For the most part, special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian meddling into the 2016 US presidential election has operated silently and stealthily, like a submarine. Occasionally it breaks the surface, revealing something about its size, shape, and direction. Friday was one of those times, as Mr. Mueller and his team indicted 12 Russian military intelligence officers for allegedly hacking into the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign.
The indictment connects the officers directly to the Russian government, saying they acted in their “official capacity.” It says the information acquired by “spearfishing” and other hacking techniques was released via online fronts DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0.
The hacking group also conspired to break into state boards of election, data firms that create election software, and other voting-related targets, according to the indictment. The court document explicitly states that there is no allegation any vote count was changed or election affected in any direct way.
There is also no allegation in Friday’s charges that “any American was a knowing participant in the alleged unlawful activity,” the indictment says.
What do these charges say about the larger Mueller operation?
First, that it appears to have been unimpeded by continual charges from President Trump and others that it is an illegitimate, partisan “witch hunt.” Indeed, an indictment that directly points to Russian President Vladimir Putin makes it much more difficult for critics to dismiss Russia’s culpability in election hacking as unproven.
This won’t end calls for its conclusion. Presidential lawyer Rudy Giuliani on Friday tweeted that the indictments are good news – Russians have been nailed, no Americans are involved, and it’s time for Mueller to wrap up his “pursuit of the President.”
Mr. Giuliani’s statement in regards to Americans may be premature.
Second, Friday’s move is typical in that Mueller’s indictments tend to always seem a bit surprising in their breadth, indicating that the investigation is a little broader, a little farther along, and a little more wide-ranging than many observers think.
Evidence of this includes the mention of state election boards and other non-federal institutions in the document, and its scope, which in essence is a legal attempt to hold the Russian state accountable for wide-ranging intelligence activities.
While no American is charged in today’s indictment, there is nothing in it about precluding any eventual charges against a US citizen. Details describe efforts by “Guccifer” and other fronts to reach out to Americans, including one who prosecutors say was in regular contact with senior members of the presidential campaign of Donald Trump.
Longtime Trump political associate Roger Stone has admitted to communicating with Guccifer 2.0.
Third, Friday’s move also appears to show that the Mueller team and top Department of Justice officials such as Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein are unintimidated by political threats against them. They released the indictment two days before Mr. Trump is to meet with Mr. Putin, raising the stakes for the meeting and implicitly pressuring Trump to speak directly to his Russian counterpart about the situation.
After indictment of Russian spies, are Mueller and Rosenstein immune from dismissal? Probably not, but the political cost of such a firing might well be greater.