter and hotter rather than attacking directly. And he was right.

NARRATOR: Soon Putin would go further and directly take on the United States.

CELESTE WALLANDER, Obama Adviser, 2013-17: It’s a revenge and it’s an equalizer. It was retribution. It’s “You interfere in our politics, we’re going to show that American democracy is not so solid, that American exceptionalism is not so pristine, and that you, too, can be vulnerable to interference and chaos and embarrassment in your political processes.”

NARRATOR: The chance to strike at American democracy came just a few months later.

NEWSCASTER: It’s the season of politicians making big announcements, and today we got one—

NARRATOR: As the country prepared for the 2016 presidential election.

DONALD TRUMP: We are going to start winning big league!

BANFIELD: The insurgent candidate, Donald Trump, was dominating the headlines and generating attention.

DONALD TRUMP: —will make America great again!

EVAN OSNOS, The New Yorker: When Vladimir Putin looked over at the U.S. presidential election, he saw one candidate who was voicing positions that were very consistent with what Russia would have wanted in the world.

DONALD TRUMP: I think I’d get along very well with Vladimir Putin. I just think so.

NARRATOR: For years, Trump had been outspoken in his praise for Putin.

DONALD TRUMP: —in Russia. I was in Moscow recently, and I spoke with President Putin, who could not have been nicer.

He’s running his country and at least he’s a leader, you know, unlike what we have in this country.

PETER BAKER: He was personally invested in the idea of Putin as a friend. He said, “Maybe he’ll be my BFF. Maybe, you know”— and praising him to the point where he would even defend Putin against anybody who said any negative things about him.

DONALD TRUMP: I think in terms of leadership, he’s getting an A, and our president is not doing so well.

NARRATOR: It appeared that Donald Trump was the kind of candidate Vladimir Putin could like.

STEPHEN HADLEY, Natl. Security Adviser, 2005-09: President Putin’s view of Trump, was a penchant for authoritarianism, a backing off of human rights, and talking about wanting to have a more positive relationship with Russia. What’s not to like if you’re Vladimir Putin? It sort of sounds like he’s one of us.

DONALD TRUMP: We will build a great wall!

NARRATOR: As Trump closed in on the nomination, he assembled a team with connections to Moscow.

RYAN LIZZA: If you were Putin, you see Trump hiring and reaching out to a series of political advisers who have similar sympathies and/or links to Russia. You see the campaign manager, Paul Manafort, who worked for Pro-Russia Ukrainian parties.

And then this relatively obscure national security adviser named Carter Page, who is much more amenable to Moscow than some of the hawks. You add into that Michael Flynn, the national security adviser, who Putin had dinner with in Moscow. Just all of those links, from Moscow’s perspective, they had to be thinking, “Wow, this is someone, at the very least, we can do business with.”

NARRATOR: Vladimir Putin had another, special reason to be interested in the election.

NEWSCASTER: Hillary Clinton is trying to lock down the Democratic nomination—

NARRATOR: Hillary Clinton.

HILLARY CLINTON: We’ve had some very tough dealings with one another. And I know that he’s someone that you have to continually stand up to because like many bullies, he is somebody who will take as much as he possibly can, unless you do.

NARRATOR: He believed Clinton had crossed the line and interfered in Russian politics during those anti-Putin protests. And now, the chance to strike back.

GREG MILLER, The Washington Post: All of the time, there is this probing that’s going on, poking around in sensitive systems.

NARRATOR: Russian hackers had already breached American government computer networks.

GREG MILLER: The State Department had been penetrated. The White House had been penetrated. The Pentagon had been penetrated.

NARRATOR: Now a new target, the computer network inside the Democratic National Committee.

EVAN OSNOS: They were almost the perfect target. They didn’t have the full protections of a government agency, but they had much more valuable information than an ordinary private organization.

NARRATOR: The attack inside the DNC network wasn’t secret for long.

ELLEN NAKASHIMA, The Washington Post: The first intrusion into the DNC, these were initially detected by the NSA, who shares the information with the FBI. And those intrusions, first intrusions, in 2015 were by the group known as APT-29 or Cozy Bear.

NARRATOR: APT-29 was already known to American investigators. “Cozy Bear” were Russian hackers.

GREG MILLER: There was a pattern in terms of the tools used, in terms of the nature of the probing that they saw, that lead to— that pointed back to Russia pretty early on.

NARRATOR: But inside FBI headquarters, the reaction was surprisingly low key. A special agent simply called the IT department at the DNC.

DAVID SANGER, New York Times: You had nine months during which an FBI special agent was trying to communicate with a young IT professional at the Democratic National Committee, who didn’t even believe that the guy on the other end of the phone was an FBI special agent.

EVAN OSNOS: The help desk didn’t know what to make of it. They didn’t know if it was authentic. They didn’t know if this person was who he said he was. And frankly, they were utterly ill- equipped to deal with it.

DAVID SANGER: At no point did anybody from the FBI walk out of their building, up the street to DNC headquarters. I did that once as we were writing a reconstruction of this hack. It’s about a 12-minute walk if you stopped at Starbucks and picked something up along the way. They never bothered.

NARRATOR: Russian hackers had wide-ranging access to DNC servers.

EVAN OSNOS: And they didn’t respond aggressively. And so for months, the hackers were inside the DNC, working away, burrowing in, collecting information and transporting it overseas.

NARRATOR: They waited for just the right moment.

NEWSCASTER: The Democratic national convention is getting ready to kick off—

NARRATOR: And in the summer of 2016, as the Democrats gathered to unify the party around Hillary Clinton—

NEWSCASTER: —disarray this morning just a day away from their convention kick-off—

NARRATOR: Those DNC emails had been passed to the Web site Wikileaks. Now they were released and would sow chaos among the delegates.

NEWSCASTER: —a trove of emails hacked from the Democratic National Committee—

DAVID SANGER: They wait until two days before the Democratic convention begins, and then lay out emails that was documentary proof that sows some chaos into the Democrats just as they’re getting ready to meet.

NARRATOR: The emails suggested the DNC had worked to undermine Clinton’s rival, Bernie Sanders.

NEWSCASTER: —bombshell revelations about how the Democratic National Committee does business—

NARRATOR: The release triggered just the kind of disruption Putin wanted.

ROBERT COSTA, The Washington Post: There were real cracks in the Democratic Party because of Russia hacking. You saw Democrats warring with each other, where Senator Sanders’ supporters railing against the Clinton supporters on the convention floor, the swelling protests. It was chaos in Philly.

And it was because of these emails.

NEWSCASTER: —passions of the Sanders camp are fully inflamed—

RYAN LIZZA: One of the most dramatic moments at the convention, which was helped along by the WikiLeaks disclosures, was Sanders’ people getting up, walking out of the convention.

SANDERS DELEGATES: Hey hey, DNC, we won’t vote for Hillary!

NEWSCASTER: Sanders has accused the DNC of putting their thumb on the scale for Clinton—

GREG MILLER: The effectiveness of this interference from Russia depends on a couple things, right? It depends on the polarization of politics in America. There were divides, and Russia was pushing out material that exploited those divides, that broadened them, that called attention to those divides.

MIKHAIL ZYGAR, Author, All the Kremlin’s Men: Putin loves the idea that no one is saint, that every politician is corrupt, any election is rigged. We are all the same— we are all dirty bastards. That cynical approach, that is actually almost official ideology of today’s Russia.

SANDERS SUPPORTERS: This is what democracy looks like!

NEWSCASTER: Clinton’s going to need those Sanders supporters, but there is some damning information that came out today—

NARRATOR: AS the DNC emails made news, Donald Trump was quick to seize the story.

SCOTT SHANE, The New York Times: It was sort of fresh inside material from the other side that he had to draw on. I mean, for Donald Trump, it’s sort of a godsend.

DONALD TRUMP: I’m not going to tell Putin what to do. Why should I tell Putin what to do?

NARRATOR: Trump didn’t focus on the source of the leaks, he exploited the content of the emails.

DONALD TRUMP: It’s not even about Russia or China or whoever it is that’s doing the hacking. It was about the things that were said in those emails. They were terrible things.

GREG MILLER: Trump’s willingness to exploit this situation, to use all these emails really compound the impact. I mean, Russia couldn’t have envisioned that it would have a candidate willing to do that. That is a huge factor.

NARRATOR: Still, Trump couldn’t avoid questions about Putin and the Russian hacking.

DONALD TRUMP: What do I have to get involved with Putin for? I have nothing to do with Putin. I’ve never spoken to him. I don’t know anything about him other than he will respect me.

PETER BAKER: He doesn’t see this as a fundamental attack by an adversary. He sees this as just, you know, part of the circus, you know, of American democracy. His response is to invite them to do it more. He says “Hey Russia, if you’re listening, maybe you can find those missing Hillary Clinton emails.”

DONALD TRUMP: But it would be interesting to see— I will tell you this— Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.

ROBERT COSTA: It was a jarring moment. And we sat there with our jaws open. We couldn’t believe that a presidential candidate was encouraging a foreign power, an adversary, to meddle in an election.

NEWSCASTER: Donald Trump is fanning the flames of the email hack involved in the Democratic National Committee—

NEWSCASTER: — even inciting the Russians to help find some other—

NEWSCASTER: The reaction continuing to pour in—

NARRATOR: At the Central Intelligence Agency, there was growing concern about the implications of the leaks.

JOHN BRENNAN, CIA Director, 2013-17: It was quite clear to me that we were seeing a campaign on the part of the Russians, that it was a much more aggressive, much more intense, and much more worrisome effort.

NARRATOR: The intelligence community’s analysis had already linked the DNC intrusion to Russian hackers— the very ones used in Ukraine. But now, at CIA headquarters they said they had something more, direct evidence that Vladimir Putin himself was personally involved.

ELLEN NAKASHIMA, The Washington Post: To get the intelligence that corroborates that was the coup for the CIA.

GREG MILLER: The agency has obtained intelligence that shows that Putin is behind this operation. Putin is setting its goals. Putin is not only aware of this, but aware that they’re planning to weaponize this information.

ELLEN NAKASHIMA: He rarely communicates by phone or email or anything electronic. So for them to get this kind of intelligence was pretty significant.

NARRATOR: Exactly what the CIA found is classified, but to Brennan it was a game changer.

JOHN BRENNAN: It was something that was, I think, worrying to all of us, particularly since we didn’t know the extent of what it is that the Russians were engaged in. And we didn’t know how far they would go to really threaten the integrity of the election.

NARRATOR: The information was dispatched from CIA headquarters to the offices of the director of national intelligence, James Clapper.

JAMES CLAPPER, Director of National Intelligenc, 2010-17 : I reacted viscerally when I understood the magnitude of what they were doing, and that it was in fact orchestrated at the highest levels of the Russian government, meaning Putin himself. I’ve seen a lot of bad stuff in my 50-plus years in intelligence. That really shook me.

NARRATOR: With Clapper on board, Brennan delivered the details to the president in person.

GREG MILLER: Obama’s senior most officials have told us that he was taken aback by this, that the president was alarmed, as well.

NARRATOR: At the White House, some wanted the president to sound the alarm to the American people.

PETER BAKER: There’s a big debate inside the Obama administration. What kind of actions should they take? How public should they be about raising the alarm?

NARRATOR: Veteran Putin watchers worried that if the president didn’t respond forcefully, the attacks would continue.

VICTORIA NULAND, Asst. Sec. of State, 2013-17: As we are watching what’s happening, those of us who’ve seen this movie before, whether it was in Estonia or Ukraine, it seems absolutely familiar.

JON FINER, Chief of Staff, State Dept., 2015-17: Everybody that I knew who was read into this and who was in high levels of the State Department, supported both attributing it to the Russians as early as possible and responding in a robust way.

DAVID SANGER: Obama could have destroyed computer servers that were involved in this. He could have stepped in to reveal information about Putin himself and his financial connections to the oligarchs. He had all kinds of cyber choices. And then he had all kinds of non-cyber tools, sanctions, things like that.

NARRATOR: But Obama resisted aggressive responses.

MICHAEL CROWLEY, Politico: I think the feeling was, how are you going to talk about this without seeming to be influencing the election and taking a side? And I just think they preferred to stay out of it.

JOHN BRENNAN: Overriding all of this was President Obama’s concern about not doing anything that was going to become a self-fulfilling prophesy for the Russians, which was to call into question the integrity of the election.

VICTORIA NULAND: Very clever on Putin’s part, as well, because President Obama conceivably could have been accused of doing the very thing that Putin himself was doing, and therefore contributing to the discrediting of the election.

JULIA IOFFE, The Atlantic: The other thing is that the Obama administration expected Clinton to win. And they were afraid that if they weighed in now, it would look like they were really putting their thumbs on the scale. This is a kind of a classic case of the Obama administration over-thinking something while the Russians were just kind of punching them in the gut.

NARRATOR: Before he would act, the president wanted congressional Republicans to join him in calling out Putin and Russian interference.

GREG MILLER: The Obama administration is so concerned about being accused of politicizing intelligence during the election, they’re really reluctant for the president himself to go out on a limb and say, “Look, Russia is doing this. Russia’s messing around in our election.” They really wanted this to be a bipartisan statement of condemnation of Moscow’s interference.

NARRATOR: Top intelligence officials traveled to Capitol Hill to tell congressional leaders what they knew.

JEH JOHNSON, Sec. of Homeland Security, 2013-17: They were all there— the speaker, leader Pelosi, leader McConnell, leader Reid, the Foreign Affairs Committees, the Intel Committees. They were all there. And we briefed them on what we knew.

NARRATOR: Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell expressed skepticism about the intelligence and warned that he would not join an effort to publicly challenge Putin.

RYAN LIZZA: They’re told by Mitch McConnell, the majority leader of the Senate, that, “If you do that, we’re going to interpret that as you putting the thumb on the scales for Hillary Clinton.”

NARRATOR: The meetings were top secret, held behind closed doors.

JOHN BRENNAN: In those briefings of Congress, some of the individuals expressed concern that this was motivated by partisan interests on the part of the administration. And I took offense to that and told them that this is an intelligence assessment. This is an intelligence matter.

GREG MILLER: It’s a moment when politics and partisan positioning appears to take precedence over national security. In other words, they’re so worried about each other, the Democrats and Republicans as adversaries, that they can’t get around the idea that there is a bigger adversary.

NARRATOR: In Moscow, President Vladimir Putin denied being at the center of the hacking, but he seemed pleased to be the center of attention.

ANDREI SOLDATOV, Co-Author, The Red Web: Everybody started to talk about Russia. Some questions were asked. Vladimir Putin clearly enjoyed himself when he was asked these questions in the beginning of September. He gave some, well, conventional answers with some wink, but that was all.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: [through interpreter] I don’t know anything about that. You know, there are so many hackers today and they act so delicately and precisely, then they can leave their trace in the necessary time and place or even someone else’s trace.

JULIA IOFFE: There’s always plausible deniability built into the system. So a lot of the hackers that are working for the Russian government, they’re not necessarily wearing, you know, epaulets and uniforms. They’re not necessarily sitting in GRU bunkers in Moscow or somewhere in Russia. A lot of them are freelancers.

VLADIMIR PUTIN: [through interpreter] Does it even matter who hacked this data from the campaign headquarters of Mrs. Clinton? Is that really important? The important thing is the content that has been given to the public.

EVELYN FARKAS, Dep. Asst. Sec. of Defense, 2012-15: And the Russians were not really denying it. This is classic Russian tactic, where they— they— it’s deniability. There’s a veneer of deniability. But at the same time, the Russians are telegraphing with kind of a wink, We’ll see what we can do.

NARRATOR: In September, President Barack Obama decided to personally deliver a warning to Vladimir Putin. The scene was the G-20 summit in Hangzhou, China.

JOHN BRENNAN: We had talked about the importance of making sure that President Obama seized that opportunity, so that Mr. Putin understood the gravity of this, the seriousness with which Mr. President Obama viewed it, and the need to cease and desist.

NARRATOR: They posed for formal pictures. Later, Obama pulled Putin aside.

GREG MILLER: And the pictures from that meeting are pretty extraordinary. President Obama is looking down on Putin and says, “We know what you’re doing, and you need to stop it.” I mean, this is the most direct warning that one state can deliver to another.

JOHN BRENNAN: The picture tells a thousand words. I think President Obama’s face really conveys a sense of deep concern and sending a message to Mr. Putin.

NARRATOR: Despite the confrontation, Putin continued to deny Russian involvement.

JON WOLFSTAHL, Obama Adviser, 2014-17: The response we got from the Russians was largely what we always get from the Russians, which is “We’re not doing anything. It’s not us. I don’t know what you’re talking about. We would never interfere in your system the way you interfere with our system.” Just straight-out denials, “We’re not involved, it’s not us. We would never do such a thing.”

NEWSCASTER: Turning now to the race for the White House.

NEWSCASTER: Six weeks until election day. The battle of the ballot is heating up—

NARRATOR: That fall, as Hillary Clinton prepared for the final weeks of the campaign, her staff was becoming increasingly concerned that the Russians were involved in more than just hacking.

NEWSCASTER: —and election day looms less than six weeks away—

JAKE SULLIVAN: We were watching stories about Hillary Clinton appearing on Russian propaganda websites like Russia Today and Sputnik.

RT NEWS ANCHOR: A Democratic frontrunner has been forced to refute rumors of her deteriorating health, maybe—

JAKE SULLIVAN: And then somehow ending up in very similar form in the right-wing media ecosystem of the United States, Breitbart and Info Wars, even Fox News.

FOX NEWS ANCHOR: What was once a concern voiced in whispers is now getting mainstream attention. We’re talking about Hillary Clinton’s health.

NEWSCASTER: Clinton is, quote—

NARRATOR: On RT, a cable channel distributed worldwide and controlled by the Kremlin—

RT NEWS ANCHOR: —various theories about her health caught on—

NARRATOR: —exagerrated and questionable stories about Clinton’s health began to circulate.

RT NEWS ANCHOR: Under a microscope are Clinton’s falls, coughs, and head motions.

NEWSCASTER: Did you talk about vice presidential possibilities with Senator Warren?

HILLARY CLINTON: You guys have got to try the cold chai.

RT NEWS ANCHOR: This video filmed in June went viral and started a slew of rumors that Clinton may have had a seizure.

SEAN HANNITY, Fox Host: Some have said it’s like a mini-seizure. What does it look like to you?

FOX CONTRIBUTOR: It could be a post-concussion syndrome. You know, your balance is off, you’re dizzy all the time, your memory is off—

DAVID HOFFMAN, _The Washington Post_/FRONTLINE: In the world of hybrid warfare and disinformation, all you need to do is float something that’s incorrect or wrong. And then other people will seize on it, and dissemination happens at light speed.

ALEX JONES, Info Wars: The fact is, she’s out there giving speeches every day and has to cancel them having these coughing fits.

NEWSCASTER: New questions tonight about Hillary Clinton’s health.

NEWSCASTER: Good evening. It was a dramatic moment that’s already being watched and re-watched—

NEWSCASTER: NEWSCASTER: The episode this morning is raising more questions about her health—

NARRATOR: Similar stories appeared on the Russian-controlled news service Sputnik.

DAVID HOFFMAN: This is a multi-pronged attack. A lot of times, these kinds of efforts involve things that are only half true, but create doubt and suspicion. That’s part of the goal.

NEWSCASTER: Health scare for Hillary Clinton over the weekend—

NEWSCASTER: Questions about Hillary Clinton’s health—

NARRATOR: On social media, the stories exploded.

EVAN OSNOS, The New Yorker: It was not true, the idea that Hillary Clinton was sick. But because of the way in which you were experiencing the news and what you were reading, you could spend your whole day being fed information that reinforced this belief that Hillary Clinton was hiding something.

NARRATOR: Fueling the social media boom, fake users designed to look like Americans, trolls supporting the Kremlin, an army of automated accounts called “bots” on Twitter and targeted advertisements on Facebook and Google.

GREG MILLER: It involves the use of bots, the use of technology, to spread artificial news, what many people call fake news.

NARRATOR: The stories made it into the mainstream media, too, and on the campaign trail, Donald Trump would use them to his advantage.

DONALD TRUMP: And she can’t make it 15 feet to her car. Give me a break. Give me a break.

ROBERT COSTA, Washington Week: He would cite material that was from what we used to call the fringe. But the fringe became the center of American political life.

DONALD TRUMP: Give me a break!

ROBERT COSTA: And some of that fringe involved Russian stories that weren’t accurate.

ANTONY BLINKEN, Dep. Sec. of State., 2015-17: Because what Putin was trying to do was to show that everyone’s lying, everyone’s cheating. There is no objective truth. And there is no difference between what you hear from Western media and what you hear in, say, Russia’s media. That was the line, and he became increasingly successful in blurring it for people, including in the United States and the West.

NEWSCASTER: Top Democrats are accusing very senior levels of the Russian government of trying to influence—

NEWSCASTER: Did Russia do the hackings? Did they do it to influence the American political election?

NARRATOR: As the size and scope of Russian interference intensified, the intelligence agencies grew increasingly concerned.

NEWSCASTER: —they believe Russian hackers are behind those attacks in a possible—

JEH JOHNSON: There was an emerging picture that was becoming clearer and clearer of interference, attempts to interfere in our democracy.

NARRATOR: In tense debates, Secretary Johnson pushed for going public with the intelligence about Putin and the hacking.

JEH JOHNSON: A number of us felt very strongly that we had to tell the American public what we knew, and that it would be unforgivable post-election if we had not.

JAMES CLAPPER, Dir. of Natl. Intelligence, 2010-17 Jeh and I were, I think, of like mind here, that if the election, for whatever reason and whatever manner were to go south, and then afterwards it was learned that we knew about what the Russians were doing, or had some pretty good insight into what they were doing, and we didn’t say anything about it before the election, there would really be hell to pay.

NARRATOR: Finally, Obama agreed.

GREG MILLER: Obama still doesn’t want this to be in his name. So he enlists his intelligence chief, James Clapper, and his Homeland Security Chief, Jeh Johnson, to put out a statement in their names, hoping that that will be perceived as less partisan than if the president had done so himself.

NARRATOR: But just agreeing on what would be said would be difficult.

JOHN BRENNAN: The statement that Jim Clapper and Jeh Johnson put out went through an arduous review process, including in the White House Situation Room, just trying to get the tone right, make sure the message was right.

NARRATOR: The vetted statement was just three paragraphs long.

“The Russian government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from U.S. persons and institutions”—

DAVID SANGER: There were a few interesting things about that intelligence report. First, it gave us no details. Second, it was incredibly late. And it took the intelligence community more than two months to be able to come up with a few sentences that essentially confirmed that story.

NARRATOR: Also missing, any mention of President Putin’s personal involvement.

ELLEN NAKASHIMA: They could have said Putin, but they didn’t. His name got taken out of the final statement because of a concern over sources and methods and of concern about appearing to be too provocative.

DAVID SANGER: It didn’t say they had seen evidence, although they had. It didn’t say they were listening in on conversations that would take it directly to Putin, although they had. It said, “It had to have been ordered at the highest levels.”

NARRATOR: At the White House, they held their collective breaths and sent it out to the media.

JEH JOHNSON: I thought our statement was going to be really, really big news. It was unprecedented that the U.S. government was accusing another superpower of effectively putting their thumb on the scale of our democracy and attempting to influence our election.

NARRATOR: They planned the release for a Friday afternoon.

TIM O’BRIEN, Bloomberg News: From the White House’s perspective, they’re going to drop this thing on a Friday and they’re going to own news coverage over the weekend. This was going to be a big story.

NEWSCASTER: —the Russians, at the highest levels of the Russian government have authorized cyberattacks on—

DAVID SANGER: We thought this was a pretty good news story. And we started figuring out how quickly we could get it up on the web, ripping up page one. And along comes one even more wild.

NEWSCASTER: Pete, thank you for that. And some breaking news, this coming in just in the last few seconds. NBC News has just become aware of a video capturing Donald Trump making vulgar comments about women—

DAVID SANGER: And that was, of course, the famous tape of Trump boasting about how he would deal with women when he was such a star, and you know, he could get away with anything.

NEWSCASTER: Breaking late this evening, a blast from the past that seems to be exploding in the face of the Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump.

NARRATOR: News of the tape broke at 4 PM.

RYAN LIZZA: And that pushes aside even the news of Vladimir Putin interfering in our election. And that tape becomes the dominant story of the day.

JEH JOHNSON: The “Access Hollywood” video came out the same day. And the media all were like cattle and they went off and grazed in the other end of the pasture.

NEWSCASTER: It’s the audio recording sending shock waves across the presidential election—

NEWSCASTER: Biden called Trump’s comments disgusting—

NEWSCASTER: —deeply offensive comments Trump made about women and potential—

GREG MILLER: And it’s like an avalanche. I mean, the warning that the Obama Administration was desperately trying to convey with that statement ends up at the bottom of that avalanche.

NEWSCASTER: The Trump camp has swiftly launched into—

NARRATOR: It looked like Trump’s campaign might be over.

NEWSCASTER: —that this is the end of the Donald Trump campaign.

NEWSCASTER: Nothing he’s going to be able to do to recover from this—

NARRATOR: And then just minutes after the Trump tape surfaced, another bombshell.

NEWSCASTER: Flood of emails suggest that in private, her advisers—

NARRATOR: Wikileaks suddenly began releasing those John Podesta e-mails that had been captured by Russian hackers months before.

JOHN PODESTA, Clinton Campaign Chairman: The leaks of my emails— they didn’t occur until October, an hour after the “Access Hollywood” tape became public. So clearly, I think this— this was done to some extent to distract the press, to get them off the “Access Hollywood” story.

NEWSCASTER: Breaking news here. Wikileaks is about to release, quote, significant material tied to Hillary Clinton—

NEWSCASTER: The campaign is doing damage control tonight after Wikileaks released—

ROBBY MOOK, Clinton Campaign Manager: I was in a room dealing with Wikileaks emails when that happened. And I think people forget that, that for Trump, there were some really embarrassing moments. But for us, everyday, you know there was more and more coming out.

NEWSCASTER: Campaign manager Robby Mook lashed out writing, quote, “Wow, what a terrorist.”

NARRATOR: It was just the beginning. Podesta’s e-mails would continue to leak through election day.

RYAN LIZZA: So the “Access Hollywood” tape is like this supernova that explodes on that day. The Podesta emails, it’s like this fuse that’s lit on this— on that day, and just slowly burns until it sort of blows up as you get closer to the election.

NEWSCASTER: —release of emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta.

NARRATOR: Amplifying the Podesta emails once again, the trolls, the bots, RT and Donald Trump himself.

DONALD TRUMP: Wikileaks is amazing, the stuff that’s coming out. It shows she’s a real liar! This Wikileaks stuff is unbelievable! It tells you the inner heart. You got to read it.

Wikileaks! I love WikiLeaks!

DAN BALZ, The Washington Post: Everybody was complicit in Wikileaks and the— and the Russians were complicit in it. The Trump campaign was amplifying it. The press, all focused on Hillary Clinton, and in a negative way.

NEWSCASTER: It is decision day in America, and we are taking a look at the presidential race—

NEWSCASTER: After a long, contentious presidential race, we are near the end—

NARRATOR: After all the chaos, the hacks, and fake news, it was finally election day.

NEWSCASTER: Polling shows a tight race nationally, but with Hillary Clinton ahead—

NARRATOR: In Moscow, they were watching as the results came in.

PETER BAKER: It’s hard to imagine that many people in Moscow thought that Donald Trump was going to win, since nobody else did. They read the same things that we read and they see the same polls and the same pundits.

NARRATOR: Then as the upset became clear—

RUSSIAN MAN: Unbe-fucking-lievable!

ANDREI SOLDATOV, Co-Author, The Red Web: It was jubilation. Everybody was so happy because it was such a big surprise.

RUSSIAN MEN AT BAR SINGING: We are the champions of the world!

ANDREI SOLDATOV: Everybody believed that there is a special agreement, secret agreement, between the elites to get Clinton elected.

NARRATOR: Behind the scenes at the Duma, some Russian legislators collectively raised a champagne toast.

JULIA IOFFE: They didn’t expect Trump to win. They just thought they were going to bloody Clinton’s nose. They didn’t expect to break her neck.

NARRATOR: Trump’s election was seen as a sign of strength for Putin.

NIKOLAI PETROV, Russian Political Scientist: It did demonstrate to ordinary Russians Putin is deciding the fate of American elections, is taken as a sign of Putin’s greatness and of Russia’s greatness, as well.

NEWSCASTER: Donald Trump’s surprise win and uncertainty surrounding—

NEWSCASTER: —what may be one of the biggest political stunners in U.S. history.

DONALD TRUMP: I, Donald John Trump, do solemnly swear I will faithfully execute—

NARRATOR: On January 20th, the candidate Putin had supported became the president of the united states.

*DONALD TRUMP: — will protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, so help me God.

GLEB PAVLOVSKY, Fmr. Putin Adviser: [through interpreter] I don’t know who in America believed that Putin elected Trump, but Putin believed that. Putin believed that.

NARRATOR: Trump rode to victory promising to make America great again, but the story of Russian interference would continue.

ROBERT COSTA: The Russian cloud was with Trump on day one at the inauguration. It’s with him months later. And it will probably be with him even until the end of his presidency.

NEWSCASTER: Michael Flynn resigning under fire—

NEWSCASTER: Sessions doubles down, categorically denying that—

NEWSCASTER: —recused himself—

NARRATOR: His presidency was increasingly consumed by questions about possible collusion between his campaign and Russia.

PETER BAKER: This is a story that won’t go away. And it eats away at Trump. He watches TV, he sees it in the paper, he hears people talk about it, and it just gnaws at him.

NEWSCASTER: This Moscow bank that acts as a front for Russian espionage—

NEWSCASTER: President Trump has fired James Comey as the director of the FBI—

NEWSCASTER: President Trump now facing outrage after firing Comey.

NARRATOR: Vladimir Putin is now at the center of a major American political scandal.

NEWSCASTER: The U.S. Senate has passed a bill to impose new sanctions on Russia—

DAVID HOFFMAN: Putin has strutted back onto the stage, you know, shoulders back, saying, “Russia is here.” But he’s also created a terrible backlash, and I don’t think we know yet where that’s going to lead.

NEWSCASTER: A bill slapping new sanctions on Russia now headed to the president’s desk—

NARRATOR: The conflict between Putin’s Russia and America only seems to deepen.

NEWSCASTER: President Donald Trump revealed highly classified information to the Russians.

NEWSCASTER: —break the law, and did he compromise National Security as—

JOHN BRENNAN: Mr. Putin sees these things in zero sum fashion. If the U.S. President, or the U.S. is diminished in the eyes of the world it just benefits Russia. To me, I think Mr. Putin sees this as a tremendous success.

NEWSCASTER: —reaction tonight to the appointment of a special counsel to the Russia investigation.

NEWSCASTER: —bombshell email chain on Donald Trump, Jr.’s, Russia meeting.

NARRATOR: A spy, a master bureaucrat, a strongman. Vladimir Putin and his quest for revenge has cast a shadow over American democracy.

NEWSCASTER: Special counsel Robert Mueller has issued subpoenas to—

JAMES CLAPPER: Well, he’s going to be pretty happy. He personally, and the Russians collectively, way exceeded expectations and which was to sow discord and discontent in this country. And they— they succeeded eminently.

NEWSCASTER: Facebook has been under scrutiny for weeks after admitting Russians used the platform—

JAMES CLAPPER: And by the way, the Russians aren’t going to stop. Their experience in our 2016 election is going to embolden them to interfere in the future, maybe more aggressively.

NEWSCASTER: Three people with ties to President Trump are now facing—

NEWSCASTER: Manafort and Gates indicted by a federal grand jury on 12 counts—

NEWSCASTER: The former Trump campaign aide has pled guilty—

NEWSCASTER: —has pled guilty, but is now cooperating with the Mueller investigation—

3h 14m
frontline the power of big oil docuseries
The Power of Big Oil
FRONTLINE examines the fossil fuel industry’s history of casting doubt and delaying action on climate change in a three-part documentary series.
April 19, 2022