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Opinion Three big takeaways from Mueller’s stunning new indictments

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III just indicted 13 Russian nationals for participating in an alleged criminal plot to undermine the 2016 presidential election. Here’s the key line from the indictment:

From in or around 2014 to the present, defendants knowingly and intentionally conspired with each other (and with persons known and unknown to the grand jury) to defraud the United States by impairing, obstructing, and defeating the lawful functions of the government through fraud and deceit for the purpose of interfering with the U.S. political and electoral processes, including the presidential election of 2016.

I just spoke with Randall Eliason, a former prosecutor and law professor who specializes in white collar crime and has written extensively about the Russia investigation.

Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein announces the indictment of 13 Russians linked to a troll farm as part of the special counsel investigation. (Video: The Washington Post)

Here are three key takeaways:

1. We now know not just that Russians did sabotage our election, but also that crimes may have been committed in the process — and what those crimes were.

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Until today, we knew that our intelligence services had concluded that Russian meddling in the election had occurred. But details were very sketchy. We also did not know whether that sabotage rose to the level of alleged criminality. As Eliason wrote in a perspicacious piece last summer, there were several different possible ways that crimes might have been committed.

Now, from the indictment, we know that the sabotage did, in fact, amount to alleged specific crimes. One of them is “conspiracy to defraud the United States.” The indictment says that the defendants “conspired with each other … to defraud the United States by impairing, obstructing, and defeating the lawful functions of the government through fraud and deceit for the purpose of interfering with the U.S. political process.”

As Eliason put it, “running a free and fair Presidential election is a core lawful function of the federal government,” and “any agreement to secretly and dishonestly attempt to interfere with a federal election” could be a “conspiracy to defraud the United States.” That’s what we allegedly have here.

The indictment lists in extraordinary detail the alleged ways in which the defendants did this: Falsely posing as Americans to operate social media to influence voters; employing active efforts to suppress the turnout of minority groups; creating additional fictional U.S. personas to sway public opinion; purchasing large numbers of ads on social media; and much more.

“It’s a breathtaking picture of the extensive efforts by these Russian individuals to interfere with the election,” Eliason told me, noting that the allegations include not just “conspiracy,” but also “violations of federal election law as part of the object of the conspiracy.” That’s a reference to the indictment’s charge of unlawful expenditures to influence U.S. elections by foreign nationals.

The indictment also notes that the defendants’ efforts to influence the election “included supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump and disparaging Hillary Clinton.”

2. We still don’t know whether Trump campaign officials or any other Americans conspired with this alleged effort to influence the election.

There’s some confusion around this point. The indictment says that some of the defendants “communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump campaign.” At a presser just now, Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein reiterated this, claiming that “there’s no allegation in this indictment” that any American was aware of the alleged crimes. (Emphasis mine.)

But Eliason tells me that we simply cannot know yet what this means. It could very well mean that Mueller has not, or will not, find any evidence of U.S. persons knowingly conspiring with these efforts. Or, Eliason says, it could mean there’s more to come.

“What remains unanswered is whether they had U.S. help,” Eliason tells me, adding that the language in the indictment “doesn’t mean the only people involved are these unwitting ones.”

“There could be an investigative reason for not fully showing your hand now,” Eliason says. “Or it could be that they don’t have sufficient information yet to implicate U.S. individuals.” Eliason notes: “We can’t say anything one way or the other.”

3. This confirms just how massive an abdication Trump’s continued claims of a “hoax” really are.

Trump has not simply dismissed the idea of Trump campaign conspiracy with Russian sabotage of our democracy. On many occasions, he has refused to acknowledge that Russian meddling happened at all.

This failure on Trump’s part isn’t merely retrospective. It is having serious consequences right now. In a big expose, The Post recently reported that Trump’s refusal to acknowledge Russian meddling is directly linked to his unwillingness to diminish the greatness of his victory. As a result, the Post story detailed, Trump has utterly failed to organize a serious national response to the threat of Russian sabotage of our next elections, even though intelligence officials continue to warn that it may already be in the works.

This new indictment, by illustrating the seriousness and elaborate nature of the alleged scheme to undermine our last election, underscores what a huge abdication this really is.

“Putting aside whether or not any Trump campaign individuals were involved, and understanding that these are of course just allegations, this certainly puts to rest any suggestion that there was not Russian interference in the election,” Eliason says. “The allegations in this indictment show just how extensive and intensive it was. It’s startling. We’ve never seen anything like this.”