It’s finally completed. After nearly two long years, Special Counsel Robert Mueller III has completed an investigation into Russian election meddling and potential obstruction of justice. Though the public does not yet have access to the substantive details of the report, the initial findings as summarized by Attorney General William Barr state that the investigation did not find that the president or his campaign staff coordinated with the Russian government in election meddling. However, the report itself did not provide a conclusion on the obstruction of justice question as it relates to actions like the firing of former FBI Director James Comey. Naturally, the president immediately took the opportunity to make this all about himself and claim that he was completely exonerated (he wasn’t). But it’s important to step back from the all-consuming drama of the White House to see the broader picture of the investigation. This was so much more than just an investigation into the president, and the findings of the inquiry were deeply disturbing.
First of all, regardless of your feelings towards the president, everyone should be relieved at the news that no clear conspiracy was found. The thought of the president of the United States being compromised by or showing allegiance to a hostile foreign power is an unimaginably dire threat to national security. It’s the plot of bad spy movies for a reason. But the investigation was about so much more than one person. From the start, it was all about the larger Russian influence operation. At it’s heart, this was a counter-intelligence investigation of an attack on the American homeland. By that measure, the investigation has been a clear success to uncover the truth. For decades, we tended to focus on the United States in its efforts to influence other nations, but we need to pay attention to the other side of that equation. The influence operations can go both ways. The truth of Russia’s broad and calculated influence operation is a fact that is clearly established in this investigation, and one that should not be ignored in the larger discussion.
So what do we know so far? We don’t have a detailed version of the report yet, but several facts have already been established via what are known as “speaking indictments.” These are the indictments already filed and made public by the Special Counsel which provide critical background into the dozens of criminal charges against Russian citizens and several Trump campaign members. The Russian influence operation took two major tracks. The first was an effort to divide the American public and erode faith in free media and government institutions. The American public was already deeply divided over partisan fights and issues surrounding race, immigration, and cultural identity. Russia exploited and amplified these divisions using social media tools. The second major track was the hacking efforts against top Democratic operatives and Hillary Clinton staffers. The calculated release of these emails helped divert attention away from major problems in the Trump campaign (like the infamous Access Hollywood tape). It’s one thing for a rival political campaign to engage in the targeted release of incriminating evidence like this, but it’s another issue entirely when a foreign nation does it as part of a coordinated information attack.
But if the Russians didn’t change any vote totals, what’s the big deal? The importance of such nefarious influence operations should be obvious. If a government leader is compromised or beholden to a foreign power, they certainly aren’t going to represent your best interests as a voter. The Soviets used this exact same playbook to destabilize nations across Eastern Europe during the Cold War. More recently, misinformation campaigns have been waged in places like Ukraine, leading to widespread chaos and warfare. Such operations have brought down or corrupted many governments, leaving them vulnerable to Russia’s insidious mafia-like control. Fortunately, it appears this worst-case scenario hasn’t happened to the United States, but Russian efforts continue every day to divide the population and erode confidence in democratic principles and the rule of law.
So if there was no underlying crime, why would obstruction of justice matter? At it’s heart, this was a counter-intelligence investigation. Because of the efforts of the Special Counsel, we have a much clearer understanding of the strategies and tactics that a hostile foreign nation used to attack American democracy. The president reportedly sought to end this investigation (possibly because he believed it to be all about himself). But had he succeeded in shutting it down, he would have prevented America’s intelligence agencies from knowing more about this attack and finding ways to prevent future occurrences. Such conduct, which may or may not be considered criminal, wouldn’t seem to be in America’s best strategic interests. The work of this investigation has likely made the United States safer and more prepared to prevent further acts of information warfare and cyber attack.
Instead of celebrating or condemning the findings regarding the president, we should all recognize that what was found is a staggering violation of American national sovereignty and a clear attack on democracy. Such a statement can be said while still acknowledging that it appears that no vote totals were altered. What we know is that other nations successfully influenced our elections, and will try to do so again. But the news doesn’t have to be all bad. Russia’s election meddling was a clear success in the fact that an apparently Russia-friendly leader was elected and the American public is deeply divided and somewhat skeptical of America’s leadership role in the world. But this has also galvanized a large portion of the population to get informed and take their responsibility as voters seriously. After all, each passing day is a veritable civics lesson. Another election is just around the corner. With the near certainty that nations will attempt to attack the democratic process again, it is more important than ever to learn how to spot misleading information and attempts at social media manipulation. Each day, you are being targeted by influence operations. Will you defend yourself?