There are plenty of links between the Trump campaign and the Russians. But the Mueller indictments and a Facebook exec’s commentary may be deflating this particular theory.
Robert Mueller and his team are the latest U.S. officials to argue that Russia tried to use Facebook to interfere with the 2016 election.
But the indictments against Russian nationals that Mueller unveiled last Friday, coupled with commentary from a Facebook ad executive, may also undermine a compelling theory among some analysts and lawmakers — that the Trump campaign worked in concert with Russian agents to place Facebook ads and other posts during the election.
Here, for instance, is Hillary Clinton, talking to Recode co-founder Walt Mossberg at last year’s Code Conference:
Clinton: “The Russians — in my opinion and based on the intel and the counterintel people I’ve talked to — could not have known how best to weaponize that information unless they had been guided.”
Mossberg: Guided by Americans.
Clinton: Guided by Americans and guided by people who had polling and data information
Here’s another version of the argument, via a Vanity Fair report last fall:
Mapping the full Russian propaganda effort is important. Yet investigators in the House, Senate, and special counsel Robert Mueller’s office are equally focused on a more explosive question: did any Americans help target the memes and fake news to crucial swing districts and wavering voter demographics? “By Americans, you mean, like, the Trump campaign?” a source close to one of the investigations said with a dark laugh.
But on Friday, two different disclosures made that theoretical cooperation harder to imagine.
- Mueller’s detailed, 37-page indictment didn’t offer any suggestion that the Trump campaign worked with Russians to exploit Facebook and other digital platforms. In fact, it says that when the Trump campaign did interact with Russian plotters, it was at the lowest level possible — local Trump campaign workers and activists — and that the Trump campaigners who did interact with Russians had no idea they were talking to Russians — they just thought they were talking to enthusiastic Trump fans.
- Facebook ad executive Rob Goldman, via Twitter, said the majority of Russian-financed pro-Trump ad spending on Facebook didn’t show up until after the election. It’s worth noting that while Goldman’s comments generated serious blowback this weekend, particularly after Donald Trump retweeted him, Goldman hasn’t backed away from his assertion. (It’s also worth noting that I’ve talked to current and former Facebookers who back Goldman up. They feel bad that his comments have turned into a pro-Trump cudgel to beat up the media, but they think his commentary is also correct.)
If you take both of those items at face value, it doesn’t leave you much room to believe that the Trump campaign worked with Russians in a sophisticated campaign to buy ads on Facebook aimed at electing Trump.
That doesn’t rule out active Trump/Russian collaboration in other parts of the campaign. And there are certainly many other connections between Trump and Russia that remain unsettling, at the very least. Recall, for instance, Donald Trump, Jr.’s email expressing excitement over proposed campaign help from Russian backers.
You can add other caveats as well.
Perhaps Goldman is flat-out wrong. Or perhaps Mueller will eventually make a much more explicit connection between Russians and high-level Trump campaign officials, which will include Facebook activities. And, or, perhaps the Trump campaign and Russians collaborated, but only on unpaid Facebook posts.
But some people have been waiting to see evidence of a connection between the Trump campaign and Russian social media activity for more than a year. Right now, they are still waiting.