At the Kremlin last August, officials began to worry that they had committed a massive blunder. Donald Trump, they feared, was psychologically unstable.
Moscow’s hacking and disinformation campaign, designed to interfere with the American election, had been underway for months. In a series of operations overseen by Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, Russia had engaged in similar interference in the Netherlands, Estonia, Germany, Britain and other nations with mixed success. But by late July, some Russian officials believed Peskov’s work had gone too far.
Sergei Ivanov, the chief of staff for the presidential executive office in the Kremlin, was furious at what he saw as a botched and ill-conceived attempt to use hacking and disinformation to interfere in a failed coup attempt in Turkey. As for the American effort, Ivanov and Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian prime minister, had grown increasingly afraid of a backlash as news articles appeared implying that Russia had been trying to split the supporters of Democrats Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton while building up Republican Donald Trump. Still, Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, had remained pleased with Moscow’s progress.
Even Ivanov expressed his belief that, while Washington had failed to split the Russian elite with sanctions over its invasion of Ukraine, the cyberattacks had created political division in the U.S.
Then came the Democratic National Convention, and the appearance of Khizr and Ghazala Khan, parents of an Army Captain who had died in the Iraq war. While the father, Khizr, gave a powerful speech condemning Trump, few could have expected the Republican nominee to spend days drawing attention to it. On Twitter and in public comments, again and again, the GOP nominee attacked the Khans, who—as parents who lost a son in war—were traditionally considered off-limits from criticism by politicians. But Trump would not let it go.