Opinion writer

Making the first documented case of a complex plot by Russians to influence our elections and specifically to bolster President Trump, special prosecutor Robert S. Mueller III has indicted 13 Russians and obtained a plea bargain from a cooperating U.S. witness accused of identity theft. The Post reports:

The Justice Department’s special counsel announced the indictment Friday of a notorious Russian troll farm — charging 13 individuals with an audacious scheme to criminally interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

The Internet Research Agency, based in St. Petersburg, Russia, was named in the indictment as the hub of an ambitious effort to trick Americans into following Russian-fed propaganda that pushed U.S. voters toward then-Republican candidate Donald Trump and away from Democrat Hillary Clinton. …

Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein called the charges “a reminder that people are not always who they appear on the Internet. The indictment alleges that the Russian conspirators want to promote social discord in the United States and undermine public confidence in democracy. We must not allow them to succeed.”

The special counsel’s actions raise a host of questions, but here is what we can say with confidence:

  • There is no “hoax,” and Trump’s insistence that the Russia investigation is about nothing only reinforces the perception that his ego won’t allow him to concede that he received Russian help and/or that he’s been trying to disable the Russia investigation, precisely because he did not want this plot of interference to come out.
  • It will be exceptionally hard, if not impossible, for Trump now to fire Rosenstein or Mueller.
  • Mueller and his team are moving with remarkable speed, wrapping up witnesses and substantiating a conspiracy to influence the election. There is much more to this than “just” evidence of obstruction. There is an embarrassing scheme to fix our election by a hostile foreign power that certainly could have been the motive for Trump’s effort to thwart the Russia investigation. Mueller has multiple cooperating witnesses: Michael FlynnRichard Pinedo (the indicted American), George Papadopoulos and soon, we are told, Rick Gates). Trump and his legal team should be exceptionally worried about what else Mueller has.
  • The president’s failure to take action to protect the U.S. election system and prevent another assault on our democracy — a real and ongoing concern voiced by the unanimous testimony of his top intelligence officials — appears to be a gross dereliction of Trump’s duties and an abrogation of his oath.
  • The Russian plan was specifically aimed at helping Trump. “By February 2016, the suspects had decided whom they were supporting in the 2016 race. According to the indictment, Internet Research Agency specialists were instructed to ‘use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump — we support them),'” The Post reports. “Prosecutors say some Russian employees of the troll farm were chastised in September 2016 when they had a ‘low number of posts dedicated to criticizing Hillary Clinton’ and were told it was ‘imperative to intensify criticizing’ the Democratic nominee in future posts.”
  • While Rosenstein said there was no evidence that the actions in the indictment affected the election outcome, such an assertion, he surely must know, is not a provable fact and is legally immaterial. No one can prove how many people were affected by what the Russians put out.
  • A plan of this magnitude involving so many people and so much money could not have feasibly been conducted without the knowledge or assistance of the Kremlin.
  • Carter Page is largely irrelevant to the larger plot to undermine the U.S. election system.

Republicans’ efforts, led by the clownish Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), to assist and enable Trump now look foolish or worse. What has been implicit is now explicit: They are doing the Russians’ work for them.

“Among other things, the indictment details how Russian nationals concealed their identities to ‘produce, purchase, and post advertisements on U.S. social media and other online sites expressly advocating for the election of then-candidate Trump or expressly opposing Clinton. Defendants and their co-conspirators did not report their expenditures to the Federal Election Commission, or register as foreign agents with the U.S. Department of Justice,'” watchdog Common Cause said in a statement. “We are hopeful that these new facts will finally drive the White House and Republicans in Congress who have worked to hamper the investigation to admit the reality and the scope of the attack and the threat from Russia which is ongoing today as we approach our next election. It is time for Congress and the White House to put their country before their party. The attacks on Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his investigators are disgraceful and must cease.”

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) released a written statement blasting the administration. “Special Counsel Mueller’s indictment today underscores just how serious, far-reaching, and successful Russia’s 2016 interference campaign was,” he said. “Despite the president’s continued, strange denials, the administration’s own national security and intelligence officials have told Congress unequivocally that Russia is out to do this again in the midterm elections. This should be a wake-up call. We must act to protect our democracy from the next round of attacks.”

Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) in his own statement said, “Special counsel Mueller’s indictments are further proof that Vladimir Putin directed a campaign to interfere with our elections, with the goal of tipping the outcome.” He added, “Given these indictments, President Trump should implement the sanctions that Congress has passed immediately. The indictments are also a reminder that Russia will continue to try to interfere in our Democracy. The administration needs to be far more vigilant in protecting the 2018 elections, and alert the American public any time the Russians attempt to interfere.”

The indictments and plea raise a slew of questions: How did Mueller get the information? Did any Trump official have any connection to the Russians? How did the Russians determine what hashtags to use and what themes to push? If we are now in pursuit of social media players, are the hackers who broke into the DNC and John Podesta’s emails in sight? Rosenstein described help afforded to the Russians by “unwitting” figures linked to the Trump campaign. However, as one Russia guru points out to me, “on the ‘unwitting’ Trump campaign officials, we know there was a hell of a lot of ‘witting.’ That is effectively what the June 9 meeting [at Trump Tower] and [outreach to Russians from] Papadopoulos show.”

Once more, we are reminded how little we know about what Mueller has already found. If he has this much evidence just on the quadrant of a Russian troll farm, what else is out there? Stay tuned. We are nowhere near the end of this investigation.