Three Russian companies and 13 Russian citizens were indicted Friday on charges of engaging in a widespread effort to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, providing the most comprehensive official account to date of a sweeping, multimillion-dollar effort by Russians to upend U.S. politics.
The indictment, secured by special counsel Robert Mueller in his investigation into whether Russia meddled in the campaign, alleges that Russians wielded social-media messages, invented fake personas and staged rallies with the “strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system.”
The charges are the first lodged against Russians in Mr. Mueller’s wide-ranging probe. The people and entities involved are unlikely to face trial because they are based in Russia, but the document serves as a road map of how the special counsel’s office believes Russians operated to help President
campaign and hinder his opponent, Democrat
Deputy U.S. Attorney
who is overseeing Mr. Mueller’s investigation, said Friday there is no allegation in the indictment that any U.S. citizen knowingly participated in the alleged crimes. He also said the indictment doesn’t suggest that the alleged activity altered the outcome of the election.
Moscow has repeatedly denied any government effort to influence the U.S. election, and the Russian Embassy in Washington didn’t respond to a request for comment. Mr. Trump has denied that he or his campaign colluded with Russia; he has described the investigation as a “witch hunt.”
The indictment alleges that the Russians duped unwitting U.S. citizens, including members of Mr. Trump’s presidential campaign, into taking part in their plan. In the Democratic primaries, the Russians also sought to help Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who challenged Mrs. Clinton, the indictment alleges.
Mr. Mueller’s investigation, which began last May, has now interviewed a variety of high-profile associates of Mr. Trump, including former adviser
and obtained a guilty plea from former national security adviser Michael Flynn, among others.
The indictment came three days after U.S. intelligence chiefs told Congress that Russian leaders viewed their efforts to meddle in 2016 as a success and would likely repeat the effort for the midterm elections in November.
After the charges became public, Mr. Trump sent a tweet suggesting the indictment exonerated his campaign.
“Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for President. The results of the election were not impacted,” he wrote. “The Trump campaign did nothing wrong – no collusion!”
Mr. Trump also issued a statement calling for an end to “partisan attacks, wild and false allegations and far-fetched theories,” and said the nation must “unite as Americans to protect the integrity of our democracy and our elections.”
chairman of the Democratic National Committee, criticized Mr. Trump for what he described as the president’s denial of the facts about the Russia probe.
“This investigation has grave implications for the integrity of our democracy,” Mr. Perez said. “Donald Trump and his Republican enablers’ efforts to discredit it only embolden Russia and makes them all accomplices to future attacks on our elections.”
Speaking at the Justice Department, Mr. Rosenstein said Friday that the U.S. must not allow Russia to divide Americans.
“The Department of Justice will continue to work cooperatively with other law enforcement and intelligence agencies and with Congress to defend our nation against similar current and future schemes,” Mr. Rosenstein said.
There was no indication Friday that Mr. Mueller wouldn’t seek more charges in the future. Friday’s indictment, for example, didn’t address the hacking of Democratic email accounts during the campaign.
According to the indictment, the Russian group coordinating the effort encouraged U.S. minority groups not to vote in the election or to vote for a third-party presidential candidate. A false Instagram account titled “Woke Blacks,” for example, allegedly posted a message on Oct. 16, 2016, saying in part, “We cannot resort to the lesser of two devils,” meaning Mrs. Clinton.
The indictment alleges that the Russian efforts were coordinated by a company in St. Petersburg called the Internet Research Agency. The organization employed hundreds of people who created fictitious online personas and set up hundreds of social-media accounts—on
and Instagram—that pushed divisive messages and helped organize rallies, the special prosecutor alleged.
Twelve Russians who worked for the organization were named in the indictment. The other Russian, identified as Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin, funded the operation through companies he controlled, the indictment alleges.
The Russians sought to achieve their goals in part by using stolen and fake U.S. identities, fraudulent bank accounts and fake identification documents, the indictment says. They also allegedly recruited and paid U.S. citizens to engage in political activities.
The effort began in 2014, when Russians “began to track and study groups” on U.S. social-media platforms, the indictment said, and soon thereafter, two of the co-conspirators visited the U.S. to conduct research and gather intelligence.
Later, in 2016, the members of the organization allegedly began contacting U.S. political and social activists. When the Russians spoke to one Texas grass-roots group, they were told they should focus their activities on “purple states like Colorado, Virginia & Florida,” the indictment says. After that exchange, the Russians “commonly referred to targeted ‘purple states’ in directing their efforts,” the indictment says.
The Internet Research Agency, which was operating through shell companies, employed hundreds of people and had a budget in the millions of dollars, the indictment alleges. It had more than 80 employees working on what was termed the “translator project,” which targeted the U.S. public by concentrating on social media.
Russian specialists at the company created social-media pages that appeared to belong to U.S. citizens, such as a Twitter account purporting to belong to the Tennessee Republican Party, according to the indictment. Using the handle “Ten_GOP,” the Twitter account would eventually gain more than 100,000 followers.
The Russians not only impersonated U.S. people and organizations, they also created thematic pages on issues ranging from immigration to Black Lives Matter, the indictment alleges.
The Russian “primarily intended to communicate derogatory information about Hillary Clinton” and to “denigrate other candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio,” the indictment alleged. Messrs. Cruz and Rubio challenged Mr. Trump in the GOP primaries.
The organization’s internal communications directed employees to “use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump—we support them),” according to the indictment.
As the election wore on, the Russians used their fake U.S. personas to communicate with “unwitting members, volunteers, and supporters of the Trump campaign involved in Local community outreach, as well as grass-roots groups that supported then-candidate Trump,” the indictment said, and on occasion these Trump supporters retweeted or reposted the Russians’ statements.
In late July, the Russians used a Facebook group called “Being Patriotic” and a @March_for_Trump Twitter account to contact Trump campaign staffers about a series of rallies dubbed “Florida Goes Trump,” according to the indictment.
The legitimate “Florida for Trump” Facebook page responded to a Russian, posing as a U.S. citizen, with instructions on how to contact Mr. Trump’s campaign in Florida. The Russians also purchased Facebook and Instagram advertisements to promote the rallies, the indictment said.
The work didn’t stop on Election Day. After Mr. Trump’s victory, the indictment said, Russians organized a rally in support of the then-president-elect and one protesting the election results.
When their activities began coming to light, the Russians tried to cover their tracks, the document said. Reacting to public reports in 2014 identifying their operations, they began to delete email accounts, efforts they continued into 2017, as the federal investigation was gaining steam, the indictment said.
The indictment cited an email last September by a defendant to a family member saying, “We had a slight crisis here at work: the FBI busted our activity (not a joke). So, I got preoccupied with covering tracks together with the colleagues… I created all these pictures and posts, and the Americans believed that it was written by their people.”
Mr. Mueller, who didn’t speak publicly Friday, was named in May to oversee the investigation into Russia’s electoral interference His appointment came a week after Mr. Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey, who had been helping lead the Russia investigation.
Under Mr. Mueller’s probe, two Trump campaign advisers have pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about their contacts with Russia, including Mr. Flynn.
Shortly after the indictment was unsealed Friday, Mr. Mueller’s office also unveiled a guilty plea it had obtained earlier this week from Richard Pinedo, who admitted he sold bank-account numbers, often created using stolen identities of Americans, to customers outside the U.S.
According to the indictment, the Russian defendants used such bank account numbers to evade
security measures.Mr. Pinedo likely faces between 1 to 1½ years in prison, according to his plea agreement.
The Mueller team has also indicted two other Trump campaign officials, including former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, for alleged financial misdeeds in work that predated the campaign. Mr. Manafort and his longtime Business partner,
have pleaded not guilty.
Appeared in the February 17, 2018, print edition as ’13 Russians Indicted in Mueller Case.’
Source : WSJ