Earlier today Robert Mueller’s office announced the indictment of a Russian “Internet Research Agency” and a number of Russian nationals for various crimes related to their efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election. For those who haven’t had time to read the entire 37-page document, the indictment alleges a comprehensive scheme to use social media to sow discord in the American electorate. Yes, it alleges a campaign to help Donald Trump (and Bernie Sanders), but it also demonstrates an intent to generally sharpen American political divides and radicalize American citizens. Here’s the key paragraph:
The alarming and reassuring elements in one paragraph — evidence of a disruption operation; no evidence (in this indictment) of collusion. pic.twitter.com/Ja3MqjZj98— David French (@DavidAFrench) February 16, 2018
While there will be ample time for a more comprehensive evaluation of the indictment, I wanted to expand upon my comment in the tweet. How can an indictment be both alarming and reassuring? It’s simple. I don’t want foreign powers engaging in domestic disruption operations, and I don’t want to see domestic political campaigns cooperating with foreign foes. We have evidence of the disruption operation. We do not have evidence of collusion.
I’m alarmed by the Russian actions. The indictment alleges a long-running effort (one that included identity theft in the United States) to undermine America’s already-weak public trust and — ultimately — to take sides in an American political context. Moreover, this is but one aspect of the overall investigation into Russian disruption operations. The social media program isn’t necessarily related to Wikileaks and the email hacks, and it’s far from certain the indictment encompasses the whole even of Russian social media efforts.
But what’s alleged is bad enough. The Russians sought to generate street protests, suppress voter turnout, and spread disinformation. At one point the cost of the campaign exceeded a million dollars per month — a drop in the ocean of campaign spending but certainly large enough to reach a significant number of Americans. Though Russian actions were of debatable effectiveness (the indictment is largely silent regarding their real-world impact), they were unacceptable. Full stop. I’m reminded of Senator Ben Sasse’s words last March:
Russia is not unaware of our own distrust of each other. Russia is not unaware of our own increasing self-doubt about our shared values. Russia is today very self-consciously working to further erode confidence in our self-government by pulling at the threads of our public and civic life.
That’s all true, but here’s what’s reassuring (at least so far) — there’s no evidence in the indictment of knowing American cooperation with Russian plans, nor is there evidence that could reasonably lead a person to conclude that Russian efforts swung the election. Either conclusion would cause a political meltdown. Neither conclusion is present in the indictment.
There’s one more reassuring element in the indictment. It should help put to rest the notion that Mueller is single-mindedly focused on “getting” Trump to the exclusion of more fully investigating the totality of Russian campaign efforts. To fulfill his mandate to investigate “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump,” by necessity he must examine the nature of Russian operations. This isn’t just an “obstruction” investigation. It’s an investigation yielding results that America needs to see.