A 37-PAGE indictment against 13 Russians issued on February 16th by Robert Mueller, the special counsel, is packed with damning, astonishing evidence that Russian agents meddled in the presidential election of 2016. Still, one passage stands out as a reminder of the perils faced by American democracy, and of how much is stake as Mr Mueller’s probe unfolds in coming months.
The passage reproduces—apparently verbatim—what seems to be a confession by Irina Viktorovna Kaverzina. She is one of the Russians charged with creating multiple, false American identities, to post, monitor and update social media content designed to deepen racial and partisan divides and stoke Americans’ distrust in their political democracy on behalf of the Internet Research Agency, a secretive organisation funded by an oligarch close to President Vladimir Putin.
“We had a slight crisis here at work: the FBI busted our activity (not a joke). So, I got preoccupied with covering tracks together with the colleagues,” Ms Kaverzina allegedly wrote to a family member “on or about September 13th 2017”, to use the clinical language of the indictment. The alleged internet troll added: “I created all these pictures and posts, and the Americans believed that it was written by their people.”
At the simplest level, the passage is shocking because of the perfidy that it casually confirms. Go one level deeper, and it is intriguing because it offers a rare glimpse of the tools available to Mr Mueller as he conducts the counter-intelligence part of his probe. It appears to show that his team had access, just a few months ago, to emails written by Russian agents, even after they knew that their actions were under investigation.
But its real impact lies in the comparison that it begs with President Donald Trump, and his statements about Russian election-meddling and the credibility of the FBI. To spell it out, a Russian internet troll, upon being “busted” by the FBI, demonstrated appropriate alarm and guiltily busied herself with covering her tracks. Contrast that respect for the FBI and fear of America’s wrath with Mr Trump’s own public statements, tweets and equivocations around the same time.
On September 22nd 2017, shortly after Facebook gave congressional investigators evidence of at least 3,000 political advertisements bought by Russians on its internet platform during the presidential campaign, the president repeated his assertion that the idea that Russia had any hand in the election was an invention. “The Russia hoax continues, now it's ads on Facebook. What about the totally biased and dishonest Media coverage in favor of Crooked Hillary?” he tweeted.
Ms Kavezina regarded being “busted” by the FBI as a crisis. Well she might. With forensic precision, Mr Mueller’s indictment charges the Internet Research Agency with spending more than $1.2m a month in the latter stages of the American presidential campaign. Scores of agents allegedly created hundreds of false social media accounts to bombard conservatives with invented stories of voter fraud by Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate. They created fake left-wing accounts to suppress the non-white vote. In the words of the indictment, “On or about October 16, 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators used the ORGANIZATION-controlled Instagram account “Woke Blacks” to post the following message: “[A] particular hype and hatred for Trump is misleading the people and forcing Blacks to vote Killary. We cannot resort to the lesser of two devils. Then we’d surely be better off without voting AT ALL.””
The indictment details how Russians devoted much energy to stoking tensions against and among American Muslims, at one point allegedly using the Facebook group “United Muslims of America” to promote a rally in Washington DC at which they paid an unwitting American to hold a sign (which Russians had produced) showing Mrs Clinton and a quote attributed to her stating “I think Sharia Law will be a powerful new direction of freedom.”
In August 2016, the indictment reveals, the Russians wired money to help an American build a cage large enough to hold an actress dressed as Mrs Clinton in prison uniform. Following the Watergate-era advice, “follow the money”, the indictment lays out in great detail the Russians’ use of stolen American identities and illegal bank accounts to fund their work. “Busted”, as Ms Kaverzina puts it.
In contrast America’s elected president has spent months resisting the verdict of his own intelligence services that Russia hacked the election. Visiting Asia in November 2017, Mr Trump noted to reporters that Mr Putin had assured him that Russia did not meddle in the election. “Every time he sees me he says, ‘I didn’t do that,’ and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it,” Mr. Trump said.
Ms Kaverzina, an alleged foot-soldier in Russia’s information war against America, sounds sobered by the idea of the FBI on her trail. Not Mr Trump, who fired the first FBI director that he inherited, James Comey, and has since accused him of being a “political hack” and the orchestrator of a “witch-hunt” that has left the FBI’s reputation in tatters.
Mr Trump, echoed by apologists in Congress, has repeatedly scorned the idea that Russia—if it did meddle in American politics—tried to help him. In late December 2017 a Republican member of Congress, Francis Rooney of Florida, called for a “purge” at the FBI, describing the Russia probe as "off-the-rails" and the work of the "deep state." He was echoed a few days later by Representative Matt Goetz, a fellow Floridian, who called for Mr Mueller to be fired. Other members of Congress have suggested that Russians would logically have preferred Mrs Clinton to win because she was so weak in standing up to Mr Putin.
The indictment leaves that line of Trumpian defence in bad shape. It quotes instructions from bosses at the Internet Research Agency to staff, chiding them during the early stage of the presidential primary process to attack such Republican rivals as Senator Marco Rubio of Florida and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, as well as Mrs Clinton. “Use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump — we support them),” says one instruction cited by the indictment. Once Mr Trump sewed up the Republican nomination, all efforts were bent to helping him. As the indictment notes:
“On or about September 14, 2016, in an internal review of an ORGANIZATION created and controlled Facebook group called “Secured Borders,” the account specialist was criticized for having a “low number of posts dedicated to criticizing Hillary Clinton” and was told “it is imperative to intensify criticizing Hillary Clinton” in future posts.”
After the indictment was made public on February 16th at a press conference conducted by the deputy attorney-general, Rod Rosenstein, Mr Trump moved the goalposts. Rather than denying that Russia interfered in the election, he noted with satisfaction its finding that the Internet Research Agency began to target American politics in 2014, before he had declared his candidacy. Ignoring the detail that the indictment was wholly silent on whether the Trump campaign knew of other Russian activities, such as the theft of Democratic emails by hackers, the president tweeted: “The Trump campaign did nothing wrong — no collusion!”
Mr Trump followed this up with a statement calling for a line to be drawn under the whole matter. Unblushingly, he urged calm in the name of defending America and the institutions that he usually delights in calling elements of a corrupt “deep state.”
His statement read: “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.”
If Mr Trump really has had a change of heart, and now believes that the Mueller investigation needs to be shielded from outrageous partisan attacks, he is in luck. Thanks to the indictment setting out just how much evidence he has gathered, Mr Mueller has just made himself much harder to fire. This “slight crisis” has some way to run.
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