Earlier today the Grand Jury for the District of Columbia charged twelve Russian intelligence officers with conspiring “to gain unauthorized access (to ‘hack’) into the computers of U.S. persons and entities involved in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, steal documents from those computers, and stage releases of the stolen documents to interfere with the 2016 presidential election.” The operation was sustained and sophisticated, and it targeted “over 300 individuals affiliated with the Clinton Campaign, DCCC, and DNC,” according to the indictment.
Furthermore, the operation was consequential. When, in February, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office released its indictment of Russians involved in the effort to impact American debate through social media, there was some justified chuckling at the small scale and amateurishness of that effort. The messages were silly, and the spending was a drop in the ocean compared to the massive, sustained, and coordinated social-media spending of American political parties and their allies.
The hacking scandal was different. The hacking scandal mattered.
There’s no way to know if it moved enough votes in key states to swing the election, but the leaks of hacked emails dominated multiple news cycles, embarrassed key Democrats, and sowed a degree of discord within the Democratic party. Republicans, including Donald Trump, exulted in the revelations and sometimes explicitly called for more. “Russia, if you’re listening,” Trump said publicly on July 27, 2016, “I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”
Interestingly, it appears the Russians may indeed have been listening. “After hours” on July 27, the conspirators “for the first time” targeted “email accounts at a domain hosted by a third-party provider and used by Clinton’s personal office,” according to Friday’s indictment.
There will be much more analysis and dot-connecting in the coming days, some of it valuable and much of it specious. But for now here are four key takeaways:
1. This indictment demonstrates why it’s important that Mueller be permitted to finish his work. Our nation needs to know what happened in 2016, and Mueller — through both the social-media indictment and the hacking indictment — has provided a clearer picture of the precise details of alleged Russian election meddling than any other source. This is a valuable public service, and to the extent that he can hold the actual conspirators accountable, it’s also an act of necessary justice.
2. It’s now becoming increasingly clear why intelligence agencies believe that Russians were trying to help Trump and hurt Clinton — the scale of the attack on the Clinton campaign, the DCCC, and the DNC was troubling. And while there are past reports that the Russians attempted to hack Republicans, this indictment outlines a comprehensive and sustained effort against the Democrats and is silent about a similar conspiracy aimed at Republicans. Perhaps more information will emerge, but the available public evidence at this point bolsters the intelligence agencies’ unanimous conclusion that Russia tried to help Trump.
3. The indictment practically screams, “More information is coming!” — including additional information about Russian communication with American citizens. For example, paragraph 43a of the indictment contains the first evidence of possible Russian collusion with an American candidate for public office — not President Trump, but an unnamed candidate for Congress:
Then there’s this disturbing detail about a transfer of information (including the personal identifying information of Democratic donors) to a “state lobbyist and online source of political news”:
Finally, there’s this partial record of communication between the newly indicted Russians and a “person who was in regular contact with senior members” of Trump’s presidential campaign:
Thus, while the indictment doesn’t establish collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians, it clearly indicates that Mueller possesses evidence and information that the public hasn’t yet seen. Guesses about that additional evidence are just that, guesses, but we can make an educated presumption that there is more to come.
4. This indictment makes it even more troubling that Trump mocks, denigrates, and undermines the Mueller investigation as a “witch hunt.” We now know that there was real wrongdoing; we just don’t yet know its extent.
We don’t yet know if Trump cooperated in any way with Russian schemes. But when we learn more about the extent of Russian efforts to disrupt the 2016 election (and aid Trump), when we remember that Donald Jr. actually tried to collude, when we ponder for more than a few moments the web of financial connections between senior Trump aides such as Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn and the Kremlin or Kremlin allies, and when we know that Russians contacted Trump friends and advisers to offer “dirt” on the Clinton campaign — well, Trump’s repeated demands that the investigation end become much less understandable.
Republicans were rightly outraged when Barack Obama opined about the pending Clinton-email investigation, and we have since learned that his gratuitous and public exoneration of the then–likely Democratic nominee created a headache for the FBI. Now it’s time for Republicans to be consistent. As Mueller reveals more facts about Russian interference and indicts more individuals for troubling crimes uncovered as part of his entirely legitimate investigation, it’s time for the GOP to tell the president that the hunt needs to continue, because the witches are very real.