Morning Brief

Russian Interference Intensifies as U.S. Election Heats Up

Moscow appears to be getting its hands dirty on behalf of Trump, and new evidence suggests the president still hasn’t escaped scrutiny from the first round.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks in Warren, Michigan, on Sep. 9. Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Russian-linked hackers tried to gain access to the Biden campaign’s networks, violent protests grip Colombia, and the Algerian parliament adopts constitutional reforms.

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Russia Gears Up to Back Trump Again

U.S. tech giant Microsoft recently informed the campaign of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden that it may have been the target of a suspected hacking attempt by Russian state-backed actors, demonstrating Moscow’s continued efforts to interfere in and influence U.S. elections.

Hackers reportedly targeted staffers at the prominent campaign strategy and communications firm SKDKnickerbocker, which has worked on the campaigns of several past Democratic presidential candidates and is currently taking a lead role in supporting Biden’s run. Sources told Reuters that they had been trying to break into the firm’s networks for the past two months, but they appear to have failed to breach SKDK’s security. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov called the claim “nonsense.”

On Thursday, the U.S. Treasury Department also sanctioned four people accused of trying to interfere in the election on behalf of Russia. One is a member of the Ukrainian parliament, while the other three are Russian nationals employed by Russia’s Internet Research Agency, which was heavily involved in Moscow’s influence campaign during the 2016 presidential election.

Here for more. Thursday’s revelations are further evidence that Russia is actively working to interfere in the election in an effort to support President Donald Trump over Biden. Last month, U.S. intelligence officials said that Russia is employing a range of methods to hurt Biden’s campaign to help get Trump reelected, mirroring its efforts in 2016 to push Trump past former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. Although that assessment also concluded that China is considering its own influence campaign and preferred to see Trump lose, Russia is still considered a far greater threat.

Can’t escape the past. The issue of Russian interference has relentlessly followed Trump since the investigation led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into alleged collusion in 2016 between his campaign and Moscow, and it won’t go away.

On Thursday, an official in the Department of Homeland Security said that Chad Wolf, the department’s acting secretary, told him to stop intelligence assessments of Russian attempts to influence the 2016 election because it “made the President look bad.” He told him to focus instead on similar efforts by China and Iran—an order that apparently came directly from the White House.

What We’re Following Today 

China bars coverage of Mulan. The Chinese government has barred major media outlets from covering the release of the film “Mulan” in response to international backlash over the revelation that the movie was filmed in China’s Xinjiang province, where the government is accused of brutally repressing the local Uighur Muslim community in a campaign widely considered a cultural genocide.

Disney came under heavy criticism after the filming location was revealed. The film’s credits explicitly thanked eight different government entities in Xinjiang, as well as the publicity department of the CPC Xinjiang Uighur Autonomy Region Committee.

Protests sweep Colombia. Deadly protests have erupted across Colombia after the death of a man in Bogotá, who was tasered by police despite telling them he was choking. The protests have quickly turned into open street clashes with police, and at least seven people have been killed. Bogotá mayor Claudia López said an additional 248 people have been injured, of whom 58 were shot by police. Although she said that there was no order to fire on protesters, it appeared police did fire indiscriminately in some areas.

The current unrest is the latest expression of public anger over police brutality in the country. In November, tens of thousands of people took to the streets after a student was shot and killed by police during an anti-government protest.

Leaders meet with Mali junta. Leaders of Mali’s newly-formed military junta met with political figures and civil society leaders to discuss how to return the country to civilian rule after ousting President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and imposing military rule in a coup last month. Leaders from the 15-nation Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) set a deadline for the appointment of a new prime minister and president for Sep. 15, warning the junta that it could face a new round of sanctions if it did not meet the deadline.

The coup leaders reportedly considered a three-year transition period during which it would continue to rule the country, but it came under heavy criticism from ECOWAS and other international actors, who have pressed the junta to restore civilian government as soon as possible.

Keep an Eye On

Fires in Beirut. Massive fires engulfed parts of the Lebanese capital of Beirut on Thursday, weeks after a pair of explosions rocked the city and caused severe damage, killing almost 200 people and injuring around 6,000. The cause of the fires is still unknown, but President Michel Aoun said in a meeting with security officials that it could have been the result of sabotage, technical error, or negligence.

The fires will likely further anger Beirut’s residents, who were already outraged after it was revealed that government negligence was partly to blame for last month’s explosions. Protesters took to the streets en masse following the disaster, eventually forcing the resignation of the entire Lebanese government.

Constitutional reform in Algeria. Algeria’s parliament voted to adopt a series of constitutional reforms aimed at assuaging the grievances of the Hirak protest movement, which is rallying against entrenched government corruption and calling for democratic reforms.

President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who has pushed for the changes, said the reforms will create a separation of powers, prevent corruption, and prioritize social justice. “The proposal is fully in line with the requirements of modern state building and responds to the demands of the popular movement [Hirak],” he said over the weekend before the parliamentary vote. The public will now vote on the reforms in a referendum set for Nov. 1, the anniversary of the start of the country’s war of independence.

Odds and Ends 

He loves me, he loves me not. Journalist Bob Woodward’s new book Rage has, by now, made the rounds on social media, but some of its juicy tidbits are the new details it has unearthed on the 27 letters passed between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which the president once glowingly characterized as “love letters.”

“Even now I cannot forget that moment of history when I firmly held Your Excellency’s hand at the beautiful and sacred location as the whole world watched with great interest and hope to relive the honor of that day,” Kim wrote to Trump in one letter on Dec. 25, 2018, following their historic first meeting in Singapore.

Two letters had already been made public previously, but Woodward was given exclusive access to the other 25 for use in his book.

That’s it for today. 

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 Photo credit: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Dan Haverty is an editorial fellow at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @dan_haverty

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