The Republicans are circling their wagons today and dancing a little dance of joy because Mueller issued an indictment that doesn’t, in fact, directly implicate any Americans as anything except idiots. And we all know that they’re quite accustomed to being implicated as idiots, so they’re taking that as a win. Indeed, Rosenstein stood at a podium and repeatedly agreed that “this indictment” doesn’t include Trump, or Trump’s cabal, or any Americans whatsoever.
But that’s clearly not the end of the story, for three big reasons.
First, this is clearly not the full extent of the Russians’ shenanigans. These indictments strike at the heart of the Russians’ active social media manipulation efforts. And make no mistake — although its quite likely that this pack of people will hang out in Russia safe from extradition or consequences, some of the indicted are big fish, especially Prigozhin. This might not have diplomatic consequences right now, because our country is run by a lunatic. But it will.
But we know that’s not all the Russians were up to. We know emails were hacked, and passed to Wikileaks. We know that there was an organized effort to infiltrate state-level voter lists. All of that is a matter of declared record courtesy of the intelligence community, and none of that is reflected in this set of indictments. It’s very likely that there are different groups of people involved. Based on the timelines of events depicted in the indictment itself, the troll factory that Prigozhin was funding wasn’t particularly complex from the technical perspective (although it was quite ambitious from the operations point of view). Disguising your physical location via VPN isn’t exactly cutting-edge server infiltration technology. And while people like Krylova engaged in some fairly exciting spycraft (let’s not mince words here), at the end of the day, this was a social-skills workshop, not a technical-skills environment. People were hired to shift-work jobs impersonating Americans and posting inflammatory things to Facebook.
That means there are still other Russian targets on the horizon. And there’s no guarantee that they had merely “unwitting” American partners-in-crime. That’s especially true for the hacked emails. We know there was actual, direct action there inside the Trump camp. That’s where all the meat regarding the Bannon / Mercer Family / Cambridge Analytica connections lie. And we haven’t seen any of that yet.
Second, because so often, it’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up. Let’s pretend for the moment that there wasn’t any other Russian hacking or interference. Perhaps the situation with the hacked emails, for whatever loophole of a reason, is skeevy but not technically illegal. Perhaps we’re in an alternate reality where none of that ever happened. With that assumption in mind, it’s reasonable to believe that no one in Trump’s cabal was a co-conspirator with CONCORD. Trump doesn’t need to pretend to be anyone else to post stupidly inaccurate things on social media. And while Pence is creepy and Manafort is as crooked as the day is long, none of them are going to stoop to the level of setting up fake bank accounts with stolen IDs to make Facebook posts, or procure fake driver’s licenses to spearhead astroturfed rallies. They’re just going to lie about how many people attended.
But the thing is, from the very beginning, this was at its heart an obstruction of justice investigation. And what we were given today is a pretty solid contender for the vaunted position of “underlying crime”. So the question here isn’t whether Trump’s people were involved in this operation. We can be honest here; they weren’t, except maybe as stooges. The question, as in so many cases before it, is who knew about this, and when?
If Trump and company knew about the foreign social media influence and worked to bury that story, that’s at least arguably obstruction of justice. If they worked together to do so, that’s conspiracy. It’s not conspiracy with the Russians (in the sense that they are different legal conspiracies), but it is conspiracy on the Russians’ behalf. And, anyway, it’s still illegal.
There’s reason to believe that this might be the case. And, if not for the Facebook trolls, then even more likely in combination with the next round of Russians. It’s potentially possible that Trump’s mysteriously convenient Russian funding from places like Columbus Nova will pop up here, too.
Third, this is — amazingly enough — not where the money is. And I can’t believe I’m saying that, because this troll farm was funded to a tune of over a million dollars equivalent per month. But we know that’s small potatoes compared to some of the wads of cash being shuffled around via real estate transactions and dodgy shell companies. It is overwhelmingly likely that Trump, and his compatriots, are financially dirty. Mueller’s position gives him the responsibility to investigate the potential for collusion with Russia and potential obstruction of justice. It is facially plausible that Trump has obstructed justice with regard to Russian interference in order to cover for his own financial crimes, and that means Mueller will investigate that possibility. EVEN IF that didn’t happen (because Trump obstructed justice for other reasons, or because Trump somehow managed to avoid doing anything that meets the legal requirements of an obstruction charge), that gives Mueller means, motive, and opportunity to investigate the “underlying” financial crimes.
For those keeping score, that’s where all the Bank of Cyprus goodies come in. And we know that there have already been plea deals cut for some of the names on that side of the battlefield. If that’s where Mueller presses the attack, it’ll be slow — a lot there centers on Manafort, who has pled innocent to a remarkably light slate of charges; I remain convinced that Mueller is hoping the pressure will eventually get to Manafort, while reserving the right to amend the indictment (or merely re-indict him) with the vigorous set of crimes the weasel deserves to face down.
But regardless of the path forward from here — and in reality, all of these are likely being walked — just because the Republicans “got off easy” with today’s indictment doesn’t in any way mean that it’s time to panic. It means that Mueller is peeling this onion like his past Mafia prosecutions. One group of criminals at a time, followed by attacks on the connection to the next group up the chain.