In a rare public appearance on Tuesday, Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and one of his closest advisers, said that the multiple investigations into Russian election interference have been more harmful to American democracy than the original interference itself.
“The whole thing is just a big distraction for the country,” Kushner said at a Time Magazine event in New York City. “You look at what Russia did — buying some Facebook ads to try and sow dissent. And it’s a terrible thing, but I think the investigation and all the speculation that’s happened over the past two years has had a much harsher impact on our democracy.”
— TIME (@TIME) April 23, 2019
In describing Russia’s efforts leading up to the 2016 election, Kushner emphasized what he called the relatively small amount of money Russian agents spent advertising on social media.
“They said they spent $160,000. I spent $160,000 on Facebook in three hours during the campaign,” Kushner said. “If you look at the magnitude of what they did and what they accomplished, I think the ensuing investigations have been way more harmful to our country.”
Fact check: Were Facebook ads the extent of Russian election interference?
The short answer: No.
The long answer: The redacted version of Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller’s report revealed a years-long plot by the Russian government to interfere in the U.S. that investigators called “sweeping and systemic.”
As to the amount of money expended on Facebook ads, the company said Russian operatives did spend less than $200,000 on advertising on the platform — but that doesn’t account for the organic content the operatives created and shared.
Not only were influence specialists within Russia’s “Internet Research Agency” purchasing normal advertisements, they were authoring their own posts, memes and other content as they posed as American users.
They also reached out to real politically active Americans, posing as like-minded supporters, and helped organize rallies and other events in the real world.
Facebook says the IRA may have reached as many as 126 million people. Separately, Twitter announced that about 1.4 million people may have been in contact with IRA-controlled accounts.
The social media aspect of the interference was just one dimension. Cyber-attackers also went after political victims in the United States — whose emails and other data were released publicly to embarrass them — and state elections officials and other targets. And there may have been other avenues of interference as well.
The origins of the scheme
Russian operatives lied to get into the U.S. as early as 2014 on “intelligence-gathering missions.” They traveled across the country to get the lay of the land before ramping up efforts to try to interfere with American politics.
By September 2016, two months before the U.S. presidential election, the IRA was working with an overall monthly budget that reached over $1.25 million. It employed hundreds of employees, a graphics department, a data analysis department, a search-engine optimization department, an IT department and a finance department, according to an indictment filed last year by Mueller’s team.
And it hasn’t stopped.
The U.S. military reportedly blocked the Internet access of the IRA during last year’s midterm elections to keep it from interfering with the midterm election. U.S. Cyber Command also targeted Russian cyber operatives, according to a report by The New York Times, with direct messages letting them know that American intelligence was tracking them.
And in October, a Russian woman was accused, according to a criminal complaint filed in federal court, with conspiring to sow discord and division in the U.S political system.
That conspiracy, the complaint said, “continues to this day.”