A cybersecurity expert testified that Russian “bots” pushed their disinformation campaigns during times when President Donald Trump was likely to be on social media — and he dutifully hyped those conspiracy theories.
Clint Watts, a former FBI agent and counterterrorism instructor at West Point, explained Thursday that Trump as a presidential candidate helped Russia take active measures to interfere with the election, whether he realized it or not.
“Part of the reason active measures have worked in this election is because the commander-in-chief has used active measures at times against his opponents,” Watts testified.
Watts, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute and George Washington University, told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Trump and his campaign’s use of Russian active measures happened in plain sight — even if most Americans were unaware at the time.
He testified that Paul Manafort, then Trump’s campaign chairman, promoted a bogus story Aug. 14 about a terrorist attack on a NATO base in Turkey, which originated on the Russian propaganda websites RT and Sputnik.
Trump then cited a Sputnik article Oct. 11 about Benghazi that later disappeared from the internet, and Watts pointed out that the president denies the conclusions of U.S. intelligence about Russian election interference.
Watts also testified that Trump claimed repeatedly that the election could be rigged, which he said was the No. 1 theme pushed by RT, Sputnik and other Russian propaganda outlets.
“He’s made claims of voter fraud, that President Obama’s not a citizen and, you know, Congressman (Ted) Cruz is not a citizen,” Watts said. “Part of the reason active measures works, and it does today in terms of Trump Tower being ‘wiretapped,’ is because they parrot the same lines.”
He told the senators that Putin was exploiting the inability of social media users to properly weigh evidence — and he said those efforts were specifically targeted to the most famous and powerful Twitter user in the world.
“I can tell you right now, today, that gray outlets, that are Soviet-pushing accounts, tweet at President Trump during high volumes when they know he’s online, and they push conspiracy theories,” Watts testified.
He explained that Russia planned the operation more than a year in advance and targeted specific groups of voters — both likely Trump supporters and Bernie Sanders voters — in swing states with anti-Clinton propaganda.
“They play all sides, much like how in infantry school about how they use artillery,” Watts testified. “They fire artillery everywhere, and once they get a break in the wall, that’s where they swarm in and focus.”