Mueller’s Investigation into Russian Interference in U.S. Elections: What Does Indictment Mean?

On February 16, the Grand Jury, convened by special counsel Robert Mueller, charged 13 Russian nationals and three Russian organizations with illegally using social media platforms to influence the 2016 election. In the Q&A that follows, Stanford Law School Professor David Sklansky discusses the indictment, laws that were broken, and what’s next in the Mueller investigation.

What laws were broken?

The indictment charges three different crimes: first, conspiracy to defraud the United States, in order to facilitate interference with political and electoral processes; second, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud, by opening bank accounts and PayPal accounts under false names; and third, aggravated identity theft.  All of this relates to efforts to tamper with American politics through orchestrated internet trolling.

How serious are these charges?

They’re serious. The charges are all felonies, and collectively they expose defendants to long periods of incarceration—if the defendants ever are brought to trial and convicted. The charges also detail an alarmingly elaborate Russian operation aimed at disrupting American politics, influencing our elections, and pitting Americans against each other.

Does it show that the Russian government was involved?

The indictment charges that the trolling operations were run by organizations that were registered with the Russian government and had contracts with the Russian government.  It doesn’t actually allege that the Russian government directed the operations, but it is difficult to imagine activities of the kind detailed in the indictment taking place without the encouragement and support of Russian officials.

As a former prosecutor, how solid do you think the case is?

The indictment isn’t evidence; it’s just a statement of charges that a grand jury has found are supported by probable cause.  Nonetheless, this indictment goes into considerable detail about specific acts by the defendants in furtherance of the charged activity—specific accounts they opened, specific statements they posted and emails they sent, specific ads they purchased, specific trips they took to the United States to gather intelligence, and specific rallies they organized.  There’s no reason to believe that Mueller and his team lack evidence for any of these specific allegations.  And if they have the evidence, it’s a strong case.

These are Russian nationals and Russian organizations. How can the U.S. bring them to trial?

They can try to extradite them, and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein says those efforts are beginning. I wouldn’t hold my breath, though, that any of the indicted individuals will appear in a U.S. court in the foreseeable future.

What’s the next step for Mueller and his team?

I assume that they are continuing to investigate the extent of the scheme charged in this indictment, the nature of the Russian government’s involvement, and the possible complicity of any U.S. citizens.  The indictment alleges that the Russians were in contact with “unwitting” members of the Trump campaign, but Mueller and his team will want to know if any Americans knowingly participated in the conspiracy.  Simultaneously, they will also be pursuing several other strands of their investigation, including other contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian emissaries, and any obstruction of justice following the election.

Does this signal a conclusion to the Russian investigation?

Far from it.  It shows how much progress Mueller and his team have made, and the seriousness of the conduct they are investigating.  There’s nothing here that suggests the investigation will be wrapping anytime soon, or that it should.

David Alan Sklansky is the Stanley Morrison Professor of Law and Faculty Co-Directory of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center. He is the author of Democracy and the Police (Stanford University Press 2008), and he writes regularly about criminal procedure and law enforcement.