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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Trump: ‘No Collusion!’

A tweet from President Trump, and a White House statement, claims the indictment handed down against 13 Russian nationals and three Russian organizations for illegally interfering in the 2016 election indicates there was “no collusion” between Russians and the Trump campaign, and that “the results of the election were not impacted.” But the indictment did not go that far on either count.

The indictment alleges the defendants used the names of U.S. citizens and companies to illegally buy political ads on social media and stage political rallies.

Although some of the activity dated back to 2014, the indictment states that by early to mid-2016, the defendants’ operation included supporting Trump and disparaging Hillary Clinton.

According to the indictment, “Some defendants, posing as U.S. persons and without revealing their Russian association, communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump Campaign and with other political activists to seek to coordinate political activities.”

In a Feb. 16 press conference announcing the indictment, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein reiterated that the communications established by the defendants were made with “unwitting Americans.”

“Now, there is no allegation in this indictment that any American was a knowing participant in this illegal activity,” Rosenstein said. “There is no allegation in the indictment that the charged conduct altered the outcome of the 2016 election.

In the hours after Rosenstein’s press conference, Trump tweeted:

A press release issued by White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders echoed those points.

Statement from the press secretary regarding the Russia Indictments, Feb. 16: President Donald J. Trump has been fully briefed on this matter and is glad to see the Special Counsel’s investigation further indicates — that there was NO COLLUSION between the Trump campaign and Russia and that the outcome of the election was not changed or affected.

But that’s not what Rosenstein, or the indictment presented by the U.S. special counsel’s office, stated.

Rosenstein merely stated that there was no allegation in “this indictment” that any Americans — including those in the Trump campaign — wittingly participated in “this illegal activity.” (Emphasis is ours.)

According to Rosenstein, the Russians “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 did not know that they were communicating with Russians.”

Later, Rosenstein noted that, “the nature of the scheme was the defendants took extraordinary steps to make it appear that they were ordinary American political activists, even going so far as to base their activities on a virtual private network here in the United States so, if anybody traced it back to that first jump, they appeared to be Americans.”

In other words, those who may have been paid by the Russians for social media ads, or to stage rallies, did not knowingly collude with the Russians.

Trump’s tweet goes beyond what Rosenstein and the indictment stated. His tweet assumes there is no investigation beyond what was revealed in the Feb. 16 indictment. And we just don’t know one way or the other what other things Mueller may be investigating.

Bloomberg reported after the indictment was announced that, “Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his prosecutors haven’t concluded their investigation into whether President Donald Trump or any of his associates helped Russia interfere in the 2016 election, according to a person with knowledge of the probe.”

As for Trump’s claim that the indictment indicates that “the results of the election were not impacted,” that also goes beyond what Rosenstein said.

Again, Rosenstein said, “There is no allegation in the indictment that the charged conduct altered the outcome of the 2016 election.” That’s consistent with a declassified intelligence report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence that was released on Jan. 6, 2017. That report accused Russia of meddling in the 2016 election on Trump’s behalf, but it “did not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcomes of the 2016 election.”

According to that DNI report, “The US Intelligence Community is charged with monitoring and assessing the intentions, capabilities, and actions of foreign actors; it does not analyze US political processes or US public opinion.”

As we wrote when Vice President Mike Pence recently repeated the false talking point that U.S. intelligence agencies came to the “universal conclusion” that Russia’s meddling had no impact on the election results, the intelligence community has not concluded one way or the other if Russia’s influence campaign affected the election outcome.

In this case, Rosenstein acknowledged there was “no allegation” in the indictment that the Russians’ social media campaign or rallies swayed votes. The impact of these activities is possibly unknowable.