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 Rosenstein at a hastily convened news conference.
What are the key political ramifications from the new charges?
Fire and fury from Trump?
President Trump is hypersensitive to any suggestion that his victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016 was illegitimate. These new indictments are sure to get under his skin for precisely that reason.
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 Pelosi (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. 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 Papadopoulos, 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 Cruz (Texas) and Marco Rubio (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 Nunes (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 Ryan (Wis.) and Rep. Trey Gowdy (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.
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