Three guesses, and the first two don’t count. Jared Kushner made a rare appearance at a Q&A forum earlier today sponsored by Time Magazine, and talk turned quickly to the outcome of the special counsel investigation. Kushner called the probe and the Mueller report “a big distraction,” and told the moderator that the investigation itself did a lot more harm to the US than the pinprick Russian interference operations:
Count Politico’s Katie Galioto among the unimpressed:
“You look at what Russia did, buying some Facebook ads and trying to sow dissent. It’s a terrible thing,” Kushner, who is also the president’s son-in-law, said in an on-stage interview at the TIME 100 Summit. “But I think the investigations and all of the speculation that’s happened for the last two years has a much harsher impact on our democracy than a couple Facebook ads.”
Despite Kushner’s claims that the Kremlin’s election interference efforts were little more than a handful of paid Facebook posts, the report submitted by Mueller detailed a multi-faceted operation that included social media posts written and targeted to sow division, as well as cyberattack efforts targeting 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton as well as her campaign and the Democratic National Committee. The Russian government, which Mueller concluded acted because it felt it would benefit from a Trump presidency, later distributed hacked emails stolen from Clinton and others via the online publisher WikiLeaks and other outlets.
Kushner, though, downplayed the scope of Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election, in part because of the relatively light financial investment in Facebook ads.
“I think they said they spent $160,000. I spent $160,000 on Facebook every three hours during the campaign,” he said. “If you look at the magnitude of what they did, the ensuing investigations have been way more harmful.”
Galioto does have a point, albeit a limited one. Russia went to more trouble than just dropping $160,000 on Facebook ads, and Kushner knows it. They ran a sizable propaganda campaign through the Internet Research Agency (IRA), and they also hacked into the DNC and the Center for American Progress and disseminated the materials through Wikileaks. Those are aggressive actions that went far beyond some Facebook ad buys.
However, they didn’t really go all that far beyond them. Estimates of Russia’s costs for conducting their propaganda efforts through the IRA run to about $25 million or so. Put that in the context of an election cycle where both candidates and their supporting PACS spent around $2 billion, and one can understand Kushner’s dismissive attitude a little bit better. (It comes to 1.25% of all spending, for those keeping score.) Kushner’s larger point argues that it had no impact because Russia’s efforts were made with ineffective techniques anyway, plus they ended up being a drop in the bucket in the overall context of election messaging. As for the DNC and Podesta hacks, that mainly aimed at impacting the Democratic primary rather than the general election — and didn’t succeed at derailing Hillary Clinton’s nomination.
To Kushner’s larger point, even Robert Mueller found that the IRA’s purpose was to “sow discord in the US political system.” There is nothing in the Mueller report that measures the success of that mission during its 2014-16 operational phase, which tells us volumes about its actual impact during the campaign. Without the investigation, it’s almost certain that it would have been negligible at most. However, the two-plus years of the investigation, the public accusations in both directions, and the anger those have generated are far out of proportion to the IRA’s efforts and effectiveness.
That seems so obvious a point that it’s hardly worth contesting it. One can argue that it became necessary because of the discovery of Russia’s attempts at sabotaging the election, and certainly one can argue that the failures of the Obama administration to address them in real time made it necessary too. On its face, though, Kushner’s point is absolutely correct: the very public investigation into what turned out to be a nothingburger on Russia-collusion did far more damage and inadvertently advanced Russia’s intentions to sow discord than their $25 million operation would have done otherwise.
Nevertheless, Kirsten Gillibrand declared Kushner’s remarks “an outrage”:
MITCHELL: I mean he basically said that this is a distraction and that what Russia did was just a couple of Facebook ads.
GILLIBRAND: Oh my God. He clearly hasn’t read the report himself, but what he said is an outrage. For him to make light of a foreign adversary purposely trying to undermine our election is untenable. And I am gravely concerned that this administration continues to not take this seriously. And those statements are highly inappropriate.
Outrage? Inappropriate? YMMV, but like much of the Democratic responses over the past two years, that’s more hyperbolic than Kushner was dismissive. Kushner might have made a more comprehensive argument here and pre-empted this kind of criticism, but the odds of that satisfying Gillibrand would have approached zero anyway.
Besides, Kushner scored a home run with the audience that matters most to him: