‘Blow It Out’: How The Trump Campaign Mobilized Around Russian-Hacked Emails

Donald Trump, Jr. speaks as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump listens during a campaign stop Wednesday, April 27, 2016, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Donald Trump, Jr. speaks as Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump listens during a campaign stop Wednesday, April 27, 2016, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
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August 19, 2020 10:43 a.m.

A bipartisan Senate intelligence report offered bountiful insight into the degree to which the Trump campaign mobilized around WikiLeaks’ release of Democratic emails hacked by Russia in a messaging push only described in broad strokes by special counsel Robert Mueller.

The campaign’s “preoccupation” with WikiLeaks, according to the Senate report, went into overdrive after its October release of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta’s emails. But even before that, campaign officials were strategizing around hints from Roger Stone about upcoming releases. The report revealed new details about how Stone helped to focus then-candidate Donald Trump’s messaging around WikiLeaks.

From emails titled “The WikiLeaks BOMB!” circulated among campaign staff to pre-release “brainstorming sessions,” the new report lays out extensively how excited campaign staffers were to jump on the hacked emails to draw public attention away from damaging moments in Trump’s candidacy — even after it became clear that Russia was meddling in the election.

How the Campaign Handled Early Clues From Stone

“Approximately” in May — and as early as April — Stone told Trump campaign official Rick Gates that WikiLeaks planned to release information damaging to Hillary Clinton. Stone’s prediction reached campaign Chairman Paul Manafort by June, according to the report, before WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange began previewing the dumps publicly.

According to the report, campaign officials including Gates, Stephen Miller, Jason Miller and, potentially, pollster Tony Fabrizo — who had phone conversations with Stone around key dates in the WikiLeaks timeline — had “brainstorming sessions” before even the first tranche of emails came out to figure out what anti-Clinton themes the campaign would hit in response.

At first, Manafort was wary of Stone’s promises and worried about Trump being distracted “by the titillation of a WikiLeaks release.” He instructed Stone not to tell Trump about WikiLeaks’ plans before they were confirmed, according to the report.

Trump and Stone had several phone calls during this period where, the Senate panel believes, WikiLeaks was likely discussed. Once emails started coming out, the report said, Manafort found them to be a useful way to deflect from Trump’s more controversial moments on the trail, including Trump’s continued sparring with Ted Cruz over Trump’s sexist insults towards Cruz’s wife.

Both Manafort and Michael Cohen discussed with Trump the potential for weaponizing hacked emails about high-profile Democrats like Sen. Bernie Sanders and then-DNC chair Debbie Wasserman Shultz, according to the report. That strategy soon became apparent in public campaign statements and Trump tweets.

Despite the campaign’s willingness to fully embrace the email dumps for its messaging, the Senate committee surfaced evidence that at least Manafort was aware that getting too close to WikiLeaks came with some risk.

“Manafort advised Gates and others throughout the Campaign that no one should ‘touch’ Assange,” the Senate report said, adding that the comment suggested Manafort believed communications between the campaign and WikiLeaks “could be perceived as problematic.”

Manafort, on Trump’s directive, told Stone to keep up the hunt after the first July 22 release for more information about what WikiLeaks had in store, and Stone played an active role in helping to develop the campaign’s messaging strategy, according to the report.

After a series of phone calls with Manafort, Gates and Trump himself in late July, Stone emailed Trump’s assistant draft tweets that, according to the email’s subject line, were being sent at Trump’s request.

“Many of the draft tweets attacked Clinton for her adversarial posture toward Russia and mentioned a new peace deal with Putin, such as ‘I want a new detente with Russia under Putin,’” the lawmakers’ report said.

A Hunger For More Dumps 

In August, Stone began again hinting to the campaign — including to incoming campaign CEO Steve Bannon — the potential for more releases, and Gates recalled Stone promising information about Clinton campaign chair John Podesta. Stone shared that hunch publicly later that month.

Throughout September, Stone was in contact with Trump’s inner circle and likely with Trump himself, the report said, as Trump’s allies pressed him for more information on further releases. They were agitated that by early October, the release hadn’t come, despite promises from Stone of Podesta-related document dumps and hype from WikiLeaks itself that something big was one its way. 

Gates recalled Trump expressing his own disappointment, on Oct. 4, that WikiLeaks had not released the emails as expected: “When is the other stuff coming out?” Trump supposedly said.

WikiLeaks As a Way To ‘Refocus The Narrative’

When WikiLeaks did release the Podesta emails — a dump that came 32 minutes after the Access Hollywood tape was published — the campaign ramped up its efforts to incorporate that and future releases into its messaging.

Jared Kushner described to the Senate committee a loosely organized effort to pay attention to the internet’s reaction to what was in each release. 

“We’d kind of see which ones were hot. And then we would kind of debate ways to try to get them out further, whether it be having the candidate read them at rallies, or tweet about them, or whatever it is,” he told the committee. 

Dan Scavino, Hope Hicks, Bannon, Stephen Miller, and Jason Miller were all involved in developing campaign messaging around the hacked emails, according to emails obtained by the committee.

Their exchanges had gleeful subject lines like “WIKI ABOUT TO DROP SOME BOMBS … 4 pmE” and “The WikiLeaks BOMB!”

“Blow it out,” Donald Trump Jr. responded to one such email.

Even as campaign officials told Senate investigators they were unaware of who was behind in hacks, the committee noted that that supposed ignorance didn’t stop Trump from minimizing Russia’s role.

While Trump was frequently praising WikiLeaks from the campaign stump, his senior staff was drafting at least two tweets a day from Trump’s account linking to the releases. Ivanka Trump told other staffers this would “refocus the narrative,” in an email obtained by the committee.

The Senate report recounts a Twitter direct message Donald Trump Jr. received from WikiLeaks, highlighting the launch of an anti-Trump website, that Trump Jr. then circulated to others on the campaign. Bannon offered the committee this assessment of the episode: “I’d describe Don Junior, who I think very highly of, as a guy who believes everything on Breitbart is true.”

Trump Jr. admitted to the committee that a tweet highlighting a WikiLeaks’ release may have been a response to WikiLeaks’ private outreach to him, though it could have also been part of the general strategy around the email dumps.

Trump Jr. told the committee he viewed WikiLeaks as “a media organization” that was “reaching out to me to essentially promote what they had put out.” It didn’t occur to Trump Jr., according to his Senate testimony, that WikiLeaks was operating as a pass-through for a government hostile to the United States.

 

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