On February 16th, the Justice Department unveiled the first of four pillars of the Mueller investigation into interference in the 2016 election: the indictment of 13 Russians for Internet-based meddling. This should end Trump claims the Mueller investigation is a “hoax.” The DOJ announcement suggests that we should expect many more indictments as a product of the remaining three pillars of the probe.
The February 16th announcement, by Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein, focussed on an extensive effort, conducted by Internet trolls headquartered in St. Petersburg, to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. Using a variety of tactics, the Russians began by disparaging Hillary Clinton, switched to inhibiting voter participation, and concluded by encouraging Americans to either vote for Trump or a third-party candidate, such as Jill Stein. (At its peak, the Russian effort had a monthly budget of $1.25M and employed hundreds of operatives.)
The DOJ indictment is noteworthy because it arrived unexpectedly — there were no press leaks suggesting an indictment was imminent — and the 37-page legal brief was unusually thorough — it appears the FBI had a source inside the St. Petersburg troll factory (“Internet Research Agency”). The indictment revealed that the head of the Russian operation was Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close friend of Russian premier Vladimir Putin.
In the coming months we’re likely to see indictments clustered around the three additional pillars of the Mueller inquiry: hacking, collusion, and obstruction. The hacking indictments should explain who hacked the emails of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman. (It might also shed light on the chain of events that led then FBI director, James Comey, to reopen the Clinton email brouhaha 11 days before the election.)
The collusion pillar would explore the illicit cooperation between Russian operatives, involved in election interference and hacking, and the Trump campaign. It would answer questions such as, were members of the Trump campaign aware of the Russian activities and did they coordinate with them? The February 16th, DOJ indictment is silent about collusion: “There is no allegation in this indictment that any American had any knowledge [of the Russian operation].” (Trump has suggested that the indictment proves there was no collusion between his campaign and the Russians. This isn’t true because the indictment doesn’t discuss collusion.)
In the context of the 2016 election, collusion can mean “a long-term criminal conspiracy.” One would hope that the coming Mueller indictments would address the concern that Donald Trump has subterranean ties to Putin, and Russian oligarchs, and this relationship subverted the US electoral process.
(The DOJ indictment noted that the St. Petersburg-based troll operation began in 2014. Trump tweeted that since the Russian subversion began a year before he announced his presidential candidacy, it had nothing to do with his campaign. However, it’s worth remembering that Trump was in Moscow in November of 2013 and bragged to the press about his relationship with Vladimir Putin.)
Finally, the fourth pillar of the Mueller investigation should focus on obstruction of justice: has the Trump Administration blocked DOJ efforts to understand interference in the 2016 election?
This first pillar answers the question that has vexed many Americans: Did the Russians try to interfere in the 2016 election? The answer is yes. Russians agents are trying to subvert our democracy and, therefore, we are at war with Russia.
The remaining pillars should address these questions: Did the Russian interference cost Hillary Clinton the presidency? Did the Trump campaign coordinate with the Russians? And, is Donald Trump a Russian agent?
It will be very difficult to prove that Russian interference cost Clinton the presidency. Writing in his 538 website, Nate Silver (https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/how-much-did-russian-interference-affect-the-2016-election/ ) observed that it was probably the October 26, 2016, Comey letter, reopening the Clinton email controversy, that tipped the election to Trump. Nonetheless, Silver observed, “Thematically, the Russian interference tactics were consistent with the reasons Clinton lost.” (For example, one reason Clinton lost was a decline in black voter turnout and the Russian agents worked to suppress this turnout.)
However, it should be noted that Clinton lost the electoral college because of 77,784 votes in three states. In Wisconsin, Clinton lost to Trump by 22,177 votes where Jill Stein received 31,006 votes. It may be that there are smoking guns lying in the wreckage of the 2016 election: voting machines that were tampered with or Russian agents advising Clinton not to campaign in Wisconsin…
It seems likely that the Mueller investigation will establish coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russians. (For example, it seems obvious that the Trump campaign knew that the Russians had hacked the DNC well before this was public knowledge.) What remains to be seen is whether there’s evidence that ties Donald Trump to this.
Finally, there’s the concern that Trump is a Russian stooge; that Putin blackmailed Trump to run for President because Putin wanted to disrupt our democracy. On the one hand this seems like the most difficult suspicion to prove. On the other hand, Trump acts like he’s guilty; he spends so much time decrying the Mueller investigation as “a hoax,” and trying to thwart it, that it’s hard to believe that he didn’t do something wrong.
Given the level of professionalism evidenced in the February 16th indictment, the Mueller investigation will establish whether Trump is guilty of “high crimes and misdemeanors.”