WASHINGTON — At his press briefing Wednesday, President Trump, as he usually does, called for a question from Chanel Rion, the chief White House correspondent for the conservative One America News network, which has at times replaced Fox News as the president’s favorite news outlet. Rion’s question had nothing to do with COVID-19 or the economic recovery Trump had been boasting about, but instead brought up an obscure website, antifa.com.
“I wanted to highlight a kind of odd situation. In the last hour or so, if you googled ‘antifa.com,’ it would take you straight to Joe Biden’s website — his official campaign website — odd situation,” Rion said, adding, “We don’t know who’s behind that.”
Rion went on to suggest the site posed “an interesting leadership question” for the former vice president and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.
“Should Joe Biden, the Democrat Party, Kamala Harris, should they publicly denounce the antifa as a domestic terrorist organization?” Rion asked the president.
It’s not clear why she thought it raised that question, though, since there is no evidence that the Biden campaign had anything to do with antifa.com, or vice versa. Instead, the phenomenon cited by Rion had a clear link to Russia.
The people in control of any website can redirect to another, without the permission or even knowledge of the second site. Nothing Rion described would indicate direct involvement by Biden’s campaign, which did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
Records for “antifa.com” in the domain name database Whoisology.com show the site was registered in the Russian Federation from 2013 through last July. Starting last November, the site’s registration was moved to Panama, The website has always been anonymously registered and its owners could not be reached for comment.
After briefly redirecting to Biden’s page on Wednesday, the site went dark. Based on copies of the site on the Internet Archive, it was blank from 2013 until June of this year when it began to feature a message in support of the protests that erupted around the U.S. following the killing of George Floyd. The page declared, “we are actively increasing Membership” but provided no contact information for anyone interested in joining.
“We Are Antifa: Join Us & Take Action,” the note said, adding, “More to come ... Check back regularly for updates & How you can be part of something that is changing the world.”
The U.S. intelligence community concluded the Russian government conducted a campaign to intervene in the 2016 election in order to help Trump and hurt his Democratic opponents. That effort included extensive usage of disinformation, Kremlin owned media outlets, and social media. U.S. intelligence officials have said the Russian government is engaged in a similar effort during this year’s race.
Russian state media have highlighted tensions around the Floyd protests. In June, a Department of Homeland Security bulletin indicated the agency was aware of “covert proxies and social media accounts” that were working with foreign rivals and their state media outlets to use the demonstrations to paint a bleak picture of the situation in the U.S.
“Russian influence actors, in particular, have a history of using online tools to covertly amplify content concerning protest activity in the United States, including rhetoric that may seek to incite violence at such events,” the bulletin said.
Rion’s question provided Trump an opportunity to highlight one of his favorite campaign themes, the supposed far-left stance of Biden and, as of this week, Harris. Trump claimed leftists who have been protesting and engaging in vandalism around the country are “part of” Biden’s campaign. While many of the protesters oppose Trump, they do not all support Biden. Antifa, short for “antifascist,” is a movement that has no clear organization. Trump went on to tout his administration’s efforts to clamp down on looting and vandalism by protesters with an aggressive response from federal troops.
“It’s virtually a part of their campaign, antifa,” Trump said. “The Democrats act like, ‘Gee, I don’t know exactly what that is.’ ... Take a look at any place you want to. ... They’re all over the place.”
Rion did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Her channel, One America News, which was founded in 2013, bills itself as “straight news,” but it has a clear pro-Trump bent. The channel’s owners have reportedly directed staff to promote Trump and downplay Russian aggression. One of the network’s reporters, Kristian Brunovich Rouz, simultaneously worked for Sputnik, a Russian news site that U.S. intelligence officials pegged as playing a role in the Kremlin’s propaganda campaign pegged to the 2016 election. A 2017 investigation by Yahoo News found Sputnik employees were specifically directed to “stay true to the national interest of the Russian Federation.” Rouz’s work for One America News have included segments that falsely linked Democrats to antifa.
Rion has previously drawn attention for unusual questions and for peddling conspiracy theories. Since March, she has been attending White House briefings in defiance of social distancing rules designed to prevent the spread of coronavirus among the press corps and staff. Rion has said she was explicitly invited to attend by Trump administration officials.
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