The Russian election meddling story is real news. That’s the message sent by special counsel Robert Mueller’s surprise charges against thirteen Russian nationals on Friday afternoon. The 37-page indictment describes a deliberate campaign by the Russia-based Internet Research Agency and its associates to exploit Americans’ political divides, damage Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid, and bolster President Donald Trump’s candidacy.
“The indictment alleges that the Russian conspirators want to promote discord in the United States and undermine public confidence in democracy,” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said in a press conference. “We must not allow them to succeed.”
That directly contradicts more than a year of denials and obfuscations from President Trump and his political allies, who have tried to cast the investigation into Russian meddling as a “hoax” and “witch hunt” orchestrated by Democrats bitter about their surprise defeat in 2016. Trump himself has lead the charge in attacking the investigation’s credibility, especially on Twitter.
Ironically, Twitter and other social media outlets, notably Facebook, were the primary vector for Russian disinformation. Mueller’s indictment depicts a broad-ranging conspiracy to inflame the nation’s social and cultural fault lines by impersonating Americans on social media “to sow discord in the U.S. political system, including the 2016 presidential election.” The Russians’ operations “included supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump ... and disparaging Hillary Clinton.”
Some of the details in the indictment had been previously reported by news outlets. Nonetheless, the breadth of Russian meddling is staggering to behold. According to the indictment, conspirators bought paid advertisements targeting Clinton, as well as Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Texas Senator Ted Cruz, with derogatory attacks. They posed as Black Lives Matter activists, Muslim and Christian groups, and separatist organizations in Texas and other Southern states. And they urged Americans to vote for third-party candidates like Jill Stein or not vote at all.
At one point, Russian meddlers coordinated with Americans as they organized rallies on divisive subjects, including pro-Trump rallies in Florida, Pennsylvania, and New York ahead of Election Day. Mueller describes those Americans as “unwitting individuals associated with the Trump campaign,” which falls far short of collusion with a foreign power. Donald Trump Jr. and senior adviser Kellyanne Conway, for example, retweeted messages by a popular pro-Trump Twitter account purporting to represent the Tennessee Republican Party. In fact, it was secretly run by Russians at the IRA.
What’s not in the indictment is as interesting as what’s in it. At his press conference, Rosenstein took pains not to go beyond its contents. “There is no allegation in the indictment that any American was a knowing participant in the alleged unlawful activity,” he said. “There is no allegation in the indictment that the charged conduct altered the outcome of the 2016 election.”
That narrow phrasing is likely to be lost on some observers. It avoids conclusions about other questionable interactions between the Trump campaign and Russian agents, including those described by former aide George Papadopoulos in his plea agreement last October and the infamous Trump Tower meeting in June 2016. The indictment also doesn’t discuss Russian cyberattacks on the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, which appears to have been the main thrust of Moscow’s attack on the American electoral system.
While the indictment is inherently retrospective, it raises urgent questions about what the U.S. government is doing to prevent future interference in U.S. elections. The answers so far aren’t heartening. At a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on Tuesday, top U.S. intelligence officials said Trump hadn’t specifically instructed them to prepare for meddling by Russia or other countries in this fall’s midterms.
“There should be no doubt that Russia perceives that its past efforts have been successful and views the 2018 midterm U.S. elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations,” Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, told the committee. “Frankly, the United States is under attack.”