Trump is gearing up for a meeting Monday with Russian President Vladimir Putin. This indictment could force his hand on something he has seemed loath to do: confront Putin about election interference.
Meanwhile, these 12 new charges prove that the special counsel's Russia investigation is very real — not a “witch hunt” as the president has claimed. It brings the total indictments to 32 people, most of whom are either Russians or Trump campaign officials or people with ties to the Trump campaign. And Friday's indictments come a day after some on the left found a new spokesman for protecting the FBI from Republican attacks, beleaguered FBI agent Peter Strzok.
Let's start with how public perception of the Strzok hearing could be reshaped by this indictment.
Republicans in Congress thought bringing Strzok in to try to explain why he privately texted “we'll stop [Trump's campaign]” while working on a Trump investigation would be a major PR win for them. The hearing lasted 10 hours, included two Republican-controlled committees and was filled with made-for-TV confrontations between Strzok and Trump's allies in Congress. At the end of it, one of Trump's lawyers said the Strzok hearings should disqualify the entire Russia investigation.
These indictments make it clear that is not happening.
There's no evidence the timing of these indictments were in any way related to the Strzok hearing. Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein told reporters Friday the 11-count indictment had nothing to do with political events, saying it was based “solely on facts, law and policy.”
But Rosenstein, who oversees the Mueller investigation, also seems acutely aware of how the timing of this indictment could be perceived by Trump's allies. “We do not try cases on television or in congressional hearings,” he said in his news conference.
Rosenstein himself was forced to defend the Justice Department's integrity to Congress two weeks ago. And some Republicans in Congress have drafted an article of impeachment against Rosenstein.
Looking forward, the indictment puts Trump in an even more politically difficult spot as he prepares to meet with Putin one-on-one in Helsinki on Monday. The meeting itself is contentious, with critics warning that it will hand Putin an air of legitimacy with the West that he craves.
It is even more controversial knowing Trump has been reluctant to confront Putin on election interference. Trump has repeatedly given Putin the benefit of the doubt over the U.S. intelligence community, which has concluded the Russian president ordered the meddling in the 2016 campaign specifically to help Trump win.
“He just — every time he sees me, he says, 'I didn't do that.' And I believe — I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it,” Trump told reporters in November after meeting with Putin at a global summit in Vietnam.
This week, Trump told reporters he will “of course” raise the election issue with Putin, but he didn't seem to feel it would be a fruitful conversation. “What am I going to do? He may deny it,” Trump said.
Coming off a week where Trump bashed NATO and criticized the prime minister of one of the United States' oldest allies, his giant shrug on Putin struck many of Trump's critics as incongruous diplomacy, tilted heavily in favor of Putin.
If Trump decides to hold that strategy now — after his own Justice Department has accused Russians of hacking his opponents' emails — it will probably come off as even more favorable toward Putin than it did just on Thursday. Some Democrats in Congress are already trying to pressure Trump to get tougher on Putin as a result of these indictments.
It's unclear whether Trump will change course on Putin, though.
The Russia investigation is losing ground in the public opinion battle. Polls suggest Trump's repeated attacks on it are working, with a new Washington Post-Schar School poll finding Americans are split roughly 50-50 along partisan lines on whether they approve of the job Mueller is doing.
This indictment comes at the end of a week where both sides felt they had evidence to make their case that the Russia investigation has either run its course or is very real.
And indicting Russians is a win in the column of the “very real” camp.