President Trump on Friday confirmed for the first time that the U.S. launched a cyberattack on the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) in 2018.
Trump confirmed the attack in a two-part interview with The Washington Post’s Marc Thiessen. When asked whether the U.S. had launched an attack on the IRA – a troll farm that led the effort to spread disinformation around the 2016 presidential election and 2018 midterm elections – Trump said that was “correct.”
The cyberattack, first reported by The Washington Post in 2019 but not confirmed publicly by the Trump administration, involved U.S. Cyber Command disrupting internet access for the building in St. Petersburg that houses the IRA on the night of the U.S. 2018 midterm elections, halting efforts to spread disinformation as Americans went to the polls.
Trump told Thiessen that he acted on intelligence around potential Russian interference in the 2018 midterms in ordering the cyberattack, criticizing former President Obama for not taking similar actions ahead of the 2016 elections.
“Look, we stopped it,” Trump told Thiessen, noting that “nobody has been tougher on Russia than I have.”
Trump claimed Obama did not take action in order to benefit Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
According to Trump, Obama “knew before the election that Russia was playing around. Or, he was told. Whether or not it was so or not, who knows? And he said nothing,” Trump said.
“And the reason he said nothing was that he didn’t want to touch it because he thought [Hillary Clinton] was winning because he read phony polls,” he continued. “So, he thought she was going to win. And we had the silent majority that said, ‘No, we like Trump.'”
A bipartisan report released by the Senate Intelligence Committee in February concluded that Obama administration officials were “not well-postured” to respond to Russian hacking and interference efforts in 2016, and that the U.S. government did not have policy options in place to respond to Russian election interference efforts.
People wearing protective masks walk in a park in Islamabad, Pakistan, on July 10, 2020.
Obama did take action following Election Day in 2016, placing sanctions on Russian individuals and agencies involved in interference efforts, expelling dozens of Russian diplomats, and classifying elections as critical infrastructure, allowing more to be done to secure the voting process.
According to former special counsel Robert Mueller and the Senate Intelligence Committee, Russian agents targeted election infrastructure in all 50 states, successfully accessing voter registration databases in Illinois and Florida, though there is no evidence any votes were changed.
The Russian-backed IRA also launched a sweeping disinformation campaign beginning in 2014 designed to “sow discord” and sway the election toward Trump in 2016, according to Mueller. Facebook later estimated that up to 150 million users based in the U.S. were exposed to IRA posts ahead of the 2016 presidential election.
The IRA is financed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, who has been dubbed “Putin’s chef” by Russian media due to his catering company being used by the Kremlin on several occasions. Prigozhin was sanctioned by the Treasury Department last year, and indicted by Mueller in 2018, alongside the IRA itself and a dozen other Russian individuals, for interfering in the 2016 U.S. elections.