In case you missed it on Friday, Special Counsel Robert Mueller released indictments of 13 Russian nationals accused of actively interfering with the 2016 Presidential Election and “conspiring to defraud the US.” The bombshell dropped on a Friday afternoon, for some reason, which is usually the time slot where news stories go to die. In fact, coupled with the current national attention on the recent Florida school shooting, it’s almost certain that many Americans have missed what happened on Friday with the Russian meddling investigation.
The New York Times fills in some of the background:
The Justice Department charged 13 Russians and three companies on Friday in a sprawling indictment that unveiled a sophisticated network designed to subvert the 2016 election and to support the Trump campaign. It stretched from an office in St. Petersburg, Russia, into the social feeds of Americans and ultimately reached the streets of election battleground states.
The Russians stole the identities of American citizens, posed as political activists and used the flash points of immigration, religion and race to manipulate a campaign in which those issues were already particularly divisive, prosecutors said.
Some of the Russians were also in contact with “unwitting individuals associated with the Trump campaign,” according to court papers. Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel leading the investigation, made no accusation that President Trump or his associates were knowingly part of the conspiracy.
“The indictment alleges that the Russian conspirators want to promote discord in the United States and undermine public confidence in democracy,” Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general overseeing the inquiry, said in a brief news conference. “We must not allow them to succeed.”
As a result of the indictments, President Trump took a victory lap on twitter:
If it was the GOAL of Russia to create discord, disruption and chaos within the U.S. then, with all of the Committee Hearings, Investigations and Party hatred, they have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. They are laughing their asses off in Moscow. Get smart America!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 18, 2018
I never said Russia did not meddle in the election, I said “it may be Russia, or China or another country or group, or it may be a 400 pound genius sitting in bed and playing with his computer.” The Russian “hoax” was that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia – it never did!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 18, 2018
However, as the Times reports in a separate story, the President soon realized that it’s not as cut and dried as his tweets would have you believe:
The president’s mood began to darken as it became clearer to him that some commentators were portraying the indictment as nothing for him to celebrate, according to three people with knowledge of his reaction. Those commentators called it proof that he had not won the election on his own, a particularly galling, if not completely accurate, charge for a president long concerned about his legitimacy.
What followed was a two-day Twitter tirade that was unusually angry and defiant even by Mr. Trump’s standards. In his tweets on Sunday, Mr. Trump sought to shift the blame to Democrats for Russia’s meddling, saying that President Barack Obama had not done enough to stop the interference.
In other words, the President went from touting the indictments as proof that he didn’t collude with the Russia, to viewing the indictments as possible evidence that even if he or his team didn’t work with Russia, there’s a possibility that this involvement helped his campaign against Hillary Clinton. For a guy who prides himself on “winning,” this is the worst case scenario for Trump where his pride is being squashed if it’s alleged that he didn’t win the election for himself.
The indictments do not allege that the interference altered the election results, i.e. handed Trump the presidency, but it’s clear that whoever was behind this was spending decent money on it. The New York Post gives us more details:
“By early to mid-2016, defendants’ operations included supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump … and disparaging Hillary Clinton,” the indictment charged.
The feds said the individuals were given $1.25 million a month by a Russian oligarch known as “Putin’s chef,” Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin through a company known as Concord Catering.
Prigozhin, 56, and Concord Catering are charged in the indictment, as is another Prigozhin company, Concord Management and Consulting.
The indictments sent shock waves through the American government, but what about in Russia? President Vladimir Putin has dismissed the indictments as being a problem in the American system, and says that the Russian government was not involved:
Answering a question from CNN on a weekly telephone news conference, the spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, Dmitry Peskov, said the indictments provided “no substantial evidence” of Russian meddling, and that there were “no indications that the Russian state could have been involved.”
“We didn’t see any substantial evidence of someone interfering in the domestic affairs,” Peskov added. He said the US indictment “mentions Russian citizens, but we heard the accusations against the Russian state — that the Russian state, the Kremlin and the Russian government were involved.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, claims that Mueller is not yet finished, and that new evidence may still come to light that Trump’s campaign was actively colluding with the Russians, according to the UK Guardian:
The top Democrat on the House intelligence committee suggested on Monday that Robert Mueller may still present evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, despite last week’s indictments stating that such connections relating to those cases were merely “unwitting”.
Adam Schiff, a frequent foe of Donald Trump’s whom the president called “the leakin’ monster of no control” at the weekend, told WNYC he felt that a web of collusion had already been established.
“It’s very clear from this 37-page indictment that this was a massive Russian operation and part of its design was to promote the campaign of Donald Trump,” Schiff said.
The indictment, he said, “tore any veneer off the argument that the Russians were not involved, and were involved for the purpose of helping him and hurting others.”
Both sides here are attempting to claim victory from the indictments. For Democrats, if it can be established that even one Trump campaign associate somehow “blessed” this interference, then it can be said that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia. For the President, the indictments seem to minimally exonerate him of active collusion, but leave open the door or basic incompetence that some campaign worker may have unknowingly had contact with some Russian operatives involved in the effort.
I think there are important takeaways from this:
1) Clearly there was Russian interference. It is now documented that millions of dollars were spent ($1.25 million per month) on social media advertising and a general operation to “sow discord” in the US political system.
2) The Trump campaign is partially cleared of any direct collusion, but the possibility remains that some Trump associates did have contact with Russians involved in the plot.
3) The issue isn’t going away. Mueller’s indictments simply cement the fact that there was involvement, this will give fuel to Democrats hoping to use this issue as a means to energize voters in 2018 against an “illegitimate” President whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Russia or not.
We likely have not heard the last from the Mueller special counsel.