Friday’s indictments point to what’s coming: American crimes, votes altered, elections affected

DonkeyHotey / Flickr Robert Mueller Caricature...
DonkeyHotey / Flickr

When Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appeared on Friday to announce additional indictments in the special counsel investigation, he was very clear about what those indictments were not. According to the transcript, as provided by Time, Rosenstein cited three things those indictments definitely did not include.

There is no allegation in this indictment that any American citizen committed a crime. There is no allegation that the conspiracy changed the vote count or affected any election result.

But a closer examination of the indictment shows that, while no Americans are named in the indictment, they were certainly deeply involved in the crimes being committed by Russia. Republicans weren’t just passive recipients of information stolen from Democrats by Russian hackers. They were active participants in an ongoing action that stretched out over a period of months, with the Russians reacting to, and adapting their approach, based on feedback from advisers to Donald Trump and Republican strategists. They maintained their involvement even though they were aware the FBI and other government agencies had begun looking into Russian activities.

Rosenstein states that “this indictment” contains no allegation of a crime by an American. But it makes it clear that there were crimes. And that Americans were directly, deeply engaged in not just benefiting from those crimes, but encouraging and abetting their commission.

But it’s the second part of Rosenstein’s statement about what wasn’t in Friday’s indictment that may deserve more attention. The part about “changed the vote count or affected any election result.” Because way down on page 25 of the 29 page indictment, in the eleventh count, things become extremely unsettling.

70. The object of the conspiracy was to hack into protected computers of persons and entities charged with the administration of the 2016 U. S. elections in order to access those computers and steal voter data and other information stored on those computers.

At the very least, it appears that Republicans and Russians were working back and forth to gather detailed information about voters in critical districts using both stolen Democratic documents and information gleaned from hacking into voter rolls. That’s the best-case scenario. In the worst case … Donald Trump won by very few votes, cast in very few states. Maybe.

The indictments make it clear that Russia was attempting to hack into “U. S. state boards of elections, secretaries of state, and other election related entities.” These are not just the people who control the voter roles—making it possible that key voters might be scrubbed from critical districts—these are also the entities that tabulate the official vote.

The indictment makes it clear that the Russians were successful in stealing information on at least 500,000 voters, that they successfully hacked into a vendor who sells systems “used to verify voter registration,” and that they continued looking for election vulnerabilities at both the state and county level. Just as Rosenstein said, the allegations don’t include charges of altering the vote count or affecting the outcome of elections. They just show the Russians continuing to look for means of intrusion in key states—up until the day of the election.

In particular, it appears that Russian operatives went after Florida, at both the state and county level, using a broad suite of hacking tools. The allegations do not include whether the Russians were successful in the efforts to gain access to systems in Florida or elsewhere, or whether they their intrusions were sufficient to sway the results of elections. What’s also not in the information we have now: Any sign that the Russians were not successful in their intrusion attempts.

What’s now public, from indictments and previous information, is that Russians were sharing stolen information with Republicans, both inside and outside the Trump campaign, through multiple routes. The chain of events recounted in Friday’s indictments shows one series of transfers—from Russians, to Republican consultant Aaron Nevins, to Roger Stone, to the Trump campaign—that is almost independent of efforts to provide information through George Papadopoulos, or Michael Flynn, or Jeff Sessions, or the Trump Tower meeting, or any the other known contacts between Russia and the Trump campaign.

Looking at just one state, what we can say with confidence is that ….

  • In August, Florida Republican strategist Aaron Nevins obtained Democratic voter turnout models from Russian state operatives, including those for the state of Florida.
  • That same month, Florida Congressman Matt Gaetz requested and received information from the Russians.
  • Nevins then examined the information, document by document, and assisted the Russians by putting a value on their stolen goods, and in particular pointing out the importance of the Democrats’ plans and the turnout model.
  • Also in August, Nevins forwarded what he got from the Russians to Roger Stone.
  • Stone was already in communications with the Russians by that point, who were sending him information and working with him to discover the most important documents.
  • In both August and September, the Russians contacted Stone directly about the voter turnout model, asking what he thought of its value, and what other documents they had sent him were of particular interest.
  • Based on what they learned from Stone, Nevins, and others, the Russians kept up their hacking activities at the DNC and elsewhere, targeting additional high value information.
  • In October, the Russians “targeted state and county offices responsible for administering the 2016 U.S. elections” with a specific mention of Florida among the targets.
  • At the time of the election, Russian operatives were still engaged in Florida, including sending out malware to at least 100 officials responsible for administering election results in Florida.

And again, the best-case scenario is that the Russians—using stolen information, assisted by Republican strategist and advisors to Donald Trump, with the help of Steve Bannon and Cambridge Analytica’s psychological profiling tools—used this information in their targeted social media efforts to go after very specific voters in very specific areas of very specific states.

That’s the scenario where, at a bare minimum, Nevins faces charges, Stone faces charges, and an unknown set of others along the chain of Bannon, and Cambridge, and Trump Jr., and Kushner, and just about everyone who worked on the Trump campaign also, at least potentially, faces charges, of working in a conspiracy with a known criminal enterprise to alter the outcome of a US election. After all, even when the Russians were pretending to be “DC Leaks” and “Guccifer 2.0,” they weren’t making claims of being whistleblowers inside the DNC out to expose some wrong. Even the cover story was that these were hackers who had broken into servers illegally and stolen information.

Trump’s team didn’t simply stumble across that information. They didn’t just eagerly welcome that information. They worked back and forth with that criminal enterprise to get more information. That’s conspiracy, even if no one had a Vladimir Putin tattoo on their forehead. And of course, they did. Trump’s team know, at least by June of 2016, and likely over a month sooner, the true nature of their benefactors.

The worst scenario is the one where the Russians were not wizards at spreading their message through social media. Where they didn’t find 70,000 votes just where they were needed by planting stories in Facebook, building pop-up news sites posted in Twitter, or feeding targeted emails to voters on the fence. The worst scenario is the one where Russians found the votes they needed more directly: With the malware we know they were using, with the intrusions we know they made, at the state and county offices we know they were targeting.

Because while the remedy for the best-case scenario is extreme, difficult, and might be impossible given the political climate, the remedy for the worst scenario is … there is no remedy.

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