The indictment issued on Friday by special counsel Robert Mueller shows a conspiracy of stunning sophistication by Kremlin-connected Russians, posing as American citizens or using stolen U.S. identities, to influence the 2016 presidential election.
What it does not show is any evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. Quite the opposite, the indictment shows evidence of a lack of collusion. “Some defendants, posing as U.S. persons and without revealing their Russian association, communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump campaign … to coordinate political activities,” the indictment reads. If these Russians were colluding with the Trump campaign, there would be no reason to hide their true identities from multiple campaign officials.
Moreover, the indictment states that the Russian effort began in 2014, a year before Donald Trump declared his intention to run for president. No one, left or right or center, took Trump seriously as a candidate when he declared in 2015. The idea that the Russians saw what all of us didn’t — that Trump had a serious shot at winning the White House — and figured this out way back in 2014, before Trump even declared his candidacy, is absurd.
The Russians did develop a preference for Trump, but their effort was much bigger than Trump, according to the indictment. The Russian influence campaign was part of something called “Project Lakhta,” which “had multiple components, some involving domestic audiences within the Russian Federation and others targeting foreign audiences in various countries, including the United States.” The Russians’ stated goal was to “spread distrust toward the candidates and the political system in general.” In other words, Russia was engaged in a complex, well-funded, multinational effort to undermine trust in the democratic process in the United States and other countries.
This is a grave threat. Republicans and Democrats should be working together in a bipartisan way to confront it. So why is this not happening? Because Democrats have politicized the issue, weaponizing the Russia inquiry in an effort to delegitimize Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton with these unfounded collusion charges. They have put their partisan goal of bringing down President Trump ahead of what should be a national goal that unites both parties — uncovering and stopping Russia’s attack on our democracy.
The president’s critics complain that his response to the Mueller indictment is defensive. America is under attack, they say, and all he can talk about is himself. Well, whose fault is that? For more than a year, Democrats have repeatedly accused Trump of colluding with Moscow. Now the special counsel has issued an indictment that shows — at least with regard to this element of the Russian effort — that no collusion took place. Of course Trump is going to claim vindication! Perhaps evidence of collusion between Trump officials and Russia will still emerge. If it does, those officials should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. But Trump’s response is not the behavior of someone who is worried that Mueller will find evidence he knowingly engaged in collusion.
In fact, the only evidence so far of any cooperation between a hired operative of a 2016 campaign and Russian officials is when the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee paid Christopher Steele to collect dirt on Trump from Russian officials. If Trump had paid a former spy to collect dirt on Clinton from Russian officials, Democrats would be shouting that they had the “smoking gun.”
It is true that Russia wanted Trump to win. But the intelligence community report on Russia’s interference also stated the Russians had concluded “that Secretary Clinton was likely to win the election.” Once they concluded Clinton would be elected, the Russian influence effort “focused on undermining her expected presidency.” One way to do that would be for Russian officials to provide her campaign with unverified dirt on Trump — fodder for Trump to claim that Democrats colluded with Moscow.
Russia’s effort was sophisticated and complex, and presents an ongoing threat not just to America but to our allies as well. Trump was not in office when the Russian effort began in 2014 … or in 2015 … or in 2016. For three years, President Barack Obama did virtually nothing in response to this attack on America. It’s way past time to address this threat, and we need to do it in a bipartisan manner. But for that to happen, Democrats need to stop politicizing the Russia investigation.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post Writers Group