Even after the indictment of 12 Russian spies, Donald Trump still cries “witch hunt”

The US president is gaslighting us all.

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A couple of years ago I saw a production of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible in New York that struck me as pretty bizarre.

It was a weird production because, in contravention of every subtext present in the play – which, while set in colonial Salem is in fact a biting satire of the McCarthy-era “witch hunts” of alleged communist sympathisers in the US in the 1950s – the director decided to portray the girls not as innocent victims, but as witches with real magical abilities. It’s not really a “witch hunt” if witches are portrayed as real.

Well, a lot has happened since then. Since the campaign, President Donald Trump has taken up the cry of “witch hunt” to refer to the investigation by Robert Mueller, a Republican-appointed former FBI director, into Russian interference in the US election of 2016, an investigation which has already seen, among many other scalps, Trump’s former campaign manager pleading guilty to money-laundering charges.

On Friday, as the baby-Trump blimp flew proudly over London’s skies to protest the president’s tetchy visit to the capital, Trump got some more bad news from the investigation, when his deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein announced the indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers on charges of conspiring to interfere in the 2016 presidential election on charges of election-meddling.

The Russians “also hacked the website of a state board of elections and stole information related to 500,000 voters, including names, addresses, partial social security numbers, dates of birth, and driver’s license numbers,” according to the indictment, which you can read in full here.

Russia does not have an extradition treaty with the US, and it is extremely likely that these Russian agents will face trial, just like the 13 charged in February in connection with a St Petersburg troll farm known as the Internet Research Agency. But it is now harder for Trump to claim, as he has been, that the investigation into Russian interference is a “witch hunt” cooked up by his political opponents.

There is now not just smoke, but visible flames as well, and firefighters on the scene. If the investigation is a “witch hunt” then the witches, like those in the production of The Crucible that baffled me, would appear to be similarly real.

Rosenstein announced on Friday that hackers had infiltrated “a political party” and then funneled what they got through “another organisation”. The Democratic Party and Wikileaks were not directly mentioned, but that’s what we’re talking about: the DNC email hack, the spoils of which were then laundered via Julian Assange’s organisation.

An interesting nugget: the indictment, also says that a US congressional candidate contacted one of the hackers, known as Guccifer 2.0 – whom this indictment confirms was a front for the Russian authority-backed hacking operation – and specifically requested dirt on an opponent:

The big takeaway is that the situation is now entirely clear, with little or no room for doubt: America was attacked in 2016, not by some “400-pound person in his mother’s basement,” as Trump has previously tried to claim, but by a concerted and large-scale effort by the Russian government to sow discord and upset the US election result.

This was already the conclusion of the intelligence community, but the evidence is now public for all to see; you’d have thought that even Republicans must surely now admit that this requires some action by the president.

The timing is especially unfortunate for Trump, because the president is set to meet with Russian president Vladimir Putin next week in Helsinki. He now must at least raise the issue with his counterpart or, one would hope, face serious opprobrium at home, though the GOP is, as always, stunningly cowardly in its reluctance to speak out against Trump.

But it is, as always, unlikely that Trump will change his behaviour. Rosenstein said in his press conference that the president had already been briefed on the charges his Department of Justice was about to levy; that means, incredibly, that he has already talked in terms of a “witch hunt” while knowing all about the indictments and what they mean, as several have already pointed out.

To say that Trump is behaving dishonestly is redundant at this point. To say that he is lying is merely to say that his mouth is open. But even given that, to refer to the investigation as a “witch hunt” in the sense that we mean it today, while knowing about the indictments, is a lie of notable proportions, an attempt to discredit the very concept of justice and truth in America and in the world. This is known as “gaslighting” – a type of lying designed to make the victim doubt their own sense of reality by undermining their sanity and faith in their own judgment – but perpetrated on a vast scale.

Perhaps that production of The Crucible was more forward-thinking than I gave it credit for, if it somehow foresaw this dismal exercise in mass cognitive dissonance currently being perpetrated on us all.

Nicky Woolf is the editor of New Statesman America. He has formerly written for the Guardian and the New Statesman. He tweets @NickyWoolf.