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Putin's useful idiots

Dana Milbank on

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.

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