Three days before Donald Trump is scheduled to meet one-on-one with Vladimir Putin amidst mounting pressure on him to hold Russia accountable for interfering in the election that improbably landed him in the presidency, Special Counsel Robert Mueller has charged 12 Russian intelligence officers with conspiring to hack Democrats.
The 12 were members of the GRU (Main Intelligence Directorate), a powerful and secretive military intelligence organization, and are accused in an indictment returned Friday morning with engaging in a sustained effort to hack the computer networks of the Democratic National Committee, other Democratic organizations and especially the Hillary Clinton campaign, which it did with lethal efficiency through the summer and fall of 2016, often surreptitiously using computer infrastructure within the U.S.
Mueller's 14-month investigation, which has come under sustained attack from right-wing Republicans, has now resulted in over 100 criminal charges against 32 individuals and three companies.
But to the chagrin of Trump's impatient foes, the special counsel has yet to charge any member of the Trump campaign with colluding with Russia or the president himself -- whether by indictment or an impeachment referral -- for what is widely viewed as Trump's efforts to obstruct justice and impede Mueller's investigation, which was authorized by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein after the president fired then-FBI Director James Comey.
Those Trump foes will have to wait longer -- perhaps only a little longer -- because it is my belief that the special counsel has the goods, and Republican complicity is writ large in the day's events.
In February, Mueller netted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian organizations, including the Internet Research Agency, for illegally using social media to sow political discord in the election. These included actions that supported Trump's candidacy and disparaged Clinton.
Like those Russians, it is highly unlikely that the GRU officers would be immediately arrested, let alone put on trial, but because they are now wanted by the U.S. government, it will make it difficult for them to travel outside of Russia.
Rosenstein, who has been repeatedly attacked and threatened with censure and more recently impeachment by congressional Republicans loyal to Trump, detailed the new charges at a mid-day press conference in Washington as Trump was meeting with Queen Elizabeth amidst his stormy, protest-filled visit to Britain. Mueller, as has been his practice, did not to attend the press conference.
The 11-count indictment returned by a federal grand jury spells out in great detail a carefully planned and executed attack beginning in or around March 2016 by the GRU officers on the information security of Democrats, implanting hundreds of malware files on Democrats' computer systems, stealing information and then laundering the material through fake personas to influence voters’ opinions.
The online personas, known as DC Leaks and Guccifer 2.0 (with whom longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone has bragged he was in contact with) were used to try to disguise the Russian origins of their work, Rosenstein said.
The indictment recounts spearphishing attacks on Clinton campaign director John Podesta, who was not mentioned by name, and other Clinton campaign officials down to the account name the hacker used to mask the link that delivered the phishing attack to the victims' email inboxes.
Their operation included researching the hacking victims on social media, and they even created an email account that was one letter off from the name of a Clinton campaign staffer.
The spearphishing campaign continued through the summer as the hackers also targeted campaign emails hosted on a third party domain provider used by Clinton's personal office, as well as 76 email addresses hosted by the campaign’s domain.
For the record, the indictment names defendants Viktor Borisovich Netyksho, Boris Alekseyevich Antonov, Dmitriy Sergeyevich Badin, Ivan Sergeyevich Yermakov, Aleksey Viktorovich Lukashev, Sergey Aleksandrovich Morgachev, Nikolay Yuryevich Kozachek, Pavel Vyacheslavovich Yershov, Artem Andreyevich Malyshev, Aleksandr Vladimirovich Osadchuk, Aleksey Aleksandrovich Potemkin, and Anatoliy Sergeyevich Kovalev.
The GRU officers "also conspired to hack into the computers of state boards of elections, secretaries of state, and U.S. companies that supplied software and other technology related to the administration of elections to steal voter data stored on those computers," according to the indictment. The officers also were charged with money laundering with cryptocurrency being the coin of their nefarious realm.
Rosenstein said the hackers did interact with some Americans in the course of their efforts, but noted those people had not been charged with a crime.
"There's no allegation in this indictment that any American citizen committed a crime. There’s no allegation that the conspiracy changed the vote count or affected any election result," Rosenstein said. "The goal of the conspirators was to have an impact on the election. What impact they may have had . . . is a matter of speculation, that's not our responsibility."
Putin has repeatedly denied that Russia had any role in the hacks although there is an enormous body of evidence, including the two sets of indictments, to the contrary.
The new indictment begs a huge question that Trump certainly would never answer.
At a July 27, 2016 news conference, Trump made a direct appeal to Russia to hack Clinton's emails and make them public.
"Russia, if you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing," candidate Trump said, referring to emails Clinton had deleted from the private account she had used when she was secretary of state.
Were the Russians listening?
Possibly, because later that same day, the GRU made its first effort to break into the servers used by Clinton's personal office, according to the indictment. Meanwhile, Mueller reportedly has a witness who can corroborate that connection, which would bring to an even dozen the number of known instances of collusion between the campaign and Russia.
Meanwhile, Rosenstein's statement will be seized on by Trump and his sycophancy to bolster their claim that the Trump campaign did not collude with Russia to throw the election despite a mountain of suspicious actions, lies and unexplained meetings with Putin's cyberwarriors during the campaign, as well as the three decades prior to the campaign when Trump tapped into an extensive network of corrupt businessmen, mobsters and money launderers from the former Soviet Union, Russia and their satellite states to make deals to bail out his frequently ailing enterprises.
"I want to caution you, the people who speculate about federal investigations usually do not know all of the relevant facts," Rosenstein said. "We do not try cases on television or in congressional hearings."
He also said he briefed Trump on the allegations earlier this week, and that the "president is fully aware of the department's actions today."
Asked by reporters for more information about Trump's view of the allegations, Rosenstein said he would let the president speak for himself.
Trump has faced mounting pressure, including from a small but growing number of Republicans, to confront Putin when they meet in Helsinki on Monday, but appears determined to yet again give the Russian president the benefit of the doubt.
"I mean, look, he may [yet again deny election interference]," Trump replied of Putin at the end of a NATO ministers meeting in Brussels on Thursday. "You know, what am I going to do if -- he may deny it. I mean, it's one of those things. So all I can do is say, 'Did you?' and 'Don’t do it again.' "
The enormity of the indictment was, of course, lost on Trump.
Just hours before Rosenstein's announcement, the president said at a news conference in Ellesborough, England, that Mueller's investigation was impeding his efforts to get closer to Putin, on whom he has lavished unconditional praise since long before he became a presidential candidate.
"I think that we're being hurt very badly by the, I would call it the witch hunt; I would call it the rigged witch hunt," Trump said after meetings with Prime Minister Theresa May. "I think that really hurts our country and it really hurts our relationship with Russia."
Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the minority leader, and other Democrats had a different take, calling on Trump to cancel his meeting with Putin.
That, of course, will not happen.
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