Republicans are working quickly to downplay Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s latest indictment, which was released on Friday and which focuses on 13 Russians accused of attempting to sway the 2016 election using social media.
While the indictment itself outlines a number of troubling accusations that support the notion of Russian interference, many on the right have instead chosen to focus on several cherry-picked details to try and claim the special counsel’s investigation is unfounded.
The Republican National Committee debuted especially brash talking points on Friday afternoon, with spokeswoman Kayleigh McEnany telling Fox News’ Melissa Francis that the indictment was “astonishing” proof that the left had “deceived the country.”
“Today marks the day that the Democrats’ Russia collusion conspiracy unravels,” McEnany said. “What we learned is astonishing. We learned the Russians were also organizing for Bernie Sanders, we learned that, in late November 2016, they turned their efforts to be against President Trump, that their goal was to sow discord and chaos — not to promote a certain candidate — and that no Americans were involved in this plot they uncovered. This is astonishing, it backs up what the Democrats have said all in along. […] Democrats deceived this country and they were caught today.”
The indictment released on Friday details myriad explosive allegations against 13 Russian individuals and three Russian entities, who the special counsel’s office claims engaged in a widespread social media campaign to undermine the 2016 election. This effort was coordinated by the Internet Research Agency, an organization based in St. Petersburg that carries out campaigns on behalf of the Russian government.
In an accompanying press conference on Friday afternoon, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein dubbed the effort “Information Warfare.”
Nonetheless, McEnany and other conservative figures are already skewing the details in the 37-page indictment to fit a very specific narrative: that Democrats were lying about collusion between the Trump campaign and Russians, and that those Russians were, in fact, working against Trump the whole time.
Here are the claims that are already gaining ground, most of which are easily refuted.
The Russians were actually organizing for Bernie Sanders
McEnany claimed on Friday that, contrary to popular belief, the Russians behind the hacking of the 2016 election were actually “organizing” for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (I). While it’s true that some of the accounts created by the Internet Research Agency were supportive of Sanders, a large portion of the Russian efforts were done to paint Trump in a more favorable light and denigrate Clinton.
“Certain organization-produced materials…used election-related hashtags, including #Trump2016, #TrumpTrain, #MAGA, #IWontProtectHillary, and #HillaryForPrison,” the indictment reads. “Defendants and their co-conspirators also established additional online social media accounts dedicated to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, including the Twitter account ‘March for Trump’ and Facebook accounts ‘Clinton FRAUDation’ and ‘Trumpsters United.'”
The indictment alleges that the defendants also worked to promote third-party candidates like Jill Stein, purchasing social media ads using accounts with names like “Blacktivist” to push them.
The Russians were organized against Trump
It’s true that the Russian entities and individuals cited in Mueller’s indictment did eventually orchestrate efforts to protest Trump, as McEnany stated on Friday. However, those efforts came after the 2016 election had taken place.
In November 2016, the defendants allegedly organized several rallies and marches both in support and protest of then-President-elect Trump. On or around November 12, the indictment states, the group orchestrated a rally designed to “show your support for President-Elect Donald Trump”; that same day, using another Internet Research Agency organization, they also held a rally in New York called “Trump is NOT my President.” On November 19, the Russian defendants orchestrated an anti-Trump rally in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The 2016 presidential election was held on November 8, 2016.
White House statement on Mueller indictment pic.twitter.com/FJzYLmySuh
— Shannon Pettypiece (@spettypi) February 16, 2018
The indictment proves the Trump campaign did not collude with Russia
McEnany claimed this week that the latest Mueller indictment marked “the day that the Democrats’ Russia collusion conspiracy unravels.” That couldn’t be further from the truth.
In reality, the indictment highlights the fact that the Russians did communicate with several individuals who were “associated with the Trump campaign” at the grassroots-level — in other words, low-level supporters and volunteers. While Rosenstein noted in Friday’s press briefing that “[no] American was a knowing participant in this illegal activity,” he stopped short of suggesting that Mueller’s investigation was over, or that any high-level members of the Trump campaign were innocent bystanders.
Republicans have honed in on this point to try and claim there’s no evidence whatsoever that the Trump team had colluded with Russians, misleadingly suggesting the investigation into the matter is closed.
“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 and Russia and that the outcome of the election was not changed or affected,” the White House said in statement on Friday. “President Trump says, ‘it is more important than ever before to come together as Americans. We cannot allow those seeking to sow confusion, discord, and rancor to be successful. 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.”
Neither Rosenstein nor any member of the Justice Department or special counsel’s office have said that the Trump campaign is innocent of potential collusion or that the investigation as a whole is nearing a close.
Obama is to blame for Russian interference
During a separate interview on Fox News, former House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz repeated Rosenstein’s assertion that the Russian interference highlighted in Friday’s indictment did not influence Trump’s victory in the 2016 election. Rather, Chaffetz shifted focus to Trump’s predecessor, Obama, claiming he hadn’t taken the threat seriously.
“I think a lot of people were very concerned, even at a small level, that this was happening. [Current House Oversight Chairman] Devin Nunes [(R-CA)] has been talking about this for a couple of years,” he said. “President Obama kind of pooh-poohed the idea that anybody could even interfere, but I think clearly — the more we’ve learned, particularly after the election, yes, there were people improperly trying to manipulate the election.”
Several right-wing media figures have also claimed that the bulk of the blame should go to Obama because the activities described in the indictment occurred on his watch, as early as 2014.
However, according to Vice President Joe Biden, Obama had been aware of the Russian interference well before the election took place and had even met with members of Congress to inform them of the problem. Speaking at a Council on Foreign Relations event in January, he stated that it was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell who had stopped the administration from speaking out, refusing to sign a bipartisan statement identifying the threat as coming from the Russians.
If Obama had violated that trust, Biden argued, it could have undermined the legitimacy of the election.
“Can you imagine if the president called a press conference in October, with this fella, Bannon, and company, and said, ‘Tell you what: Russians are trying to interfere in our elections and we have to do something about it,'” Biden said, referring to Steve Bannon, Trump’s former campaign chairman. “What do you think would have happened? Would things have gotten better, or would it further look like we were trying to delegitimize the electoral process, because of our opponent?”