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Five key takeaways from the Russian indictments

New indictments of 13 Russians who allegedly meddled in the 2016 election set the political world abuzz on Friday. 

The charges were first posted on the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) website but were fleshed out by Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod Jay RosensteinFBI investigated whether McCabe leaked info about Flynn and Trump to media House Judiciary chairman threatens to subpoena Rosenstein Sessions unveils task force to combat transnational criminal groups like MS-13 MORE at a hastily convened news conference.

What are the key political ramifications from the new charges?

Fire and fury from Trump?

President TrumpDonald John TrumpKey takeaways from the Arizona Senate debate Major Hollywood talent firm considering rejecting Saudi investment money: report Mattis says he thought 'nothing at all' about Trump saying he may leave administration MORE is hypersensitive to any suggestion that his victory over Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonCarter Page files defamation lawsuit against DNC Dems fear party is headed to gutter from Avenatti’s sledgehammer approach Election Countdown: Cruz, O'Rourke fight at pivotal point | Ryan hitting the trail for vulnerable Republicans | Poll shows Biden leading Dem 2020 field | Arizona Senate debate tonight MORE in 2016 was illegitimate. These new indictments are sure to get under his skin for precisely that reason.

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The indictments lay out in granular detail the nature of the alleged Russian effort to aid Trump. According to prosecutors, that effort involved significant manpower and money. There were more than 80 employees assigned to one part of the project by July 2016, according to court documents, and a broader effort codenamed "Project Lakhta" was being bankrolled at a rate of $1.25 million per month as of September 2016.

The court documents note that the overall objective was to “sow discord in the U.S. political system.” But, they add, “Defendants’ operations included supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump and disparaging Hillary Clinton.”

Whatever the legal ramifications, this is a significant political problem for Trump. By its very nature, it casts a cloud over his win.

Democrats seized on that issue, including House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiOn The Money: Deficit hits six-year high of 9 billion | Yellen says Trump attacks threaten Fed | Affordable housing set for spotlight in 2020 race Deficit hits six-year high of 9 billion: Treasury GOP has not done a good job of selling economic achievements, says ex-Trump adviser MORE (D-Calif.).

“As desperately as President Trump insists that the special counsel investigation is a ‘hoax,’ ” Pelosi said, “these latest indictments build on multiple guilty pleas and indictments of several Trump campaign officials, demonstrating the gravity of the Trump-Russia scandal.”

The president began tweeting about the matter within hours of the indictment, noting that prosecutors say the Russian effort began in 2014, before his presidential campaign began. 

“No collusion!” he also insisted — a message reiterated by a written statement from White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders.

But with the indictments dominating political news, expect more explosive Trump comments, soon.

No proof — here — of collusion

Rosenstein emphasized during his news conference that none of the information amounted to a smoking gun proving allegations of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign.

“There is no allegation in this indictment that any American was a knowing participant in this illegal activity. There is no allegation in the indictment that the charged conduct altered the outcome of the 2016 election,” he said

These are important points, and should serve to put a brake on some of the wilder speculation about what the indictments mean. 

However, Rosenstein’s words are not the sweeping exonerations that Trump and his allies suggest either. 

Clearly, Friday’s indictments are part of a much broader picture of Russia-related activities under investigation.

That picture includes the hacking of the Democratic National Committee; the hacking of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails; a June 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower which Donald Trump Jr.Donald (Don) John TrumpDems fear party is headed to gutter from Avenatti’s sledgehammer approach Trump Jr. to stump in Indiana for Pence’s brother and governor hopeful Donald Trump Jr. blasts Beto O’Rourke: ‘Irish guy pretending to be Hispanic’ MORE had been led to believe would deliver dirt on Clinton; and the guilty pleas of Michael Flynn, the president’s former national security adviser, and George PapadopoulosGeorge Demetrios PapadopoulosCalif. man ensnared in Mueller probe sentenced to 6 months in prison The Mueller investigation: Where it stands at the midterms Mr. President, tear down the wall hiding those FISA abuses MORE, a former campaign adviser.  

Also, the fact that an allegation is not made in one set of indictments self-evidently does not preclude it from being made in others in the future.

A detailed picture

The specifics offered by the indictments are themselves fascinating. 

If the allegations are true, Russians sought to thwart the candidacies of Trump’s Republican rivals such as Sens. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzBeto O'Rourke will not share million he raised with other Dem Senate candidates Election Countdown: Cruz, O'Rourke fight at pivotal point | Ryan hitting the trail for vulnerable Republicans | Poll shows Biden leading Dem 2020 field | Arizona Senate debate tonight Donald Trump Jr. blasts Beto O’Rourke: ‘Irish guy pretending to be Hispanic’ MORE (Texas) and Marco RubioMarco Antonio RubioDating app for Trump supporters leaked its users data on launch day: report Overnight Defense: Trump says 'rogue killers' could be behind missing journalist | Sends Pompeo to meet Saudi king | Saudis may claim Khashoggi killed by accident | Ex-VA chief talks White House 'chaos' | Most F-35s cleared for flight Democrats torch Trump for floating 'rogue killers' to blame for missing journalist MORE (Fla.). 

They sought to suppress support among black voters for Hillary Clinton, creating fake accounts on social platforms including Facebook and Instagram with names like “Blacktivist” and “Woke Blacks” — and suggesting that she was not strong enough on issues germane to African-Americans. 

They alleged that Clinton had engaged in voter fraud during the Iowa caucuses.

They also promoted rallies — including, apparently, one for Clinton with the working title “Support Hillary. Save American Muslims” — that seem to have been aimed at stoking discord.

Even details that have no direct political import make the indictments read like a spy thriller. 

In a September 2017 email, an alleged Russian conspirator writes to a family member: “We had a slight crisis here at work: the FBI busted our activity (not a joke). So, I got preoccupied with covering tracks together with the colleagues.”

Rosenstein makes his stand  

Rosenstein has been buffeted by frequent news reports that Trump is frustrated with him, and might consider seeking his ouster. He faced additional criticism following the publication of a memo written by staff of Rep. Devin NunesDevin Gerald NunesJuan Williams: Trump, the Great Destroyer The Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by Citi — Latest on Hurricane Michael | Trump, Kanye West to have lunch at White House | GOP divided over potential 2020 high court vacancy Senate Dem: Trump's 'fake, hyperbolic rantings' an insult to real Medal of Honor recipients MORE (R-Calif.) earlier this month.

The deputy attorney general’s decision to hold a news conference to announce the indictments was not especially out of the ordinary. But, in the current context, it had the effect of tying him more closely to Mueller and to the probe.

Rosenstein is clearly trying to walk a line. His emphasis that the Friday indictments contained neither proof of collusion nor proof that Russia’s effects affected the election’s outcome might help to placate Trump to some degree.

Still, this was a symbolic show of independence amid a partisan storm.

The Nunes memo didn’t work

The Nunes memo released on Feb. 2 had been anticipated as a possible game-changer, at least among many of the president’s supporters,

Soon after it was first released, however, it became clear that its central allegations, of FBI and Department of Justice misdeeds, lacked the power to fundamentally undercut Mueller’s probe. 

Prominent Republicans, including Speaker Paul RyanPaul Davis RyanElection Countdown: Cruz, O'Rourke fight at pivotal point | Ryan hitting the trail for vulnerable Republicans | Poll shows Biden leading Dem 2020 field | Arizona Senate debate tonight Paul Ryan to campaign for 25 vulnerable House Republicans GOP super PAC pushes back on report it skipped ad buys for California's Rohrabacher, Walters MORE (Wis.) and Rep. Trey GowdyHarold (Trey) Watson GowdyHouse GOP sets deposition deadline for Fusion GPS co-founder Collusion bombshell: DNC lawyers met with FBI on Russia allegations before surveillance warrant Comey rejects request for closed-door interview with House Republicans MORE (S.C.) made that point clear.

The new indictment, however, makes the idea of the Russian investigation as a hoax largely unsustainable.

In a statement on Friday afternoon, Nunes made no mention of the famous memo. Instead he highlighted previous statements he had made about Russia’s “worldwide influence operations.” He also blamed the Obama administration for what he said was a failure to take appropriate action.