KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
A federal grand jury has indicted 13 Russians and three Russian organizations in connection with an attack on the 2016 presidential election. These are the first criminal charges to cover interference in the election. And we're going to get some reaction now, first from the White House. Officials there are characterizing these indictments as an exoneration of President Trump.
To talk about this, we are joined by NPR's Scott Horsley, who is at the White House. Hi, Scott.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you.
MCEVERS: So let's just start with what exactly the White House is saying about these indictments.
HORSLEY: Well, White House officials are really highlighting the fact that the charges against the Russian nationals in this indictment stem from conduct that allegedly began in 2014, a year before Donald Trump announced he was running for president. Now, the president and his aides are spinning that as sort of an all-clear, although that may be somewhat premature.
Remember; the special counsel's assignment is really twofold. He's investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible collusion with the Trump campaign. Today's indictment has a lot to say about the first part, Russian meddling. Although there are Trump campaign officials mentioned in the indictment, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein says they are not accused here of collusion.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ROD ROSENSTEIN: Now, there is no allegation in this indictment that any American was a knowing participant in this illegal activity. There is no allegation in the indictment that the charge conduct altered the outcome of the 2016 election.
HORSLEY: Rosenstein went on to say, though, the work of the special counsel is ongoing. So this indictment may not be the last word even though the White House is sort of characterizing it that way.
MCEVERS: The question of whether Russia influenced the outcome of the election has been a tricky one for the Trump administration, yeah?
HORSLEY: Absolutely. And they are understandably sensitive on the subject because if Russian interference did tip the scales, that might be seen by some folks as undermining the president's legitimacy. Earlier this week, we heard Vice President Pence claim that the intelligence community had concluded that any meddling did not affect the outcome of the election.
But that's not really true. While there was no evidence of actual vote totals being tampered with, the intelligence community deliberately avoided drawing any conclusion about whether Russian meddling was effective. They just couldn't say. Now, there was an interesting note in the indictment today that after the election, Russians allegedly helped to organize rallies both in support of President Trump and against him. So Rosenstein says the goal of the interference was not strictly partisan.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
ROSENSTEIN: The indictment alleges that the Russian conspirators want to promote discord in the United States and undermine public confidence in democracy.
HORSLEY: Rosenstein added, we must not allow them to succeed. And President Trump echoed that in his statement this afternoon, saying we should unite as Americans to protect the integrity of our elections.
MCEVERS: I want to talk about something else really quickly. The White House has been under scrutiny for its handling of a top aide who resigned last week amid allegations of domestic abuse. How are they addressing that?
HORSLEY: Chief of staff John Kelly sent out a memo today calling for changes in the background check process. Among other things, he wants the FBI to flag for the White House counsel's office any potentially disqualifying information in 48 hours. Kelly also says in his memo that the old standard under which domestic violence was not necessarily a disqualification needs to be revisited and modernized.
MCEVERS: NPR's Scott Horsley at the White House, thank you.
HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.