Although you wouldn’t know it from the Mainstream Media coverage (see the especially egregious front page or home page of yesterday’s Washington Post), the biggest story told by the Justice Department indictments of Russians said to have meddled in American politics and the 2016 presidential election was not the additional evidence of this campaign’s existence, and how it undermines President Trump’s numerous statements denying or belittling Moscow’s efforts.
Instead, it was the evidence that, after eight months of investigation, Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III has presented no reason to believe that anyone connected with the Donald Trump’s presidential campaign colluded with Russia to help him win the White House; that what his probe has found is a Russian meddling campaign with multiple, overlapping objectives that aimed to help several 2016 presidential hopefuls and roil American politics in many ways even (and especially?) after Election Day; and that this apparent Russian effort began long before anyone other than (possibly) Mr. Trump thought he would seek the presidency.
Interestingly, finding number two dovetailed with my post from a week ago, which spotlighted a New York Times story which made the point about Russia’s post-election aims going far beyond propping up President Trump.
Despite the media focus on the indictment’s description of the Russian campaign and its contrast with the president’s alleged indifference to it, it’s crucial to remember that this document is an indictment, not a legal conviction. The defendants still deserve the presumption of innocence when their day in court comes (assuming any will ever stand trial).
And despite the media focus on the Trump denial angle, it’s even more important to recognize how devastatingly the indictment undermines the collusion charge that’s constituted the main fear about Russia’s interference.
First, the indictment makes only one mention of any contacts of any kind between anyone involved in the Trump campaign and these alleged Russian operatives. It comes in paragraph 45:
“Defendants and their co-conspirators also used false U.S. personas to communicate with unwitting members, volunteers, and supporters of the Trump Campaign involved in local community outreach, as well as grassroots groups that supported then-candidate Trump. These individuals and entities at times distributed the [interference] ORGANIZATION’s materials through their own accounts via retweets, reposts, and other means. Defendants and their co-conspirators then monitored the propagation of content through such participants.”
Of course, the word “unwitting” is decisively important. It means that, the view of Special Counsel Mueller, the Trump-ers who were communicating with the Russians had no idea that they were dealing with agents of a foreign government. So by definition, they couldn’t have been colluding with Moscow.
Just as important, even though by now of course Mueller and his team know about controversial contacts between obvious agents of the Russian government and various Trump-ers that previously have ignited major controversy, the indictment never mentions them. These include the Russian U.S. ambassador’s two encounters with then-Senator Jeff Sessions, which ultimately led to Session’s recusal as Attorney General from the “Russia-Gate” investigation and Mueller’s appointment in the first place; and his conversations with former Trump administration national security adviser-designate Michael Flynn during the transition.
Nor does it mention the meeting in Trump Tower in New York City between one of Mr. Trump’s sons, his son-in-law and now senior White House aide Jared Kushner, and then-Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, with a lawyer Donald Trump, Jr. was told was “a Russian government attorney.” Trump, Jr. was also told that this attorney (who, for what it’s worth, has denied any connections with the Kremlin) was offering what was described by the Trump, Jr. friend who instigated the eventual meeting as
“some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father. This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump…..”
Reportedly, the Special Counsel is investigating the meeting. But also, reportedly, his focus is not on the event itself but on statements that the President himself and top aides made on the subject that appear to be misleading, and that therefore could represent obstruction of justice. Obstruction of course is a serious offense, but the Trump Tower meeting itself clearly is more germane to the all-important collusion charges.
Moreover, the Special Counsel has had full access to the contents of all the wiretapped conversations between the other aforementioned prominent Trump supporters or advisers and the Russians with whom they met. (According to the CNN post linked above, the Trump Tower meeting was not wiretapped.) And apparently – again after months of investigation – nothing said at these meetings has convinced Mueller and his staff that collusion, or any indictable offense related to the Russia-Gate narrative, took place.
The second way in which the indictment undermines the collusion charge is by specifying that Mr. Trump was not the only political candidate that the Russians supposedly sought to bolster in the 2016 campaign, and that they actually began working against him immediately after the election.
According to paragraph 2, the Russian defendants:
“conspired with each other (and with persons known and unknown to the Grand Jury) to defraud the United States by impairing, obstructing, and defeating the lawful functions of the government through fraud and deceit for the purpose of interfering with the U.S. political and electoral processes, including the presidential election of 2016.”
In paragraph 6, the indictment states that “Defendants posted derogatory information about a number of candidates, and by early to mid-2016, Defendants’ operations include supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump…and disparaging Hillary Clinton.” This charge restates the preceding point that supporting Mr. Trump was not the interference operation’s only goal. So does paragraph 10 (e), which refers to the Russians’ “stated goal of ‘spread[ing] distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general.”
Paragraph 33 accuses Moscow of writing “about topics germane to the United States such as U.S. foreign policy and U.S. economic issues. Specialists were also instructed to create ‘political intensity through supporting radical groups, [social media] users dissatisfied with [the] social and economic situation and oppositional social movements.”
Paragraph 43 refers to “operations primarily intended to communicate derogatory information about [Democratic nominee] Hillary Clinton, to denigrate other candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump.” (Green Party candidate Jill Stein was also identified, in paragraph 46, as a politician backed by the operation.)
It’s clear that one of the Russians’ top priority was defeating Clinton. And the possibility still remains that Moscow believed it had so compromised Mr. Trump – e.g., through the salacious, though unverified, information in the Steele Dossier (compiled by a former British intelligence agent whose work of course was funded by the Clinton campaign) – that its ultimate aim was a Trump victory and an American president it could blackmail and manipulate on an ongoing basis.
Yet there’s another more obvious explanation for the anti-Clinton focus: She was widely viewed not only as the overwhelming favorite to win the Democratic nomination, but as the overwhelming favorite to win the fall election. Indeed, the latter belief lasted till election night itself. In other words, had one of the other Republican candidates defeated Trump, and become fully competitive with Clinton, it stands to reason that they would have become a major Russian target, too.
Further, the narrative emphasizing that the Russians viewed Mr. Trump as an ideal Manchurian Candidate completely falls apart upon considering two other indictment findings. First, the Russian interference campaign was conceived considerably before Mr. Trump declared his presidential candidacy – which on that day in 2015 was, to put it mildly, viewed as a long shot.
As stated in paragraph 3, “Beginning as early as 2014, Defendant ORGANIZATION began operations to interfere with the U.S. political system, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election.” More specific references to a gearing up period in 2014 can be found in paragraphs 9, 10 (d) and (e), 29, 42, 58 (a), and in numerous descriptions of indicted individuals joining the operation and of their specific activities.
Moreover, as common sense would indicate, for an operation (especially one this substantial) to be running in 2014, planning, and the original formulation of the plan, would have needed to start even earlier. That’s why in paragraph 10, the indictment tells of the umbrella organization registering as a “Russian corporate entity” with the Russian government “in or around July, 2013.” If you had any inkling then that a Trump candidacy in 2016 was remotely conceivable, patriotism should impel you to join a U.S. intelligence agency immediately.
The second finding undercutting the idea of placing a manipulable traitor in the White House is the evidence presented that, almost immediately after Election Day, the Russians began stoking and coordinating both pro- and anti-Trump activities. You can read about them in paragraph 57. And then ask yourself how “protesting the results” of the election and fostering the idea that “Trump is NOT my President” were supposed to enable the victor to aid and abet a pro-Moscow agenda, as opposed to reducing his effectiveness?
For all I know, a new collusion bombshell charge, or an actual smoking gun, could be produced tomorrow in the media. New Mueller announcements or the various Congressional probes may seal the collusion case as well – perhaps with new evidence about the activities of Sessions or Flynn, or other individuals implicated in these events in various ways. (Although again, why haven’t the contents of the wiretapped conversation sufficed?)
But as long as they don’t, especially given the intense hostility of the President’s opponents – including those inside the government – the collusion case is going to look increasingly flimsy, and increasingly political. For if there really might be a traitor in the Oval Office, there’s simply no time to lose.
In the meantime, the “Russia-Gate” theory that looks best is the one I described last week – a chaos-focused operation aimed at whipping up as much American political division and sheer anger as possible, through whoever could advance this goal at any given moment, and whoever prevailed in 2016. Perhaps it’s too cynical (and partisan) to venture that the longer the scandal charges remain in the air, the more the Democrats and Trump’s establishment Republican foes benefit. But there’s no doubt that, the longer the Russia-Gate fight drags on, the better for Moscow and all of America’s foreign adversaries.