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Where There’s Smoke, There’s … Russian Electoral Meddling?

Where There’s Smoke, There’s … Russian Electoral Meddling?

Russia is a country of over 140 million people. Yet America’s collective imagination is close to transforming the entire nation into a cross between Boris and Natasha and a Bond villain — and, in doing so, making Moscow an unexpectedly big player in this year’s presidential election.

Over a few hours on Halloween, a flood of new stories emerged alleging additional ties between Republican nominee Donald Trump and Russia. It came hard on the heels of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid’s weekend missive to FBI Director James Comey, accusing him of hiding information that ties together Trump, his advisors, and the Russian government.

According to Slate, a Trump Organization email server allegedly has been secretly communicating with a computer belonging to the Kremlin-linked Alfa Bank, Russia’s largest private bank. The contents of those messages remain unknown. But digital sleuths point to records showing that two entities communicated, and that they seemed to take steps to hide their communications. (Skeptics argue the communication records may just be spam marketing material from Trump’s hotel chain.)

Then Mother Jones reported late Monday that a veteran former Western intelligence officer gave the FBI memos that detailed a Kremlin operation to control Trump. The Kremlin, according to the spy, holds compromising material on Trump and is using the businessman “to encourage splits and divisions in [the] western alliance.”

The Trump campaign has repeatedly denied having ties to Moscow. In its own report Monday, the New York Times concluded the FBI found no clear link between Trump and the Kremlin after looking into some of these allegations. And the allegations of the secret email server are also disputed: Some cyber experts believe the strange communications with Alfa Bank may be nothing more than spam emails from Trump’s business.

Despite all the denials and dismissals, there’s a reason allegations about Trump’s supposed ties to Moscow have traction. The GOP candidate has surrounded himself with people with links to Russia, and he has repeatedly praised Russian President Vladimir Putin and echoed many Kremlin talking points during the 2016 campaign.

All this comes against a backdrop of Russian hacking that has seen operatives, working on behalf of Moscow, penetrate the computer systems of the Democratic National Committee, White House staffers, the former head of NATO, and others. U.S. intelligence officials blame Russia for the hacks; Trump says no one knows who is doing it.

The FBI is reportedly looking into the foreign business connections of Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, NBC reported Monday. Manafort, who has denied any investigation exists, resigned in August after documents emerged appearing to show he received cash payments from Viktor Yanukovych’s pro-Russia party in Ukraine, for whom Manafort once worked.

Other Trump advisors also appear to have Russia links: Carter Page once ran the Moscow office of Merrill Lynch and allegedly met with Putin’s inner circle, while retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn sat by Putin at RT’s 10th anniversary dinner in 2015 (he has insisted that was not by his request).

Trump’s pro-Putin stance is the one of the few positions on which he has been consistent this campaign. Of Putin, Trump has said, “he’s been a leader far more than our president has been a leader.”

But that’s not all the praise Trump has showered on Putin. Check out the noteworthy public displays of Russian affection, including the following:

–Trump’s running mate, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, disavowed Putin during Oct. 4 vice presidential debate; days later, during his own Oct. 9 face-off with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, Trump disavowed Pence’s disavowal.

–This summer, the Trump campaign reportedly pushed to make the Republican platform more pro-Russia by nixing the idea of providing lethal weapons to Ukraine.

–Like the Kremlin, Trump was in favor of the British referendum to leave the European Union (better known as Brexit).

–Trump has made statements that many understood as undermining NATO, an organization which Putin has accused of acting “aggressively.”

From Russia’s point of view, turnabout is fair play. Putin does not like Clinton, who he blames for inciting the protests in 2011 against alleged voting fraud in Russia’s election. As Matthew Rojansky of the Wilson Center has noted, Russia sees the United States having meddled in Russia’s elections for ages — which is to say that the Kremlin may well see itself as being engaged in a fiercely competitive match of tit-for-tat.

Yet that doesn’t mean Russia is actively working against Clinton, or for Trump, as opposed to simply seeking to undermine confidence in American institutions.

With just a week to go before the Nov. 8 vote, one of the biggest questions is not whether, but how much, Putin’s Russia has inserted itself into America’s electoral discourse. In that sense, Russia has already deeply influenced — and is still influencing — the election, regardless of the ultimate outcome.

Well played, Boris and Natasha.

Photo Credit: PETRAS MALUKAS/AFP/Getty Images