How The Russia Investigation Might Evolve In 2018

Jan 2, 2018
Originally published on January 2, 2018 6:46 pm
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It's a new year, but the Russia imbroglio - the sprawling, long-running saga about Moscow's attack on the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath - is still going strong. Washington spent much of last year simply trying to determine what happened in that attack, and there are still many questions that haven't been answered.

We're going to take the next few minutes to look at how that investigation might evolve this year. And here to talk about that is NPR's national security editor, Phil Ewing. Hi, Phil.


SIEGEL: Let's start with one big story coming up this year, the midterm elections. Are they likely to be like 2016 in the sense of so-called fake news, the use of trolls, bots, that sort of thing?

EWING: Well, according to current and former U.S. intelligence officials, the answer is yes. The FBI director, Christopher Wray, has already said the bureau has a special task force set up to watch for foreign interference in the new year. Plus, the Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coats, and his predecessor and many others in and out of the administration have said they fully expect more dirty tricks in this election and also in the 2020 presidential race. In the spy world, these are called active measures. A nation state uses its intelligence and diplomatic and other tools to shape the information environment by putting out false stories like you mentioned or exacerbating controversies, in our case, that already exist.

This never really stopped happening after the 2016 election. There were Russian Twitter accounts that turned up the volume on the Charlottesville unrest last year or the NFL protests over the national anthem or the Alabama special election and other stories. But what we can't know today is whether the government and the states will be ready to deal with the full gamut of things we saw in 2016 - the cyberattacks that targeted politicians, institutions like the Democratic National Committee or some other new kind of technique for mischief that nobody has thought about yet.

SIEGEL: As you've said, though, Russia has kept up a lot of the social media agitation. Why? What's in it for Russian President Vladimir Putin?

EWING: I think it's a low-cost option for him to be a player in the West, not just the United States but in Europe, in the U.K. There were indications of Russian interference in European elections in the vote that the Brits had for getting out of the European Union, the so-called Brexit controversy. And it enables him to increase Russia's throw weight on the global stage. And it'll be very interesting because he has an election this year as well, and he may make the case to his own voters that he continues to be a player and increase Russia's prestige on the world stage through these kinds of measures.

SIEGEL: Back to Washington, there are several congressional investigations still underway about Russia's activities. Are those likely to wrap up this year?

EWING: Members of Congress say that's what they want to happen. There are several committees looking into this. The House and Senate intelligence committees, the Senate Judiciary Committee and a couple of others have also had hearings or spoken about this. We don't know yet when their work might wrap up, but there have already been suggestions that the politics might actually be too fraught for them to come to any kind of consensus on this.

Republicans and Democrats might be - might not be able to get to the same findings, so they could release reports of their own - a majority Republican report, a minority Democratic report. And we'll just have to see how that plays out. But 2018 might bring kind of a story of "Choose Your Own Adventure" depending on which version of the case you want to follow.

SIEGEL: What about special prosecutor Robert Mueller? What, if anything, do we know about what direction his investigation might take this year?

EWING: That's one of the biggest and most important questions in this whole story, and I don't think anybody outside of the special counsel's office actually knows the answer. He has shown how effectively he can keep secrets. He, for example, reached a guilty plea with one former campaign adviser and then kept it completely secret until that was unsealed publicly. Mueller has never been the kind of guy to give interviews even before this when he was FBI director or talk openly about what he was doing. Plus, his office is under a gag order as part of the prosecution it brought against Trump's former campaign chairman. So unless something changes drastically, the only way we'll know what Mueller is doing is when he goes public or he takes more people to court.

SIEGEL: NPR's Phil Ewing, thanks.

EWING: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.