The Justice Department on Friday indicted three Russian companies and 13 individuals for interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and the man who should be most upset is
Donald J. Trump.
The 37-page indictment contains no evidence of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, but it does show a systematic effort to discredit the result of the 2016 election. On the evidence so far, President Trump has been the biggest victim of that effort, and he ought to be furious at
The indictment documents a broad social-media and propaganda campaign operating out of Russia and involving hundreds of people starting in 2014 that “had a strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system.” It certainly succeeded on that score, as Democrats and the media have claimed that Mr. Trump’s election is illegitimate because he conspired with Russia to defeat
The charge has roiled American politics and made governing more difficult.
The good news for Mr. Trump is that the indictment reveals no evidence of collusion. The Russians “posted derogatory information about a number of candidates,” the indictment says, and by 2016 “included supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump” and “disparaging Hillary Clinton.” But it adds that the Russians “communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump Campaign,” and it offers no claims of a conspiracy.
Readers of the indictment will be amused at the comic opera details. In or around June 2016, for example, Russians posing online as Americans “communicated with a real U.S. person affiliated with a Texas-based grassroots organization.” This “real U.S. person” vouchsafed the deep political secret that the Russians “should focus their activities on ‘purple states like Colorado, Virginia & Florida.’” Sure enough, the Russians thereafter referred to targeting “purple states.” Someone actually paid Russians to collect this insight.
The indictment also contains no evidence that Russia’s meddling changed the electoral results. A U.S. presidential campaign is a maelstrom of information, charges and counter-charges, media reports and social-media chatter. The Russian
bursts became part of this din and sought to reinforce existing biases more than they sought to change minds. Their Twitter hashtags included “#Hillary4Prison,” for example, which you could find at the souvenir desk at the GOP convention.
Yet none of this should let Twitter,
or Google off the hook for being facilitators of this disinformation. The social-media sites and search engines clearly did far too little to police their content for malicious trolls and in the process misled millions of Americans. They need to do more to take responsibility for the content they midwife.
The indictment also makes us wonder what the Obama Administration was doing amid all of this. Where were top Obama spooks
? Their outrage became public only after their candidate lost the election. If they didn’t know what was going on, why not? And if they did, why didn’t they let Americans in on the secret? President Obama sanctioned Russia for its meddling only after the election.
The indictment’s details underscore Russia’s malicious anti-American purposes. An authoritarian regime spent tens of millions of dollars to erode public trust in American democracy. As Senator
(R., Neb.) put it Friday, “Putin’s shadow war is aimed at undermining Americans’ trust in our institutions. We know Russia is coming back in 2018 and 2020—we have to take the threat seriously.”
All of which makes the White House reaction on Friday strangely muted. Its statement understandably focused on the lack of collusion evidence and made one reference to “the agendas of bad actors, like Russia.” But given how much Russia’s meddling has damaged his first year in office, Mr. Trump should publicly declare his outrage at Russia on behalf of the American people. The Kremlin has weakened his Presidency. He should make Russia pay a price that Mr. Obama never did.
Appeared in the February 17, 2018, print edition.