This post has been updated.
We have the first indictment in the investigation by Robert S. Mueller III that actually has to do with Russian meddling in the 2016 election. The special counsel on Friday indicted 13 Russians in connection with a large-scale troll farm effort aimed at influencing the election in violation of U.S. law.
The indictment of the Internet Research Agency comes on top of two Trump advisers having pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI — Michael Flynn and George Papadopoulos — and two more being indicted on charges of alleged financial crimes that predated the campaign — Paul Manafort and Rick Gates. Nobody is in custody and Russia does not extradite to the United States, but the document from the secretive Mueller investigation does shed plenty of light where there previously wasn't any.
So what does the new indictment tell us? Here's what we can say right away:
1. It doesn't say the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, but doesn't rule it out either.
Anybody looking for clues about the collusion investigation into the Trump campaign won't find much to grab hold of. If anything, the indictment may hearten Trump allies in that it doesn't draw a line to the campaign — which suggests there was a large-scale effort independent of any possible collusion. Perhaps that's the real meddling effort, some folks in the White House may be telling themselves right now. Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein even specified that Trump campaign officials who were contacted by the Russian nationals “did not know they were communicating with Russians.”
But that's about as much insight as anyone can draw; we simply don't know what else is coming down the pike, and any ties to Trump campaign officials may have been withheld from this indictment to avoid disclosing details of an ongoing investigation. The president hasn't even been interviewed yet, so we wouldn't expect any ties to the campaign at this juncture.
Asked whether campaign officials had knowledge of the scheme or were duped, Rosenstein chose his words carefully. “There is no allegation in this indictment that any American had any knowledge,” Rosenstein said.
The words “in this indictment” mean Rosenstein's comments are pretty narrow.
Update: In a statement, Trump and the White House suggested that the announcement "further indicates ... that there was NO COLLUSION between the Trump campaign and Russia." Again, it doesn't provide any direct indication.
2. It just got a lot harder for Trump to dismiss Mueller's probe as a “witch hunt.”
At one point in the indictment, a price tag is put on the effort: $1.25 million in one month, as of September 2016. To put that in perspective, that's as much as some entire presidential campaigns were spending monthly during the primaries. And that lends credence to the idea that this was a large-scale effort connected to the Russian government.
President Trump has often sought to downplay the idea that Russia interfered in the 2016 election — even suggesting he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin's assurances that it didn't happen. This document lays it out in extensive detail.
The argument that this is a “witch hunt,” which Trump has argued and more than 8 in 10 Republicans believe, just became much more difficult to make. And the document would seem to make pretty clear that the Mueller investigation isn't just targeted at taking down Trump, either.
3. We still have no idea whether Russia flipped the 2016 election (despite Pence's claim).
In his remarks to reporters, Rosenstein also specified that the indictment doesn't determine whether Russia's interference effort changed the results of the 2016 election. He said there was “no allegation in the indictment of any effect on the outcome of the election.”
Some Trump allies quickly got excited about that, thinking that it meant Russia didn't win the race for Trump. But that's not what Rosenstein said. He was merely saying that the indictment doesn't make a determination — just as the intelligence community's report back in January 2017 made no determination. (Nor would we expect either the special counsel or the intelligence community to make such a determination, given that it's almost completely unknowable what impact Russian interference had.)
Some in the White House have misrepresented that intelligence community report, up to and including Trump, CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Vice President Pence. Even this week, Pence said at an Axios event that it was “the universal conclusion of out intelligence communities that none of those efforts had any impact on the outcome of the 2016 election.”
That's just flat wrong. And you can bet that bogus claim will be repeated following Rosenstein's comments today. The good news: Now, you know better.
Update: Sure enough, the White House also claims in a new statement that the indictment "further indicates ... that the outcome of the election was not changed or affected." This is a bogus claim.
4. The effort wasn’t just pro-Trump or anti-Clinton.
The troll farm wasn't just focused on Trump and Hillary Clinton. In fact, it picked sides in both primaries and opposed and supported multiple other candidates.
“They engaged in operations primarily intended to communicate derogatory information about Hillary Clinton, to denigrate other candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump,” the indictment says. It says the troll farm had decided whom it was supporting by February 2016, when the primaries were getting off the ground, and it instructed its specialists to "use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump — we support them.)”
It’s possible the primary advocacy was simply meant to boost Trump and hurt Clinton, but it’s notably that the troll farm effort played in those primaries too.