Trump lawyers cite Russian interference he decried as a "hoax" as defense in D.C. criminal case

Donald Trump Jim Vondruska/Getty Images
Donald Trump Jim Vondruska/Getty Images
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Donald Trump's worldview over the last seven years, according to Washington Post columnist Philip Bump, has revolved around two core beliefs: First, that Russia did not interfere in the 2016 presidential election, but even if it or someone else had, it didn't matter because Trump won on his own merit. And second, that Trump's loss of the 2020 election "was not a function of his personal failures but, instead, of systems rigged against him in the abstract or directly altered to his detriment."

But that perspective — and the false claims of a stolen election Trump has been pushing alongside it — Bump argues, has presented the former president with a significant problem: a federal indictment brought by special counsel Jack Smith hinged on his efforts to overturn his electoral defeat that his attorneys have been battling in a Washington, D.C. federal court since it dropped in August.

In a court filing this week, Trump's attorneys argued that the former president is not at fault because others believed the election may have been undermined. They asserted instead that Russian election interference in 2016, the same subversion that Trump often deems "the Russia hoax," was at least in some part to blame for the distrust of the 2020 election results.

Politico's Kyle Cheney noted the irony in the filing, which centers on efforts of Trump's legal team to acquire materials they believe will be useful for their defense. Among those requested materials is the classified version of an Intelligence Community Assessment titled, “Assessing Russian Activities and Intentions in Recent US Elections.” The document, an unclassified version of which was released to the public shortly before Trump took office, assessed the scope of Russia's attempts to influence the 2016 election and American politics.

This document, Trump's lawyers argue, contains “information relating to a ‘significant escalation’ of foreign influence in the 2016 election motivated then-President Trump and his Administration to focus on foreign influence and cyber risks, as reflected in Executive Order 13848, and to be skeptical of claims about the absence of foreign influence in the 2020 election.”

Trump signed Executive Order 13848 in September 2018, shortly ahead of that year's midterms, the first federal election after the 2016 contest in which Russia had sought to forge significant influence. The order doesn't mention Russia specifically, nor does it indicate that it was a product of Trump's interest in countering Russia's actions. The order instead allowed for the government to respond to similar, general actions.

The Department of Justice announced shortly after the 2018 midterms that no significant interference had been seen in that election and insisted that “Efforts to safeguard the 2020 elections are already underway.”

"But you see why this is useful to Trump’s team," Bump writes. "Here’s a document suggesting that there was a risk from foreign interference — something that would understandably make Trump worried about 2020, at least in theory."

A frustrating moment for the former president came in the wake of the 2020 election when his administration Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and other agencies announced on Nov. 5, 2020, that there was “no evidence that any voting system deleted or lost votes, changed votes, or was in any way compromised” during the presidential election. Trump fired back on social media, dubbing the statement “highly inaccurate, in that there were massive improprieties and fraud.”

"There was no evidence for Trump’s claim, since it was not true. But this is the sort of 'skeptical' response his lawyers have to address," Bump writes, arguing that the lawyers, in this week's filing, spun the response as they demanded the classified ICA.

“Whereas the Special Counsel’s Office falsely alleges that President Trump ‘erode[d] public faith in the administration of the election,’” Trump's attorneys wrote, “the 2016 Election ICA uses strikingly similar language to attribute the origins of that erosion to foreign influence — that is, foreign efforts to ‘undermine public faith in the US democratic process.’”

But that assertion isn't entirely correct, Bump notes, The unclassified version of the ICA makes a more specific claim than what Trump's legal team outlined: that “Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary [Hillary] Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency,” and that “We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”

Trump's lawyers omitted those details.

Having the full ICA, they continue, will provide “the detailed information supporting [its] conclusions … in order to demonstrate to the jury that [Trump] did not create or cause the environment that the prosecution seeks to blame him for.”

But the environment Trump is being accused of fostering is pushing the idea that the 2020 election was tainted due to widespread voter fraud, like in the claim he made in response to CISA rejecting the idea that there was no election interference in 2020 and the unfounded claims he's repeated since.

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ICA language also doesn't state that Russia succeeded in creating the environment of skepticism around the elections, just that it sought to. The effort to introduce skepticism around the election was successful almost certainly among those who wanted Trump to lose in 2016, not his supporters, Bump points out. Critics of the former president still say that his victory was a product of Russian interference, while his supporters, echoing his views, have long argued that Russia did nothing at all or that their efforts didn't affect anything.

"The fact that Trump supporters responded to 2020 by insisting that there was an environment of eroded confidence in the election was very obviously not because they had lost confidence because of Russia’s 2016 efforts," Bump writes. "It was because of Trump."

The former president didn't make much effort to hold Russia accountable for the actions of 2016, even going on to deny two months before signing Executive Order 13848 (with Russian President Vladimir Putin at his side) that Russia had interfered at all. Now, however, the notion that he, his administration and his supporters widely questioned the integrity of American elections as a result of interference has become a useful defense in the face of criminal charges.

"So now, it seems, he’s at last willing to concede that Russia interfered," Bump concludes. "Or at least, his attorneys are."