WASHINGTON >> Florida Sen. Marco Rubio revealed Thursday that apparent Russian hackers twice targeted his former presidential campaign team — the latest coming this week — adding new intrigue to the drama gripping Washington.
“In July of 2016, shortly after I announced that I would seek re-election to the United States Senate, former members of my presidential campaign team, who had access to the internal information of my presidential campaign, were targeted by IP addresses with an unknown location within Russia. That effort was unsuccessful,” Rubio said during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing.
“I’d also inform the committee that within the last 24 hours, at 10:45 a.m. (Wednesday), a second attempt was made, again against former members of my presidential campaign team, who had access to our internal information, again targeted from an IP address from an unknown location in Russia, and that effort was also unsuccessful.”
Earlier in the hearing, a security expert testified that Rubio “anecdotally suffered” from Russian social media disinformation campaigns — and that other Republican presidential primary candidates, including Jeb Bush and Sen. Lindsey Graham, also were targeted.
Clint Watts, a senior fellow at George Washington University’s Center for Cyber and Homeland Security, said Russians put out some negative information on Trump “but it was 90 percent positive.” Overall, he said, the effort was about “pumping up Trump while tamping down the others.”
What’s more, Watts said the Russians continue to interfere in U.S. politics, recently targeting House Speaker Paul Ryan. Watts told reporters that trolling networks his research institute monitors were disseminating propaganda about dissension in the ranks of the Republican Party regarding the vote for Ryan as speaker of the House.
Rubio, who dropped out of the race after losing to Trump in the March 15 Florida primary, did not elaborate beyond his statements, nor did a spokesman or a former campaign official.
Rubio sits on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is probing Russian meddling in the election. The House Intelligence Committee is, too, but that effort has become engulfed in controversy over questions about whether the Republican chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes of California, had colluded with White House officials.
When hackers gave WikiLeaks reams of damaging information about Hillary Clinton, Rubio refused to discuss what he said was an attempt by a foreign government to influence the electoral process. “I want to warn my fellow Republicans who may want to capitalize politically on these leaks: Today it is the Democrats. Tomorrow it could be us,” he said in October.
Trump, meanwhile, celebrated the disclosures, including several times in Florida.
Months later, questions about Russia have dominated the news and have put the Trump administration on the defensive. Trump has deemed it fake news pushed by Democrats, and has responded by raising discredited allegations that the Obama administration wiretapped his offices.
Trump’s history of spreading unsubstantiated and false claims, from widespread voter fraud and “rigged” elections to questions about Obama’s citizenship, has aided propaganda efforts, Watts said. “Part of the reason active measures have worked in this U.S. election is because the commander in chief has used Russian active measures at times against his opponents.”
He said fake Russian-created social media accounts continue to push conspiracies at Trump in the hopes he will run with them. “Until we get a firm basis on fact and fiction in our own country .?.?. we’re going to have a big problem,” Watts said.
Thursday’s hearing focused mostly on how experts say the Kremlin uses technology and disinformation to influence the opinions of Americans and not on the U.S. policy toward Russia. Trump, throughout the campaign and since he has been president, has expressed an interest in improving relations with Russia.
Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the committee’s senior Democrat, talked about disinformation spread in the final weeks of the campaign through key states such as Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. One question he said he wants the committee’s investigation to answer is whether Russia would have the ability to do that without the assistance of someone with a deep knowledge of American politics.
Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., raised concerns that the committee’s investigation is not focused enough on following the money, which includes looking at the president’s finances and that of his business partners. Wyden said fishy real estate deals and money laundering might mean that the “Russian government may be only a step or two away” from American institutions.
Warner and Republican Chairman Richard Burr of North Carolina have pledged cooperation on the committee’s investigation of Russia’s influence during the campaign, distancing themselves from the fractured House Intelligence Committee’s investigation that has been fraught with partisanship.