The crew at Lawfare discusses Friday's Russian intelligence operation indictments and what they mean to the larger Trump/Russia case.
None of the defendants indicted Friday for their alleged influence operation against the U.S. political system is likely to ever see the inside of an American courtroom. None is in custody. None is likely to surrender to U.S. authorities. And Vladimir Putin will probably not race to extradite them.
Nevertheless, the grand jury’s charges against the 13 Russians and three organizations mark a significant moment in the investigation of L’Affaire Russe. President Trump has spent the year since his victory casting doubt on the very premise that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election. Yet here is the Justice Department on the record declaring that the Russia investigation isn’t, in fact, a witch hunt. It isn’t a hoax. It isn’t just a “phony Democrat excuse for losing the election,” as the president has tweeted. There really was, the Justice Department is saying, a Russian influence operation to interfere in the U.S. political system during the 2016 presidential election, and it really was at the expense of Hillary Clinton and in favor of Donald Trump.
The U.S. intelligence community, of course, already knew this. It has already shouted it from the rooftops about as loudly as the intelligence community announces its conclusions. The intelligence community, after all, assessed in January 2017 that it had “high confidence” that “President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016” targeting the U.S. presidential election. Before that, it had warned in October 2016 that the Russian government was behind the hacking and distribution of emails belonging to the Democratic National Committee and Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta. None of these public conclusions stopped Trump from publicly casting doubt on Russian interference.
But the indictments on Friday reflect a different level of certainty, confidence and evidence. Here the special counsel is stating not merely that he has “high confidence” that the interference happened. He is stating that he can prove the existence of the Russian operation in court beyond a reasonable doubt, using only admissible evidence, and that the operation violated U.S. federal criminal law. And he is laying out an astonishingly specific set of forensic conclusions that reflect an impressive intelligence operation against the very operation on which the indictment reports. Even if the special counsel never gets the chance to prove his allegations in court by bringing any of the indictees before a federal judge, the formal statement that he is prepared and able to do so represents a remarkable rebuke of the president’s claims.
Notably, the allegations in this indictment do not deal with computer or email hacking. The operation described in this indictment did not relate to the hacking of the DNC network, nor to the theft or distribution of Podesta’s or the DNC’s emails in the summer and fall of 2016. The indictment makes no allegations about delivering “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, nor of Donald Trump Jr.’s Trump Tower meeting. To the extent that the indictment intersects with the hacking story, it does so obliquely; it includes no Computer Fraud and Abuse Act or other hacking charges. Instead, the indictment deals with an operation that the Russian organization itself described as “information warfare against the United States of America.”
And this is really the key. For well over a year now, Trump and his supporters have been able to treat the allegations of a major Russian intelligence operation to disrupt the US political system as nebulous diplomatic headbutting ("We're always engaging in spy wars with the Russians") or as outright abstract nonsense ("The Russians are our friends, this is neo-McCarthyism") or as an overblown spy movie plot ("Obama Deep State! How can any liberal believe the FBI?") or worse.
Time and again Trump's supporters could say "If there really was a conspiracy involving a huge Russian intelligence operation to influence and disrupt the 2016 elections, somebody would have told us by now!"
Yesterday that particular exucse died screaming. More excuses will come, most notably "Well the indictments don't mention that the operation was collusion with Trump in any way, so it still stands that he's exonerated!"
Yeah, about that particular theory, fellas...
Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his prosecutors haven’t concluded their investigation into whether President Donald Trump or any of his associates helped Russia interfere in the 2016 election, according to a person with knowledge of the probe.
Friday’s indictment of a St. Petersburg-based “troll farm” and 13 Russian nationals should be seen as a limited slice of a comprehensive investigation, the person said. Mueller’s work is expected to continue for months and also includes examining potential obstruction of justice by Trump, said the person, who requested anonymity to discuss an investigation that is largely confidential.
A federal grand jury indicted the Russians for what it alleged was a vast scheme to interfere in the 2016 election and help Trump win. But Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said at a news conference Friday that there is “no allegation in this indictment that any American was a knowing participant” in the alleged scheme.
Trump indicated that he believes the indictment exonerates him and his campaign.
“Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for President. The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong - no collusion!” Trump said on Twitter.
That has yet to be determined. Friday’s indictment should be seen as an effort by Mueller to raise awareness about Russia’s capabilities as the 2018 U.S. elections draw near, the person said.
It’s still possible that Mueller will indict Americans for knowingly helping Russia, the person said.
You and I know the indictments clearly leave the door open to further indictments down the road, but now the Trump regime is going to be pushing very, very hard to try to end the investigation here, and soon.
Watch the reactions of Trump's mouthpieces this weekend. If they go from "We hope the Mueller investigation will wrap up soon" to something like thanking Mueller for his service to America or how this chapter of America's history is behind us now or referring to the probe in the past tense, bad things are about to happen.