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What’s ‘Witch Hunt’ in Russian?

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The Editorial Board
, New York Times
What’s ‘Witch Hunt’ in Russian?

You might expect that an American president, presented with the indictment of a dozen Russian military officers for engaging in a concerted, yearslong cyberattack on American democracy, would be outraged and demand justice.

Donald Trump is outraged, all right. But his anger is directed at his fellow Americans. He shows no sign of canceling his meeting scheduled for Monday with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, or insisting on, say, the extradition of the defendants to stand trial. He is instead reserving his fire and fury for the investigation itself — which he prefers to call a “hoax” — and for the American law-enforcement community that has been working to protect the nation ever since it became aware of the Russian interference more than two years ago.

That’s been Trump’s reaction almost every time he’s been confronted with evidence showing that the Russian government undertook a coordinated campaign to help swing the election in his favor. In July 2016, then-candidate Trump wrote on Twitter, “The new joke in town is that Russia leaked the disastrous DNC emails, which should never have been written (stupid), because Putin likes me.”

Trump, who was notified of the coming indictment earlier this week, kept up his mockery before they were announced, calling the special counsel’s investigation a “witch hunt” on Friday morning.

So who are the witches this time? Twelve Russian military intelligence officials who, according to the indictment, hacked into the computer systems of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, the computer systems of the Democratic National Committee, and state voter rolls and voting software, stealing emails and other documents, and then posting them online under false identities, including Guccifer 2.0 and DCLeaks, to hide their Russian origins.

The hackers used familiar techniques, like spearphishing (which tricks unwitting users into sharing personal information) and installing malware to monitor specific computers and steal their data. The hackers transferred those stolen documents to another organization that the indictment does not name. But it appears to be WikiLeaks, which was the source of many of the leaks of Democratic emails during the 2016 campaign and was in regular contact with Trump’s advisers.

The hackers also infiltrated state-level election systems, including the computer networks of state election boards and of a company that supplies software used to run elections. In one state, they stole half a million voters’ personal information, including their names, addresses, birthdates and partial Social Security numbers.

Friday’s indictment does not allege that any Americans knowingly broke the law or that the conspiracy changed the outcome of the election. Nor does it allege that the unnamed Americans it referred to were aware that they were corresponding with Russian officials — a straw that Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, grasped as though his life depended on it. “The Russians are nailed. No Americans are involved,” Giuliani tweeted in a message as predictable as it was premature. A former federal prosecutor himself, Giuliani is well aware that the details of any specific indictment — especially one that is part of a complex, long-running investigation — have little bearing on what future indictments might bring.

In fact, there are already piles of evidence that Trump and top officials in his campaign were not only aware of the Russian hacking at the time but were encouraging it. Remember the July 2016 news conference where Trump asked Russia to hack Clinton’s emails? “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he said. Another “joke,” his defenders claimed at the time. On or about the same day, according to the indictment, the Russians tried to hack into multiple email accounts used by Clinton’s personal office, as well as dozens more associated with her campaign.

And then there was Donald Trump Jr.'s response to a June 2016 email offering “dirt” on Clinton from a Russian government official. “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” the message said. Donald Jr., who was one of his father’s top campaign aides, immediately replied, “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”

Friday’s indictment included more than a few hints about the next targets of Mueller’s investigation. For example, in August 2016, a candidate for Congress requested stolen documents from Guccifer 2.0, who sent documents related to that candidate’s opponent.

On the same day, Guccifer wrote to a person “in regular contact with senior members” of the Trump campaign, apparently Roger Stone, “thank u for writing back ... do u find anything interesting in the docs I posted?” A couple of days later, Guccifer wrote, “please tell me if i can help u anyhow ... it would be a great pleasure to me.”

Don’t forget that Mueller has already secured guilty pleas showing ties between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government, including from one foreign-policy adviser to the campaign who lied to authorities about his communications with a professor who offered damaging information on Clinton — a professor he knew was linked to Russian officials.

Responding to this shouldn’t be difficult. Russian officials attacked American democracy in 2016, and the intelligence community has warned us that they’re coming back for more. But Trump seems incapable of perceiving the threat, while Republicans in Congress spend their time fulminating not about the assault on American sovereignty but about the private text messages of an FBI agent investigating that attack.

As Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein rightly said after announcing the indictment, in the face of such an assault, “it’s important for us to avoid thinking politically, as Republicans or Democrats, and instead to think patriotically as Americans.”

Good advice. If only Trump and his servile defenders in Congress would heed it.

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