The Slatest

The Contours of a Potential Collusion Case Are Beginning to Emerge

U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announces the indictment of 13 Russian nationals and 3 Russian organizations for meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
U.S. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announces the indictment of 13 Russian nationals and 3 Russian organizations for meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Win McNamee/Getty Images

The White House has offered its take on Friday’s bombshell indictment of a number of Russian nationals for allegedly conspiring in illegal efforts to support Donald Trump’s election. The headline for Trump and the administration: The news further vindicates the president.

“President Donald J. Trump has been fully briefed on this matter and is glad to see the Special Counsel’s investigation further indicates—that there was NO COLLUSION between the Trump campaign,” declared a statement from the office of Press Secretary Sarah Sanders.

Indeed, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in announcing the charges stated: “There is no allegation in this indictment that any American was a knowing participant in this illegal activity.”

That’s true. The president’s extrapolation that no allegation of collusion being “in this indictment” proves “NO COLLUSION” occurred has no basis in reality, though. The indictment itself offered a number of potential clues about where special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation might be going next.

Bloomberg News, in fact, reported that the indictment “should be seen as a limited slice of a comprehensive investigation,” according to a person with knowledge of the probe.

Here are some of the other potential slices that have emerged in the past 24 hours, including key portions of the indictment itself:

• In conjunction with Friday’s indictment, Mueller’s office unsealed a guilty plea for identity fraud by Richard Pinedo of Santa Paula, California, making Pinedo the third known cooperator in Mueller’s probe. Between 2014 and November of last year, Pinedo used his company “Auction Essistance” to sell access to fraudulently obtained bank account numbers using stolen identities. This would dovetail with how the Russians allegedly funded their illicit campaign efforts.

• On Thursday evening, CNN reported that Rick Gates was likely nearing his own plea deal with Mueller’s investigators. Gates was the deputy to former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and both men were indicted last year by Mueller. If Gates flips, he will have to either testify against Manafort—tightening the noose around the neck of Trump’s heavily Russia-connected former deputy—or provide new and damning information against the campaign.

• The indictment says that the Russians sought to infiltrate the Trump campaign: “Some Defendants, posing 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.”

• The indictment mentioned that there are unnamed co-conspirators “known and unknown to the Grand Jury.” Pinedo might be one of these figures, but that leaves an open question as to who the others are.

• The Russians were not initially sophisticated in their knowledge of American politics, to the point that they sought out American political actors to learn the basics:

In order to collect additional intelligence, Defendants and their co-conspirators posed as U.S. persons and contacted U.S. political and social activists. For example, starting in or around June 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators, posing online as U.S. persons, communicated with a real U.S. person affiliated with a Texas-based grassroots organization. During the exchange, Defendants and their co-conspirators learned from the real U.S. person that they should focus their activities on “purple states like Colorado, Virginia & Florida.” After that exchange, Defendants and their co-conspirators commonly referred to targeting “purple states” in directing their efforts.

• The Russians appeared to start to develop a deeper sophistication around U.S. politics in the spring and summer of 2016. This coincided with the same brief period that Manafort was in charge of the Trump campaign. The Russian efforts included purchasing political ads for Trump and against Clinton on social media starting in April, staging pro-Trump rallies and false flag “pro-Hillary” events starting in June, and doing the sort of low stakes political dirty tricks that have been a mainstay of the Republican Party for decades.

For his part, former CIA Director John Brennan speculated on Friday that it would emerge that U.S. persons had actively conspired with the Russians. “While some may have been unwitting, I do think that some individuals maybe were knowledgeable about what they were doing and basically strayed from what they should have been doing,” he told MSNBC.

As of two days ago, Trump was still reportedly expressing doubts about the conclusions of Brennan and others in the intelligence community that Russia interfered in the election. On Friday, Trump seemed to acknowledge this reality, but also perversely used it to argue that it was time to move on from investigating his own campaign.

“It’s time we stop the outlandish partisan attacks, wild and false allegations, and far-fetched theories, which only serve to further the agendas of bad actors, like Russia, and do nothing to protect the principles of our institutions,” Trump’s statement read. “We must unite as Americans to protect the integrity of our democracy and our elections.”