The video appeared on YouTube on March 4, three days after the bonanza of primaries and caucuses known as Super Tuesday. New York billionaire Donald Trump had dominated the contests, cementing his improbable rise to Republican front-runner. And a Russian man named Alexander Dugin was providing his own colorful commentary on the results, in heavily accented English.
The message was unmistakable: Russia was officially rooting for Trump.
“Go ahead, Mr. Trump, in Trump we Trust,” Dugin said, staring into the camera.
Dugin isn’t just a random crank with a YouTube channel. He is an influential political analyst and philosopher with deep ties to the Russian government. He is known variously as “Putin’s Brain” and “Putin’s Rasputin,” a moniker he was given by Breitbart News in 2014.
In the video, Dugin sits behind an anchor desk, offering disdain for American democracy (“How dare they lecture us about human rights and the fight against corruption?”) and neoconservative foreign policy. For Trump, there is praise of his populism and his “America First” approach to the world. For Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, then a Republican candidate for president, there are graphic insults. But Dugin reserves his harshest criticism for Hillary Clinton and the Democratic primary process.
“There is nothing more stupid and fake than the American vote counting system,” Dugin said. “The majority votes for [Bernie] Sanders but Clinton wins, bribing the electors.”
While Dugin was publicly stating his desired outcome for the 2016 election, a Russian military intelligence service was quietly taking steps that would later rock the 2016 campaign. According to the U.S. intelligence community’s declassified assessment of Russian interference in the 2016 election, Russia’s GRU began rifling through the email accounts and networks of Democratic Party officials and political figures in March 2016.
The timeline of events in the spring and summer of 2016 has taken on new meaning in light of the email chain released last week by Donald Trump Jr., showing an offer of help for the Trump campaign, purportedly from Russia. Here we reconstruct those events.
The question that multiple congressional committees and special counsel Robert Mueller are now examining is whether the events on this timeline — the striking parallels between what Donald Trump said on the campaign trail last year and the messages coming out of Russia — are connected or are mere coincidences.
Trump has repeatedly denied that he or his campaign had any involvement in colluding with Russia during the 2016 election cycle. Russian President Vladimir Putin has also repeatedly denied that his government had any role in meddling in last year’s U.S. presidential election. Putin did so most recently when the two leaders met on the sidelines of this year’s Group of 20 summit, according to both presidents and their respective top diplomats.
Trump was running as an anti-establishment outsider, more than happy to throw doubt on the American political system, and by early April, that included complaining about a “phony system” that he said was rigged against himself and Bernie Sanders, who was seeking the Democratic nomination.
“He wins, and then you listen to the pundits: ‘But he can’t win,’ ” Trump said April 15 at a rally in Plattsburgh, N.Y. “You know why, because it’s a rigged system folks. It’s a rigged system.”
Russia’s affinity for Trump was driven in part by his view of America’s role in the world. Just like Russia’s leadership, Trump was critical of the Iraq War, American encouragement of the Arab Spring movement and the decision to invade Libya. This set Trump apart from both Clinton and the rest of the Republican field of primary candidates.
And then there was simply the way he talked about Russia and his openness to working with the country.
“I believe an easing of tensions, and improved relations with Russia from a position of strength only, is possible, absolutely possible,” Trump said in a foreign policy speech at the Mayflower Hotel on April 27, 2016, in Washington, D.C. “Common sense says this cycle, this horrible cycle of hostility must end and ideally will end soon. Good for both countries. Some say the Russians won’t be reasonable. I intend to find out.”
Sergey Kislyak, then the Russian ambassador to the U.S., was sitting in the front row, according to a report by Radio Free Europe.
The U.S. intelligence assessment says that by May 2016, Russian hackers had extracted large volumes of data from the Democratic National Committee’s systems.
In early June, as the primaries in both parties were winding down, Clinton turned her fire to Trump. In a speech that marked her pivot toward the general election, she mocked Trump for saying so many nice things about Putin.
“Now I will leave it to psychiatrists to explain his affection for tyrants,” Clinton said in San Diego on June 2. “I just wonder how anyone could be so wrong about who America’s real friends are. Because it matters. If you don’t know exactly who you’re dealing with, men like Putin will eat your lunch.”
That week, and the week after, are now under intense scrutiny.
Just a day after Clinton’s speech, Donald Trump Jr. received the now notorious email from a man linked to a Russian real estate developer whom the Trumps had partnered with on the 2013 Miss Universe Pageant in Moscow. He offered to connect the Trump campaign with people who could supply official Russian documents that would incriminate Clinton. The offer was said to be part of “Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
Trump Jr. was traveling at the time, but it took him just 20 minutes to reply: “if it’s what you say, I love it, especially later in the summer.”
Four days later, on June 7, was the end of the 2016 Republican presidential primaries. In a speech to his supporters that night, candidate Trump said something that is getting a lot of attention now: He teased an attack on Clinton.
“I am going to give a major speech on, probably Monday of next week, and we are going to be discussing all of the things that have taken place with the Clintons,” Trump said. “I think you are going to find it very informative and very, very interesting.”
When asked whether this had anything to do with what was promised in the email chain, a spokesman for President Trump’s outside legal team said the candidate “was not aware of and did not attend the meeting.”
Two days later, on June 9, the meeting happened at Trump Tower as planned — with Donald Trump Jr., then-Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law, who is now a top White House adviser, all in attendance. Trump Jr.’s explanation of who else was in that meeting has evolved over time, but those also in attendance included a Russian lawyer, a Russian-American lobbyist and at least one language interpreter.
Trump Jr. told Sean Hannity on Fox News that the Russians didn’t deliver what they promised in the meeting. “It was literally just a wasted 20 minutes, which was a shame,” Trump Jr. said.
His father didn’t end up delivering that major speech either, at least not on the day he promised. The Pulse Nightclub shooting that left nearly 50 people dead happened in Orlando, Fla., over that weekend and briefly shifted the focus of the campaign.
Something else happened that weekend that didn’t seem all that significant at the time. WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange made an announcement.
“We have upcoming leaks in relation to Hillary Clinton, which is great,” he said, in an interview with Britain’s ITV. “We actually have, WikiLeaks has, a very big year ahead.”
Assange and WikiLeaks have long had an ideological affinity and close ties with Russia.
WikiLeaks had been posting the already-public Clinton State Department emails on its website. What people were wondering was whether WikiLeaks had the roughly 30,000 personal emails Clinton had deleted from her private server. Assange was cagey when asked about that and, as a result, many assumed he was just blowing smoke.
But then a few days later, a site called DCLeaks and someone going by the name Guccifer 2.0 released some files taken from the DNC’s systems.
At the time, Trump blamed the DNC for its own misfortune.
“We believe it was the DNC that did the ‘hacking’ as a way to distract from the many issues facing their deeply flawed candidate and failed party leader,” Trump said in a statement. “Too bad the DNC doesn’t hack Crooked Hillary’s 33,000 missing emails.”
The U.S. intelligence assessment says with high confidence that DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0 were just a front for Russia’s military intelligence agency the GRU.
“It’s very clear that the GRU was responsible for hacking into the — the networks of the DNC, DCCC, and were responsible, through a cutout, releasing it through places like Guccifer 2.0, WikiLeaks and — and others,” former CIA Director John Brennan testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee.
He said the GRU delivered to WikiLeaks thousands of DNC emails, as well as those taken from senior Democratic officials, like Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta.
On June 22, Trump finally delivered a speech going after Clinton and her family’s foundation, but there were no major revelations. It was sort of a greatest hits version of previous attacks he had made against her.
July was always going to be a momentous month in the campaign, with vice presidential picks being announced and the parties’ conventions happening in Cleveland and Philadelphia. But it turned out to be pivotal.
In early July 2016, Carter Page went to Moscow to deliver a speech. He was a minor figure in the Trump campaign, a policy adviser few people had ever heard of before Trump mentioned him in an editorial board meeting with The Washington Post.
We now know July is also the month the FBI began investigating possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, though the public wouldn’t find out until well after the election.
In Cleveland, on July 21, one year ago this coming weekend, Donald Trump closed out the GOP convention with a dark speech that fired up his supporters.
“This is the legacy of Hillary Clinton: death, destruction, terrorism and weakness,” he said to rousing applause and cheers.
— WikiLeaks (@wikileaks) July 22, 2016
The next morning, WikiLeaks posted nearly 20,000 emails hacked from the DNC. The emails contained damaging information that confirmed the narrative that the Democratic leaders preferred Clinton over Sanders. The revelations roiled the Democratic National Convention that began just three days later.
The new joke in town is that Russia leaked the disastrous DNC e-mails, which should never have been written (stupid), because Putin likes me
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 25, 2016
Trump tweeted about the DNC hack repeatedly, including a “joke” that maybe it had happened “because Putin likes me.”
The Russian propaganda machine — including RT, the Russian government-sponsored, English language television channel that is beamed into homes all over America — had an undeniable message at the time.
“Speaking of crime and Internet and fame and money and politicians, one immediately thinks of Hillary Clinton,” said one RT announcer.
On July 25, a reporter on the state-run channel argued that any focus on Russian involvement in the email leak was just a distraction from the real issue — how terribly unfair the DNC had been to Sanders.
“When immediately after the leaks, the Clinton campaign began to blame Russia instead of addressing the revelations in the leaks, to many it sounded like a joke, like something you would see in the Onion fake news,” said RT reporter Gayane Chichakyan. “Except it was real news.”
On July 27, Trump held a press conference and was asked whether he would call on Putin to stay out of the election.
“Why should I tell Putin what to do?” Trump said, before turning to a talking point used by both Trump’s campaign and Russian media outlets. “Let me tell you, it’s not even about Russia or China or whoever it is that’s doing the hacking. It’s about what was said in those emails. Those were terrible things.”
Rather than condemn the hacking, at his press conference Trump seemingly encouraged Russia to keep going.
“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump said, referring to Clinton’s deleted personal emails. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press. Let’s see if that happens. That will be next.”
After that, a reporter pressed Trump on whether he had any qualms about asking a foreign government to interfere or to hack.
“Nope. Gives me no pause. If they have them, they have them,” he said.
The personal emails deleted from Clinton’s private server still haven’t surfaced publicly. But, in early October, WikiLeaks began posting a new batch of internal Clinton campaign emails each day. And it was rewarded mightily with a constant stream of negative stories about Clinton.
Clint Watts, Robert A. Fox Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, began raising alarms about Russian measures to influence the American public’s political views shortly after Trump’s press conference.
“Once you see both the campaign echoing the messages and themes that are coming out from RT and Sputnik News, when you see hacked materials of the DNC strategically linked and timed in terms of their release to influence the U.S. election in favor of Trump, then when you see Trump get onto stages or make prepared speeches where he refers to both Russia and Clinton’s emails, it seems very ominous, in terms of maybe there was some connection between the two,” said Watts. “At a minimum, they were at least looking or aware of those lines or influenced by Russian propaganda to be saying it almost near verbatim throughout those months.”
Whether Trump was a witting or unwitting beneficiary of Russia’s efforts hasn’t been proven, but as Watts sees it, Russia benefited from the way candidate Trump ran his campaign.
“The bottom line is Russian active measures were deployed to influence the U.S. election,” Watts said, referring to the effort to discredit the political system and turn voters against Clinton. “They worked in large part because one candidate used Russian active measures to his own benefit.”