Mueller Indicts Russians For 2016 Election Interference (Media Alert)

Earlier today, Robert Mueller indicted thirteen Russian citizens and three Russian entities in connection with their activities concerning the 2016 election. I will be on the Howie Carr Show in Boston at 4:35 Eastern to talk about the indictment. You can listen at the link.

I may have more to say later, but for now, these are my observations on the indictment:

* There is no allegation that the Russians colluded with anyone in the Trump campaign. On the contrary, the indictment describes any communication between Russians and any Trump campaign officials as “unwitting.” Specifically, it refers to two emails that Russians sent to state-level Trump campaign staffers.

* Does this mean that Mueller has given up on the collusion theory of which the Democrats have so long dreamed? Maybe. Perhaps he has concluded that absent evidence of collusion–which is not even hinted at in the indictment–the best he can do is to imply that President Trump can be considered illegitimate, since he won with the help of Russian “meddling.”

* The indictment is odd, to say the least. Its very first paragraph recites that it is against the law for foreign nationals to spend money to influence US elections, or for agents of foreign countries to engage in political activities without registering. But no one is charged with these crimes. Instead, the indictment is devoted mostly to charging a “conspiracy to defraud the United States.” Normally, that would refer to defrauding the U.S. out of, say, $10,000 in Medicare benefits. Its application to the 2016 election seems dubious. Beyond that, the indictment charges relatively minor offenses: bank fraud (opening accounts in false names) and identity theft.

* That is probably moot, since as far as the indictment discloses, all of the Russians are now in Russia. I assume there is no realistic prospect of punishing them.

* The indictment acknowledges that the purpose of the Russian operation was to–as the Russians themselves allegedly put it–“spread distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general.” Thus, the Russian social media efforts (the indictment is mostly about Facebook) attacked Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, while supporting Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, and Jill Stein. In other words, they supported anti-establishment versus establishment candidates. Once the general election was under way, they generally supported Trump rather than Clinton, but once Trump was elected, they sponsored anti-Trump rallies.

* The indictment says nothing about how effective the Russians’ efforts were, but their magnitude was rather small. At the height of the campaign in September 2016, the campaign’s budget was only $1,250,000 per month. Compare that with the $100 million that Jeb Bush spent, or the $1.2 billion that Hillary Clinton reportedly ran through. The indictment talks about Facebook “reach,” a figure widely considered meaningless. How many people actually turned out for the rallies that the Russians sponsored? The indictment doesn’t say.

* The Russians don’t seem to have been very sophisticated. Several of them traveled to the U.S. to do research. It was while in the U.S. that one of them, pretending to be an American, was told by a Texan that his group should focus its efforts on “purple states, like Colorado, Virginia and Florida.” The indictment says that the Russians took that advice to heart.

Further reflection may give rise to more observations, but that is what occurs to me on a first reading. You can read the indictment here.

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