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Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies on Friday, accusing them of conspiring to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
The lead defendant in the indictment is the Internet Research Agency (IRA), which has been described as a Russian “troll farm.” The IRA employed hundreds of individuals in a complex operation that involved the creation of fake personas to “conduct information warfare against the United States.”
The stated goal of the election-oriented “translator project” was an influence campaign that would “spread distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general.”
The budget and payment of the propaganda efforts by the IRA were organized through Concord Management and Consulting, the second Russian company named in the indictment. By September 2016, it’s alleged that Concord was funneling $1.25 million each month toward interference operations it referred to as Project Lakhta, using 14 bank accounts listed under smaller affiliated companies.
Individuals named in the indictment are mostly high-ranking executives and managers from within the two named companies. Others worked as part of the translator project team and even traveled to the U.S. to collect intelligence that would be useful in the company’s future disinformation campaigns.
The named individuals are charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud and identity theft. As part of their campaign, the Russians sought to disrupt the election by staging events, creating fake online personas on social media, and infiltrating political groups to utilize tensions between political groups across the U.S.
The charges, for the first time, lay out meticulously the framework by which Russia actively sought to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. Importantly, this supports the original assessment made by the U.S. intelligence community in January 2017.
At the time, the FBI, CIA, and NSA came to the following unified conclusion: “We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for [then] President-elect Trump.”
Trump and some on the right have repeatedly criticized and attacked the intelligence community over the “Russia Hoax” but Mueller’s indictment, in all its detail, is much more difficult to dismiss as a fake news liberal media fairytale.
The Russia hoax continues, now it's ads on Facebook. What about the totally biased and dishonest Media coverage in favor of Crooked Hillary?— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) September 22, 2017
Trump even, famously and now awkwardly, bought Putin’s claim of innocence over his own intelligence agencies analysis when the pair met in November—although the Kremlin insisted they did not discuss the topic at all.
“He said he didn’t meddle, he said he didn’t meddle. I asked him again. You can only ask so many times,” he said of his conversation with the Russian president. “Every time he sees me he says I didn’t do that, and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it.”
Today, Trump claimed that because the indictment stated activities started before his campaign, he was vindicated. It also seems to contradict his belief that Putin didn’t meddle.
Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for President. The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong - no collusion!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 16, 2018
However, the indictment alleges that some of the named Russian defendants, in posing as Americans, “communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump Campaign.” This has become a bigger point of contention among political factions.
Those “unwitting individuals” are named only as numbered campaign officials, one of which operated an email address at the donaldtrump.com domain—which forwards visitors to Trump’s official website.
A large part of Mueller’s investigation is to explore whether collusion existed between members of the Trump campaign and Russian agents. What does that mean for the allegations of collusion?
Although the investigation has charged four Trump associates so far, the indictment seems to suggest that if the noted campaign officials did, in fact, engage with these Russian trolls, they did so unknowingly and under the assumption they were dealing with American citizens. This was a point seemingly underlined by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in a Friday press conference.
“There is no allegation in this indictment that any American had any knowledge, and the nature of the scheme was the defendants took extraordinary steps to make it appears that they were ordinary American political activists, even going so far as to base their activities on a virtual private network here in the United States so if anybody traced it back to the first jump they would appear to be Americans,” he said.
In a responding statement published by the press secretary’s office, which also emphasizes that the Russian disinformation campaign began “before the President declared his candidacy, ”the White House claimed that Trump was “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.”
Trump has always decried the very investigation into alleged collusion as a waste of taxpayer money, once calling it “the single greatest WITCH HUNT in American political history.” For Trump and his supporters, the latest indictment is an exoneration.
Fox News’ Sean Hannity quickly hailed the indictment as the collapse of the collusion allegations, echoing the White House citation that groundwork for the interference campaign began before Trump had announced his presidency.
No collusion https://t.co/svKF4T3dOQ— Sean Hannity (@seanhannity) February 16, 2018
Collusion Collapse - Mueller says Russian meddling began ONE YEAR before Trump announced his run for the White House... https://t.co/AUpeSPfToE— Sean Hannity (@seanhannity) February 16, 2018
Meanwhile, FoxNews commentator Kayleigh McEnany described how the “Democrats’ Russia collusion conspiracy theory [had now] unraveled.”
Liberals, however, are not so sure. ThinkProgress has pointed to “an important caveat” in Rosenstein’s statement—his emphasis that there is no allegation of collusion “in this indictment.”
Liberals and Democrats hold that future indictments might just find that the Trump campaign did collude with Russian agents and are pointing to Donald Trump Jr.’s exchanges with WikiLeaks, the organization that published emails from John Podesta and Democratic National Committee.
The argument that collusion should be dismissed, since the Russian interference strategy was launched before Trump’s presidential campaign, is also being dismissed given that the indictment specifically details how the IRA operatives “used false U.S. personas to organize and coordinate U.S. political rallies in support of then president-elect Trump.”
Elsewhere, partisan fallout has sparked allegations that Clinton ran her own team of troll. Conservative media personalities like Mike Cernovich have pushed a Los Angeles Times article from May 2016 that describes “a multimillion dollar super PAC” called Correct The Record which it alleges spent “$1 million to find and confront social media users who post unflattering messages about” Clinton.
Both those on the left and the right look to be aligning the indictment with their own political narratives, but aside from all the hot takes and reactions, what the document really represents is an enormous step forward by the Mueller investigation in uncovering the truth of what happened.
David Gilmour is a reporter who specializes in national politics, internet culture, and technology.