Donald Lambro

WASHINGTON -- The criminal indictments charging three former Trump campaign officials with wrongdoing is just the first round of what is shaping up to be an explosive investigation into widespread Russian influence in the 2016 presidential election.

We know this because of the large team of prosecutors and investigators hired by special counsel Robert Mueller for their specialized knowledge in a lengthy list of legal issues dealing, in part, with off-the-books finances, foreign espionage and high-tech "fake news" invasions of U.S. internet platforms to influence and divide American voters, among other acts of cyber skullduggery.

From the start of the emerging scandal over Russian meddling in last year's presidential election, Trump has maintained that the media's fixation on the story was "fake news."

But the events of this week provided further evidence that individuals in Trump's campaign sought contacts with foreigners who claimed to have connections with high-level Russians in the Kremlin.

Moreover, major U.S. online tech giants like Facebook, Google and Twitter have acknowledged in congressional testimony that their investigations have revealed a huge amount of content on their platforms that was produced and disseminated by Russian operatives. And that the scope of this content was a great deal larger than they had previously believed.

In a blog post this week, Google said for the first time that it has uncovered evidence of Russian operatives using its platforms to influence American voters and the outcome of the elections. It said that at least 1,108 videos, containing 43 hours of content, were placed on YouTube.

Twitter also told congressional investigators it found 2,752 accounts that were produced by Russian operatives and 36,000 bots that sent out tweets 1.4 million times over the course of the election.

All told, the Russians were saturating U.S. platforms on a massive scale with fake stories, written to mimic divisive social issues that dealt with illegal immigration, the rising Muslim population and African-American protests over sometimes deadly law enforcement practices.

Facebook told the Senate Judiciary Committee that at least 126 million of its viewers may have seen this content. Just one Russian operation alone based in St. Petersburg, for example, posted 80,000 news feed stories targeting American voters that were seen by an estimated 29 million people.

To date, Trump has leveled no complaints about any of this, repeatedly sticking by his claim, which he tweeted again Monday, "There is NO COLLUSION."

He has called Russian President Vladimir Putin "a leader," and the former KGB agent has returned the compliment by calling Trump "bright and talented."

He has gone so far as to tell ABC News that Russian troops were not in Ukraine, when all the evidence is to the contrary.

Thus far, Mueller and his army of investigators have yet to reveal any hard evidence that Trump had anything to do with Moscow's election-year cyber invasion of America's biggest social media networks.

But one of the three men charged in the first indictments Monday was former Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, who lied to FBI investigators when asked if he had contacted foreigners who claimed to have high-level Russian connections.

The guilty plea agreement he signed in October, which was made public Monday, tells of his attempts to arrange a meeting with Russian officials and the Trump campaign.

By striking a plea deal, Papadopoulos will presumably have plenty to tell prosecutors about whose orders he was following when he attempted to broker a meeting with Russian agents.

Last April 25, he wrote this to a senior policy adviser for the Trump campaign: "The Russian government has an open invitation by Putin for Mr. Trump to meet him when he is ready."

In the summer of 2016, a Trump campaign supervisor told Papadopoulos and another adviser to go ahead and meet with Russian officials, but that meeting never took place, according to the plea.

This week, attorneys for Papadopoulos said, "We will have the opportunity to comment on George's involvement when called upon by the court at a later date. We look forward to telling all of the details of George's story at that time."

Meantime, congressional hearings have cracked open Russia's sinister cyberwarfare plot, backed and bankrolled by the Kremlin, pushing deeply divisive racial issues that in the end led to Trump's election.

It is now up to Mueller and his team to unravel all of this to find out who were the accomplices in the campaign that knew about Moscow's efforts to deceive millions of voters.

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