In phone calls, meetings and cables, America’s European allies have expressed alarm to one another about Donald Trump’s public statements denying Moscow’s role in cyberattacks designed to interfere with the U.S. election. They fear the Republican nominee for president has emboldened the Kremlin in its unprecedented cybercampaign to disrupt elections in multiple countries in hopes of weakening Western alliances, according to intelligence, law enforcement and other government officials in the United States and Europe.
While American intelligence officers have privately briefed Trump about Russia’s attempts to influence the U.S. election, he has publicly dismissed that information as unreliable, instead saying this hacking of incredible sophistication and technical complexity could have been done by some 400-pound “guy sitting on their bed” or even a child.
Officials from two European countries tell Newsweek that Trump’s comments about Russia’s hacking have alarmed several NATO partners because it suggests he either does not believe the information he receives in intelligence briefings, does not pay attention to it, does not understand it or is misleading the American public for unknown reasons. One British official says members of that government who are aware of the scope of Russia’s cyberattacks both in Western Europe and America found Trump’s comments “quite disturbing” because they fear that, if elected, the Republican presidential nominee would continue to ignore information gathered by intelligence services in the formulation of U.S. foreign policy.
Trump’s behavior, however, has at times concerned the Russians, leading them to revise their hacking and disinformation strategy. For example, when Trump launched into an inexplicable attack on the parents of a Muslim-American soldier who died in combat, the Kremlin assumed the Republican nominee was showing himself psychologically unfit to be president and would be forced by his party to withdraw from the race. As a result, Moscow put its hacking campaign temporarily on hold, ending the distribution of documents until Trump stabilized, both personally and in the polls, according to reports provided to Western intelligence.
America’s European partners are also troubled by the actions of several people close to Trump’s campaign and company. Trump has been surrounded by advisers and associates with economic and familial links to Russia. The publicized connections and contacts between former campaign manager Paul Manafort with Ukraine have raised concerns. Former Trump adviser Carter Page is being probed by American and European intelligence on allegations that he engaged in back-channel discussions with Russian government officials over the summer. Page did travel to Moscow, but he denies any inappropriate contact with Russian officials. The allies are also uneasy about retired Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, a Trump adviser who was reportedly considered a possible running mate for the GOP nominee. Last December, Flynn attended a dinner at the Metropol Hotel in honor of the 10th anniversary of RT, a Russian news agency that has been publicly identified by American intelligence as a primary outlet for Moscow’s disinformation campaigns. Flynn, who was two seats away from Russian President Vladimir Putin at the dinner, has frequently appeared on RT, despite public warnings by American intelligence that the news agency is used for Russian propaganda.
Western intelligence has also obtained reports that a Trump associate met with a pro-Putin member of Russian parliament at a building in Eastern Europe maintained by Rossotrudnichestvo, an agency under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that is charged with administering language, education and support programs for civilians. While the purpose of that meeting is unclear, and there is no evidence that Trump was aware it took place, it has become another fact that has alarmed officials from at least one NATO ally. Finally, Trump’s repeated glowing statements about Putin throughout the campaign—and his shocking comment that the Russians were not in Crimea—have perplexed some foreign officials, who fear that under a Trump presidency, the United States would no longer stand with Western Europe in regard to Moscow.
Trump and his campaign have also spread propaganda created as part of the Kremlin's effort, relying on bogus information generated through traditional Russian disinformation techniques. In one instance, a manipulated document was put out onto the internet anonymously by propagandists working with Russia; within hours, Trump was reciting that false information at a campaign rally. The Trump campaign has also spread claims from Sputnik, another news outlet identified by American intelligence as part of the Russian disinformation campaign. For example, almost immediately after the posting of an article by Sputnik attacking this Newsweek reporter, the Trump campaign emailed a link to the piece to American reporters, urging them to pursue the same story.
Hope Hicks, a spokeswoman for the Trump campaign, did not respond to emails from Newsweek on Monday and Thursday asking how it became aware of the Sputnik story so quickly, why it almost immediately promoted information from the Russian propaganda site to U.S. reporters, and what led the Republican nominee to disregard the intelligence he has been provided in briefings about Moscow’s propaganda and hacking campaign.
American intelligence officials know Russia used cyberattacks and misinformation to interfere with recent elections in Western Europe, including the German elections last month that resulted in victories for right-wing populists, and the United Kingdom’s vote in June on Brexit, a referendum that called for Britain to leave the European Union.
Western intelligence and law enforcement say tens of thousands of people have been working with Russia on its hacking and disinformation campaign for many years. They include propagandists and cyberoperatives stationed in Moscow, St. Petersburg and Novosibirsk, located in the southwestern part of Siberia. Operations have also been conducted in the United States, primarily out of New York City, Washington, D.C., and Miami. Those involved include a large number of Russian émigrés, as well as Americans and other foreign nationals. Intelligence operations in Europe and the U.S. have determined that the money these émigrés receive for their work is disguised as payments from a Russian pension system. One U.S. official says there is evidence many of these Americans and foreign nationals do not know they are part of Russia’s propaganda operation.
Here is how Moscow operates its campaigns: Hackers pilfer information from a variety of organizations both inside and outside Western governments; that is distributed to individuals who feed it into what a source told a European intelligence expert was a “pipeline.” This so-called pipeline can involve multiple steps before hacked information is disclosed through the media or online. For example, that source reported that documents in the United States intended to disrupt the American election are distributed through WikiLeaks. However, there are so many layers of individuals between the hackers and that organization there is a strong possibility that WikiLeaks does not know with certainty the ultimate source of these records; throughout 2016, the site has been posting emails from various Democratic Party organizations that were originally obtained through Russian hacking.
The Russian penetration in the United States is far more extensive than previously revealed publicly, although most of it has been targeted either at government departments or nongovernment organizations connected to the Democratic Party. Russian hackers penetrated the White House, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the State Department. The State Department cyberattack, which began in 2014 and lasted more than a year, was particularly severe, with Russian hackers gaining entry into its unclassified system, including emails. (Hillary Clinton left the State Department in 2013, which means that if she had used its unclassified email system rather than her private server—a decision that has dogged her throughout the campaign—any of her emails on the government system could have been obtained by Russian hackers.)
The breadth of the cyberattacks of nongovernmental organizations is astonishing. Russian hackers have obtained emails and other information out of the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee, but also have struck at organizations with looser ties to the party, including think tanks such as the Brookings Institution, where some of Clinton’s longtime friends and colleagues work.
Once the documents are obtained by hackers and then distributed, a large group of propagandists around the world begin promoting them on social media—in comments sections of websites and other locations online—hoping to generate negative news stories that undermine Democratic officials, particularly Clinton.
The Kremlin’s campaign is motivated not so much to support Trump as it is to hurt the Democratic nominee. During Clinton’s time as secretary of state, Putin publicly accused her of interfering in Moscow’s affairs. For example, her statement that Russian parliamentary elections in December 2011—which involved blatant cheating—were “neither free nor fair” infuriated Putin. He was also encouraged by the relentlessly positive comments about him by Trump, even after the Republican nominee began receiving criticism within his own party for sounding too supportive of the Kremlin, according to information obtained from within Russia by a Western intelligence source.
Both Trump and Clinton were monitored by Russian intelligence during their visits to Moscow over the years, according to American and European intelligence sources, in hopes of gathering kompromat—compromising material about a politician or public figure. The dossier on Clinton mainly contains recordings of conversations and intercepted phone calls; the intelligence source said the dossier has been controlled by Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman. When she was secretary of state, however, Clinton knew her conversations in Moscow might be recorded, so the dossier appears to have been used mainly for intelligence rather than to embarrass her with allies, the source said. The Kremlin also has both video and audio recordings of Trump in a kompromat file. Newsweek could not confirm if there is anything compromising in those recordings.
This massive Russian campaign has led to significant disputes within the Kremlin. Russian officials originally believed it could be conducted without any significant blowback from the United States. According to information obtained by the Western intelligence source, Sergei Ivanov, the chief of staff for the presidential executive office in the Kremlin, came to believe this summer that the hacking and disinformation campaign, which has been orchestrated in part by Peskov, had gone too far. Articles implying that Russian had been trying to split the supporters of Democratic primary runner-up Bernie Sanders and Clinton while building up Trump set off fears among Peskov and others that they would be held responsible for the backlash from the United States, according to the information obtained by the Western intelligence source.
Ivanov was also furious that Peskov led what he considered to be an ill-conceived and botched attempt to use the hacking and disinformation campaign to interfere in the failed coup attempt in Turkey in July. The web of relationships involving Turkey, Western Europe, the United States, Syria and Trump is complex, and Ivanov expressed disbelief that an attempt to interfere with the coup was undertaken without examining the possible ramifications. The Incirlik air base in Turkey has been used as a primary staging area for American bombers engaged in attacks on the Islamic State group in both Syria and Iraq; Russia supports President Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president who is fighting off a variety of rebel outfits, including ISIS, which has led the Kremlin to authorize bombing campaigns there. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan despises Trump and his associates because of the Republican nominee’s anti-Muslim rhetoric (in March, one of Trump’s Turkish business partners was indicted in what some Erdogan critics described as retribution). Erdogan has told associates he will not cooperate militarily with a Trump administration, according to a Middle Eastern financier in direct contact with senior Turkish officials.
By interfering in the Turkish coup with propaganda efforts, one faction in the Kremlin believes Moscow might have squandered the advantages to be gained from Erdogan’s contempt for Trump, according to both European and Middle Eastern intelligence sources. If Erdogan is angry at the next American president, the ability of the United States to engage in military action in Syria would be severely limited. If Russian interference in the coup leads Erdogan to turn his fury on Moscow, the Americans might maintain access to the air base.
Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian prime minister, is also deeply concerned about the cyberattacks and disinformation campaigns, according to information obtained by a Western intelligence source. He wants to maintain a close relationship with the United States so he can travel to America both officially and privately. As a result, he is refusing to support Peskov or to strongly combat U.S. charges about the hacking campaign.
Despite these qualms, Putin remained satisfied with the campaign, regardless of the outcome of the U.S. election, according to information obtained by the Western intelligence source. Should Clinton win, he has told associates, her administration would be bogged down trying to heal divisions within the United States brought about by releases and misrepresentations of hacked information, and would have little time or political capital to confront Russia’s efforts in Syria, Ukraine and other locales.
By August, however, fears began to emerge within the Kremlin that the effort was falling apart. Trump’s attacks on the parents of a slain Muslim American soldier following the father’s speech at the Democratic convention created dismay in the Kremlin. Top Russian officials came to believe Trump would be forced to withdraw from the race because of his psychological state and apparent unsuitability for the presidency, according to information obtained by the Western intelligence source. In particular, Kremlin officials feared they could not predict what impact it might have on Russia should Trump step aside. As a result, the Russians decided to stop forwarding material through channels to WikiLeaks, although some material was already in the pipeline.
Ivanov expressed his belief that, while the United States has failed to split the Russian elite with sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine, the cyberattacks had created political division in the United States. Still, he had strong concerns about the impact of continuing the campaign in the aftermath of Trump’s attack on the parents who had lost a child in war. By that time, though, the internal controversy over the cyberattacks and disinformation campaign had taken its toll, and a decision was reached to “sweep it all under the rug,” according to a report obtained by Western counterintelligence officials. On August 12, Ivanov—a close ally of Putin for decades—was forced out of office by the Russian strongman and replaced by Anton Vaino, who had been the deputy chief of staff.
Two days later, The New York Times reported that Manafort, then Trump’s campaign manager, may have illegally received $12.7 million from Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions; Manafort has denied any wrongdoing, and his lawyer, Richard Hibey, said his client never received any such payments. Manafort resigned from the Trump campaign not long after the article ran. According to information obtained from inside Russia by Western intelligence, Putin later met with Yanukovych in secret near Volgograd, formerly known as Stalingrad. Yanukovych assured Putin there was no documentary trail showing payments to Manafort, although Putin told associates he did not believe the Ukrainian president, according to the information obtained by the Western intelligence source.
By October, “buyer’s remorse” had set in at the Kremlin, according to a report obtained by Western counterintelligence. Russia came to see Trump as too unpredictable and feared that, should he win, the Kremlin would not be able to rely on him or even anticipate his actions.
On October 7, the Obama administration finally broke its silence on America’s knowledge about the Russian campaign. “These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the U.S. election process,” Jeh Johnson, the secretary of homeland security, and James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, said in a statement. “We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.” The White House stated that Obama was considering a “proportional response”—a statement that suggested the United States would be launching cyberattacks against Russia. (Shortly afterward, Ukrainian hackers began posting emails and other documents obtained from inside the Kremlin, although it is not clear if this effort was done in coordination with the American government.)
Less than two weeks later—despite his intelligence briefings about the Russian hacking and disinformation campaign, despite the public statements by top American intelligence officials confirming its existence and despite the White House proclamation that it was preparing to respond to the unprecedented interference by Moscow—Trump once again dismissed all of the evidence and came to Russia’s defense. Intelligence and other government officials in Britain were horrified, according to one person with direct knowledge of the reaction there.
The incident that so stunned the British officials was largely overlooked in the United States, where media analysts were more focused on Trump’s refusal to say whether he would accept the outcome of the election. Instead, it came in the course of a discussion during the third presidential debate, when the two candidates talked about the Russian hacking.
Clinton: We've never had a foreign government trying to interfere in our election. We have 17—17 intelligence agencies, civilian and military, who have all concluded that these espionage attacks, these cyberattacks, come from the highest levels of the Kremlin and they are designed to influence our election. I find that deeply disturbing. And I think it's time you take a stand...
Trump: She has no idea whether it's Russia, China or anybody else.
Clinton: I am not quoting myself.
Trump: She has no idea.
Clinton: I am quoting 17...
Trump: Hillary, you have no idea.
Clinton: ...17 intelligence—do you doubt 17 military and civilian...
Trump: And our country has no idea.
Trump: Yeah, I doubt it. I doubt it.
Clinton: Well, he'd rather believe Vladimir Putin than the military and civilian intelligence professionals who are sworn to protect us. I find that just absolutely...
Trump: She doesn't like Putin because Putin has outsmarted her at every step of the way.
The words that so shocked the British were “our country has no idea,” and “I doubt it.” All of the NATO allies are sure Russia is behind the hacking. All of America’s intelligence agencies are, too. The foreign intelligence services had been sharing what they knew about this with the Americans, and Trump had been told about it. But he blithely dismissed the conclusion of not only the United States but its allies as well, based on absolutely nothing. Trump had no apparent means of developing his own information to contradict the findings of intelligence agencies around the world. And that he would so aggressively fight to clear Putin and cast aspersions on all Western intelligence agencies, left the British officials slack-jawed.
“They didn’t know what to think,” says one former British official who has spoken to numerous members of the government about Trump’s comments in that debate. “A lot of people are now trying to connect the dots of all the data [in the intelligence files] to try and understand Trump.... There certainly are a lot of conspiracy theories being bandied about, but no question there is a lot of concern about what’s going on in Trump’s head...and whether we would be able to work with him.”
Even as Trump was disputing the role played by the Kremlin in the hacking, his campaign was scouring sites publicly identified by American intelligence as sources for Russian propaganda. Ten days before the third debate, Newsweek published an article disclosing that a document altered by Russian propagandists and put out on the internet—ultimately published by Sputnik—had been cited by Trump at a rally as fact. (The information distributed on the internet placed words that had appeared in Newsweek into the mouth of Sidney Blumenthal, a Clinton confidante. Taken in that context, they suggested that her closest allies believed she bore responsibility for the attack on the American mission in Benghazi, Libya.)
Subsequently, Sputnik, which took down that article, published another one essentially denying the news organization was controlled by the Kremlin and attacking Newsweek. Before the day was out, the Trump campaign was emailing links to the article from the Russian propaganda site to multiple reporters, urging them to pursue the story.
Officials in Western Europe say they are dismayed that they now feel compelled to gather intelligence on a man who could be the next president of the United States but believe they have no choice. Moscow is seen as a direct threat to their interests—both in its aggressive efforts to reshape global alliances and for its power to damage Western Europe, which obtains almost 40 percent of its natural gas from Russia. Should the United States, the last remaining superpower, tilt its policies away from NATO to the benefit of Russia, the alliance between America and Western Europe could be transformed in unprecedented ways. And so, for perhaps the first time since World War II, countries in Western Europe fear that the American election, should Trump win, could trigger events that imperil their national security and do potentially irreparable harm to the alliances that have kept the continent safe for decades.