I can’t trust everything I read online? Yikes!

As just about every American knows, the US grand jury supervised by Special Counsel Robert Mueller III has recently issued an indictment naming twelve Russians and three Russian businesses as defendants.

The indictment alleges that, during the 2016 U.S. presidential election, the defendants “engaged in operations primarily intended to communicate derogatory information about Hillary Clinton, to denigrate other candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump.”

These “operations,” according to the grand jury, involved violations of U.S. laws (a) prohibiting foreigners from spending to influence federal elections, (b) barring foreigners from engaging in U.S. political activities without first registering with the Attorney General, and (c) prohibiting false applications for U.S. visas.

It is worth noting what the indictment most particularly does not allege: the indictment does not allege that any person working for the Trump campaign colluded or conspired with any of the defendants in any way.

In that regard, the indictment states: “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.”

The word “unwitting” in the preceding sentence is key.  The grand jury believes that some of the defendants did contact persons in the Trump campaign and “other political activists” (presumable associated with other campaigns), but the persons contacted were ignorant of any Russian associations.  It would follow that they were also ignorant of any violations of U.S. law.

The indictment also does not say that any of the defendants’ “operations” had any effect on the outcome of the election.  What it does say is that, starting sometime in 2015, the defendants spent “thousands of dollars every month” to spread derogatory information about Clinton and other candidates.

It’s informative to compare these expenditures with the amounts raised by the two major campaigns: the Clinton campaign and groups allied with her campaign raised $1.4 billion; the Trump campaign and allies raised roughly $958 million.  You can make your own judgment as to what effect the expenditure of “thousands of dollars every month” is likely to have in a contest in which the two major campaigns spent hundreds of millions of dollars month after month.

What I’m suggesting here is that the biggest take-away from the latest development in the Special Counsel’s investigation is this: you should not trust everything you read or see on the internet.  I would also suggest that that bit of advice will not come as news to those of us who haven’t been snoozing under a rock for the last several decades.

This is not to say that Russian interference in U.S. elections, or in the elections of any democratic country, should not be resisted in every way reasonably possible.  Free and fair elections are a precious part of the democratic heritage, and of course we ought to do everything to enforce laws that protect those elections from improper interference.

But, even if the U.S., or any other democracy, were able to eliminate every iota of improper foreign interference, that of course would not guarantee that every statement and claim made in the course of a presidential election would be completely accurate.

In the U.S., our own home-grown, made-in-America political candidates and their campaigns have been known to exaggerate their own virtues and to denigrate the qualities of their competitors.  It is even the case that, from time to time in the course of our election campaigns, falsehoods are uttered.  None of this will change if we scrub away every bit of unlawful foreign interference.

Nothing I have said is intended as a negative criticism of Mueller or his grand jury.  They cannot properly indict people for crimes unless they have uncovered sufficient evidence of criminality.  And, if they do find evidence of criminality, they should indict people even if the alleged crimes are not the most earth-shaking.  The Special Counsel’s grand jury believes it has uncovered sufficient evidence of Russian interference, and it is therefore appropriate that an indictment should issue, even if the interference had no discernible effect on the outcome of the election.

What ought to be criticized, however, is the blatant, heavy-handed politicization of the Special Counsel’s efforts.  When the latest indictment was issued, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D. Cal.) asserted: “As desperately as President Trump insists that the Special Counsel investigation is a ‘hoax,’ these latest indictments build on multiple guilty pleas and indictments of several Trump campaign officials, demonstrating the gravity of the Trump-Russia scandal.”

The truth, however, is that the indictment does not demonstrate anything about a “Trump-Russia” scandal.  The indictment in fact alleges only a “Russia” scandal; the only named defendants are all Russians.

If the allegations in the indictment are proven, we will have yet another reason to be cautious about accepting the truth of what we see and read on the internet.  But, any thoughtful and serious person already knew that a critical, discerning judgment was absolutely necessary to separate the wheat from the chaff online.  In these hectic times, we should all try to keep things in perspective.

About the Author
David E. Weisberg is a semi-retired attorney and a member of the N.Y. Bar; he also has a Ph.D. in Philosophy from The University of Michigan (1971). He now lives in Cary, NC. His scholarly papers on U.S. constitutional law can be read on the Social Science Research Network at: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/cf_dev/AbsByAuth.cfm?per_id=2523973
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