As reported by Censor.NET, three current and four former U.S. officials also told Reuters that the plan was designed to undermine voters' faith in the American electoral system.
They described two confidential documents from the think tank as providing the framework and rationale for what U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded was an intensive effort by Russia to interfere with the Nov. 8 election. U.S. intelligence officials acquired the documents, which were prepared by the Moscow-based Russian Institute for Strategic Studies, after the election.
"Putin had the objective in mind all along, and he asked the institute to draw him a road map," said one of the sources, a former senior U.S. intelligence official.
The institute is run by retired senior Russian foreign intelligence officials appointed by Putin's office.
The first Russian institute document was a strategy paper written last June that circulated at the highest levels of the Russian government but was not addressed to any specific individuals.
It recommended the Kremlin launch a propaganda campaign on social media and Russian state-backed global news outlets to encourage U.S. voters to elect a president who would take a softer line toward Russia than the administration of then-President Barack Obama, the seven officials told Reuters.
A second institute document, drafted in October and distributed in the same way, warned that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was likely to win the election. For that reason, it argued, it was better for Russia to end its pro-Trump propaganda and instead intensify its messaging about voter fraud to undermine the U.S. electoral system's legitimacy and damage Clinton's reputation in an effort to undermine her presidency, the officials said.
Five of the U.S. officials described the institute as the Kremlin's in-house foreign policy think tank.
The current and former U.S. officials spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the Russian documents' classified status. They declined to discuss how the United States obtained them. U.S. intelligence agencies also declined to comment on them.
Four of the officials said the approach outlined in the June strategy paper was a broadening of an effort the Putin administration launched in March 2016. That month the Kremlin instructed state-backed media outlets, including international platforms Russia Today and Sputnik news agency, to start producing positive reports on Trump's quest for the U.S. presidency, the officials said.
Neither of the Russian institute documents mentioned the release of hacked Democratic Party emails to interfere with the U.S. election, according to four of the officials. The officials said the hacking was a covert intelligence operation run separately out of the Kremlin.
The overt propaganda and covert hacking efforts reinforced each other, according to the officials. Both Russia Today and Sputnik heavily promoted the release of the hacked Democratic Party emails, which often contained embarrassing details.