Trump says Mueller’s new charges support his ‘NO COLLUSION’ claim. They don’t
Special counsel Robert Mueller on Friday revealed an alleged criminal conspiracy to divide Americans, undermine democracy and, yes, help get Donald Trump elected.
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WASHINGTON—Two months before Election Day in 2016, Donald Trump supporters attended a series of “flash mob” rallies around Florida. At one of them, attended by about 50 people in West Palm Beach, a woman dressed as Hillary Clinton in prison attire.
It seemed like a good old-fashioned afternoon of American democracy. According to special counsel Robert Mueller, it was part of a Russian criminal conspiracy.
Those flash mobs? Initiated by Russians pretending to be American, Mueller alleges, in an attempt to help Trump win.
That woman disguised as Clinton? Paid, Mueller alleges, with disguised Russian funds.
The allegations are part of an indictment, released Friday, in which 13 Russian individuals and three Russian organizations are charged with engaging in an extensive conspiracy of pro-Trump interference in the 2016 election.
Many of the allegations contained in the indictment had been made before, either by intelligence officials or by news outlets. Now, though, they have been given the gravity of a criminal charge. Mueller’s move further undermines three of Trump’s frequent claims: that it may not have been Russia that interfered in the election, that the Russia story is a fictional invention of Democrats, and that Mueller’s probe is a useless waste.
The Russians are extremely unlikely to be extradited to face trial. Mueller appeared to use the indictment to make a point: their interference was real and important, and so is the investigation into it.
The Russians were allegedly working for a sophisticated organization, the Internet Research Agency, that conducts online “influence” activities on behalf of the Russian government. They allegedly had a budget of more than $1.25 million per month to mess with the U.S. Their goal, Mueller alleges, was generally to sow discord — and specifically, “by early to mid-2016,” to help Trump.
Their alleged efforts included initiating pro-Trump election rallies in Florida, Washington, D.C., New York and Pennsylvania. But their more significant work was done online.
Mueller alleges that the Russians ran a trolling operation in which operatives posing as “hundreds” of Americans posted on social media, including Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, to try to help Trump and hurt Clinton. They were allegedly directed to attempt to exploit and create political, racial and religious divisions.
For example, Mueller alleges, trolls posing as Black and Muslim Americans worked to convince voters of those identities to either stay home or vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein rather than vote for Clinton.
Mueller alleges they attempted to harm Trump’s Republican primary opponents, including Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and boost Clinton’s Democratic opponent, Bernie Sanders.
“Use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump — we support them),” the Russians were allegedly instructed in Feb. 2016.
Some of the Russian accounts became popular. One of them, “Tennessee GOP” (@Ten_GOP), attracted 100,000 followers. Even those that had few followers were still able to attract readers. Using hashtags like #TrumpTrain and #NeverHillary, they pushed their content in front of thousands of others.
But they were not content to stop there, Mueller alleges. The indictment says the Russian operatives purchased pro-Trump social media ads (“Donald wants to defeat terrorism … Hillary wants to sponsor it!”), “contacted media outlets in order to promote activities inside the United States,” and communicated directly with “unwitting individuals associated with the Trump campaign.”
The indictment also alleges that the Russians initiated anti-Trump rallies in the days following the election, in New York City and Charlotte, to continue to promote division.
The Russians are being charged with committing a “conspiracy to defraud the United States”; stealing the identities of people in the U.S. to open accounts with banks and PayPal; committing wire fraud and bank fraud; fraudulently obtaining visas to make trips to the U.S. to conduct research; and failing to register as foreign agents.
Mueller also announced a guilty plea from a California man, Richard Pinedo, who admitted to running a service that allowed people to get around the security of online payment companies by selling, to people outside the U.S., the numbers of bank accounts created with stolen U.S. identities. It was not immediately clear how this was connected to the charges against the Russians.
In a news conference, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, a Trump appointee, took pains to point out that the indictment does not allege that the campaign communicated with the Russians intentionally, saying the Russians took “extraordinary steps to make it appear that they were ordinary American political activists.”
Rosenstein, whom Trump is reported to have mused about firing, also emphasized that the indictment does not allege that the Russian activities affected the outcome of the election. That is one of Trump’s own frequent assertions.
There was material in the indictment to which Trump could latch on, and he did. A White House statement issued two hours later said Trump “is glad to see the Special Counsel’s investigation further indicates — that there was NO COLLUSION between the Trump campaign and Russia and that the outcome of the election was not changed or affected.” It also noted that the alleged interference began in 2014, the year before he launched his candidacy.
There are several problems with this claim.
Both Trump and Clinton were known to be considering candidacies in 2014. The indictment makes no judgment either way about the impact on the outcome. And, perhaps most importantly, it is increasingly clear that the Mueller probe is nowhere near complete.
Mueller, the Republican former FBI director appointed as special counsel in May, has moved at lightning speed by the standards of special counsel probes — securing two guilty pleas from former Trump aides, charging two other former aides, and now this.
Eric Columbus, who served as senior counsel to the deputy attorney general in the Obama-era Justice Department, said Mueller would not have wanted or needed to disclose all of his knowledge in this indictment.
On the matter of collusion, Columbus noted, there are numerous open questions — such as those related to a Trump Tower meeting between campaign figures and a Russian lawyer — that are not about online trolling. And even if Mueller does know of any deliberate interactions between the Trump campaign and the Russian web agency, Columbus said, “he would have had every incentive not to tip his hand and let people know that he knows.”
In a quote the White House statement directly attributed to Trump, the president said, “It’s time we stop the outlandish partisan attacks, wild and false allegations, and far-fetched theories, which only serve to further the agendas of bad actors, like Russia, and do nothing to protect the principles of our institutions.”
Trump did not say anything to condemn an alleged systematic attempt by a bad actor to harm his country’s democracy.