Former aides to the Trump presidential campaign viewed the latest indictment from special counsel Robert Mueller on Friday with a mix of shock and satisfaction.
Aides insisted the indictment against 13 Russians serves as proof that there was no widespread collusion with President Donald Trump’s campaign. But some were also aghast at the lengths to which Russians went to manipulate unsuspecting campaign aides as part of an attempt to influence the 2016 election and wreak havoc on the US electoral process.
“I was pleased to see the special counsel called us unwitting, because we were,” said Susie Wiles, who took the helm of Trump’s presidential campaign in Florida in September 2016. To her knowledge, she wasn’t in contact with any Russians during the campaign, Wiles said.
Wiles said there were roughly 70,000 volunteers across the sprawling battleground state and the campaign was constantly inundated with offers to assist the campaign or to host events. The campaign would then evaluate whether it seemed like a credible offer or a host they wanted to be associated with.
The notion that a foreign adversary might be targeting campaign officials never occurred to them, Wiles said.
“At no point did I think, ‘Is a person using a pseudonym from another country trying to mess up the election?’ ” Wiles said. “I didn’t go around thinking, ‘I wonder if they’re a Russian with a fake American name?’ “
It may not have been at the top of mind for campaign aides, but two senior US intelligence officials announced in an early October 2016 news release that Russia was actively engaged in an effort to interfere in the presidential election and that Russia was responsible for hacking the Democratic National Committee. By the late stages of the race, the notion of Russian election meddling had become an issue on the campaign trail.
While Friday’s indictment laid out a clear case for Russian meddling, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein made no determination about whether there had been collusion between Trump campaign officials and Russians as he announced the indictment. He said Mueller’s investigation is ongoing.
However, he was careful to note that Friday’s announcement didn’t implicate any American citizens.
“Now, there is no allegation in this indictment that any American was a knowing participant in this illegal activity,” Rosenstein said.
Rick Wiley, who served at one point as at the Trump campaign’s political director, said the notion of Russians meddling in the election wasn’t on the radar of most political operatives in 2016.
“It seems pretty apparent there was no collusion between anyone associated with any campaign and the Russians,” Wiley said. “It also seems the Russians took advantage of people and disguised their meddling pretty well.”
While the Russians’ disinformation campaign was extensive, Wiley expressed surprise at how naive Russian operatives appeared to be about the political landscape in the US.
“They had to contact some grass-roots activist in Texas to know to target purple states?” Wiley said. “Hell, a quick Google search will tell you what the swing states have been for decades.”
One former member of Trump’s team, Michael Caputo, said he wasn’t the least bit surprised to see the extent of Russia’s efforts to interfere with the election. He applauded Mueller’s attempt to crack down on the illicit activity.
“This has been necessary for 10 years,” said Caputo, who served as a senior adviser on Trump’s campaign and worked in Russia as an election consultant in the 1990s. “The Russian meddling in our election has been obvious, provable and, now, prosecutable. The Trump campaign had nothing to do with it.”
In particular, aides seemed to savor Rosenstein’s comment Friday that “there is no allegation in the indictment that the charged conduct altered the outcome of the 2016 election.”
For some, there was a sense of vindication.
“The President should embrace this,” Caputo said. “This indictment lends credence to the view of the White House that the Russian meddling had zero impact on the campaign.”
But for some aides who put their lives on hold to toil for Trump’s chaotic campaign, Russia’s interference still somewhat sours the sweet taste of the President’s stunning victory.
“It’s so discouraging and it makes me furious,” Wiles said. “It makes me particularly motivated to figure out how to stop it.”