The new indictments from special counsel Robert Mueller on Friday mark the first charges actually aimed at Russians in the investigation of Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election. As such, they open up a new legal front in what’s already a sprawling, complex probe that has ensnared four Trump advisers on other topics.
But the new charges don’t add much to what was already publicly known about exactly how Russians tried to interfere with the campaign — and they don’t contain any new allegations about anyone in Trump’s orbit.
Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russian people and three Russian companies accuses them of conspiring to interfere with “US political and electoral processes, including the presidential election of 2016.” Later in the day, he also announced a California man named Richard Pinedohad pleaded guilty to an identity fraud charge and become a cooperator, apparently in connection with the Russian charges.
The indictment details how Russian trolls churned out pro-Trump content
The indictments’ main emphasis, however, is on the propaganda efforts of one Russian group in particular: the Internet Research Agency. That group’s operations — which included social media posts, online ads, and organization of rallies in the US — were, the indictment alleges, often (but not exclusively) aimed at denigrating Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy, and at supporting Donald Trump’s.
The agency existed before the 2016 campaign. In fact, Adrian Chen reported on it in a deeply researched New York Times magazine piece back in June 2015, calling it a “shadowy organization in St. Petersburg, Russia, that spreads false information on the Internet.” Chen described how the group and its workers used fake social media accounts to spread alarming hoaxes in the US, from a report of a false police shooting of an unarmed black woman, to a fake chemical spill.
However, the indictment alleges that as the presidential primary started heating up in early 2016, then, the Internet Research Agency increasingly aimed criticism at Clinton and GOP contenders Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, while supporting Donald Trump — and Bernie Sanders. An internal document from the group includes: “use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump — we support them).” The agency did all this as a part of a larger operation called “Project Lakhta,” which at one point had a monthly budget of over $1.25 million (though it wasn’t exclusively focused on the US).
As the general election heated up, the Internet Research Agency allegedly shifted to mainly focus on promoting Trump and opposing Clinton. The indictment claims that in September, one of its workers running a Facebook group called “Secure Borders” was criticized in the document for having a “low number of posts dedicated to criticize Hillary Clinton.” Another part of the effort, the indictment claims, was encouragement of “US minority groups not to vote in the 2016 US presidential election or to vote for a third-party US presidential candidate.”
However, after Trump won, the defendants allegedly helped organize both a pro-Trump and an anti-Trump rally on the same day in New York City, suggesting that one of their aims in promoting Trump’s candidacy may have simply been to cause chaos in the US.
The specific charges against the Russians include one broad “conspiracy to defraud the United States” count, but the rest are far narrower — one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud, and six counts of identity theft.
The trolls likely didn’t swing the election — but they’re low-hanging fruit for charges
In a sense, these charges are plucking the low-hanging fruit of Russian interference.
While these social media posts may be objectionable and may have involved violations of federal laws, it’s highly unlikely that they actually affected the outcome of the election. When put in context with the overall amount of media Americans were exposed to about the 2016 campaign, from a plethora of sources, the Russian efforts were likely a drop in a far larger bucket.
Furthermore, other allegations of Russian interference — involving the hacks and leaks of leading Democrats’ emails, and hacking into election-related computer systems in many states — play no role in these charges.
And importantly, this indictment does not allege that any Americans or anyone on the Trump campaign was aware of or involved in this Russian effort. However, it does allege that some of the Russian defendants posed as US persons and “communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump Campaign.”
Mueller’s investigation is bigger than just the Trump campaign
In the wake of the news, liberals are claiming vindication about what they argue is a serious and worrying effort to subvert the democratic process, and conservatives are stressing the lack of new allegations of Russian collusion with Trump.
But the bigger picture is that these indictments really don’t change much about what we know, or tell us much about where Mueller might be going.
Furthermore, with the Russians charged not being in the United States to face arrest, it’s unclear what this case will amount to. Indeed, one of its effects may be to serve as a public and political statement that Mueller’s team isn’t solely focused on the Trump team’s potential wrongdoing — that they’re attempting to fulfill their original charge of investigating Russian interference. That may make it harder for the Trump team to justify firing Mueller.
Still, looking at the Mueller investigation as a whole, it’s grown to be quite complex. One Trump adviser, George Papadopoulos, pleaded guilty to lying about his contacts with Russians during the election. Another, Michael Flynn, pleaded guilty to lying about his contacts with Russians after the election. Two other ex-Trump aides, Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, were indicted for alleged money laundering unrelated to the campaign. And Mueller’s team has been looking into potential obstruction of justice from the Trump administration too.
The new indictments, then, are a piece in this larger puzzle — a puzzle that still isn’t yet solved.