Adapted from The Black Ledger: How Trump Brought Putin’s Disinformation War to America Chapter 1 “All Decided in the Back Room” and Chapter 3, “A Killer Genius” Ebook Available at Amazon, Apple Books and Barnes and Noble. HOW TO BUY THE BLACK LEDGER

The Cunning Plan

Buried in Volume 5 of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election was a new revelation—Intercepts of Russian Intelligence Officer Konstantin Kilimnik showed that it was Paul Manafort’s “хитрый план” or “cunning plan” to “screw Clinton” based on “surprises” that had been at the core of the 2016 Trump campaign’s strategy. In the new world of intelligence, spies’ briefcases were more likely to carry sophisticated polling results than secret radios to call Moscow. The plans to hack Clinton were devised by Trump’s campaign manager, not Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Manafort had been Kilimnik’s one-time boss in the business of advancing Russia’s interests via a series of pro-Russian candidates throughout the world. Kilimnik explained Manafort’s skill to a reporter: “Manafort is a guy who can merge, you know, strategy and messages into something that will work for victory.” “I’ve seen him work in different countries,” Kilimnik continued, “and . . . he really does take seriously his polling and can spend, you know, two weeks going through the data, and he’ll come [up] with the best strategy you can ever have.”

Manafort’s gifts tended towards political division. He had masterminded Ronald Reagan’s infamous speech to resentful Whites in Neshoba Mississippi in 1980. Reagan cracked the Solid South for Republicans once and for all that fall.

The Therm Poll

It is not a surprise, then, that Manafort’s plan for Trump involved stoking Clinton’s negatives amongst White males in the Upper Midwest. Manafort explained the plan in detail to Kilimnik in August, 2016:

Because Clinton’s negatives were so low [sic]—if they could focus on her negatives they could win the election. Manafort discussed the Fabrizio internal Trump polling data with Kilimnik, and explained that Fabrizio’s polling numbers showed that the Clinton negatives, referred to as a ‘therm poll,’ were high. Thus, based on this polling there was a chance Trump could win.

The tool to do this was to focus media coverage of the campaign on Hillary Clinton’s emails. In 2015, House Republican investigators digging into Benghazi learned she had run a private email server out of her home for some of her official email traffic as Secretary of State. Clinton insisted there was no classified information on the servers but that July, the State Department Inspector General found there had been classified information on the server.

With these facts in hand, Manafort began reaching out to the Trump campaign for work in January 2016. At the same time, pro-Russian politicians such as Serhii Lyovochkin told GOP lobbyist Sam Patten he believed Trump was going to hire Paul Manafort to run his campaign. The Russian intelligence officer, Konstantin Kilimnik, was even more confident, telling Patten it was “likely” that Manafort would be Trump’s campaign manager.

Manafort reached out to a common friend of his and Trump’s to make his case—Lebanese-American magnate Tom Barrack. At a January 30, 2016 meeting with Barrack, Manafort asked the Trump confidant to try and get him on to the Trump campaign. 

Barrack obliged, bringing Manafort up twice in February to Trump.  Manafort prepared strategy memos to convince Trump. Barrack forwarded them to Trump’s longtime personal assistant Rhona Graff, Ivanka Trump, and Jared Kushner. In the email, Barrack explained why they should make the hire: “Manafort is a genius killer,” he insisted. Ivanka promised to show Donald Trump the email after Super Tuesday in early March. She printed out a copy of the email from Barrack and attached a note: “Daddy, Tom says we should get Paul.”

Russia Responds to the Hiring of Paul Manafort

Eleven days later, Major Boris Antonov of the GRU ordered Fancy Bear, the Russian GRU’s infamous hack-and-dump outfit to prepare to steal emails belonging to Hillary Clinton.

Barrack then met with Trump to push the Manafort hire. Eventually after being told that Manafort would be “non-paid,” the candidate was convinced. According to Barrack, Manafort offering to work for free “were the magic words

On the evening of March 16th, 2016, Donald Trump personally called Manafort and asked him to run the delegate process for him.  Manafort emailed Barrack that evening: “You’re the Best!” read the subject line. “We are going to have so much fun and change the world in the process” Manafort gushed.

Three days later, at 11:28 a.m. Moscow time, Fancy Bear launched its attack against the Clinton campaign.

Manafort’s hire was announced on March 28. Immediately after the announcement Konstantin Kilimnik emailed Sam Patten and rubbed it in. Manafort was running the Trump campaign. By early April, Manafort’s daughter texted her sister: “Dad and Trump are literally living in the same building and mom says they go up and down all day long hanging and plotting together.” 

The Cunning Plan Succeeds

We cannot know exactly how the theft of the Clinton emails affected the minds of individual voters, but the media effect of the email hack is undeniable. It drove political coverage. The Berkman-Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard measured the media impact of disinformation in a 2017 report.

The Center’s verdict was unambiguous. “Donald Trump succeeded in shaping the election agenda. Coverage of Trump overwhelmingly outperformed coverage of Clinton. Clinton’s coverage was focused on scandals, while Trump’s coverage focused on his core issues.”

© 2017 Harvard University. Used with permission via Creative Commons Unported License 3.0

Clinton’s emails outpaced all other campaign stories in total sentences written with nearly 70,000. The next closest were stories regarding Trump’s hardline immigration stance with 40,000. There were over 100,000 references to Clinton scandals in media coverage, far ahead of the 80,000 or so references to Trump’s policies.

The email hack implied to the media that there was in fact, something hidden within the DNC emails. It drove the media towards the Clinton email scandal like moths to the flame. The words “Clinton” and “emails” became fused in the minds of the media. The result was a storm of media coverage on Clinton’s emails. When FBI Director Jim Comey announced in late October that more Clinton emails were found and under investigation, Clinton’s poll numbers dropped.

As we enter the final month of the 2020 campaign, the Russians are at it again. Using disinformation sourced by Rudy Giuliani to pro-Russian Ukrainian figures, the 2020 Trump campaign hopes to replicate Manafort’s plan, this time falsely accusing Biden of misconduct in office relating to his work for the Obama Administration. America waits to see the results.