“On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” said a famous New Yorker cartoon. By the same token, nobody knows you are a Russian operative trying to sabotage a US presidential election. Or indeed an entire Kremlin-backed outfit. Such ignorance extended to “unwitting” members of Donald Trump’s campaign, according to Robert Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russian operatives on Friday. Members of Mr Trump’s campaign had frequent contact with the Kremlin-funded group, the report said.
That spirit of unwittingness persists, apparently. Shortly after the indictments were released, Mr Trump tweeted that Mr Mueller’s charge sheet proved there was “no collusion!” In fact, the 37-page document left all possibilities open. It simply collared the key players in the Russian troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency (IRA). In his televised press statement, the deputy attorney-general, Rod Rosenstein, said there was no charge of collusion “in this indictment”, which told us nothing about what Mr Mueller is planning to do next.
So what do the indictments tell us? First, that Mr Trump’s repeated claim that Russian election interference was a “hoax” is now debunked. Starting with Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the IRA, Mr Mueller has provided the names, methods and other particulars of the $1.2m a month Russian operation. The group used virtual private networks to give US counterparts, including social media platforms like Facebook, the impression they were dealing with American entities.
Moreover, the indictments make clear that the Russian government’s explicit aim was to interfere with the 2016 election. Mr Prigozhin is a longstanding friend of Vladimir Putin, who was sanctioned by the Obama administration for his covert operations in Ukraine.
Second, Mr Mueller’s report hints at more dramatic possibilities by corroborating contents of the “Steele dossier”, which was compiled in mid-2016 by the former British intelligence officer, Christopher Steele — long before the US intelligence agencies warned of Russian interference. Mr Steele, who is in hiding, alleged that the Russians were using “active measures” to support the campaigns of Mr Trump, Bernie Sanders, the Democratic runner-up to Hillary Clinton, and Jill Stein, the Green party nominee. Mr Mueller’s indictment confirms that account. Mr Steele also claimed the Russians were blackmailing Mr Trump with financial and sexual “kompromat” — compromising material.
Likewise, Mr Mueller’s indictment confirms the Steele dossier’s claim that Russia wished to “sow discord” in the US election by backing leftwing as well as rightwing groups. Among the entities run by the IRA were groups with names such as “Secured Borders”, “Blacktivists”, “United Muslims of America” and “Army of Jesus”.
It was surprisingly effective. One Twitter account @Ten_GOP, which purported to speak for Tennessee’s Republican Party, garnered 136,000 followers and was often retweeted by senior Trump officials, including Donald Trump Jnr — as was the case with other fake accounts. Mr Mueller’s indictment confirmed that the Russians were highly adept at exploiting America’s pre-existing climate of toxic distrust.
To wit, the latest Mueller indictments are likely only to polarise US politics even further. Both parties claimed it vindicated their position. Mr Trump’s assertion that the document exonerated him was echoed across the Republican spectrum. John Dowd, one of Mr Trump’s private lawyers, told the Daily Beast: “They got these bastards who were trying to hurt the country.”
Democrats were equally exultant in the belief that the indictments were another nail in Mr Trump’s coffin, which would culminate in an eventual charge of collusion between his campaign and the Kremlin.
In practice, nobody except Mr Mueller and his team has inside knowledge of what will happen next. It has so far been a leak-free investigation. But it is very clear that Mr Mueller is leaving no stone unturned. The Russians, meanwhile, continue to troll with skill. “Americans are very impressionable people,” Mr Prigozhin told Ria Novosti, the Russian news agency, on Friday. “They see what they want to see.”
Edward Luce is the FT’s Washington columnist and commentator
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