Mueller shifts focus back to Russian ‘information warfare’
Special counsel Robert Mueller had spent nine months on the job with little evidence that he was focusing on his original mandate: to investigate Russian influence in the 2016 presidential election.
On Friday, a stunning new court document from Mueller changed that.
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Mueller’s detailed indictment against 13 Russian nationals and a trio of Russian entities for illegal election activities, largely favoring then-candidate Donald Trump, sent a powerful signal that his team of prosecutors and FBI agents never took their eye off their initial directive of uncovering Russia’s fingerprints on the election — even as outsiders had shifted their focus to the second-order question of whether President Trump might have tried to obstruct justice.
The May 17 order from deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein appointing Mueller as special counsel to lead the FBI’s Russia probe called the move part of the Justice Department’s effort “to ensure a full and thorough investigation of the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.”
And that was the core question Mueller returned to Friday, with an indictment that detailed a Russian “information warfare” operation that sowed dissent and confusion among American voters to the benefit of Trump and the detriment of his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
“What’s described in this indictment is the heart of the matter,” said William Jeffress, a Washington-based white-collar attorney who represented Richard Nixon after he left the White House.
Trump and his attorneys signaled in the hours after the indictment’s release that they were vindicated by where it stopped. “Very happy,” the president’s personal lawyer, John Dowd, told POLITICO. Trump himself celebrated on Twitter, saying that Mueller’s showed that his campaign “did nothing wrong – no collusion!”
But veterans of criminal investigations said the president’s celebration may be premature.
While the indictment says three Trump campaign officials may have played “unwitting” roles in the specific Russian election interference it describes, the document draws no broader conclusions about any potential Trump campaign ties to the Kremlin — which has been alleged to take many different forms beyond the focus of Friday’s charges.
And they noted that Mueller’s latest move appears to establish the critical basis to charge American co-conspirators in the Russian election effort. Before Friday, it was unclear what crimes any U.S. persons might have been aiding or abetting. Now, a legal framework exists for criminal charges against Americans — including ones who do not show up in Friday’s court document.
The indictment mentions conspirators both known and “unknown” to the grand jury, legal experts noted.
“This language is purposeful,” said Elizabeth de la Vega, a former assistant U.S. attorney from the Northern District of California. “It unmistakably indicates there is much more to the story.”
“Think of a conspiracy indicting parties ‘known and unknown’ as a Matroyshka doll,” she added. “There are many more layers to be successively revealed over time.”
Joyce Vance, a former U.S. Attorney from Northern Alabama, said Mueller’s indictment now sends the signal that he believes it’s a federal crime for a foreign national to try and interfere in a U.S. election.
“That means any American who met with Russians in an effort to receive election assistance, also committed a crime,” she said. “And any efforts to cover that conduct up would be a very serious obstruction of justice.”
Mueller’s indictment also puts an exclamation point on findings from the U.S. intelligence community that Russia sought to interfere in the 2016 election, both to disrupt the U.S. political system and out of President Vladimir Putin’s longstanding animus for Clinton.
While Trump has repeatedly cast doubt on those findings — Trump said during one October 2016 presidential debate that the hackers stealing Democratic emails “could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds” — the indictment presented evidence specific enough to form the basis of federal criminal charges.