So much for the idea that Russian meddling in last year’s election was a hoax. On Friday, Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod Rosenstein announced the indictment of 13 Russian individuals and three organizations on charges of conspiring to use social media to interfere with “U.S. political and electoral processes,” including the presidential election. The indictment alleged a dizzying number of sometimes sophisticated attempts to deceive American voters, including the posting of messages about controversial issues such as guns, immigration and Black Lives Matter.
And President Trump’s reaction? Instead of apologizing for having raised doubts about Russia’s complicity — last year he said that “it could very well have been Russia, but I think it could well have been other countries” — the president claimed that the indictments vindicated him.
“Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for president,” he tweeted shortly after Rosenstein’s news conference. “The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong — no collusion!”
Not so fast, Mr. President. It’s true that, according to the indictment, the defendants began to discuss interfering in the U.S. election in 2014. It’s also true that the indictment alleges only that the Russian defendants communicated with “unwitting individuals associated with the Trump campaign.” And as Rosenstein acknowledged, there is no allegation in the indictment of any effect on the outcome of the election (though that of course doesn’t mean that there wasn’t any effect).
But it’s still too soon to declare victory. The matters covered in these indictments aren’t the only activities being investigated by special counsel Robert S.Mueller III. In addition to whether members of the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, Mueller is also thought be looking into whether the president obstructed justice, including by participating in the drafting of a false statement about a meeting involving Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian lawyer expected to provide damaging information about Hillary Clinton and by firing then-FBI Director James B. Comey, who was overseeing the investigation into Russian meddling.
One positive outcome of these indictments is that they may make it easier for Trump publicly to embrace the conclusions of top U.S. intelligence officials not only that Russia interfered in last year’s election but that it plans to do so in this year’s midterm elections. He took a hesitant step in that direction by having his press office issue a statement saying: “We cannot allow those seeking to sow confusion, discord and rancor to be successful.” In the same statement, Trump called Russia a “bad actor.”
That’s quite the understatement. We cannot tolerate meddling by foreign powers in this country’s democratic processes. It’s a form of tampering that strikes at the very heart of what America is. If it’s proven to have occurred, it doesn’t matter whether there’s evidence that it affected the outcome of the election. The attempt alone is still insidious.
Finally, the fact that these particular charges don’t touch the president or his inner circle may make him less likely to try to engineer the firing of Mueller or Rosenstein — at least for the time being. But, as the firing of Comey demonstrates, the president can behave impulsively and against his own interests. That’s why members of Congress need to continue to make it clear to the president that Mueller must be allowed to complete his investigation regardless of where it leads.