Republican Rep. Tom Garrett, who represents Charlottesville, Virginia, said Monday that FBI officials told him and other members of Congress that Russian actors were attempting to sow discord around the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville last year before the event took place.
Garrett revealed the information publicly for the first time in an interview on CNN over the weekend and clarified separately that the activity took place before the rally.
“It was before. Via bots, the internet, and social media,” Garrett said. “I’m frustrated because either both Republicans and Democrats do not understand what the Russians are actually doing, or they don’t want to tell the truth about it, or both.”
Garrett’s recollection of the meeting with FBI officials was confirmed by fellow Rep. Morgan Griffith, a Virginia Republican who was sitting next to him during the briefing. Griffith recalls “jumping out of his chair” when he heard the news. Garrett asked if the information was classified, and FBI officials told him it was not.
Both congressmen say the FBI was clear that the interference was contained to social media posts and the internet and that they were told that there was no evidence that there was any Russian influence on the ground.
Two sources connected to the Senate Intelligence Committee also confirmed that there is evidence of Russian activity around the Charlottesville rally. They point out that the discord was not all connected specifically to the Unite the Right Rally, but more about the debate surrounding the removal of Confederate statues across the country. The purpose of the Unite the Right Rally was to protest the removal of a statute of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee from downtown Charlottesville.
Garrett, who sits on the House Homeland Security and Foreign Affairs committees, argues that the information is an example of how the federal government is not paying close enough attention to the broad implications of the Russian threat.
“Oligarchs and people like Putin use things like this racial divisive fight, which ignores the commonalities we have regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, this is the sort of thing they do,” Garrett said. “As a member of homeland security, seriously that’s what scares me most.”
Garrett’s comments were echoed by Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse, a Republican, who tweeted a response to the CNN report, saying, “Few Americans understand Putin’s agents are now picking at the scabs of every cultural skirmish we have — from race to guns to media tribes.”