WASHINGTON ― As John Bentley waited in line to see President Barack Obama campaign for Hillary Clinton just days before the 2016 election, he worried that he'd been unable to persuade his son to cast a ballot for Clinton, too.
The 24-year-old believed Clinton was untrustworthy, with new emails released by WikiLeaks providing fresh proof on a daily basis.
"Can you believe it?" wondered Bentley, a 70-year-old African-American man and a lifelong Democrat.
Fifteen months later, special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation has found that the skepticism that afflicted people like Bentley's son was no fluke. It was the result of deliberate efforts by the Russian government to hurt Clinton and help Donald Trump win the presidency ― efforts that included the targeting of young African-Americans like Bentley's son.
"Defendants and their co-conspirators began to encourage U.S. minority groups not to vote in the 2016 U.S. presidential election or to vote for a third-party U.S. presidential candidate," according to a Feb. 16 grand jury indictment obtained by Mueller.
In fact, the day before Obama visited Jacksonville, Florida, to support Clinton, Russians purchased an ad for the Instagram account of a fake group called Blacktivist. It urged African-Americans to vote for a third-party candidate. "Choose peace and vote for Jill Stein. Trust me, it's not a wasted vote," the ad read, according to Mueller's indictment.
It is impossible to know precisely how many voters nationally stayed home or voted for a third-party candidate because of the Russians' social media campaign. Nevertheless, the details from the indictment raise new questions about the legitimacy of Trump's victory.
While Trump maintains there is no proof that the Russian assistance affected the election, the contours of that final month of campaigning and the closeness of the tally suggest that the opposite is true: that it is highly unlikely the Russian efforts did not affect the outcome.
"There's no question that it mattered," said Democratic pollster Mark Mellman. "There's no question that they thought it mattered. There's no question that the Hillary Clinton folks thought it mattered."
Over the entire final month of the race, Trump essentially centered his campaign on talking about the emails stolen by Russian intelligence and then released through its allied group WikiLeaks. The messages, which were sent to and from Clinton campaign chair John Podesta, cast Clinton in a bad light. "We love WikiLeaks!" Trump would tell his rally crowds and live TV audiences, urging them to go to the website and read the emails for themselves. "Boy, do we love WikiLeaks."
Democrats and even some Republican consultants said the Trump campaign would not have based its closing strategy on that theme if it were not working.
"You clearly wouldn't do that if you didn't think that was effective," said Rick Tyler, a GOP consultant who worked for Texas Sen. Ted Cruz's presidential campaign during the primaries.
Although Trump lost the popular tally by nearly 3 million votes nationally, he won three states that most observers expected to go to Clinton by a total margin of 77,744. Were the Russian efforts enough to have moved 77,744 votes in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania?
Clinton supporters argue that when an election is that close, every factor is potentially a game-changer. For example, shifts in polling numbers suggest that former FBI Director James Comey's letters reopening, and then reclosing, the investigation into Clinton's use of a private email server when she was secretary of state could also have cost her the election ― an argument Clinton herself has made.
One Republican-leaning pollster, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the question is impossible to quantify with any certainty. To move that many votes in those three states, the pollster said, would mean moving about 600,000 votes nationally ― or about half a percentage point. That said, he added that Trump's success in using WikiLeaks to hammer on about emails and thereby remind voters of Clinton's biggest vulnerability ― the FBI probe into her emails ― clearly makes that kind of vote shift plausible.
"I'm much more open to the notion that it mattered," he said.
Exit polling suggests that voters' concern about Clinton and emails - and Trump's pounding on that theme with the help of WikiLeaks in the final weeks - indeed made a difference.
In Michigan, for instance, 60 percent of the electorate was bothered by the email issue, and 75 percent of those voters supported Trump. Relatedly, a quarter of Michigan voters settled on a candidate in the final month. That group broke for Trump 52 to 37 percent, while those who decided earlier voted for Clinton 50 to 47 percent.
Trump has been deeply sensitive to the appearance that he did not earn the presidency on his own. That's one of the reasons, according to those close to him, why he has repeatedly pushed the false claim that he lost the popular vote because "millions" of undocumented immigrants supposedly cast ballots for Clinton. It is also why Trump has resisted admitting that Russians interfered in the election at all, let alone tried to boost his candidacy, sources close to him told HuffPost on condition of anonymity.
The fact of Russian interference in the election and Russian President Vladimir Putin's preference for Trump was detailed in a Jan. 6, 2017, report released by the U.S. intelligence agencies. That conclusion was reinforced by Mueller's Feb. 16, 2018, indictment.
"They engaged in operations primarily intended to communicate derogatory information about Hillary Clinton, to denigrate other candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump," the indictment states.
For over a year, Trump questioned the conclusion of U.S. intelligence, as he continued to play up the possibility that the culprit in the hacking of Democratic National Committee emails was someone other than Russia. At various times, he suggested it might have been China, a 400-pound guy in his bed or someone from New Jersey.
At last, he appears to have abandoned that argument in the wake of Mueller's indictment against 13 actual Russians and a Russian government-run group that employs hundreds of internet "trolls" who create and disseminate propaganda to influence foreign elections. Instead, the president turned to claiming that the Russian assistance did not have any effect.
"The results of the election were not impacted," Trump wrote the afternoon the indictment was released.
The following day, he chided his national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, for not making that assertion at a conference in Europe where McMaster acknowledged that it was now "incontrovertible" that Russia had interfered in the election. "General McMaster forgot to say that the results of the 2016 election were not impacted or changed by the Russians," Trump tweeted ― and then proceeded to cite a string of conspiracy theories promoted by Fox News that he believed McMaster also should have mentioned.
Some Trump supporters argue that the value of the ads the Russians bought on Facebook and other social media platforms was a pittance compared to the total amount of money spent on the race, so they couldn't have mattered at all. Others simply insist there is no proof that American voters were affected by the thousands of fake news posts written by Russians and then spread via fake accounts and computer programs.
And former Trump campaign aides, speaking on condition of anonymity, said neither Trump nor campaign officials were measuring the effect of his WikiLeaks speeches.
"Just trolling," said one aide. "What we know worked was 'Crooked Hillary.' 'Clinton Cash' had impact on Dems ― Bernie 'Bros' ― and independents." The aide added that the only emails WikiLeaks had were "BS Podesta and DNC."
But Mellman, the Democratic pollster, said it is disingenuous to draw distinctions between the DNC emails released by WikiLeaks and the separate State Department emails when the average voter was aware only that Clinton had been under investigation for something to do with emails.
"There's no question that the whole email controversy did damage Hillary Clinton," he said, adding that many voters found the issue confusing and that Trump took advantage of that confusion. "If the press was talking about emails, it was bad for Hillary Clinton."
Tyler, the Republican consultant, wonders how Trump supporters can argue that the social media ads and fake stories had no impact, when it was exactly the sort of thing the Trump campaign was doing itself. "You can't say that what you were doing was effective, but what the Russians were doing wasn't effective," he said.