New charges on Friday in the special counsel’s Russia investigation put attention squarely on a notion President Donald Trump has aggressively sought to avoid: the legitimacy of his 2016 election.
Trump and the White House were quick to argue that the indictment of 13 Russian nationals further indicated there was no collusion between Russian operatives and the campaign — and that the vast Russian operation, dubbed “information warfare” by the Justice Department, had no impact on the election result.
But the indictment, like intelligence reports before it, came to no conclusion about the impact of the Russian campaign. And, for the first time, Americans were shown in granular detail how Russian spies worked to sway the election in Trump’s favor, with everything from social media campaigns and ad buys to the organization of rallies and payments to demonstrators dressing up as Hillary Clinton in a cage.
The indictment, brought by special counsel Robert Mueller, only compounds fears in the White House that Trump will attack the FBI in the wake of a school shooting in Florida that left 17 dead, and revelations that the bureau mishandled a tip about the alleged shooter it received in January. Senior staffers are actively urging Trump to avoid attacking the FBI, one administration official said.
But for Trump, famously furious about the notion that a foreign adversary aided his political rise, the detailed revelation that Russia poured resources toward securing his win could prove an instigation too far. He has frequently railed against the Russia investigation, dismissing it as a “witch hunt” and “fake news.” And he has bristled at the notion that Russian interference assisted his upset win over Hillary Clinton, calling the notion a “phony Democrat excuse for losing.”
“He has always been concerned about the legitimacy of his election,” said Rick Tyler, a former communications director for Ted Cruz’s 2016 presidential bid. “This is criminal activity that these indictments point to that helped Donald Trump get elected. … My guess is he will try to delegitimize it and dismiss it.”
Alberto Martinez, Sen. Marco Rubio’s chief of staff from 2013 to 2017, said: “The good news for the Trump campaign in today’s indictment is that there is still no smoking gun on collusion, and that at least in how it pertained to these indictments they were unwitting beneficiaries of Russia’s actions. The bad news is that, at some point, the effort which began as an operation to sow chaos in the entire process turned into an effort to help the Trump campaign. The challenge and opportunity for the Trump administration is to erase any doubt that Putin made a grave mistake in thinking a Trump presidency would somehow benefit Putin’s ambitions.”
In the White House, there is hope that Trump can be steered away from inflammatory attacks on the special counsel’s findings.
“What needs to happen is someone senior around Trump needs to explain the distinction between Russian meddling and Russian collusion,” said one White House official, voicing fear that Trump will leverage his frequent denials of collusion into a broader effort to dismiss Mueller’s findings that Russia actively interfered in the election.
A cadre of Trump’s senior aides, including White House chief of staff John Kelly, joined the president on Friday as he traveled to Florida for the weekend.
But Trump has demonstrated a difficulty in the past with accepting any information that raises doubt about his election victory, which he frequently brags about. He still, for example, stands by a claim that Clinton’s popular-vote victory was the result of widespread voter fraud, despite no evidence to support the assertion.
Trump’s retreat into a defensive crouch was quick, as he posted on Twitter Friday afternoon: “Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for President. The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong — no collusion!”
The White House also released a statement from press secretary Sarah Sanders that said 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 statement also included a line from Trump calling for an end to “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.”
Trump’s personal attorney, John Dowd, went so far as to say he was “very happy,” when asked by POLITICO for his reaction to the Mueller indictment. He did not elaborate.
Other Republicans were eager to note that Russia’s efforts extended beyond Trump cheering and Clinton bashing, noting that the Russians also sought to hurt the campaigns of Sens. Cruz and Rubio and help Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who was vying for the Democratic nomination against Clinton.
“If anything, it just showed that they were trying to sow the seeds of discontent,” said Marc Lotter, Vice President Mike Pence’s former press secretary.
But other Republicans were less sanguine about the findings.
“We have known that Russians meddled in the election, but these indictments detail the extent of the subterfuge,” House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a statement. “These Russians engaged in a sinister and systematic attack on our political system. It was a conspiracy to subvert the process, and take aim at democracy itself. Today’s announcement underscores why we need to follow the facts and work to protect the integrity of future elections.”
Nancy Cook and Darren Samuelsohn contributed to this report.
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