Special counsel Robert Mueller just indicted 13 Russian nationals for participating in an alleged criminal plot to undermine the 2016 presidential election. Here’s the key line from the indictment: “From in or around 2014 to the present, defendants knowingly and intentionally 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.”
I spoke with Randall Eliason, a former prosecutor and law professor who specializes in white-collar crime and has written extensively about the Russia investigation. Here are three key takeaways:
1. We now know not just that Russians did sabotage our election, but also that crimes may have been committed in the process — and what those crimes were. One is “conspiracy to defraud the United States.” The indictment says that the defendants “conspired with each other ... 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 process.”
The indictment lists in extraordinary detail the alleged ways in which the defendants did this: Falsely posing as Americans to operate social media to influence voters; employing active efforts to suppress the turnout of minority groups; creating additional fictional U.S. personas to sway public opinion; purchasing large numbers of ads on social media; and much more. “It’s a breathtaking picture of the extensive efforts by these Russian individuals to interfere with the election,” Eliason said, noting that the allegations include not just “conspiracy,” but also “violations of federal election law as part of the object of the conspiracy.” That’s a reference to the indictment’s charge of unlawful expenditures to influence U.S. elections by foreign nationals.
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The indictment also notes that the defendants’ efforts to influence the election “included supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump and disparaging Hillary Clinton.”
2. We still don’t know whether Trump campaign officials or any other Americans conspired with this alleged effort to influence the election. The indictment says that some of the defendants “communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump campaign.” At a presser just now, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein reiterated this, claiming that “there’s no allegation in this indictment” that any American was aware of the alleged crimes. But Eliason tells me that could mean that Mueller has not, or will not, find any evidence of U.S. persons knowingly conspiring with these efforts. Or, it could mean there’s more to come.
3. This confirms just how massive an abdication Trump’s continued claims of a “hoax” really are. Trump has not simply dismissed the idea of Trump campaign conspiracy with Russian sabotage of our democracy. On many occasions, he has refused to acknowledge that Russian meddling happened at all.
This failure on Trump’s part isn’t merely retrospective. It is having serious consequences right now. In a big expose, The Post recently reported that Trump’s refusal to acknowledge Russian meddling is directly linked to his unwillingness to diminish the greatness of his victory. As a result, the Post story detailed, Trump has utterly failed to organize a serious national response to the threat of Russian sabotage of our next elections, even though intelligence officials continue to warn that it may already be in the works. This new indictment, by illustrating the seriousness and elaborate nature of the alleged scheme to undermine our last election, underscores what a huge abdication this really is.