Special counsel Robert Mueller's latest move in his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election came Friday, when the Justice Department slapped a giant troll farm and 13 Russian citizens allegedly involved in it with an indictment. The troll farm, called the Internet Research Agency, was indicted on charges of conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to commit wire and bank fraud, and identity theft. But this same indictment contained another, pretty revealing — and very important — allegation.
Specifically, the indictment (which you can read in its entirety here) alleges that some of the individuals charged in the scheme "posed as U.S. persons and without revealing their Russian association, communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump Campaign and with other political activists to seek to coordinate political activities." This is notable, as President Trump has repeatedly and vehemently argued that Mueller's investigation is a "hoax" and that his campaign never had contact, coordinated, or colluded with any Russians.
The indictment directly contradicts the president's denials. Still, the language in any indictment is carefully chosen, and this one is no different. Government lawyers noted that people associated with Trump's campaign "unwittingly" communicated with the Russians working alongside the troll farm to spam your Facebook and Twitter feeds with propaganda. More specifically, the Russians' goal was "supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump ("Trump Campaign") and disparaging Hillary Clinton," according to the indictment.
In a press conference Friday afternoon, reporters asked Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein about just what the department meant when it said the Trump campaign associates were "unwitting." Were they cooperating with the Russians? Did the Russians fool them? This is how he responded:
There is no allegation in this indictment that any American had any knowledge, and the nature of the scheme was that the defendants took extraordinary steps to make it appear that they were ordinary American political activists, even going so far as to base their activities on a virtual private network here in the United States. So if anybody traced it back to that first jump, they appeared to be Americans.
It's hard to tell whether Rosenstein's answer means that Mueller's probe will let the Trump campaign off the hook. Last year, John Brennan, who headed up the CIA under former President Obama, testified before Congress about what he knew about Russia messing with U.S. elections. However, he used different language to talk about those people who may do a foreign power's bidding without even realizing it. "People who go along a treasonous path do not know they are on a treasonous path until it is too late," Brennan said.
To be clear, Brennan told Congress at the time that he'd seen evidence that Russians had contacted Trump's campaign. But he said he did not know whether the campaign actually had coordinated with the Russians.
"People who go along a treasonous path do not know they are on a treasonous path until it is too late."
This latest indictment raises the question of whether any others coming down the pike will name someone with ties to the Trump campaign who knowingly met with a Russian aiming to influence the election. Donald Trump Jr., for example, took a meeting with a group of Russians in July 2016 in Trump Tower after being promised "very high level and sensitive information" about Clinton as "part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump." Trump Jr. has denied that he told his dad anything about that meeting, but Mueller has taken an interest in figuring out exactly what went down. Eventually, we'll find out, too.