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What the latest Russia probe indictments show for the first time

While President Trump condemned the Russia probe as a "rigged witch hunt," Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced the indictment of 12 Russian military officers for conspiring to interfere with the 2016 presidential election. The charges come three days before Trump is set to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Judy Woodruff talks with former FBI agent Asha Rangappa.

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    Two leading stories this Friday night, new legal charges in the special counsel's Russia investigation, as President Trump stirs things up in his visit to Britain.

    We begin with the indictments returned by a federal grand jury in Washington.


    I would call it the witch-hunt. I would call it the rigged witch-hunt.


    While President Trump spent part of his day in Europe condemning the Russia probe, Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general of the United States, met cameras back in Washington to announce yet more charges in the investigation.


    The indictment charges 12 Russian military officers by name for conspiring to interfere with the 2016 presidential election.


    The indictment formally alleges that a dozen Russian intelligence officials hacked into the computers of the Clinton campaign, the Democratic Party, and state election officials, and staged the public release of damaging information.

    The indictment doesn't charge that Russians changed the outcome of the election, nor that any Americans knowingly corresponded with Russian officials.


    We need to work together to hold the perpetrators accountable. 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.


    The announcement comes just three days before President Trump is set to meet in Finland one-on-one with Russia's President Vladimir Putin.

    Today on Capitol Hill, Democrats sharply questioned if that meeting should still take place.

  • Senate Intelligence Vice Chairman Mark Warner:


    If the president and his team are not willing to make the facts of this indictment a top priority at the meeting in Helsinki, then the summit should be canceled.


    And Adam Schiff, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee:


    Let's not add insult to injury to our allies by having a lovey-dovey meeting between the president of the United States and the man responsible for just hacking into our elections.


    President Trump's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, celebrated the announcement, tweeting: "Time for Mueller to end this pursuit of the president."

    The White House echoed that sentiment, adding that the charges didn't name anyone on the Trump campaign.

    For a closer look at these indictments and the questions still not answered about the investigations into election interference, I'm joined by Asha Rangappa. She's a former FBI agent who specialized in counterintelligence investigations. She is now a lecturer at Yale University.

    Asha Rangappa, welcome to the NewsHour.

    What is your main takeaway from these indictments returned today?


    Well, I think there are two big takeaways from the indictments.

    The first is that this is — these are the first charges we're seeing from Mueller that is directly supporting the I.C. assessment that Russia, as a nation state, hacked into the DNC e-mail server, weaponized that information and tried to influence the election, and indeed even went further than that, went into state boards of elections and took voter data.

    We had indictments of Russians before, but those weren't directly tied to Russian intelligence. There were links. But these are Russian military intelligence officers.

    The other big takeaway is that Mueller is going after the Russians, and this is important because, ultimately, this is a counterintelligence investigation. And under the special counsel regulations under which he's appointed, he doesn't have the authority to create a public report to Congress.

    So these indictments are, in a way, a vehicle for him to let the public know exactly how Russia executed its covert operation in their election meddling efforts.


    I think some people are looking at this and saying, well, no Americans were named. The Trump White House, the president, the people around the president are pointing that out. The president's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani pointed that out.

    It's as if they're saying, well, this is just something the Russians did, Americans weren't involved.


    That's true. There aren't Americans directly charged in this indictment.

    But, Judy, we need to remember that indictments can be superseded, which means they can be amended to include new defendants. And it's important to note there are conspiracy charges in this indictment, conspiracy to commit computer crimes.

    And so anyone who could be a part of that conspiracy, meaning that they knew what was going on and did even one act in furtherance of it, can be added.

    So we know there's a reporter that might have been in contact, a person running for U.S. Congress who was soliciting some information, and a senior Trump official who was in contact. Whether this was knowing or not will make a huge difference, but I think it doesn't mean that it's the end of the story on this particular set of allegations.


    So, in other words, even though these 12 individuals, these intelligence officers, may never be brought to justice — and it's hard to believe the Russians would willingly turn these people over — you're saying this is still significant?


    This is absolutely still significant.

    You know, in the world of intelligence, you typically don't lay out for your adversary that you know what you have uncovered. You don't want to lay your cards on the table.

    And it's actually a risk for Mueller, because, in the previous indictment with Russians, the companies that were conducting the disinformation campaign, they have fought back in court. And this places Mueller in a position of having to reveal in discovery how he obtained this information, which can give Russia a heads-up on our sources and methods.

    So I think he has decided that it is very important for the public to know exactly what occurred and how it occurred in order for them to understand the threat that otherwise might be invisible.


    Asha Rangappa, can we tell from looking at these indictments returned today how much more there is? How much a part of the bigger puzzle do we now have completed at this point?


    So, there are several threads to what we have been referring to as Russia's active measures.

    There's the disinformation campaign, where there have been indictments. There is this hacking effort, which now there are indictments. There may be a campaign finance violations, for which there may indictments.

    And then, I think, the question is, again, who was helping the Russians? It would be highly unusual for a foreign intelligence service to be able to execute something in the United States without people on the ground helping them.

    Now, those could be Russian agents. They could be U.S. persons. But I would be surprised if there weren't other people that were eventually named in assisting or facilitating Russia in helping to carry out what is a very elaborate campaign to meddle in our election.


    Meaning, could be Americans named?


    It could be Americans, absolutely.


    Unanswered questions, what do you still want to know? What should we be looking for that the special — for the special counsel to tell us the next time there is an indictment returned, if there is one?


    Well, I think what I am curious about, in light of this most recent set of indictments, is what this means in terms of some of the actions and contacts in the Trump campaign, for example, the Trump Tower meeting, which was initiated by an offer of e-mails or dirt on Hillary Clinton, which we now know is linked back to Russian intelligence.

    There is also communications between Donald Trump Jr. and Roger Stone with WikiLeaks, which is named as organization one, but it's in the indictment as coordinating with Russian intelligence. Again, these could be knowing, unknowing or unwitting, but I think there is more scrutiny on why these contacts have been denied.

    And then, Judy, I think there is the very puzzling call-out during the debate by then candidate Trump for Russia to hack into Hillary Clinton's mails. And in the indictment, there was at least one attempt on that same evening.

    So, again, timing, coincidence, witting or not, I think that all those things will take on more scrutiny, and there are more questions on timing and what people knew.


    So, just quickly, does this tell us this is about to wrap up soon, or not?


    I don't think this is close to wrapping up at all.

    In fact, I think that what this shows is that Mueller is investigating a number of different fronts. He is proceeding full speed ahead on all of them. He's even preparing for trial with Manafort now.

    So I think, for those who think this could wrap up before the midterm elections, I think they will be disappointed.


    Asha Rangappa, we thank you very much.


    Thank you.

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