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Russia indictments lay the foundation for broader conspiracy charges, says former FBI special counsel

After months of downplaying Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential election, President Trump lashed out on Twitter this weekend over the special counsel’s indictment of 13 Russian officials. Matthew Olsen, a former special counsel to Robert Mueller when he director of the FBI, talks about the indictment and what it means for the investigation.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now to the continued fallout over the sprawling indictment of 13 Russian nationals for intervening in the 2016 presidential election.

    In a moment, William Brangham will take an in-depth look at the charges.

    But, first, White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor has some of the backstory, beginning with the president's reaction.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    President Trump didn't speak publicly about the bombshell indictment during his weekend away from Washington. His venting, instead, came through some 20-odd tweets since Saturday.

    More than half were related to the indictment or the Russia investigation in general. In several tweets, including one today, Mr. Trump blamed former President Obama for not doing enough about Russia's meddling.

    Mr. Trump also claimed he — quote — "never said Russia didn't meddle in the election."

    But last July, in an interview with Reuters, Mr. Trump wouldn't say if he believed Russia actually meddled in the 2016 election. Mr. Trump said then that he raised the issue with Putin twice, and that Putin denied any meddling. Mr. Trump then told Reuters — quote — "So, something happened, and we have to find out what it is."

    Special counsel Robert Mueller's indictment against the Internet Research Agency, other Russian associates and companies alleges that Russian entities did have — quote — "a strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and acted toward that goal."

    On Saturday, the president's national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, left little doubt about where he stood.

  • H.R. McMaster:

    As you can see with the FBI indictment, the evidence is now really incontrovertible and available in the public domain.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Mr. Trump attacked that as well over the weekend.

    "General McMaster," he tweeted, "forgot to say that the results of the 2016 election were not impacted or changed by the Russians."

    The indictment does claim that the Russian defendants aimed to hurt some of the 2016 presidential candidates, like Democrat Hillary Clinton, and Republican senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and to support President Trump, as well as one Democratic candidate, independent Senator Bernie Sanders. Sanders, over the weekend, said that lined up with some of what he knew from 2016.

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.:

    And it turns out that one of our social media guys in San Diego actually went to the Clinton campaign in September and said, something weird is going on. Bernie's not in the campaign. Hundreds of these people are now coming on to his Facebook site.

    So I think we already knew that it was an effort to undermine American democracy and to really say horrible things about Secretary Clinton.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The indictment alleges that, as part of the Russian operation, some of the defendants — quote — "traveled to the United States under false pretenses for the purpose of collecting intelligence to inform defendants' operations."

    That's in direct conflict to President Trump's remarks in West Virginia this past August.

  • President Donald Trump:

    The Russian story is a total fabrication. Have you seen any Russians in West Virginia or Ohio or Pennsylvania? Are there any Russians here tonight? Any Russians?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    And when Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced the indictment last week, he went into detail about the rallies that the Russian defendants allegedly helped arrange using social media.

  • Rod Rosenstein:

    The Russians also recruited and paid real Americans to engage in political activities, promote political campaigns, and stage political rallies.

    The defendants and their co-conspirators pretended to be grassroots activists. According to the indictment, the Americans didn't know that they were communicating with Russians. After the election, the defendants allegedly staged rallies to support the president-elect, while simultaneously staging rallies to protest his election.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The indictment says that rallies, allegedly boosted by the Russian defendants, happened before and after the election in Florida, New York, North Carolina, and Washington, D.C.

    At a Senate hearing last week, the administration's intelligence chiefs fielded questions about whether President Trump specifically asked them to take actions to curb future Russian election operations.

  • Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I.:

    Has the president directed you and your agency to take specific actions to confront and blunt Russian influence activities that are ongoing?

  • Christopher Wray:

    Not as specifically directed by the president, no.

  • Mike Rogers:

    For us, I can't say that I have been explicitly directed to — quote — "blunt" or actively stop. On the other hand, it's very clear generate knowledge and insight, help us understand this, so we can generate better policy. That clearly — that direction has been very explicit, in fairness.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The intelligence officials told the panel they had no reason to believe Russia's efforts would subside. Mr. Trump claims last week's indictment proves his campaign didn't collude with Russia. But Mueller's investigation into that possibility continues.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Yamiche Alcindor.

  • William Brangham:

    This indictment of over a dozen Russians for committing — quote — "information warfare" on the United States is, without a doubt, a major development in the special counsel's investigation into Russian meddling in our last election.

    Matthew Olsen ran the National Counterterrorism Center during the Obama administration, and was a longtime federal prosecutor.

    Welcome back to the "NewsHour."

  • Matthew Olsen:

    Thanks, William.

  • William Brangham:

    So, give me your initial impressions of this indictment.

  • Matthew Olsen:

    Yes.

    So, I think the most striking thing about the indictment when you read it is the extraordinary detail that it includes about this information warfare campaign that the Russians carried out. This is a speaking indictment, what prosecutors call speaking indictment.

    Prosecutors could just lay out the bare elements of the crime, but in this case, the special counsel went to great pains to establish each of the facts necessary to show this really systematic effort to conspire against the United States.

    And it's important to bear in mind that, for every overt act in this indictment, that means that the special counsel believes he has provable evidence, he has facts that he can demonstrate in court to back up these facts, as your opening showed, of infiltration of the United States by Russian operatives to do all manner of things, including set up phony rallies and establish fake personas for Americans.

  • William Brangham:

    Some have referred to this as a message indictment, meaning, we're not going to any time soon see any of these Russians put on a plane and extradited to the U.S.

    So is Mueller sending a message with this? Is this laying out in such explicit detail, that's the purpose, in and of itself?

  • Matthew Olsen:

    Well, I think it does send that message. And, as you say, it's unlikely that these individuals will be in the United States in a courtroom any time soon.

    But it does much more than that. This indictment is a foundational indictment. It establishes the bedrock foundation of this conspiracy charge on which the special counsel can now build a broader case. And I think there's every reason to expect, given the extraordinary detail in this indictment, as well as the fact that there are a number of cooperating witnesses who have pled guilty now and are assisting the special counsel, including, for example, Mike Flynn, to expect that there will be additional charges on top of this foundational charging document.

  • William Brangham:

    In this indictment, there's no specific mention that these operators, these actors were being told to do what they did by the Kremlin.

    That is the assumption that everyone makes. Do you believe beyond a shadow of a doubt this is a Putin operation?

  • Matthew Olsen:

    I believe what the intelligence community has said about this from the early days of it first being exposed by our intelligence leaders and officials.

    And that is that this type of operation wouldn't occur without explicit direction of the Kremlin, including Putin himself. And I think that's absolutely consistent with everything I have seen.

  • William Brangham:

    You mentioned that this is building the foundation for further possible conspiracy charges.

    What else about this? Does this give you any greater sense of where the probe is going forward?

  • Matthew Olsen:

    It does.

    Again, this is a conspiracy charge that just charged the Russian side of this. I think that that, in my view, is potentially a strategic decision by the special counsel to make this a very apolitical charging document, because it's focused on the Russians.

    But if you look at the document itself, it talks about the grand jury charged individuals known and unknown who conspired, that there are others who are known and unknown to the grand jury who are part of this.

    So, again, there are other charges. For example, the hacking of the Democratic National Committee, we know that's a crime. That's not charged here. Obstruction of justice is also within the purview of this investigation.

    So, again, I think there's every reason to expect that this is really the first major salvo in what is likely to be additional charges with other crimes, as well as other individuals charged.

  • William Brangham:

    All of the intel chiefs have said Russia meddled and they they're going to — were going to do it again.

    For the record, the White House gave us a statement today, saying that President Trump does take this very seriously, that he's going to do everything he can to defend the next election. They pointed out that they held a hearing last week with state and local election officials to talk about meddling.

    Do you think, looking at the landscape now, that we are doing enough to defend the next election from this kind of attack?

  • Matthew Olsen:

    You know, there have been some signs of additional efforts being done, but I think the answer to your question is definitively no.

    We lack from the very top, from the leader, from the commander in chief, a definitive statement saying that this was the Russians and that he is not going to blame others, for example, President Obama, but he is going to blame the people who are responsible. And that is the Russians, including the Russian government.

    And there are lots — there's lots more that he can do, that the president can do, and the government can do to make Russia pay a price, including sanctions and including other activities that the government can — our government can undertake.

    As of this point, the president really hasn't stepped up to his constitutional obligation to defend our democracy. He's actually failed to do that. And I think that's what we will be looking for in the future from the president.

  • William Brangham:

    Matthew Olsen, thank you very much.

  • Matthew Olsen:

    Thank you.

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