The indictments last week of 13 Russians and a St. Petersburg troll factory should put to rest any lingering doubt that Russian operatives tried to help Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election.
What’s still an open question is whether they delivered.
Trump and his supporters have claimed, falsely, that the indictments by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, along with earlier reports by U.S. intelligence agencies, concluded that Russian interference didn’t affect the outcome of the election. In reality, they made it clear that it was too soon to judge the effectiveness of the meddling.
Mueller said that the Russian operatives, disguising their identities, communicated with “unwitting individuals” associated with the Trump campaign. Trump claimed that this “unwitting” connection proved that there was “no collusion” between the Russians and his aides, a theme repeatedly echoed by his political backers and right-wing media.
The Trump camp makes several other reasonable points. They note that Mueller reported that the Russian trolls tried to help Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, who presumably took votes away from Democrat Hillary Clinton. Even if Clinton lost votes because of that effort, they correctly point out, the result would have been the same. That’s because Stein did well enough to hurt Clinton in only one state, Michigan, where she received 51,000 votes and Trump won by just 10,000. Alas for Clinton, Trump would have triumphed in the Electoral College even without Michigan.
Some Republicans also have noted that the Russian social media expenditure, estimated by Mueller at about $1.25 million per month, was dwarfed by the social media ad spending of the campaigns and their outside supporters.
Yet Trump’s self-proclaimed clean bill of health presumes that Mueller will uncover no additional evidence of Russian involvement in the pre-election leaks of emails from the accounts of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta and from the Democratic National Committee.
No evidence has emerged of Russian coordination with Trump operatives, but there are grounds for suspicion. For example, political dirty trickster Roger Stone, a Trump confidante, predicted seven weeks before the first email leaks that Podesta’s “time in the barrel” was coming.
Moreover, the first leaks came on a Friday afternoon, Oct. 7, not the opportune moment to put out juicy stuff. But it was hours after two reports surfaced that were dangerous for Trump: the videotape showing him bragging about groping women, and the initial report by U.S. intelligence agencies on Russian election interference.
The Mueller indictments also revealed how the Russians used social media to discourage African-Americans from turning out. In several crucial states there was a decline in black voting, but it’s impossible to determine whether the Russian efforts were decisive. It was already clear that many black voters found Clinton to be less appealing than Barack Obama.
Clinton was a mediocre candidate; her campaign made major miscalculations; and she was hurt by the decision of James Comey, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation at the time, to reopen an inquiry into her use of a private email server when she was secretary of state.
The schemes by a leading U.S. adversary to disrupt the election had an impact on the voting. What has yet to be determined is whether it was decisive.