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The Russia Investigations: Reading Into Mueller's Latest Indictments


We're going to start the program by taking a look at the extraordinary indictment issued by special prosecutor Robert Mueller yesterday. The indictment of 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities, which was announced by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, pointed to a sprawling, well-financed effort to manipulate the sentiments of American voters in the 2016 presidential election. In a few minutes, we're going to get a view from Russia about this.

But first, we wanted to get some insight not just into the charges, but what they might mean and what they might tell us. We called Joyce Vance for this. She spent eight years as the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama. She was nominated by Barack Obama. She now works as a lawyer in Birmingham, and she's a lecturer at the University of Alabama School of Law. We reached her in Birmingham.

Joyce Vance, thank you so much for speaking with us.

JOYCE VANCE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Could you just start by describing in layperson's terms just what these charges are? What is it that the government says these Russian nationals did?

VANCE: So the government has charged the group of Russians who were working what we would call a troll farm, this internet access facility. There were three types of crimes that were committed. One was conspiracy against the United States. One was bank and wire fraud. And the third is aggravated ID theft - aggravated identity theft.

MARTIN: What do you read into - not just the actual charges, but how this case was laid out?

VANCE: Sure.

MARTIN: Does that tell us something?

VANCE: This is an unusual indictment. You know, this is what prosecutors call a speaking indictment. Rather than simply letting the defendants know about the nature of the charges against them and giving them bare-bones allegations, this goes on in some detail, almost like a novella, in 37 pages. It's always dangerous to guess at the motives of prosecutors. It could simply be an effort to be very clear about what's going on here. But it could also be a little bit of an exercise in letting the Russians know how detailed the information special counsel has access to is.

This looks like not just signals intelligence but perhaps some human intelligence. There's a lot of insight into the organization chart in Moscow. That's a very precise level of detail and indicates that Mueller had quite a window into what was going on there.

MARTIN: So that's one question - that there was this Russian effort to do this. The other question is whether the members of the Trump campaign or those close to now President Trump participated. And the particular question is, did they knowingly participate? Does this indictment tell us anything about that?

VANCE: This indictment is really silent as to what comes next. There's a possibility that this is all Mueller's got and that he's done. But we didn't see any sort of finality in the announcement of this indictment. Mueller himself wasn't present. There was nothing that said this is the end. And so it seems reasonable to conclude that investigation continues. We know that there are trials to come. We know that there are witnesses who were being investigated.

And the real question here will be that question - what did people inside of the Trump campaign know? Were they unwitting dupes, or were they somehow intentionally involved? And, of course, we have what's become public - this knowledge about the June 2016 meeting at Trump Towers where there was really a very surprising amount of interest between members of the campaign and the president's own family in interacting with Russians, we're told, in an effort to gain Hillary Clinton's emails or perhaps other derogatory information about her.

MARTIN: You know, I don't want to ask you to speculate, but I would like to ask if - do you draw any clues from this document about what else it is likely that the special counsel is investigating?

VANCE: It's dangerous to try to think about, you know, what the likely outcome will be. But it seems very likely that the special counsel will proceed with his charge and will very thoroughly investigate whether or not there was knowing collusion between American citizens, potentially members of the campaign, with Russians.

You know, here's what we know. We have two buckets of potentially unrelated information. On the one hand, we do know that Trump and the Trump business entities had a lot of involvement with Russia. There is everything from Miss Universe to a lot of real estate sales, a lot of condo sales. So that's sort of one bucket of knowledge. And then, on the other hand, we know now pretty clearly that Russia was involved in efforts to interfere with our election.

What we don't know is whether those two separate buckets somehow merged during this campaign. You know, what we have on our hands here is either a scandal that'll wipe Watergate off of the maps or perhaps just the biggest coincidence of all time.

MARTIN: That's Joyce Vance. She is a former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama. She is now practicing law in Birmingham and teaching law in Birmingham, and that's where we reached her. Ms. Vance, thank you so much for speaking with us.

VANCE: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.