It’s now clear that the Russian government will face no significant consequences for its unprecedented interference in the American political system in 2016, or at least none that will outweigh the tangible and intangible benefits it has reaped from its brazen attack on this country’s democracy.
Special Counsel Robert Mueller unsealed an indictment on Friday against twelve Russian agents for conspiring to commit cyberattacks targeting Democrats and Hillary Clinton’s campaign during the most recent presidential election. The new court filing offers a broad, detailed account of how a hostile foreign government undermined American democracy. President Donald Trump’s first and only reaction to the news was defensive and self-serving.
“Today’s charges include no allegations of knowing involvement by anyone on the campaign and no allegations that the alleged hacking affected the election result,” White House spokesperson Lindsay Walters said in a statement. “This is consistent with what we have been saying all along.” The White House did not even bother to condemn Russia’s actions.
Paul Manafort’s legal woes and Michael Flynn’s guilty plea show that Mueller can hold people accountable when they’re under American jurisdiction. This time, however, the special counsel’s indictment is somewhat toothless. Moscow will never extradite its own operatives. It’s virtually certain that the military intelligence officers named in the court filing will never appear before American judges and juries. And as long as they avoid travel to a country that would do so, federal prosecutors won’t be able to touch them.
Friday’s indictment is significant nonetheless for what it describes. In 29 pages of bloodless prosecutorial language, Mueller sketches out a concerted and methodical effort to corrupt the American democratic process. “The object of the conspiracy was to hack into the computers of U.S. persons and entities involved in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, steal documents from those computers, and stage releases of the stolen documents to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election,” the filing says.
The indictment describes a step-by-step effort to harm one presidential candidate—Hillary Clinton, to be clear—for another’s benefit. The audacity of Russia’s campaign is striking even now. The court filings allege that Russian hackers targeted more than 300 officials in the Democratic Party and the Clinton campaign with spearphishing attempts to access their email accounts. John Podesta, the Clinton campaign’s chairman, became one of the ruse’s victims in early 2016. Later that year, WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of his personal emails only a month before Election Day.
Whether the Trump campaign secretly colluded with the Russian government to damage Clinton’s bid is still an open investigative subject for Mueller. During a press conference in July 2016, the president openly asked Russian intelligence services to track down deleted emails from a private server Clinton had used during her tenure as secretary of state. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he said while looking directly into the camera.
Russian operatives apparently tried to carry out his request that same day. “The conspirators spearphished individuals affiliated with the Clinton campaign throughout the summer of 2016,” the indictment says. “For example, on or about July 27, 2016, the conspirators attempted after hours to spearphish for the first time email accounts at a domain hosted by a third‑party provider and used by Clinton’s personal office. At or around the same time, they also targeted seventy‐six email addresses at the domain for the Clinton campaign.”
Moscow’s efforts to disrupt the election also extended to the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, two of the party’s principal organizations. Mueller’s office details how Russian operatives stole sensitive data from the two groups using malware embedded in the party’s servers. From there, the Russians publicly circulated the party’s files for use by opponents or discreetly passed them along to American political operatives. In at least one instance, Russian agents allegedly tried to solicit an unnamed reporter to write about stolen documents that they would provide.
One of the more disturbing allegations is that an unnamed congressional candidate even went directly to “Guccifer 2.0,” the public identity used by Russian intelligence officials to distribute documents, for damaging information about a Democratic opponent. “The conspirators responded using the Guccifer 2.0 persona and sent the candidate stolen documents related to the candidate’s opponent,” the indictment states. It does not identify the candidate or indicate whether he or she is currently a member of Congress.
“In my remarks, I have not identified the victims,” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said at a press conference on Monday. “When we confront foreign interference in American elections, it is important for us to avoid thinking politically as Republicans or Democrats and instead to think patriotically as Americans. Our response must not depend on who was victimized.”
Rosenstein’s call for national unity against a threat to American civic life is laudable. At the same time, not identifying the victims only serves to obscure what actually happened. The indictment underscores that Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party weren’t victims of happenstance or a broad-based attack on American political parties writ large. It’s instead clear that they were targeted by a foreign government that sought to elevate one faction in American politics over another for its own aims.
To a certain extent, they’ve succeeded. Republicans have only grown more combative toward Mueller’s probe in recent weeks. Trump’s allies on Capitol Hill spent almost ten hours interrogating FBI counter-intelligence agent Peter Strzok in a committee hearing on Thursday, relentlessly questioning him over text messages he exchanged with a coworker with whom he had an affair. Republican lawmakers made the specious argument that those texts, which criticized Trump and other American political figures, had tainted the entire Russia investigation.
Trump, who was the primary beneficiary of Russian efforts to undermine Clinton’s presidential bid, has also shown no interest in holding the Kremlin to account. He opposed successful congressional efforts to impose sanctions on Russia last year and blocked new ones from going into effect earlier this year. Trump has spent recent days traveling through Europe, where he’s called American participation in NATO into question and humiliated the leader of the British government during his first official visit to one of the United States’ closest allies.
Next he will travel to Finland for a planned summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday. Trump has said he will discuss Moscow’s efforts to meddle in American democracy. Those discussions will likely lack the hostility shown by the president towards the leaders of Canada and Germany. Trump has consistently avoided criticizing the Kremlin for its election meddling and complained that Mueller’s investigation is an impediment to better relations with Moscow.
“Somebody was saying, is he an enemy?” he told reporters on Thursday, referring to Putin. “He’s not my enemy. Is he your friend? No, I don’t know him very much. Hopefully, someday, he’ll be a friend. It could happen.” Maybe it already has.