Donald Trump’s presidency has been a gift to Russia. He has undermined NATO, withheld military aid to Ukraine, and abandoned America’s commitments to democracy and human rights. He has excused Vladimir Putin’s crimes, yielded to Russian troops in the Middle East, and dismissed Russia’s 2016 election interference as a hoax. Now Trump has been voted out by Americans, but he’s still serving Russia. He’s devoting his final days in office—and suggesting he might devote his post-presidency—to a long-standing Russian objective: destroying faith in U.S. elections.
For weeks, Trump has rejected Joe Biden’s victory as a fraud. In interviews, tweets, speeches, and a campaign rally in Georgia, Trump has accused Democrats of using dead people, undocumented immigrants, and software to manipulate the outcome. These allegations aren’t just lies. They’re replications, almost word for word, of propaganda that was spread by Russia in the United States and adopted by the Trump campaign in 2016. Russia expected Trump to lose that election, and it planned to portray his loss as evidence that American elections were rigged, that the U.S. government was illegitimate, and that the United States wasn’t really a democracy. Now that Trump has lost to Biden, that campaign of slander is underway. But it’s not being driven by Russians. It’s being driven by Republicans.
Russia’s strategy is detailed in three reports: one by the U.S. Intelligence Community, another by special counsel Robert Mueller, and a third by the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee. The ultimate goal of the operation wasn’t to elect Trump. It was to spread the idea that “U.S. election results cannot be trusted.” In 2016, Putin’s propagandists used fake Facebook pages and Twitter accounts (“Army of Jesus,” “Secured Borders,” “Tea Party News”) to plant bogus rumors of “voter fraud” in multiple states. They told the same horror stories and used the same trigger words Republicans use now: “rigged,” “dead people,” “illegal aliens,” globalist-controlled voting machines, “tens of thousands of ineligible mail in … votes,” and “voter fraud caught in Philadelphia.”
Trump and his followers parroted this propaganda during the 2016 campaign. Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump retweeted fake “#VoterFraud” updates written by Russian operatives. Kellyanne Conway, Brad Parscale, Michael Flynn, and other Trump campaign advisers also retweeted messages from the Russian accounts. When the Russians circulated a false rumor that voting machines were rigged against Trump, he repeated it on Fox News. After the election, when Russian front groups spread the word that “illegals” and “machines” had robbed Trump of the popular vote, he repeated that, too. “I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” he declared.
Putin’s original plan, as detailed in the U.S. Intelligence Community’s 2017 report, was to assail Trump’s putative defeat, through Russia’s global media network and pseudo-American front groups, as a fraud. The Russians had even “prepared a Twitter campaign” for election night, with the hashtag “#DemocracyRIP.” The goal was to discredit American democracy and “cripple” the expected new president, Hillary Clinton, by glorifying Trump as “an outsider victimized by a corrupt political establishment and faulty democratic election process.” When Trump won, the Russians popped Champagne and suspended their plan.
Now the plan has been revived. But this time, Putin doesn’t have to execute it, because Trump and the GOP are doing that for him. Almost every day—and on some days, almost every hour—Trump denounces the election as “rigged” and “fixed,” with “late night ballot ‘dumps,’ ” “massive evidence of widespread fraud,” and votes secretly manipulated “through machines.” On Saturday, at his rally in Georgia, Trump claimed that Democrats had “stuffed the ballot boxes” with votes from “dead people” and “illegal aliens.” He called it “the largest fraud in the history of our country,” and he urged Americans to reject Biden. “You can’t ever accept when they steal and rig and rob,” Trump told his followers. On Thursday, he said Biden would be “an illegitimate president,” and he quoted a supporter who called the election a “coup.”
Trump’s lawyers and political allies are peddling the same message. “This election was stolen by the socialists engaging in extraordinary voter fraud,” Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama asserted last week. Others, such as Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, and Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, have suggested the same thing. Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida said the ballot counts reported for Biden were no more credible than those reported for “Bashar al-Assad and Kim Jong-il.” In an interview on Fox News, Gaetz added: “Those Dominion software systems? They changed more votes than Vladimir Putin ever did.”
Gaetz and Brooks aren’t Russian agents. Nor is Trump. They’re just reckless, cynical fools playing their roles in Putin’s game. The next step in Trump’s service to Moscow might be a Trump media empire that lambastes the United States as a fake democracy. That’s what some American intelligence experts predicted in 2016: a “Trump television and social media venture” that would wage “an ongoing battle to tarnish the legitimacy of the electoral system.” Trump won that year, so the postelection smear campaign against American democracy didn’t happen. It’s happening now.