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The Russia Investigations: More Pleas, More Charges — Any More Preparation?

Former Trump campaign official Rick Gates arrives at the Prettyman Federal Courthouse on Friday in Washington, D.C. He confirmed that he is changing his plea to guilty.
Mark Wilson
Getty Images
Former Trump campaign official Rick Gates arrives at the Prettyman Federal Courthouse on Friday in Washington, D.C. He confirmed that he is changing his plea to guilty.

This week in the Russia investigations: More newcomers join Mueller's roll of honor; the feds meet with state officials on election security; and Washington starts thinking about considering some potential planning to defend the 2018 midterms.


Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller broke his own record this week for guilty pleas. On Tuesday, Dutch attorney Alex van der Zwaan appeared in federal court and admitted he had lied to investigators about his contacts with Donald Trump's former campaign vice chairman, Rick Gates.

On Friday, Gates himself appeared before a federal judge and confirmed that he is changing his plea to guilty. He had been fighting the case brought against him and the former Trump campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, which alleged they laundered millions of dollars and broke other laws related to their work for clients in Ukraine.

That makes the fourth and fifth pleas in the Russia imbroglio — but how much closer does it bring an answer to the question about whether the Trump campaign conspired with the Russians who attacked the 2016 election?

Maybe not at all.

Gates and Manafort have not been charged with conspiracy to defraud the U.S. by "impairing, obstructing and defeating the lawful functions of the government through fraud and deceit for the purpose of interfering with the U.S. political and electoral processes." That was the charge Mueller leveled at 13 Russians and three Russian companies who he says did interfere with the election.

Or the special counsel's office could be laying down one brick in a larger structure. At the very least, Gates' future testimony against his longtime business partner raises the likelihood that Manafort could be convicted of some or all of the charges he continues fighting.

Manafort and his lawyers know this. So one of Mueller's strategies in getting Gates to turn state's evidence might be to persuade Manafort to do the same and tell what he knows about other people in the Trump campaign orbit.

Or evidence from Gates might be what the special counsel's office needs to build a case against Manafort for conspiring in the 2016 Russian interference effort. Or, after years of working with Manafort, Gates might have other evidence that would permit Mueller to bring new charges against Manafort.

Mueller announced a new indictment in Manafort's case on Friday evening. After Gates appeared in federal court Friday to enter his plea, Manafort continued to maintain his innocence and said he remained committed "to defend myself against the untrue piled up charges contained in the indictments against me."

As usual, only Mueller's team knows where all this is headed. After nearly a year of work, however — on top of the previous FBI investigation that began in the summer of 2016 — some patterns and priorities are becoming clear.

One is that the special counsel's office has a massive trove of information at its command, down to microscopic details about who said what to whom in which email sent when. It knew when Manafort was making particular edits in a certain Google document, for example.

Another is that it has become adept — as shown by its five pleas — at concluding agreements that involve gaining the cooperation of onetime targets in its investigation. No one knows how far up the ladder that technique may enable Mueller to reach.

Sound the alarm — but don't be alarming

In an alternate universe, the big story this week might have been about the summit at which the nation's secretaries of state and other elections officials convened in Washington, D.C. They talked about the threats to voting in 2018, and they got a briefing from top federal national security officials, as NPR's Miles Parks reported.

One challenge, as our Parks wrote, is that state leaders want to strike a balance between warning voters about Russia's ongoing active measures but not scaring them so much they lose confidence in voting.

"I'm always trying to straddle the line between sounding the alarm on this issue and being alarmist," said Steve Simon, Minnesota's secretary of state.

States say they're working though, preparing for cyberattacks like the ones that probed elections systems in 2016. And their once-chilly relationship with the federal government on the issue of election security is thawing somewhat, although state-level leaders also grumbled that the briefing they got didn't go into the levels of detail they wanted.

That tension may never be resolved, especially after last year's unauthorized leak of a National Security Agency report about a cyberattack by Russia's military intelligence agency, the GRU.

It documented how much the NSA knows about one specific attempt to compromise a Florida elections vendor, but it was only a tantalizing view through a keyhole. Everyone knows there is more here behind the scenes. Rather than giving the public information at that same level of detail, the government is prosecuting the woman who allegedly released it.

Karina Smith holds her 2-year-old son Kyler as she fills out her ballot last November in Alexandria, Va.
Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
Getty Images
Karina Smith holds her 2-year-old son Kyler as she fills out her ballot last November in Alexandria, Va.

Should somebody do something?

Mueller's office changes the Russia imbroglio every time it acts. Few things, though, so far have created such a political reaction as the indictment of the Russian social media influencemongers.

President Trump acknowledged the active measures after changing his position many times. Members of Congress began to call for more action. And although Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from the DOJ Russia investigation, he got back into the game too.

Sessions called for the creation of a new cyber task force that will give him recommendations by June 30 for how the Justice Department's various agencies can tighten their electronic defenses.

As Defense Department officials like to say, however, the enemy also gets a vote. So how much of the work that D.C. is undertaking might amount to generals preparing to fight the last war?

The 2018 story is already different. America's spy bosses have warned unequivocally that the active measures campaign not only is coming back this year, but also it never stopped. So the United States — and especially its government agencies — won't be taken by surprise in the same way they were before.

Unless, of course, they are because the attacks come in different form.

Mueller's indictment last week of Russian operatives showed the extent of the preparations and ingenuity that Russia's intelligence agencies used in preparing the 2016 active measures.

That indictment alleges that human operatives traveled to the United States to do reconnaissance years before the fact. Influencemongers used information stolen about real Americans to mask their identities. They sometimes connected to the Internet using a virtual private network that enabled them to appear to be inside the U.S. and so on.

There are more than 100 Russian intelligence officers or other agents running around the United States, as the head of counterintelligence for the U.S. spy agencies told NPR in late 2016. (And those are just the ones he knows about.) So whatever the Russian intelligence agencies — the GRU, the foreign intelligence SVR or the more domestic-focused FSB — want to do, their people are likely already here in the U.S. doing it.

The most optimistic view is the one held by people such as Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, who say the simple expectation of an attack has already spoiled how effective it could be.

"The American people are smart people," he said earlier this month. "They realize people are attempting to manipulate them, both domestically and foreign."

No number of warnings about social media agitation, however, can inoculate an individual email user with a weak Gmail password or prevent the feeding frenzy in the press after embarrassing messages start to appear in public. And those are just the tactics we know about.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Philip Ewing is an election security editor with NPR's Washington Desk. He helps oversee coverage of election security, voting, disinformation, active measures and other issues. Ewing joined the Washington Desk from his previous role as NPR's national security editor, in which he helped direct coverage of the military, intelligence community, counterterrorism, veterans and more. He came to NPR in 2015 from Politico, where he was a Pentagon correspondent and defense editor. Previously, he served as managing editor of Military.com, and before that he covered the U.S. Navy for the Military Times newspapers.