WASHINGTON >> For years, President Donald Trump pushed back against the idea of election meddling, dismissing it as a hoax and an affront to the legitimacy of his victory.
Now, in a 37-page indictment, special counsel Robert Muller has laid bare in excruciating detail the details of one Russian scheme, designed in part to benefit Trump’s election run. It even shows contacts between foreigners and his campaign, albeit unwitting.
Trump quickly seized on the fact that the Russian “information warfare” effort, as it was dubbed by a top Justice Department official, began in 2014, before he declared his candidacy for president. His team noted that the Russian efforts to sow discord are also said to have benefited Bernie Sanders. And with great fanfare, the president declared that the indictment proved, as he has always said, that there was “no collusion” between his campaign and the Russians.
But there’s no victory for him here.
His cheers of vindication Friday appeared to be more show than substance: The administration still harbors deep worries about the direction of Mueller’s nine-month probe, which has shown no signs of abating and has expanded to explore potential obstruction of justice on the part of the president and his top aides.
“Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for President,” Trump tweeted after the indictment was unveiled. “The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong — no collusion.”
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders followed minutes later with a statement echoing the “no collusion” claim in capital letters.
Trump attorney John Dowd was jubilant in a statement of his own, saying, “The only thing I have to say is that I’m very happy for the country and Bob Mueller did a great job.”
But neither the indictment nor Mueller’s office has ruled out any potential collusion in any other plot to disrupt the election. U.S. intelligence agencies have previously charged that a separate Russian effort hacked Democratic Party and Clinton campaign emails and leaked them to WikiLeaks in an effort to sway the election. And Mueller is probing a 2016 meeting in Trump Tower between the president’s son, son-in-law, top campaign aides and Russian nationals promising damaging information on Clinton from the Russian government.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees the probe, carefully chose his words Friday as he stated, “There is no allegation in the indictment that any American was a knowing participant in the alleged unlawful activity.”
And privately, White House officials acknowledged that the indictment is only one line of inquiry in Mueller’s swirling probe.
Trump’s estranged former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, met for hours with Mueller’s team this week. He follows other current and former senior White House officials who have already met with the special counsel’s office as he examines the firing of former FBI Director James Comey and misleading statements about the Trump Tower meeting.
Trump seized on the indictment to call for an end to “outlandish partisan attacks, wild and false allegations, and far-fetched theories” about the election, asserting they “only serve to further the agendas of bad actors, like Russia, and do nothing to protect the principles of our institutions.”
“We must unite as Americans to protect the integrity of our democracy and our elections,” Trump added.
Meanwhile, new questions mount about what his administration is doing to prevent Russia from doing it again.
For all the gusto Friday at claiming Trump had been exonerated by the charges against the Russians, the White House has demonstrated little enthusiasm for holding Russia to account. Privately, the president has chafed at suggestions that Russia worked to help his campaign, believing they undermine the legitimacy of his victory.
Trump has repeatedly called the Russia probe a “hoax,” and during the transition attacked the intelligence community’s warnings about Russian intervention. Aides maintained Friday he was only referring to the collusion allegations. But it took Trump until January 2017 — months after the intelligence community publicly asserted that conclusion — to make clear that he believes that Russian entities tried to sway the election, and his administration has resisted taking some steps to protect the electoral system from future meddling.
Trump formed — then disbanded — a commission to study unfounded allegations of electoral fraud in 2016, but not one to study Russian interference. His administration just weeks ago bucked a congressional deadline to impose new sanctions on Russian entities over the country’s continued destabilizing actions.
Meanwhile, the Department of Homeland Security, which the administration has tasked with safeguarding the electoral system ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, has faced questions about how seriously it is taking those efforts.