In the past 24 hours, a few big news stories have emerged that shed new light on the scope and sophistication of Russia’s interference in American politics in 2016 and potential connections to the Trump administration.
First, in an exclusive report, Foreign Policy revealed that Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya met with Russia-friendly Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) just two months before she met Donald Trump Jr. at Trump Tower in June 2016.
Veselnitskaya is one of the key focal points of congressional and FBI inquiries into the Trump campaign’s relationship with Moscow during the 2016 presidential election. She has ties to the Kremlin, and a number of legal experts have said her meeting with Trump Jr., to which she promised to bring damning information about Hillary Clinton, could be evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia to tip the election.
According to Veselnitskaya, she and Rohrabacher discussed US sanctions against Moscow for its human rights abuses — and she made her case against them. News of the previously unknown meeting will increase scrutiny over her role in attempting to influence the election.
Second, CNN reported that some of the roughly 3,000 Russian-linked Facebook ads that sought to influence the 2016 election were specifically targeted at voters in Michigan and Wisconsin. Those were both key battleground states where Trump won by a tiny margin; the fact that they were targeted suggests the Russian ad campaign was far savvier than we previously knew.
Third, during a press conference on Wednesday, the top lawmakers of the Senate Intelligence Committee endorsed the US intelligence community’s claim that Russia did indeed interfere with the election — a stance that Trump has pushed back against repeatedly. Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC), the panel’s chair, also said that their inquiry has “expanded” in recent months and that the question of collusion between Russia is “still open.”
None of the recent news is in and of itself damning for the Trump administration — yet — but it does expand what we know about Russia’s influence operation, and it certainly doesn’t make Trump’s life any easier. What follows is a quick recap of what happened in the past 24 hours and why it matters.
The Veselnitskaya meeting with Rohrabacher is raising eyebrows in Washington
As Foreign Policy reports, Veselnitskaya gave an interview on Tuesday to the pro-Russian news service News Front in which she revealed that she’d met with Rohrabacher in April 2016 to discuss the Magnitsky Act — a US law passed in 2012 that sanctioned Russian officials for their involvement in human rights abuses, such as mistreatment of prisoners in Chechnya.
Moscow detests the Magnitsky sanctions, and analysts believe that lifting them — along with other US sanctions on Russia for its military intervention in Ukraine — would be at the center of any bid by Washington to reset its relationship with Moscow.
“We just asked to listen to us [sic], just to listen to the alternative version,” Veselnitskaya told News Front, describing her meeting with Rohrabacher.
Kenneth Grubbs, a spokesperson for Rohrabacher, confirmed to me that Veselnitskaya was “among many people the congressman encountered” but that “the congressman simply does not remember talking with her.”
Rohrabacher’s critics have given him the nickname "Putin's favorite Congressman" because of his consistent interest in improving ties with Russia and his meeting with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange this summer. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the campaign arm of House Democrats, has called for Foreign Affairs Committee Chair Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA) to remove Rohrabacher from his position of chair for the subcommittee overseeing Russia.
Rohrabacher told Business Insider on Tuesday that White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and "a coalition of people in the White House" have barred him from speaking to President Donald Trump about potentially clearing Russia from allegations that it meddled in the election.
If true, it would make sense that White House staff would attempt to shield the president from accusations of associating with pro-Russian lawmakers as he faces multiple politically damaging inquiries into his possible ties to Russia.
The fact that Rohrabacher met with Veselnitskaya is likely to add more scrutiny to government investigations into her role in trying to influence the US election.
The Russian-linked Facebook ad buys were pretty sophisticated
The CNN report published Tuesday illuminates another dimension of the Russian influence campaign during the 2016 election.
CNN reports that according “to four sources with direct knowledge of the situation,” some unspecified portion of the 3,000 Russian-linked Facebook ads in the runup to the election were directed at voters in Michigan and Wisconsin.
According to CNN, some of the ads played on anti-Muslim sentiment and were designed to garner the attention of “key demographic groups in areas of the states that turned out to be pivotal.”
Trump beat Clinton by razor-thin margins in both states, winning by roughly 10,700 votes in Michigan and about 22,700 in Wisconsin. Both states voted for Barack Obama in 2012, and they were important in helping Trump secure his Electoral College victory.
This suggests that Russia’s advertising operation had an exceptionally nuanced understanding of the electoral landscape in 2016. So then the question is: Does it suggest in any way that the Trump operation was working with the Russian company that financed the ads?
Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, told CNN his committee is looking into that very question.
“Obviously, we’re looking at any of the targeting of the ads, as well as any targeting of efforts to push out the fake or false news or negative accounts against Hillary Clinton, to see whether they demonstrate a sophistication that would be incompatible with not having access to data analytics from the campaign,” Schiff said. “At this point, we still don’t know.”
The Senate Intelligence Committee takes the Russia threat more seriously than Trump
During a press conference to update the public on the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Russia probe, Sen. Burr and Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) didn’t offer up any explosive news — but they didn’t say anything that should comfort the president, either.
The issue that stood out the most was their insistence that the threat Russia has posed and continues to pose to the American electoral system is very serious — something that undermines Trump’s position on the issue.
“There is a general consensus among members and staff that we trust the conclusions of the ICA [intelligence community assessment],” Burr told reporters, while noting that his committee was still involved in an ongoing evaluation of the intelligence community’s claims.
In January, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence published a report, based on intelligence gathered by the FBI, CIA, and NSA, that stated that Russian President Vladimir Putin had deliberately sought to tip the election in favor of Trump.
The endorsement of that conclusion by a major Senate investigation only makes that claim look stronger.
But despite those findings, the president has continued to cast suspicion on Russia’s role in the election. In July, Trump said that Russia “could well have interfered” but that “nobody really knows for sure.”
The lawmakers didn’t only describe Russia’s past behavior as a threat to the voting system — they said the threat still exists. “The Russian active measures efforts did not end on Election Day 2016,” Warner said. “We need to be on guard.”
But Trump has shown little interest in holding Russia accountable for its meddling because of his broader agenda of warming ties with Moscow. In fact, the GOP passed a law in August that placed new sanctions on Russia and explicitly limited his ability to lift them.
Burr also said that his committee’s probe has “expanded” beyond its initial parameters in part because the investigation has continually generated new leads. While the lawmakers declined to offer any conclusions on the investigation so far, Burr said “the issue of collusion is still open.”
All in all, there’s been no lethal damage to Trump’s reputation as far as the Russia scandals are concerned. But the past 24 hours haven’t exactly made anything easier for him, either.