President Donald Trump smirked when supporters at his campaign rally on Friday revived a familiar chant.
"Lock him up!" they shouted as the president laughed. "Lock him up!"
The chants were referring to the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, whom Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, have long accused of being in bed with corrupt Ukrainian interests.
Specifically, they allege that Biden inappropriately leveraged his role as vice president to shut down a criminal investigation into the Ukrainian gas company Burisma Holdings to protect Hunter, who was serving on Burisma's board at the time.
As Business Insider has previously reported, there is no evidence that these claims hold merit, and they've been debunked by intelligence assessments, media reports, congressional investigations, and witness testimony.
Regardless, the Biden-Ukraine conspiracy theory was turbocharged this week, after The New York Post published a widely discredited story purporting to show "smoking-gun" emails between Hunter Biden and a senior Burisma executive about setting up a meeting with Joe Biden when he was vice president in 2015.
The story was written by a former producer for the Fox News show "Hannity," and Giuliani gave the conservative tabloid the emails featured in the story. Shortly after, it was reported that federal authorities are investigating if the emails were part of a foreign influence operation.
To the right-wing political sphere, the story was incontrovertible proof that Trump was right about the Bidens: the president on Wednesday touted the "explosive documents published by a very fine newspaper" which he said showed "that Joe Biden has been blatantly lying about his involvement in his son's corrupt business dealings."
But to former intelligence operatives, Giuliani's involvement in the Post's story and Trump's willingness to seize on it showed just how susceptible they are to being duped by hostile intelligence services.
'Any foreign intelligence service would be derelict if they did not try to exploit this'
Former officials said that Giuliani's proximity to Trump, both men's personality traits, their eagerness to dig up dirt on political opponents, and unwillingness to acknowledge Russian influence make them a goldmine for foreign operatives to exploit.
"This is the most recent edition of what we've seen over four years now with the Trump administration," Steve Hall, the former chief of Russia operations at the CIA, told Business Insider. He compared Giuliani to former national security adviser Michael Flynn, who was one of Trump's most active surrogates during the 2016 campaign.
"Flynn considered himself the smartest guy in the room and believed the rules didn't apply to him because he was close to the president," Hall said. "Giuliani has the same general profile because he's also someone who thinks he's the smartest guy in the room, politically. And he has protection from the Trump administration. That's exactly the kind of personality that Russian intelligence services would look to take advantage of."
Glenn Carle, a former CIA covert operative who specialized in turning Russian spies, told Business Insider that in addition to Giuliani's access to Trump, his motivations also make him an attractive target for Russian intelligence.
"No matter what the motivation is, a foreign intelligence service can usually exploit it," Carle said. "In this case, it's very straightforward: Giuliani is hunting for information that he thinks will help Trump and harm Biden. And then you look at the person's psychological makeup. Are they gullible? Can they be duped? Are they motivated to take chances? In Giuliani's case, the answer to all those questions is a glaring 'yes.'"
Giuliani, Carle added, has "been stumbling around in Ukraine, which is Russian turf from an intelligence perspective. In every way, Trump and Giuliani are grotesquely vulnerable, exploitable targets for Russian intelligence. And any foreign intelligence service would be derelict if they did not try to exploit this."
Indeed, US intelligence agencies cautioned the White House last year that Russian operatives were using Giuliani to funnel disinformation to Trump. The warning came after intercepted communications showed that Giuliani interacted with multiple people who had ties to Russian intelligence when he traveled to Ukraine in December to look for dirt on the Bidens.
Among the people Giuliani met with was a Ukrainian national named Andrii Derkach, a man who has since been sanctioned by the Treasury Department for acting as a Russian agent and spreading disinformation about the Bidens and the 2020 election. Giuliani has been reluctant to acknowledge Derkach is a Russian agent and told The Daily Beast in an interview Saturday, "The chance that Derkach is a Russian spy is no better than 50/50."
The former New York mayor is currently under federal criminal investigation over whether he violated foreign lobbying laws. And two of Giuliani's Ukrainian associates who helped him in his quest to dig up dirt on the Bidens, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, were indicted last year for campaign-finance violations.
On Thursday, NBC News reported that federal investigators are examining whether the purported Hunter Biden-Burisma emails featured in the New York Post's story were part of a foreign intelligence operation ahead of the November election. According to CNN, "the probe is part of a larger investigation into Russian disinformation that dates back to before the impeachment inquiry last fall."
In January, hackers associated with Russia's military intelligence agency successfully breached Burisma's servers, The New York Times reported. And in September, US intelligence analysts learned the Russians were planning to dump hacked and forged Burisma emails as part of an "October surprise" targeting Biden before the election. Later that month, the former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon told the New York Post about the existence of emails between Hunter Biden and the Burisma executive. Giuliani gave the conservative tabloid a copy of a hard drive containing the emails on Sunday.
He is said to have obtained the hard drive last December from a computer repair shop owner who discovered the emails and other compromising information about Hunter Biden on a water-damaged laptop that someone dropped off but never picked up. When The Daily Beast asked Giuliani if he was concerned the emails may have come from Russia's hack of Burisma, he replied that it "wouldn't matter" and asked "what's the difference?"
Trump, meanwhile, knew for weeks that the New York Post's story about Hunter Biden was coming, according to The Daily Beast. "The president knew [in recent weeks] that Rudy had something big coming on the Biden family," one source told the outlet. "I remember hearing…something about files, and corruption, and something about sex and drugs…It was evident that the president was interested and wanted it done before the election."
'They want to protect their boy in the White House'
Robert Deitz, a former senior lawyer at the CIA who also served as the general counsel at the National Security Agency, told Business Insider that Trump's refusal to condemn Russian election interference and his tendency to fly into a rage when the topic is raised, show that he's "not going to ask any questions" if the Russians try to help his campaign.
Giuliani, he said, "is a lot smarter than Trump but misses being in the limelight and wants to be a power player in Washington. He's an old guy who loves attention. So the Russians can easily get an agent to talk to him, butter him up, and take him out to swishy restaurants. You know, why not?"
Hall echoed that view and described Giuliani as a "useful idiot" for Russian operatives.
"The Russians can make Giuliani feel like he's important," he said. "They can appeal to his ego and basically get the same type of control over him that they can with a traditional recruited asset."
Trump, for his part, has dismissed warnings that the Russians were targeting Giuliani. According to the Washington Post, when national security adviser Robert O'Brien and other officials cautioned him about the matter, the president shrugged and said, "That's Rudy."
"At the very least, Giuliani has been directly manipulated and fed information for a substantial period of time," Carle said. "And when confronted with these concerns, both he and Trump aggressively challenge it and denounce those who raised the points. From a counterintelligence perspective, all of that is very alarming and suspicious."
In all, the polarized political landscape is ripe for foreign intelligence services to conduct influence operations in the midst of a US election. And the US intelligence community concluded this year that Russia is once again interfering in the election to help the president and hurt his opponent. But this time, Moscow may not have to work as hard to get results.
In 2016, according to an indictment from the special counsel Robert Mueller, the Russians took time to establish fake social media accounts, build up a following, and use that to sow discord within the American public. The GRU, Russia's military intelligence agency, also created the fake entities Guccifer 2.0 and DCLeaks to dump thousands of emails via WikiLeaks that Russian hackers had stolen when they breached the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 campaign.
But in the last four years, the Russians "have learned they don't have to put that much time and effort into this because we're doing a lot of their work for them," Hall said. "Whether it's the New York Post or Fox News or whatever, they know all they have to do is get a bit of weird information out there and it'll just go viral and end up in the right-wing media and on the president's Twitter feed."
"They want to protect their boy in the White House because Trump's policies have been strategically fantastic for Russia," Carle said. "He alienated the United States from NATO and turned a blind eye to Russian influence in Crimea. His actions in the Middle East, especially in Syria and Libya, helped Russia gain a significant presence in the region for the first time in 48 years."
Most of all, Russia has a strategic objective to "make America dysfunctional because what's bad for America is good for Russia," Carle added. "So if they can sow dissension in our political practices that discredits our institutions and disaffects Americans from participating in the democratic process, then America crumbles."
"And that's how Russia wins," he said.