Terry H. Schwadron
Feb. 17, 2018
Well, we now have an outline that indeed there was a provable Russian-ordered interference effort in the 2016 presidential election campaign that sought to favor Donald Trump and to subvert efforts for Hillary Clinton.
Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III yesterday issued indictments against 13 Russian individuals with ties to Russian leader Vladimir Putin and the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg, Russia, for an aggressive, multi-million-dollar effort to trick American voters into believing faked social media posts pushing disruption in the election cycle. The charges include conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud and aggravated identity theft — crimes associated with foreigners spending money to interfere.
In the indictment, no Americans, no one from either political party, was named as coordinating with these efforts.
But it is hard to ignore the obvious questions: Were Trump campaign staffers participants or were they dupes? The indictment document merely whets the appetite for more explanation.
It is unlikely whether U.S. authorities can actually arrest anyone in conjunction with the indictment, since they are Russians, but it could make it more difficult for these individuals to work internationally.
The document raises tons of questions, mainly around the assumption that this is the beginning of indictments, not the end. There is little here, for example, about hacking efforts about e-mail or attempts to penetrate voting machines or anything about distribution of direct political dirt.
The indictment was described by Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod J. Rosenstein, a kind of careful, but in-your-face truth reading to the president, and a caution that the Special Counsel’s investigation is alive and real. Rosenstein’s use of the label “unwitting” in connection with Americans likely will end up the most repeated word of the week, being used either to defend Trumpists or to show bad intent on the part of Russians.
“Some defendants, posing as U.S. persons and without revealing their Russian association, communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump Campaign and with other political activists to seek to coordinate political activities,” the indictment said.
By any reading, the first casualty of the indictment was President Trump’s insistence that there was no Russian interference in the elections. Can’t we know get Trump at least to acknowledge that there is a problem that might reassert itself later this year? Can we get expect Trump to get off the back of U.S. intelligence agencies rather than bucking their findings?
As expected, Trump boasted that no Trump campaign staff nor the president himself were involved — the There-Was-No-Collusion line. But in so doing, he at least acknowledged that there had been a Russian interference campaign, and he was silent about what to do about that idea. This, after all, is the same Trump who recently refused to enforce sanctions against the Russians in response to election interference.
There were other immediate questions about the degree to which U.S. social media was hoodwinked — or participated actively — through sale of ad space to some thousands of faked Russian accounts. And there were questions about what the Trump campaign associates named previously in separate indictment for lying to the FBI or for financial misdoings — Michael T. Flynn, Paul Manafort, Rick Gates and George Papadopoulos — crossed paths with the Russian efforts.
And, of course, none of yesterday’s indictment dealt with any suggestions of obstruction of justice against the president and White House figures for attempts to stop investigation into Russia influence. Rick Gates, the longtime business partner with Manafort, reached a plea agreement with Mueller’s office just last week. Information from Gates presumably will put additional pressure on Manafort, who has deep ties with Russians and who has led similar disinformation campaigns in the Ukraine. Manafort, in turn, participated in the June, 2016, Trump Tower meeting, among other things, and his information could affect testimony from other participants who argued that the meeting was about Russian adoptions, not to get political dirt.
In a 37-page indictment, the special counsel’s office outlined charges that said that Internet Research Agency kept a list of Americans who it contacted using false personas and had asked paid assistance in the effort. “Some defendants, posing as U.S. persons and without revealing their Russian association, communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump Campaign,” the indictment said. The document revealed even bolder Russian interference than previously known, including that that some Russian nationals entered the United States and even paid Americans to assist their alleged political sabotage. One example said Russians paid an American woman in Florida to dress up as Hillary Clinton in a prison uniform, and paid another American to build a cage to “imprison” her at a public rally.
By August, 2016, the Russians had a list of U.S. citizens’ contact information, a summary of each person’s political views and the activities the Russians had asked them to undertake. According to the indictment, the Russians were instructed to use any opportunity to criticize Hillary Clinton, leaving Trump alone, and that some employees of the troll effort for not producing enough anti-Hillary posts. There were suggestions that these efforts actually had begun as early as 2013.
Immediate reaction included a wide variety of interpretations of the exact meaning of the issuance of the indictment. For Trump supporters, there was reason to note NO COLLUSION in capital letters; for critics, there was evidence of an anti-Hillary effort. For the rest of us, it seems like another pretty juicy appetizer for a buffet that has not yet been served up.
For sure, it shows that truth-telling helps make America better if not great.