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Robert Mueller's Russia Indictments Seem to Lay the Groundwork for Something Bigger

Jay Willis
What the Department of Justice didn't say might be the most important takeaway.

On Friday, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein unsealed the indictments of 13 members of Russia's Internet Research Agency, laying out in painstaking detail the methods used to interfere in the 2016 election. Using an army of carefully-developed social media personas, the defendants worked to suppress minority turnout, shilled for Jill Stein, and even sent money to real-life Americans for a "cage large enough to hold an actress depicting Clinton in a prison uniform"—all from an office building on the other side of the planet. Given that Trump's margin of victory in key swing states proved smaller than the number of Stein votes, these efforts to sow chaos were probably more successful than the perpetrators could have imagined.

On their face, the indictments have little to say about the possibility of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, a fact that has already led to much rejoicing in MAGAland. Rosenstein's comments at the press conference, however, do not foreclose the possibility that this could change. "There is no allegation in this indictment that any American was a knowing participant in this illegal activity," he said, and no assertion that the activities described altered the election's result. The indictment also takes care to note that the defendants conspired with "persons known and unknown to the grand jury." Together, these facts may very well mean that no one in the campaign broke the law. But Mueller's investigation isn't over, said Rosenstein, which means that more names—maybe even big ones—could be implicated in the future.

In any event, the indictments are a firm rebuke to those who believe that the Russia story is a hoax, a conspiracy theory to which Trump was reportedly clinging as recently as a few days ago. Collusion or no collusion, his own Department of Justice—remember, Rosenstein is a Trump appointee—is now on the record on the subject. The president cannot continue to refuse to treat Russia as a threat and/or to take meaningful action to protect the integrity of future elections without eliciting a lot of uncomfortable questions.

Mueller's decision to reveal he real-life consequences of the Kremlin's conduct could also provide valuable context for what might come next. Recall, for example, that one excuse for Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting with Russians promising "dirt" on Hillary Clinton was that nothing (allegedly) came of the meeting—a legal version of no harm, no foul. If, however—and this is merely hypothetical!—if any campaign associates did cooperate in Russia's meddling, establishing the success of their counterparts at undermining American democracy will make it much harder for the president to keep insisting that we have nothing to worry about.