In the old TV show “Perry Mason,” popular when Donald Trump was a teen, the no-nonsense defense attorney would often exonerate his client by questioning a witness so skillfully that the real criminal broke down and confessed.
Speaking to reporters in Great Britain Friday morning, Trump cautioned that he expected no such moment to come when he talked with Russian President Vladimir Putin about meddling in the 2016 election early next week.
“I don’t think you’ll have any ‘Gee, I did it, I did it, you got me,’” Trump said. “There won’t be a Perry Mason here, I don’t think, but you never know what happens, right?”
A little over two hours later, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein went on live TV to showcase a very different version of American justice, one that minimizes dramatic courtroom theatrics in favor of cold, hard facts.
In a press conference at the Department of Justice, the agency’s No. 2 unveiled multiple charges against a dozen Russian intelligence officials for hacking the Democratic National Committee’s emails, Hillary Clinton’s campaign and state election systems.
In total, Friday’s announcement brought the count for Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team to 191 criminal charges against 32 people and three Russian companies, including Trump’s former campaign head, Paul Manafort; Manafort’s assistant, Rick Gates; his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn; a foreign policy advisor, George Papadopoulos; and 25 Russian nationals. (In an investigation delegated at least in part by Mueller’s office to federal prosecutors in New York, FBI agents also raided the offices of Trump’s longtime attorney, Michael Cohen, who has not been charged with anything so far.)
Mueller’s team has also painted a portrait of a sophisticated operation to disrupt America’s elections in ways that favored Trump, yet still amateurish enough that hackers weren’t entirely sure of the value of what they’d uncovered or when to release it.
According to the charges laid out by Mueller and Rosenstein, agents working for special units of Russia’s military intelligence service, the GRU, began looking for ways to hack the email accounts of volunteers and employees of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in March of 2016. A month later, they began a similar effort to hack the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic National Committee.
One of the methods the Russian hackers used was to send emails that looked to be from Democratic campaign coworkers and included fake links to things like an Excel spreadsheet on Clinton’s favorability ratings, the Justice Department documents charge. Instead, as the Department outlines, the links would install software that allowed them to monitor individual computers and email accounts, download key files and quietly send them back to Russia.
The Russians then created fake online personas, including DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0, to route the stolen information to websites — including one not named in the documents but that matches known activities of WikiLeaks — where it could be published for maximum effect, the charges say.
As in a set of charges from last February, Rosenstein was careful to spell out what the charges do not say — most importantly, that any American knowingly worked with the Russians on this espionage. In fact, the charges make clear that the Russians often used American-based computers paid for with $95,000 worth of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin to conceal their identities and lied about who they were in correspondence with the people they were working with.
“There is no allegation in this indictment that any American citizen committed a crime,” Rosenstein said. “There is no allegation that the conspiracy altered the vote count or changed any election result.”
The White House quickly highlighted that line in its response to the latest charges.
“Today’s charges include no allegations of knowing involvement by anyone on the campaign and no allegations that the alleged hacking affected the election result,” said White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters. “This is consistent with what we have been saying all along.”
Trump, who was having tea with Queen Elizabeth in a working visit to England as Rosenstein spoke, did not personally respond to the charges on Friday, but the deputy attorney general said the President was briefed on them earlier in the week. In his most recent tweets on the Russia investigation, Trump attacked FBI agent Peter Strzok and agency lawyer Lisa Page, who were the subject of an inspector general’s report that criticized them for sending each other texts critical of Trump during the election. As he has done repeatedly in the past, Trump characterized the Mueller probe as a “rigged witch hunt” led by biased partisans.
For Democrats on Capitol Hill, the latest charges were more than enough to convince them that drastic action needed to be taken.
Virginia Sen. Mark Warner, the top-ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told reporters on Friday afternoon that he was “surprised” by the depth of the indictments, which he said were “direct evidence of Russian agents interfering in our election.”
“My hope would be that the president and his allies would cease and desist from calling the Mueller investigation a witch hunt,” he said. He called on Trump to cancel his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki next week. “I’m concerned that the president might haphazardly address this issue and face a denial from Putin,” he said.
He echoed Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York, who said in a statement Friday that the indictments were “further proof of what everyone but the president seems to understand: President Putin is an adversary who interfered in our elections to help President Trump win.”
“President Trump should cancel his meeting with Vladimir Putin until Russia takes demonstrable and transparent steps to prove that they won’t interfere in future elections,” Schumer said. “Glad-handing with Vladimir Putin on the heels of these indictments would be an insult to our democracy.”
Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona also called for Trump to cancel the meeting with Putin on Friday.
“If President Trump is not prepared to hold Putin accountable, the summit in Helsinki should not move forward,” he said.
As he reviewed the indictments, Rosenstein cautioned Americans not to read too much into them beyond the facts they lay out.
“I want to caution you that people who speculate about federal investigations usually do not know all of the relevant facts,” he said before making an apparent reference to this week’s contentious congressional hearings with Strzok. “We do not try cases on television or in congressional hearings. Most anonymous leaks are not from the government officials who are actually conducting these investigations.”
Still, the documents laid out tantalizing clues about people and organizations who might have been involved in the effort which were quickly seized on by close watchers of the investigation.
The charges allege that on Aug. 15, 2016, the Russians wrote to a “person who was in regular contact with senior members” of the Trump campaign asking about the stolen documents just posted online, “thank u for writing back … do u find anyt[h]ing interesting in the docs i posted?” Though unnamed, the account matches conversations that Trump’s longtime confidant Roger Stone has admitted having with Guccifer 2.0 around that time, which he argued were “perfunctory, brief and banal.”
At another point, the documents charge that the Russians attempted to “spearphish” email accounts on a third-party provider and used by Clinton’s personal office for the first time on July 27, 2016 — the same day that Trump said in response to questions about the Democratic National Committee hacking that he hoped the Russians had Clinton’s emails and encouraged them to publish them.
“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump said in a press conference in Florida that day, referencing the controversy over her private email server. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
The documents also note that the Russian agents sent 2.5 gigabytes of data stolen from the DNC to a “then-registered state lobbyist and online source of political news,” who is also unnamed, though the details match a Wall Street Journal story about Florida Republican operative Aaron Nevins; that they sent stolen documents about Black Lives Matter to an unnamed reporter; and that an unnamed congressional candidate contacted Guccifer 2.0 on Aug. 15, 2016, looking for stolen documents relating to their opponent, which were then sent.
In a Facebook status update posted Friday afternoon, former U.S. Rep. Brad Ashford of Nebraska, who was the only Democratic incumbent to lose in 2016, appeared to reference the charges.
“With indictments today, I can reveal that my Campaign emails were hacked by Russian agents in 2016,” he wrote, enigmatically.
The documents also pointed to another area of concern for Americans worried about future Russian interference, noting that the Russians hacked an unidentified state board of elections website and stole names, addresses, partial Social Security numbers, dates of birth and driver’s license numbers on approximately 500,000 voters; hacked a vendor used to verify voter registration information; and targeted the websites and emails of elections boards in Georgia, Iowa and Florida.
The charges came just one day after House Democrats released a report — which no Republican co-signed — identifying 18 states that lack key voting safeguards such as paper trails and calling on Congress to approve $1.4 billion in election security funding.
As he finished his remarks Friday, Rosenstein noted that he had not spoken about Clinton or the Democrats during the press conference, arguing instead that American democracy itself was the victim.
“In my remarks, I have not identified the victims,” he said. “When we confront foreign interference in American elections, it is important for us to avoid thinking politically as Republicans or Democrats and instead to think patriotically as Americans. Our response must not depend on which side was victimized.”
“We need to work together to hold the perpetrators accountable, and we need to keep moving forward to preserve our values, protect against future interference, and defend America,” he added.
With reporting from Nash Jenkins, Abby Vesoulis, Abigail Simon in Washington and Tessa Berenson in Ellesborough, England