During the 2016 presidential election, Russia used hackers and bots to disrupt American democracy. Since then, many have rightly decried these tactics, as policymakers have moved to address issues surrounding fake news and disinformation on social media. Lost in the mix, however, was Russia’s use of traditional espionage techniques—both online and in the real world—as they continued targeting and recruiting Americans on Donald Trump’s campaign.
It’s still an open question as to whether the Trump team colluded with Russia. But what’s clear is that Moscow used dirt on Hillary Clinton to try and turn members of the New York real estate mogul’s campaign. In spy parlance, it’s called a dangle. “Sometimes it’s [a dangle] a person, other times it’s information,” says Vince Houghton historian and curator at the International Spy Museum. “But it’s always the bait on the end of a hook.”
During an FBI investigation into Hillary Clinton’s dissemination of classified information across her private server, the Clinton campaign disclosed that it had inadvertently deleted over 33,000 emails. Even though Clinton was ultimately cleared by the FBI of criminal wrongdoing, a rumor persisted that the missing emails might potentially offer damning information. Making it public could have been a coup for the Trump campaign. So the promise of acquiring these emails was a juicy offer—one that the Russians hoped the GOP campaign would take seriously.