A foreign government sought to influence the U.S. presidential race to benefit a favored candidate by pushing stories into the American media, working through an ambassador, and instigating what could be called collusion with the candidate.
“Liberals never gave a damn about Russian meddling in American elections until 2016,” @DrPaulKengor says.
This was 1796 and the culprit was France. Fast forward 200 years, and China tried to influence a presidential election. Two decades after that, it’s Russian meddling.
Top Trump administration officials announced earlier this month that Russian operatives are trying to interfere with the 2018 midterm elections, as they did with the 2016 presidential election. The U.S. government, they said, is taking actions across agencies to prevent it from happening again.
Special counsel Robert Mueller has indicted more than two dozen Russian individuals and entities for cybercrimes, including pushing misinformation to undermine the 2016 election.
Then, as now, there was no evidence votes were changed. Instead, foreigners spread money or propaganda for the purpose of influencing the election.
“Foreign intervention in elections is the norm, not the exception,” commentator Dick Morris, a former political adviser to President Bill Clinton, told The Daily Signal.
The Soviet Union meddled in U.S. elections at least as far back as 1948, said Paul Kengor, a political science professor at Grove City College.
“Liberals never gave a damn about Russian meddling in American elections until 2016,” Kengor told The Daily Signal. “They care now because Hillary Clinton lost.”
Here are six key examples of foreign influence in U.S. elections.
1. France and the 1796 Election
The outgoing administration of President George Washington wanted American neutrality in the war between Britain and France. However, the leader of the Democratic-Republican party, Thomas Jefferson, was avidly pro-French and believed the United States owed a debt to the country that helped it gain independence from the British.
Chief Justice John Jay went to Britain to hammer out an agreement, the Jay Treaty ratified in 1795, pledging U.S. neutrality in the conflict and establishing peace—at least for a time—between the U.S. and Britain.
Washington didn’t seek a third term, but his vice president, Federalist John Adams, was running to succeed him and was pro-British.
France’s ambassador to the United States, Pierre Auguste Adet, was among French officials and diplomats who openly expressed support for Jefferson and attacked Adams and the Federalists. So it wasn’t a covert operation.
Adet sent diplomatic letters to Washington’s secretary of state, Timothy Pickering, pleading with him to drop the Jay Treaty. Adet then released the letters to American newspapers.
After that, he announced France had severed ties with the United States, and that only a Jefferson administration could restore relations.
Meanwhile, Jefferson ally James Monroe—while serving as U.S. ambassador to France—also hinted to French officials that relations would be better under a Jefferson presidency.
At any rate, it didn’t work. Adams defeated Jefferson in the close 1796 election. Jefferson would win the rematch in 1800, however, when much of the debate still surrounded whether the United States would be more pro-France or more pro-British.
2. World War II and the 1940 Election
Some recently reported Russian methods are surprisingly similar to how an ally interfered with the 1940 presidential election, planting fake news stories in newspapers and making public what were believed to be private communications.
President Franklin Roosevelt wanted to intervene in World War II, but the American public and Congress—remembering World War I—had little appetite for what seemed like another European gambit.
Britain, besieged by Nazi Germany, thought one way to get American help was to reshape American public opinion.
“This was literally a matter of changing the establishment’s view of U.S. support for the war,” said Morris, who writes about British espionage in the 1940 election in his book “Rogue Spooks.”
The British Security Coordination, a front corporation for British intelligence in the United States, had offices inside the U.S. that conducted espionage and planted fake news stories in American media to tilt public opinion, according to information declassified in 1999.
Some of the least credible voices were sounding warnings at the time. As Politico stated in a piece published last year:
American communists, fascists and isolationists complained bitterly and loudly in 1940 and 1941 that Britain was secretly manipulating the U.S. media as part of a campaign to pull America into the war. These accusations, confidently dismissed by liberal politicians and newspapers as paranoid ravings, were inaccurate only in that they were understated.
British intelligence got involved in congressional campaigns, in some cases reportedly conducting illegal electronic surveillance and leaking the resulting information to select news media for “October surprises” to help defeat isolationist candidates across the country.
The British government was more comfortable with Roosevelt as president, but wanted to hedge its bets with a British-friendly Republican challenger as well.
Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, R-Mich., an isolationist, was expected to win the GOP nomination, Morris said. Instead, a charismatic New York businessman who never had held or run for political office won the nomination after a grassroots upheaval against the party establishment.
The nominee, Wendell Willkie, said: “America’s first line of defense is Great Britain.”
This development came after the New York Herald Tribune, then the nation’s leading Republican newspaper, touted an “independent” poll by Market Analysts Inc. that found three-fifths of Republican National Convention delegates favored assisting allies in everything short of war.
However, the owner of Market Analysts was Sanford Griffith, an American who had worked for British intelligence since the 1930s, according to the Politico account.
Roosevelt soundly defeated Willkie in November, of course, and likely would have won the third term without any outside help. Where the Brits had a huge impact was in moving the GOP nomination in Willkie’s direction, Morris said.
And Willkie was aware of that, as were the media titans, he said.
“Willkie and others didn’t view it as a conspiracy, but as a way to save civilization,” Morris said.
It wasn’t just the British who meddled. Nazi Germany made a far less effective attempt to influence the election.
In October, the Nazis captured a Polish government document they believed would expose Roosevelt as a “criminal hypocrite” and “warmonger,” according to The Washington Post. The German Embassy in Washington, D.C., bribed an American newspaper to publish the document, but little came of it.
3. The Soviets Back a Political Party
In 1948, the Soviet Union was largely behind the Progressive Party, a third party whose candidate for president was former Vice President Henry Wallace.
Wallace had split with the Democratic Party over President Harry Truman’s hawkish stance on the Cold War. Truman fired Wallace as secretary of commerce.
“In 1948, the Progressive Party was a direct extension of Moscow,” Kengor said.
Wallace himself was an unwilling dupe, Kengor said, as he details in the book “Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.”
The party structure and the Wallace campaign were made up of several Soviet operatives. “If it had not been for the Communists,” journalist I.F. Stone wrote during that time, “there would be no Progressive party.”
Wallace got just 2 percent of the popular vote and no electoral votes, coming in fourth place behind incumbent President Harry Truman, Republican Thomas Dewey, and States Rights “Dixiecrat” candidate Strom Thurmond, who went on to a long Senate career.
4. Nixon and Foreign Meddling in 1960 and 1968
While Russian President Vladimir Putin denies meddling in U.S. elections, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev boasted about tilting the 1960 presidential election, when John F. Kennedy beat Richard Nixon.
In Khrushchev’s memoir, he wrote that he told Kennedy in 1961: “You know, Mr. Kennedy, we voted for you.”
He claimed Kennedy responded: “You’re right. I admit you played a role in the election and cast your vote for me.”
In May 1960, the Soviets shot down a United States U-2 surveillance plane flying over Yekaterinburg, Russia, and captured pilot Francis Gary Powers.
Khrushchev opposed Nixon and the Eisenhower administration he served.
The Soviet government decided that releasing Powers to the current administration would help Nixon.
“My comrades agreed, and we did not release Powers,” Khrushchev wrote. “As it turned out, we’d done the right thing. Kennedy won the election by a majority of only 200,000 or so votes, a negligible margin if you consider the huge population of the United States. The slightest nudge either way would have been decisive.”
It’s questionable whether the Soviet government’s decision to postpone release of the captured pilot had much of an impact on the 1960 election outcome, said presidential historian Craig Shirley, the author most recently of “Reagan Rising.”
“If I’m a foreign government, I might want to affect the outcome of an American election,” Shirley told The Daily Signal. “The question is, did it ever affect the outcome? Kennedy’s father [Joe Kennedy] had far more of an effect with election interference—getting graveyard votes in Illinois—than the Soviets.”
Eight years later, Nixon ran again, facing Vice President Hubert Humphrey. In what was supposed to be an October surprise to boost Humphrey’s candidacy, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced that North Vietnam had agreed to a cease-fire and negotiations with South Vietnam.
Critics of Nixon, citing documents, have accused him of scuttling peace talks, by instigating back-channel communications to convince South Vietnamese President Nguyen Van Thieu that it would get a better deal under a Nixon administration. After this, the South Vietnamese walked away from the deal.
Nixon defeated Humphrey by less than 1 percent of the popular vote.
Audio recordings of Johnson that came to light document the outgoing president accusing Nixon of “treason.” However, historians question whether Nixon’s alleged involvement had any impact, and whether the North Vietnamese were serious about a negotiation.
Shirley said he doubts a significant outcome in 1968.
“Left-wing theory is that Democrats can’t ever believe it was their message or candidate that lost an election, but something secretive, in this case Nixon’s secret plan to win the war after Johnson stopped bombing,” Shirley said.
5. Ted Kennedy and the Soviets
Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., covertly reached out to Soviet leaders during two election cycles, while he was a presidential candidate in 1980 and ahead of the 1984 election, according to Cold War-era KGB documents obtained by Kengor, the Grove City College professor.
“He did this to Carter too, his own party flesh and blood,” Kengor said of Kennedy.
Kennedy challenged President Jimmy Carter for the Democratic nomination in 1980.
According to Soviet archives, Kennedy sent former Sen. John Tunney, the California Democrat defeated for re-election in 1976, as a liaison to Soviet officials in March 1980. As documented in Kengor’s book, “Dupes,” Tunney informed them that Kennedy supported the policies of then-Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, and was concerned about an “atmosphere of tensions” in the Cold War “fueled by Carter.”
The KGB archives described Kennedy’s words as “acceptable to us.”
Carter beat Kennedy for the nomination, but lost in a landslide to Ronald Reagan in November.
Kennedy again made overtures to the Soviets in 1983, seeking to prevent Reagan’s re-election. Related correspondence first was reported Feb. 2, 1992, in the Times of London under the headline “Teddy, the KGB and the Top Secret File.”
Kengor revealed the entire file in his 2006 book, “The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism.”
In a letter addressed to then-Soviet leader Yuri Andropov dated May 14, 1983, KGB head Viktor Chebrikov explained that Kennedy was eager to “counter the militaristic policies” of Reagan and undermine the president’s re-election chances in 1984.
Kennedy reportedly suggested doing so by helping the Soviet leader set up interviews with American TV news anchors Walter Cronkite and Barbara Walters, among others.
“I don’t know if collusion is the right word, but he continued overtures to the Soviets in the context of a couple of things: Kennedy believed Reagan was a threat to peace and Reagan’s re-election campaign was coming up,” Kengor said.
The KGB’s Chebrikov described Kennedy’s proposal this way:
Kennedy believes that in order to influence Americans it would be important to organize in August-September of this year, televised interviews with Y.V. Andropov in the USA. A direct appeal by the general secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to the American people will, without a doubt, attract a great deal of attention and interest in the country. The senator is convinced this would receive the maximum resonance in so far as television is the most effective method of mass media and information.
Andropov died later that year, and didn’t get a chance to act on Kennedy’s advice with regard to the 1984 election.
Kennedy’s outreach and Tunney’s trips are documented in the Mitrokhin papers filed with the Cold War International History Project of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. The papers are named for Vasili Mitrokhin, a former KGB agent who defected to Britain from the Soviet Union in 1992.
6. Chinagate and Clinton’s Re-election
Allegations of illegal foreign contributions to his 1996 re-election campaign were among the many scandals involving President Bill Clinton.
The scandal introduced a cast of characters, including John Huang, Johnny Chung, Charlie Trie, and James Riady, who raised money for the Democratic National Committee while having connections with the government of China.
Riady, specifically, had ties to Chinese intelligence, according to findings of a Senate report in 1998.
The money didn’t likely swing the 1996 election, Shirley said.
“There was not a strong candidate uniting the Republican Party, and Clinton was a New Democrat appealing to the center,” Shirley said, referring to 1996 Republican nominee Bob Dole. “Millions [of dollars] that went to the DNC, and it was swept under the rug.”
Huang was a key fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee, bringing in $3.4 million for the 1996 election. He visited the Clinton White House more than 70 times.
Riady visited some 20 times, including six meetings with Clinton. He also worked in the Commerce Department, had access to classified intelligence, and met with Chinese Embassy officials in Washington at least nine times, according to a select House committee report in 1999.
“It was collusion based on money, which is a more traditional kind of influence,” Morris said.
The 1999 report determined the Chinese had attempted to leverage campaign contributions to successfully steal nuclear data from the United States. A $300,000 donation was funneled by the daughter of a Chinese general to Chung in 1996 to help him obtain U.S. computer, missile, and satellite technologies.
Wang Ju, son of former Chinese President Wang Zhen, was connected to more than $600,000 in illegal campaign donations to Democrats. He attended a White House coffee with Clinton in February 1996 and met with then-Commerce Secretary Ron Brown the next day.