WASHINGTON – Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s indictment of 13 Russians over their alleged efforts to elect Donald Trump set off a presidential paroxysm of self-exoneration.
“The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong – no collusion!” President Trump proclaimed in one of his saner tweets of the past four days.
In fact, the Mueller investigation is ongoing and has offered no such conclusions. But what Mueller did expose last week should sicken us all: Vladimir Putin has played Americans across the political spectrum for suckers. In particular, the Russian dictator has turned Trump supporters into the useful idiots of the 21st century.
The phrase “useful idiots,” often attributed to an earlier Vladimir, referred to Westerners who had been successfully manipulated by Soviet propaganda. But even Lenin would have to smile at the way Putin exploited Americans in 2016 to support Trump, or at least to oppose Hillary Clinton. Mueller’s indictment is full of nauseating detail about how Putin made fools of Americans.
Using Facebook groups such as “Being Patriotic,” they organized “March for Trump” and “Down with Hillary” rallies in New York, “Florida Goes Trump” rallies in Florida and “Miners for Trump” rallies in Pennsylvania, among others.
They attracted more than 100,000 followers to a Twitter account falsely claiming to be controlled by the Tennessee Republican Party, @TEN–GOP, and got hundreds of thousands of online followers for groups they created such as “Army of Jesus” and “South United.”
They paid Americans to build a cage on a flatbed truck and to wear a Clinton-in-prison-garb costume. To whip up anti-Muslim fervor to Trump’s benefit, they created a Facebook group called “United Muslims of America” and promoted a rally called “Support Hillary. Save American Muslims,” at which they recruited an actual American to hold a sign saying, “I think Sharia Law will be a powerful new direction of freedom.”
They promoted Trump-friendly hashtags (#MAGA, #Hillary4Prison), created pro-Trump accounts (“Trumpsters United”) and paid for election ads saying, among other things, “Vote Republican, vote Trump, and support the Second Amendment!” and “Hillary is a Satan, and her crimes and lies had proved just how evil she is.”
Putin’s meddling, now exposed, should shame us and unify us in a response. But that won’t happen, because the most useful idiot of all happens to be the president, who is focused only on himself.
In his fit of self-absolution over the holiday weekend, Trump pointed fingers in every direction except Moscow. He went after Barack Obama, Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., Clinton, his own national security adviser, the FBI, CNN – even Oprah Winfrey. He used foul language. He made up facts. He retweeted a cartoon from a now-suspended account already famous for a racist cartoon during the election.
Rather than condemning or countering what the Russians themselves called “information warfare against the United States,” Trump decided to respond with his own pro-Trump information warfare. Upon hearing that there had been a Russian “troll farm” sowing crops in America, he reacted by reminding everybody that he is the Cargill of troll farming.
Perhaps, given the president’s level of intellectual curiosity, he heard Russian “troll farm” on cable news and assumed these trolls were similar to those gentle creatures in the 2016 DreamWorks animated film “Trolls.” But these Russian trolls are not adorable figurines with colorful hair, and their attack on the United States cannot be answered with hugs. These trolls paid actual Americans to attend rallies. They bought ads to allege that Clinton “committed voter fraud.” They manipulated the Black Lives Matter movement by creating groups and accounts such as “Blacktivist” and “Woke Blacks,” attempting to persuade African-Americans to support the Green Party’s Jill Stein or not to vote rather than “to vote Killary.” The Russians even had the nerve to charge real Americans to post promotional material on the phony accounts.
The Russians also used fake identities “to communicate with unwitting members, volunteers, and supporters of the Trump Campaign involved in local community outreach, as well as grassroots groups that supported then-candidate Trump.”
“Unwitting.” Trump and his defenders take that as exoneration, even though it is limited to just this aspect of the probe. But it’s another way of saying they were useful idiots.
Thanks to Mueller, they are now witting. Trump, in his refusal to respond to this Russian attack, continues to play the useful idiot, because it suits his selfish purposes. Will his supporters also continue to let Putin play them for fools?
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.