What to Make (and not make) of Mueller’s Indictment of 13 Russians

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russian individuals and three Russian entities Friday marked the first charges directly related to the Kremlin’s scheme to interfere in the U.S. political process.

“The defendants allegedly conducted what they called information warfare against the United States, with the stated goal of spreading distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general,” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said in a press conference.

The operation included hundreds of social media accounts that pushed disinformation and divisive messages into the American political collective unconscious. While the operation mostly favored Trump, the real objective was to turn Americans against one another by stirring up suspicions and racial animosities to destroy the common ground upon which American democracy can work. The operation sought an America divided against itself that would be paralyzed in countering Russian challenges to America’s interests abroad.

Nothing in the indictment alleges anything about Trump’s potential coordination with the Kremlin. According to the indictment, “some Defendants, posing as U.S. persons and without revealing their Russian association, communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump Campaign.” President Trump and his allies read this as vindication.

“The defendants allegedly conducted what they called information warfare against the United States, with the stated goal of spreading distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general,” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.

The White House issued a statement Friday noting that President Trump “has been fully briefed on this matter and is glad to see the Special Counsel’s investigation further indicates—that there was NO COLLUSION between the Trump campaign and Russia and that the outcome of the election was not changed or affected.”

But, it’s important to understand that this indictment is just one part of a complex and multi-faceted investigation into Russian meddling in the U.S. political process. We should not draw any firm conclusions from what it doesn’t include. The indictment simply does not speak to the question of potential coordination between Trump and Russia.

The indictment also makes no judgments about whether the Russian operation affected the outcome of the election. The answer to that question may never be known. Mueller is certainly unlikely to settle it. There’s little practical reason to address this it. Even if Moscow did put Trump in the White House, Trump supporters would reject it and Hillary supporters would embrace it. Basically, we’d be right back where we started. There’s no constitutional mechanism to redo an election. Trump is still the President, regardless.

The Translator Project

The indictment does provide a wealth of detail about how the operation was carried out and financed. There was already an understanding that Russian propagandists used social media as a tool to influence the American political process. But, the indictment laid out details of how it was organized, financed and executed that were completely new.

It paints a picture of a large-scale, well-organized, well-funded operation. Through hundreds of fake social media personas draped in red, white and blue to look like Americans, the Kremlin mounted an unprecedented disinformation and propaganda campaign targeted at the heart of American democracy.

Beginning in 2014, the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) based in St. Petersburg began laying the groundwork for what it called “the translator project.” According to the indictment, the IRA was “headed by a management group and organized into departments, including a graphics department; a data analysis department; a search-engine optimization department; an information-technology department…; and a finance department to budget and allocate funding.” At its peak in July 2016, the IRA had 80 full-time personnel working on the initiative.

Two years prior to the 2016 election, the indictment says, IRA personnel cross-crossed the United States gathering intelligence to inform their effort. They visited at least nine states including Nevada, California, New Mexico, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Louisiana, Texas, and New York.

Later, IRA employees posing as Americans corresponded with grassroots activists. These conversations helped them to refine their strategy, focusing on purple states such as Florida, Colorado, and Virginia.

Personnel referred to as “specialists” created social media personas that appeared to be U.S. persons. Specialists were directed to create “political intensity through supporting radical groups, users dissatisfied with [the] social and economic situation and oppositional social movements,” the indictment alleged.

Specialists were encouraged to focus their attacks on Hillary Clinton while supporting Trump and Bernie Sanders with the overriding goal of “spread[ing] distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general.”

Irina Viktorovna Kaverzina, one of the Russian defendants explained in an email to a member of her family: “I created all these pictures and posts, and the Americans believed that it was written by their people.”

The operation wasn’t limited to online trolls. They also organized rallies to support Trump and oppose Clinton as well. After Election Day, they sought to heighten partisan animosities by organizing pro-Trump events and “Trump is not my President” events as well.

The indictment does not address what prompted Russia to undertake the operation, but the timeline it establishes does provide some suggestions. The decision to interfere in the U.S. election was made in May of 2014. It was around this same time that the Maidan uprising, in which thousands took to the streets to protest Ukraine’s pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, was getting underway in Ukraine. Moscow saw viewed this as a U.S.-backed plot to cleave Ukraine away from its sphere of influence. Notably, Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State at the time. It’s reasonable to speculate that the decision to interfere in the U.S. election was retaliation for what the Kremlin viewed as American interference in the politics of Ukraine.

Unanswered Questions

The indictment gives a much clearer view of how this part of the Kremlin’s effort worked, but it leaves many questions still unanswered. The biggest of these is what role any Americans, including members of Trump’s campaign team, may have played in all this.

In his press conference, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said that, “there is no allegation in this indictment that any American was a knowing participant in this illegal activity.” In response to a question, he repeated this statement almost verbatim.

“Again, there is no allegation in this indictment that any American had any knowledge of what the nature of the scheme was.”

Rosenstein’s phrasing seems deliberate and carefully qualified to limit his statement about no Americans being knowingly involved only to this particular indictment. This seems to leave open the possibility of future indictments of Americans.

Further, there’s something interesting about the charges leveled in the indictment that might foreshadow more to come as well. The indictment raises violations of the prohibition on foreign electioneering activity under Federal election law, yet Mueller does not charge any defendants directly for election law violations. Instead, Mueller chose to charge conspiracy to defraud the United States. This is odd. All the facts are there to support a case for prosecution of the defendants under the federal election statute.

One reason Mueller may have done it this way is that using the conspiracy to defraud statute would make it easier to charge any Americans who might have been complicit in the Kremlin’s scheme. While prosecution of foreigners for the election law violations outlined in the indictment is straightforward, how the statute applies to Americans in regards to foreign election influence is untested and not all that cut and dry.

Prosecutors would have to prove that the American involved either solicited an illegal foreign contribution or provided substantial assistance to the foreign national making it. But, what qualifies as “substantial assistance” is not entirely clear.

And there’s another problem too. The statute prohibits contributions by foreign nationals of money or anything of value. Which raises the question, how much of the Russian activities would qualify as a thing of value?

Mueller could easily have charged the foreigners under the campaign finance statute, but didn’t. A reasonable explanation might be that he is seeking to establish a more reliable legal framework to charge U.S. persons as part of the conspiracy down the road.

It is striking how much of the indictment was completely new information. Mueller is clearly holding his cards remarkably close. He and his team are not leaking. If this indictment is any indication of things to come, the biggest takeaway is how much we still don’t know.

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