Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Trump or Sanders?: Who does Russia Want to be President?
Trump or Sanders?: Who does Russia Want to be President?

Trump or Sanders?: Who does Russia Want to be President?

February 23, 2020

Post by Clint Watts

On Wednesday, February 19, President Trump relieved acting Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire and appointed Richard Grenell, a controversial and notoriously partisan figure, as the new acting Director of National Intelligence. The following day, the New York Times reported that Maguire’s firing came in response to a DNI briefing to the House Intelligence Committee in which lawmakers were told about Russia’s efforts to help President Trump get reelected. By late Friday, the Washington Post revealed that Senator Bernie Sanders’s campaign had also been notified by U.S. officials about Russian efforts to help the Sanders campaign in 2020. Shortly after, Sanders said he did not know of or seek Russia’s support, but the Bloomberg and Biden campaigns used the disclosure as an avenue to challenge the Sanders campaign.  

So which is it? Does Russia want Trump or Sanders to win the U.S. presidency? 

The real objective is a bit more complicated, and not entirely dichotomous. The only thing we should assume to know for sure is that Putin and the Kremlin, with a singular influence campaign employed headed into the 2016 election, have continued to sow discord in America ever since and have achieved a strategic victory against the U.S. that continues to provide returns today.  

The Kremlin’s strategy in 2020, as I discussed in the Daily Beast last May, is simple, straightforward and openly available for all to see: Secure the base, split the opposition. Similar to the tactics employed before the 2016 election, there are four general narratives the Kremlin seeks to advance with this strategy, which arise in the U.S. through both overt and covert means. The four narratives employed by the Kremlin one might observe in America in order of magnitude are:

  1. Elevate the preferred candidate (Trump)
  2. Denigrate establishment Democratic candidates who are adversarial toward the Kremlin and viable challengers to the Kremlin’s preferred candidate (Biden and Bloomberg)
  3. Split the Democratic opposition by pitting populists against the establishment (Sanders) 
  4. Maintain minor support for fringe and third-party candidates on the political left (suppress turnout)

Given the current state of foreign influence efforts, it seems to me that America has entered “Phase Two” of a three-phase campaign for the 2020 election, consistent with the Kremlin’s game plan to subvert the 2016 U.S. presidential election. (The three-phase approach in its entirety can be reviewed here at the Alliance for Securing Democracy.) This is the period of the campaign in which Russia advances narratives to an American audience by all available means, and likely why we in the public are now hearing about U.S. intelligence officials briefing such preferences to the presidential campaigns and Congressional committees.

Here’s a quick overview of what I assess Russia’s influence campaign to be pursuing as of February 2020:

The Kremlin prefers Trump in 2020.

  • We know Russia prefers Trump and wants to assist the Trump campaign based on a range of overt propaganda, covert social media and hacking operations.
    • Putin has said openly that he wanted Trump to win in 2016. 
    • Our FIE 2020 team’s analysis of Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik News shows that Russia likes President Trump in 2020. As a candidate, but not the commander-in-chief engaging in foreign policy, he receives more positive mentions (in volume) than any other candidate. (See here and here.)
    • It’s been reported that Russia’s GRU hackers have tried or may have successfully hacked into the Ukrainian energy company Burisma, presumably looking for compromising materials related to Hunter Biden, former Vice President Joe Biden’s son. If Russia were to conduct such a hack-and-dump operation in 2020 against Vice President Biden as they did against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016, this would push down the candidate who might appear to be the strongest establishment challenger to President Trump.  
    • When Facebook removed coordinated inauthentic activity connected to Russia’s Internet Research Agency (troll farm) in 2019, the Facebook content apparently sought to elevate President Trump and denigrate Biden. 
  • The Kremlin would like to see President Trump get a second term for strategic reasons. Putin hasn’t gotten everything he wants, but he’s made amazing gains abroad as the U.S. has pursued a strategy of retrenchment under Trump. Since Putin set in motion his interference campaign, America has wallowed in partisan infighting, been engulfed in the Mueller investigation, and suffered a divisive impeachment process featuring Russian adversary Ukraine. The Kremlin has seen its disinformation spread like wildfire across Trump-loving audiences and it continues to reap unimagined gains as we batter each other over Russian meddling heading into 2020. Should Trump win a second term, Russia may even win the prize of sanctions relief. 

Russia, as in 2016, prefers Bernie Sanders within the Democratic field for several reasons.

  • In 2016, Russia amplified Sanders against Hillary Clinton—the establishment Democratic candidate with a stern stance against Russia—as a populist wedge. For the Kremlin, Sanders offers much to like. Sanders is a weaker challenger to Trump as compared to establishment figures. Sanders traveled to and praised the Soviet Union during the Cold War, shames hawkish American foreign policy, talks of withdrawing the U.S. from foreign battlefields and prioritizes climate change as a top national security threat. Rarely does Sanders speak of what foreign policy or national security may look like in a Sanders administration. If he were elected, who would his national security staff even be? While a longtime domestic policy advocate, Sanders seems a foreign policy neophyte compared to the rest of the Democractic field. Given that, if he defeated Trump, it might not  be all bad for Putin the way other establishment candidates have vowed. Most importantly, Sanders populist supporters offer an aggressive wedge to divide the political left against Trump and sow enduring chaos on the legitimacy of American democracy.  
  • We know Russia may be boosting the Sanders campaign in 2020 for a few reasons.  
    • The Kremlin started off the 2020 campaign season with relatively neutral coverage of Sanders, but since January 1, 2019 our project has shown they’ve portrayed him the most positively in the Democratic field by volume and second-most by percentage.  
    • We also know that Facebook shuttered Russian inauthentic activity in 2019 that bolstered Sanders. We don’t know the content of the U.S. intelligence community’s briefing to the Sanders campaign, but we might wonder if it had to do with inauthentic social media support for Sanders or employing bots to boost his campaign and increase division amongst the Democrats.
    • In recent weeks, the Russian state-sponsored media has accelerated their positive support of Sanders and shifted to a familiar pattern reminiscent of 2016. Key narratives they’ve recently begun to amplify for Sanders on RT and Sputnik News include:
      • It’s rigged! – The Democratic establishment has rigged the process against Sanders, just like they allegedly did in 2016.
      • Boosting positive polls for Sanders – While not biased in substance, as Sanders is the frontrunner by most accounts, Russia’s selection bias for Sanders clearly sticks out.  One Sputnik News story paints his policy proposals as mainstream, writing that “only 17 percent of Democratic-leaning adults in the national Post-ABC poll believing that Sanders was ‘too liberal.’” Another Sputnik article criticizes other Democratic candidates but praises Sanders.
      • He’s an underdog – Sanders, much like Trump in 2016, is painted as an outsider candidate among establishment Democrats. 

Russia doesn’t want former Mayor Michael Bloomberg to win. He’s the new Biden.  

  • Bloomberg, up until his poor debate performance this past week, appeared to be a legitimate contender who could possibly beat President Trump. As Biden has faded and Bloomberg gained prominence within the field, Russia has accelerated criticism of Bloomberg.
  • We know Russia doesn’t like Bloomberg because:
    • Russian state media (RT and Sputnik News) is very critical of Bloomberg, maybe even more so than they had been of Biden. Coverage of Bloomberg picked up in our last FIE 2020 update after he entered the race and it has since become some of the most negative content in the field. 
    • Bloomberg is painted as an establishment figure who is in on the alleged corruption against Bernie Sanders, but also portrayed as unlikeable on wedge issues—primarily race and history with women—as Trump. Portraying Bloomberg as both elitist and cut from the same populist cloth as Trump attempts to create apathy among voters. Russian stories seem to point to an underlying question: If both parties are corrupt and evil, why bother?
    • Criticizing Bloomberg on wedge issues can provide an avenue to promote voter suppression, like encouraging listeners to consider not voting

What could Russia do to America that America is not already doing to itself?

As debates ensued over the weekend on how Russia is again interfering in the U.S. presidential election and whether or not they support Trump or Sanders, we should ask ourselves: What could Russia do to impact the election that our candidates are not already doing to each other and our institutions? 

In contrast to 2016, presidential campaigns are spending hundreds of millions to spread lies and fake news on social media. Russian disinformation may have impacted society in 2016 in ways that would be difficult to achieve in 2020 with so much noise on social media platforms. Whereas in 2016 my teams observed false and misleading content coming from the Kremlin, today Kremlin outlets mostly just repeat, repost and resend divisive American-made narratives back to American audiences.  

The one thing Russia can do to tip the balance and affect the election is hack to power narratives or disrupt Election Day operations. I think the probability of Russia hacking the vote on Election Day is low. Under General Nakasone, U.S. Cyber Command and our other institutional cyber defenses are much stronger this time around, and America might wallop the Kremlin in 2020 should they mess with some voting machines. But Russia could hack a key node to confirm a narrative against an opponent in the way they did in 2016. (FIE 2020 discussed this in early January). There’s already evidence they tried to do this against Biden with regard to Burisma. 

Heading forward, I estimate the greatest risk of hacking to be for the Bloomberg campaign as the Kremlin may pursue compromising information to confirm derisive narratives about the former New York Mayor. With that said, I would recommend increasing cyber defenses for all people and organizations that have compromising information related to:

  • Emails, records and discussions related to NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program 
  • Emails, records and discussions related to the NYPD’s surveillance of Muslim communities in New York City
  • Any person or law firm that holds non-disclosure agreements with Bloomberg and Bloomberg-owned businesses (many law firms have notoriously weak cyber security defenses)

To close, one might ask: What do we want American institutions to do when protecting the election in 2020? How might they address what’s visible in plain sight? The Kremlin doesn’t hide who they’d like to see elected. The American public and, to a degree Congress, expect U.S. institutions to protect the 2020 election from foreign interference. Ultimately, Russia is only achieving success right now given that candidates, and particularly President Trump, react so strongly in 2020 to Russia’s light touch and government servants doing their jobs. Moving forward in 2020, Russia will only create havoc the way they did in 2016 if we can’t control our own behavior.