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As the “witch hunt” finds more witches, the gap between Trump and Justice officials grows stark


As the “witch hunt” finds more witches, the gap between Trump and Justice officials grows stark

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President Trump was meeting with Queen Elizabeth II in Buckinghamshire, England, when the indictment of 12 Russians was announced on Friday.CreditDoug Mills/The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Strolling past red-uniformed guardsmen at Windsor Castle on a gloriously sunny Friday, the queen of England at his side, President Trump was savoring the moment, broadcast live to his supporters back home.

Then television screens across the nations switched to reveal a second display of authority: Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general and the president’s legal Cassandra, with the latest news from the investigation that Mr. Trump calls “a witch hunt.” In terse terms, Mr. Rosenstein laid out the most detailed account yet of how the Russian government tried to influence the election that brought Mr. Trump to power.

After months of attacks by Mr. Trump and his allies on the investigation he leads, Mr. Rosenstein described a Russian influence operation that had to be blessed by the Kremlin, and named the perpetrators who carried it out. He did it just three days before Mr. Trump is due to meet in Helsinki with the Russian president, Vladimir V. Putin. And he added what some saw as pointed messages to Mr. Trump, who he said has “got to make some very important decisions for our country.”

The extraordinary split-screen image illustrated, perhaps more starkly than ever before, the vast gulf between the Mr. Trump’s view of the 14-month criminal inquiry into Russia’s influence on the 2016 election and that of the president’s own Justice Department. And even if it was not meant as such, some of the president’s critics saw the indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers announced by Mr. Rosenstein as a kind of revenge for the withering — and near constant — criticism the president has heaped on the investigation.

That criticism has taken many forms: the public humiliation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions; the belittling of investigators and prosecutors working for Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel appointed by Mr. Rosenstein; and the president’s private threats to fire Mr. Sessions, Mr. Rosenstein or both.

Matthew Miller, a spokesman for Eric H. Holder Jr. when he was President Barack Obama’s attorney general, said prosecutors could have waited to seek the indictment until after Mr. Trump came home, and that the decision to move for charges just before the meeting with Mr. Putin might not be purely coincidental.

“None of the people in the indictment are a flight risk,” he said. “It sent a strong signal to the White House that they hold some cards, but the Justice Department has some too.”

Mr. Rosenstein told reporters that he had briefed the president about the indictment earlier this week because “he needs to understand what evidence we have of foreign election interference.”

As long as Americans “are united in our commitment to the values enshrined in the Constitution,” he said, foreign adversaries who try to undermine them could not succeed. A Justice Department official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said Mr. Rosenstein told Mr. Trump about the coming charges on Monday, the day before he left on the European trip that will end with his meeting with Mr. Putin.

But if the president understood what some saw as Mr. Rosenstein’s message to take heed, it was not clear from the statement issued Friday afternoon by the White House in response to Mr. Rosenstein’s announcement. It noted only that “today’s charges include no allegations of knowing involvement by anyone on the campaign and no allegations that the alleged hacking affected the election result.”

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Some critics of the president saw Rod J. Rosenstein’s announcement as a kind of revenge for the withering — and near constant — criticism the president has heaped on the Russia investigation.CreditT.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times

Just hours before Mr. Rosenstein announced the indictment, Mr. Trump again denounced the special counsel’s investigation, saying at a news conference that “we’re being hurt very badly by the, I would call it, the witch hunt” that is damaging “our relationship with Russia.” If it weren’t for the inquiry led by Mr. Mueller he said, he would have had a chance to have “a very good relationship with President Putin.”

Congressional Democrats immediately demanded that he cancel his meeting on Monday with the Russian leader, asking anew why Mr. Trump has not forcefully condemned Mr. Putin for crimes that the Justice Department alleges occurred over a period of many months.

The juxtaposition of the indictment with the president’s Windsor Castle photo op and coming Russia trip was so awkward that some of Mr. Trump’s allies suggested that Mr. Rosenstein deliberately timed the indictment to embarrass the president. One White House official said people in the West Wing had noted that the indictments obtained by Mr. Mueller often seem to coincide with the president’s travel or major events.

In its statement, the White House cherry-picked comments of Mr. Rosenstein’s that put the Trump campaign in the best light. For example, the indictment noted that one person — identified by two government officials as Roger J. Stone Jr., a longtime adviser to Mr. Trump — was in touch with both the hackers and senior members of the Trump campaign. But the White House pointed out that the indictment did not charge that any American citizen committed a crime. Nor was there any allegation that the Russians tipped the results of the election, the statement said.

Some former Justice Department officials said that if Mr. Rosenstein was guided by political considerations, prosecutors would have delayed seeking the indictment until after Mr. Trump’s trip just to protect his job. Friday’s announcement shows that “the Mueller investigation is proceeding on its own timetable, in an independent way, not influenced by politics,” said David Kris, who formerly headed the department’s National Security Division and founded the consulting firm Culper Partners.

Still, Mr. Rosenstein seemed to deliberately steer clear of facts that might set the president on edge. He never mentioned the Clinton campaign, the primary target of the Russian interference, by name, saying only that the Russians “accessed email accounts of volunteers and employees of a U.S. presidential campaign, including the campaign chairman.” He did not mention that the hacking victims included political committees that served the Democrats, not the Republicans.

Mr. Mueller was nowhere to be seen, but other Justice Department officials were at Mr. Rosenstein’s side, including John C. Demers, who leads the national security division, and Edward O’Callaghan, Mr. Rosenstein’s top deputy, who is helping oversee the special counsel’s inquiry.

Mr. Rosenstein asked that the threat of foreign interference be viewed through an apolitical lens. “It’s important for us to avoid thinking politically, as Republicans or Democrats, and instead to think patriotically as Americans,” he said.

He included a backhanded reference to Thursday’s contentious appearance before a congressional hearing by Peter Strzok, the F.B.I. agent who Republicans claim tried to use the Russia inquiry to keep Mr. Trump out of office. “We don’t try cases on television or in congressional hearings,” Mr. Rosenstein said.

Mr. Miller, the former aide to Mr. Holder, said Mr. Rosenstein seemed to be highlighting Russia’s malfeasance while giving Mr. Trump some measure of comfort — including when he noted specifically that “people who are not charged with a crime also are presumed innocent.”

“You could understand why he might want to do that,” Mr. Miller said. “He clearly wants to the preserve the investigation for as long as possible.”

Maggie Haberman contributed reporting from New York, and Nicholas Fandos from Washington.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page A14 of the New York edition with the headline: One Detailed Account, Two Starkly Different Views. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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