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The Briefing: Five possible reasons why Mueller indicted the Russians

WASHINGTON – "Why indict a bunch of Russians?"

That seems to be a fairly common question these days among President Trump's supporters, and it's easy to see why. After all, special prosecutor Robert Mueller's indictment of 13 Russian citizens as well as three shady Internet operations isn't exactly likely to result in any actual prosecutions, given that everyone charged remains behind what we used to call the Iron Curtain.

But there are plenty of good reasons that might explain why Mueller brought charges against the Russians. Here are just five:

We're fighting a war. One of the Russians charged in the indictment said in an email that prosecutors obtained that his team was engaged in "information warfare against the United States of America." That being the case, how could Mueller not bring charges? In the 37 -page indictment, he presents compelling evidence that the Russian entities engaged in cyber crimes aimed at boosting Donald Trump in the 2016 election and, more broadly, sow discord throughout American society. Given Mueller's mission – to investigate Russian meddling in the election and any related crimes – he has to fight crime when he finds a crime. And the indictment makes it look like he's found some big ones already.

A warning to the American people. In these deeply partisan times, President Trump and many of his supporters have dismissed Mueller's probe as a partisan witch hunt, even though Mueller himself is a Republican and he keeps finding reason to bring charges against somebody else every few weeks. The pages of the Russia indictment show, though, that Russia's effort to poison American minds preceded the election – which would seem to indicate that it's likely to continue. As Fox News legal analyst Andrew Napolitano said, "The American people are entitled to know what went on under our noses and who knew about this and looked the other way." But this indictment also serves as a warning – as this blog did two days ago – that Americans should take precautions against being manipulated by a foreign power.

An indictment as punishment. Given that the people and companies charged in the indictment are Russian, they will likely never meet justice in a U.S. courtroom. But in cases involving foreign entities, an indictment can serve as a crude partial punishment in and of itself. After all, it means that the people indicted in the case can't leave Russia without risking arrest. Some of the parties charged traveled to America to meddle in the election, but thanks to the indictment, they're not likely to try to do so again.

Somebody might squeal. Mueller doesn't have the same sort of leverage against the Russians as he has against former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and other Americans he has charged in the probe. He doesn't have the same power to pressure the Russians to talk – but that doesn't mean he has no leverage over them at all. After all, the FBI operates all around the world, and chances that agents have methods of getting important leads and other information from people overseas that aren't exactly likely to become public anytime soon. Following those leads could lead Mueller to the "co-conspirators" Mueller's indictment mentions without naming – and maybe, just maybe, they are Americans.

Job protection. President Trump has mused privately  about firing Mueller, but how can he do so now without looking like a stooge for the Russians? He can't. And that means the Russian indictment itself gives Mueller some breathing room to continue his investigation as far as it leads him.

Happening today

President Trump meets with state and local officials on school safety ... Attorney General Jeff Sessions and FBI officials are set to unveil what they call "a significant law enforcement action" ... The U.S. Department of Agriculture spells out its proposed work requirements for food stamp recipients ... The annual Conservative Political Action Conference kicks off with appearances from Vice President Mike Pence, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, former French presidential candidate Marion Marechal-Le Pen and others ... Congress continues its weeklong recess.

Good reads

GQ gives us its take on the 50 most powerful people in President Trump's Washington; among New Yorkers, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer ties with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in fourth place, but neither Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand nor Rep. Chris Collins make the list ... Vox reports on a survey that shows that sexual assault and harassment are common ... Politico dives deep into Twitter's purge of conservative bot accounts ... The Washington Post's Aaron Blake accuses President Trump of having an empathy gap ... And The New York Times reports on Rep. Claudia Tenney, a Utica-area Republican, and her astonishing claim that many mass murderers are Democrats.



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