With yet another blockbuster indictment (why is it always on a Friday afternoon?), Special Counsel Robert Mueller has, once again, upended Washington. And this time, it is possible that his efforts may have a wider effect outside the Beltway.
For those following the matter, there has been little doubt that Russian citizens attempted to interfere with the American presidential election. The American intelligence agencies publicized that conclusion more than a year ago in a report issued in January 2017, and it has stood by the analysis whenever it has been questioned. But some in the country have doubted the assertion—asking for evidence of interference that was not forthcoming.
Now the evidence has been laid out in painful detail by the special counsel. If any significant fraction of what is alleged in the latest indictment is true (and we should, of course, remind ourselves that an indictment is just an allegation—not proof), then this tale is a stunning condemnation of Russian activity. A Russian organization with hundreds of employees and a budget of millions of dollars is said to have systematically engaged in an effort (code named “Project Lakhta”) to undermine the integrity of the election and, perhaps more importantly, to have attempted to influence the election to benefit then-candidate Donald Trump. Among the allegations, the Russians:
Conducted political intelligence-gathering activities in the United States;
Hid their activities by setting up virtual networks in America that masked their extra-American communications;
Influenced the American election by using false personas to organize rallies for Trump, criticizing Muslims and spreading allegations of voter fraud by candidate Clinton;
Stole American identities to create controlled accounts; and
Destroyed evidence of their activities.
The details of these activities are painfully explicit; the indictment cites dates, times, places, messages, posts, and specific rallies. In short, if the facts prove out, there can be absolutely no doubt—none whatsoever—that Russian actors engaged in a multi-year, multi-million-dollar campaign of influence.
From this, it seems that two things are clear. First, while the “official” purpose of this indictment is to criminally prosecute violations of American law, the indictment also has a second purpose—to inform the American public and their representatives. Let’s be blunt—none of the Russians who were indicted will ever,ever, see the inside of an American courtroom. Russia won’t extradite them and we won’t, realistically, expect them to do so. The individuals may not have as much freedom to travel (say, to the French Riviera) for fear of arrest, but otherwise the effect on them will be negligible.
Given that reality, this indictment (which prosecutors sometimes call a “speaking indictment”) is so detailed precisely because the evidence will never be presented in a court. It is designed to give as full an accounting of the known facts as the prosecutors reasonably can. Beyond prosecution, the clear goal here is to speak to the American public—and if this message isn’t sufficient, then no message can possibly sway the body politic.
Second, all that having been said, the indictment is equally notable for what it does not say as it is for what it does say. One will scour the indictment in vain for any allegation that the Russian activity was directed by Russian government officials. To be sure, it is highly dubious that such a campaign would be run by a Russian enterprise without the knowledge and tacit (if not explicit) acquiescence of the Russian government. And some of the indicted defendants are said to be close to Putin. In a closed, authoritarian society like Russia, the idea of a rogue operation is simply not credible. The one gap that can, and likely will, be filled in the future is the official Russian side of the ledger—what did Putin and the FSB know and do?
The indictment is also conspicuous for failing to allege any act of collusion between the Russian actors and any Americans at all. There are no identified American co-conspirators and there certainly is no allegation that the Russians acted with the knowledge of (much less the approval of) any individuals in the Trump campaign. As far as the indictment is concerned, the Russian activity was initiated by the Russians for their own strategic benefit, and candidate Trump may only have been an incidental beneficiary of their activity.
Again, that seems an unlikely proposition. But in fairness to President Trump, we need to acknowledge that, thus far, the Mueller team has alleged no active collusion. For the Trump team, that will be the takeaway from today’s indictment.
For the rest of America, the takeaway should be much grimmer: The threat to the integrity of our elections is real. The main question that Mueller asks is not whether the Russians are guilty, but what America is going to do about it? If, faced with this reality, we continue to do nothing, then the blame for the next failure will be on us.
Ben Franklin, when asked what sort of government the Founders created, is reported to have said “a Republic, if you can keep it.” Americans must now to decide if we want to keep ours.