13 Russian nationals charged in Mueller investigation
U.S. special counsel Robert Mueller says they tried to 'sow discord' in the 2016 election and political system
Thirteen Russians and three Russian companies were charged Friday with an elaborate plot to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election through social media propaganda aimed at helping Republican Donald Trump and harming the prospects of his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, prosecutors announced Friday.
The indictment, brought by the office of special counsel Robert Mueller, represents the most direct allegation to date of illegal Russian meddling during the election.
The intent of the meddling, the indictment says, was to "sow discord in the U.S. political system, including the 2016 presidential election."
"This indictment serves as a reminder that people are not always who they appear to be on the internet," Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said Friday. "The indictment alleges that the Russian conspirators want to promote discord in the United States and undermine public confidence in democracy. We must not allow them to succeed."
Rosenstein said the indictment does not include allegations that the plot swayed the outcome of the vote.
The indictment also does not resolve the collusion question at the heart of the continuing Mueller probe. U.S. intelligence agencies have previously said the Russian government interfered to benefit Trump, including by orchestrating the hacking of Democratic emails, and Mueller has been assessing whether the campaign coordinated with the Kremlin.
Trump himself has been reluctant to acknowledge the meddling had any effect on the 2016 presidential election.
Trump feels vindicated
In a White House statement Friday afternoon, he said the indictment shows there was no collusion, and that it's time to "stop the outlandish partisan attacks, wild and false allegations, and far-fetched theories."
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. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong - no collusion!—@realDonaldTrump
And he tweeted an apparent response to the indictment, saying his campaign "did nothing wrong."
The surreptitious Russian campaign was organized by the Internet Research Agency, a notorious troll farm that the indictment says sought to conduct "information warfare against the United States of America."
The company, among three Russian entities named in the indictment, had a multimillion-dollar budget and hundreds of workers divided by specialties and assigned to day and night shifts. According to prosecutors, the company was funded by companies controlled by Evgeny Prigozhin, the wealthy Russian ally of Vladimir Putin.
Prigozhin, who could only be punished if he were extradited by the Russian government, told the state-operated Russian news agency RIA he's not disturbed by the indictment.
"The Americans are very emotional people. They see what they want to see. I have great respect for them. I am not at all upset that I am on this list. If they want to see the devil, let them."
Extradition highly unlikely
Rosenstein said no contact had been made with Russian authorities regarding the charges so far, but that U.S. officials intended to seek extradition of the defendants. The U.S. does not have an extradition treaty with Russia and the country has not historically responded to such requests.
The election-meddling organization, looking to conceal its Russian roots, purchased space on computer servers within the U.S., used email accounts from U.S. internet service providers and created and controlled social media pages with huge numbers of followers on divisive issues such as immigration, religion and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Starting in April 2016, the indictment says, the Russian agency bought political ads on social media supporting Trump and opposing Clinton without reporting expenditures to the Federal Election Commission or registering as foreign agents. Among the ads: "JOIN our (hash)HillaryClintonForPrison2016" and "Donald wants to defeat terrorism ... Hillary wants to sponsor it."
"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.
The indictment details contacts targeting three unnamed officials in the Trump campaign's Florida operation. In each instance, the Russians used false U.S. personas to contact the officials. The indictment doesn't say if any of them responded, and there's no allegation that any of the campaign officials knew they were communicating with Russians.
Targeting 'purple states'
Two of the defendants traveled to the U.S. in June 2014 to gather intelligence on social media sites and identify targets for their operations, the indictment alleges. Following the trip, the group collected further intelligence by contacting U.S. political and social media activists while posing as U.S. citizens. They were guided by one contact to target "purple states like Colorado, Virginia and Florida," prosecutors say.
The indictment also asserts that the posts encouraged minority groups not to vote or to vote for third parties and alleged Democratic voter fraud.
Ahead of a Florida rally, the Russians paid one person to build a cage on a flatbed truck and another to wear a costume portraying Clinton in a prison uniform. But they also organized some rallies opposing Trump, including one in New York after the election called "Trump is NOT my president."
The Russians destroyed evidence of their activities as Mueller's investigation picked up, with one of those indicted sending an email in September 2017 to a family member that said the FBI had "busted" them so they were covering their tracks.
That person, Irina Viktorovna Kaverzina, wrote the family member, "I created all of these pictures and posts, and the Americans believed that it was written by their people."
The charges are similar to the assessment of the U.S. intelligence community, which months after the election described a Russian government effort to meddle in the election on Trump's behalf.
A spokesperson for Russia's foreign ministry called the indictments "absurd" in a Facebook post on Friday. "Thirteen people interfered in the U.S. elections?! Thirteen against an intelligence services budget of billions? Against intelligence and counterintelligence, against the latest developments and technologies? Absurd? Yes," wrote Maria Zakharova.
Republicans and Democrats alike called for more concerted action against foreign interference in response to the report.
"These Russians engaged in a sinister and systematic attack on our political system," said Paul Ryan, Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, in a statement calling the suspects' actions a conspiracy targeting democracy.
Virginia Senator Mark Warner, the top Democrat on the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee, pledged to press social media companies, such as Facebook and Twitter, "to be far more aggressive and proactive in responding to this threat."
Facebook said in a statement it had previously disclosed the Internet Research Agency's activity on its platform.
"We know we have more to do to prevent against future attacks," said Joel Kaplan, Facebook's vice-president of global
Twitter, whose platform was also used, echoed that view, saying in a statement that "any activity of this kind is intolerable, and we all must do more to prevent it."
More trouble for Manafort?
Before Friday, four people had been charged in the Mueller probe. Trump's former national security adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty in December to lying to the FBI about his conversations with a Russian ambassador.
In addition, ex-Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos was charged in October and pleaded guilty to lying to investigators. Trump`s ex-campaign manager Paul Manafort and his associate Richard Gates were indicted in October on charges, including money laundering and failing to register as foreign agents, related to their work for a pro-Russia political party in Ukraine.
Manafort drew a new accusation of bank fraud from Mueller's office, according to court documents made public on Friday. The new accusation, related to a property Manafort owns in the Washington suburb of Fairfax, Va.
In a court filing amid legal wrangling over Manafort's $10 million bail package, prosecutors from Mueller's office said Manafort submitted false information to a bank for a mortgage on one of three properties he is now proposing to pledge as security for his release.
Prosecutors said in the redacted filing that they had evidence that Manafort secured the $9 million US mortgage from the Federal Savings Bank through false representations, including "doctored profit and lost statements" that overstated the property's income by "millions of dollars."
The document does not level any new specific criminal charges against Manafort over the accusations.
With files from Reuters and CBC News