President Donald Trump on Sunday night retweeted Russian propaganda about former Vice President Joe Biden that the US intelligence community recently announced was part of Moscow’s ongoing effort to “denigrate” the Democrat ahead of November’s election.
Late Sunday, Trump amplified a tweet that contained audiotapes of a 2016 conversation between Biden and then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko – material that was released earlier this year by Andriy Derkach, a Ukrainian lawmaker named by the US intelligence community in its August 7 statement about Russia’s disinformation campaign against Biden. US authorities labeled Derkach’s efforts as disinformation because they are intentionally designed to spread false or misleading information about Biden.
By retweeting material that the US government has already labeled as propaganda – and doing so with the 2020 Democratic National Convention kicking off on Monday – Trump demonstrated once again that he is willing to capitalize on foreign election meddling for his own political gain.
There is no proof of wrongdoing on the tapes of Biden and Poroshenko. But Trump and his allies, as well as Kremlin-controlled media outlets, have used the tapes to foment conspiracies about Biden’s dealings with Ukraine.
‘A willing mouthpiece’
Sen. Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, responded to Trump’s retweet Monday by calling out the President for amplifying Russian disinformation.
“The President of the United States should never be a willing mouthpiece for Russian propaganda,” Warner wrote in a tweet of his own.
Trump’s amplification of this disinformation comes as Biden is set to accept the Democratic presidential nomination this week, and it poses a significant challenge for US intelligence and national security officials tasked with protecting the 2020 election from foreign interference.
A Twitter spokesman told CNN on Monday that the account Trump retweeted had been suspended “for violations of the Twitter Rules on platform manipulation and spam.” The original post, which contained snippets of the Biden tapes, was no longer online as of Monday night.
“I think this mostly just speaks to how widespread Russian talking points have become,” said Darren Linvill, a professor at Clemson University who tracks Russian disinformation, who added that the account appears to be based in the US yet is spreading Kremlin-backed conspiracies.
While relevant US agencies have adopted a whole-of-government approach focused on countering foreign disinformation and seeks to inform the American public about such efforts, there seems to be no plan in place for addressing false information coming from the President himself.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence referred questions about the President’s tweets to the White House. The White House responded to CNN’s request for comment by directing inquiries to the Trump campaign. The Trump campaign has not responded to CNN’s request.
After this story was published, Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates told CNN in a statement that Trump “habitually attacked the sovereignty of American elections” and said the President has “irrevocably shown his true colors yet again” by retweeting Russian propaganda.
However, top US intelligence officials made clear in the August 7 statement on foreign election interference that Derkach is part of the Russian disinformation effort intended to damage Biden’s candidacy.
“We assess that Russia is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden and what it sees as an anti-Russia ‘establishment.’ This is consistent with Moscow’s public criticism of him when he was Vice President for his role in the Obama Administration’s policies on Ukraine and its support for the anti-Putin opposition inside Russia,” William R. Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center, said in a statement earlier this month updating the election threat landscape heading into the November election.
“For example, pro-Russia Ukrainian parliamentarian Andriy Derkach is spreading claims about corruption – including through publicizing leaked phone calls – to undermine former Vice President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party,” Evanina said.
Derkach denies that he’s working for the Kremlin.
The anti-Biden content retweeted by Trump ahead of this week’s Democratic National Convention was posted by an account with the name “Walt Kowalski,” Clint Eastwood’s character in the 2008 film “Gran Torino.”
The account was created in September 2019, around the same time that the anti-Biden disinformation campaign ramped up, coinciding with the impeachment inquiry into the President. The account has only a few hundred followers, and the user’s biography section is solely focused on anti-Biden disinformation.
Derkach is among a small group of Ukrainian political figures who have, in recent months, injected themselves into the 2020 US presidential election by releasing and promoting alleged audiotapes of Biden. Some of these figures are connected to Kremlin interests or to Russian intelligence agencies, according to experts and the intelligence community, which says they are part of a Russian-backed misinformation campaign.
The recordings are of Biden’s dealings with Poroshenko, the former Ukrainian President, and they appear authentic. But the material reinforces Biden’s claims that he promoted US interests and didn’t do anything improper in Ukraine. There is no proof of wrongdoing on the tapes, and the Biden campaign maintains that these releases are blatant Russian meddling against the former vice president.
Trump’s willingness to capitalize on Russian meddling in the 2020 election is a similar tactic to the one that Trump’s campaign embraced in 2016, as Trump advisers strategized around WikiLeaks disclosures that were facilitated by Russia, according to special counsel Robert Mueller.
Four years ago, the first WikiLeaks releases arrived on the eve of the Democratic convention in July 2016, and Trump used the stolen emails to inflame divisions within the Democratic Party, tweeting, “The Wikileaks e-mail release today was so bad to Sanders that it will make it impossible for him to support her.” Mueller’s investigation later revealed that this intraparty tension was exactly what the Russians were hoping to stoke.
The major difference is that, this time around, the US intelligence community has publicly put Trump and the entire world on notice early on of what the Russians are up to.
Even so, some Republicans and right-wing news outlets have embraced the baseless claims being levied by these controversial Ukrainian figures, some of whom, including Derkach, have worked closely with Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani.
Many of these false narratives being promoted by Derkach and others, and now being amplified by the President, played a central role in his impeachment proceedings. At that time, Fiona Hill, who was Trump’s top adviser on Russia, testified that some Republicans were promoting a “fictional narrative” that was concocted by Russian intelligence agencies, and were thus peddling “politically derivative falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests.”
This story has been updated with comments from a Twitter spokesman.