A federal grand jury has indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities for alleged illegal interference in the 2016 presidential elections, during which they strongly supported the candidacy of Donald Trump, special counsel Robert Mueller’s office said Friday.
The indictment says that a Russian organization called the Internet Research Agency sought to wage “information warfare” against the United States and to “sow discord” in the American political system by using fictitious American personas and social media platforms and other Internet-based media.
Internet Research Agency, a so-called “troll farm” based in St. Petersburg, Russia,” was allegedly controlled by a defendant in the indictment named Yevgeny Progozhin, who is a wealthy associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The indictment said the Internet Research Agency was registered with the Russian government as a corporate entity in 2013, and by May 2014 the group’s strategy included interfering with the 2016 U.S. presidential election, with the stated goal of “spread[ing] distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general,” the indictment said.
The indictment details an extremely sophisticated conspiracy in which defendants traveled to the United States to conduct research, employed specialists to fine-tune social media posts to “ensure they appeared authentic,” and stole real people’s identities to purchase online ads.
By early to mid-2016 the defendants were “supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump … and disparaging Hillary Clinton,” the eight-count indictment charges.
The defendants also engaged in operations to “denigrate” Republican primary opponents of Trump such as senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Florida’s Marco Rubio, the indictment said.
“Some Defendants, posing at U.S. persons and without revealing their Russian association, communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump Campaign and with other political activists to seek to coordinate political activities,” the indictment claims.
Foreigners are barred from spending money to try to influence the outcome of a federal election.
As part of their efforts, the defendants also allegedly encouraged minority groups to either not vote for in the election or to vote for a third-party candidate.
Both actions would have hurt Clinton, who received significant support from minority voters.
And after the election of Trump as president in November 2016, the defendants used fake personas to organize and coordinate political rallies in support of Trump, while also doing the same to create rallies “protesting the results” of the election, the indictment said.
On one day, Nov. 12, 2016, the defendants organized a rally in New York to “show your support for President-elect Donald Trump” while at the same time organizing a “Trump is NOT my president rally” that also was held in New York.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said the defendants created hundreds of accounts using fake personas on the social media platforms Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to advance their scheme.
One example of that was the Twitter account “Tennessee GOP,” which used the handle @TEN_GOP,” and “which falsely claimed to be controlled by a U.S. state political party,” the indictment said. “Over time, the @TEN_GOP account attracted more than 100,000 online followers.”
The defendants also allegedly used a “computer infrastructure, based partly in the United States, to hide the Russian origin of their activities and to avoid detection” by US authorities, the indictment said.
Rosenstein said there is no allegation in the indictment that any American was a knowing participant in the scheme — nor is there any allegation that the scheme affected the outcome of the election.
All of the defendants are charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States.
Three defendants are charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud, and five defendants are charged with aggravated identity theft.
None of the defendants is in custody.
The indictment came four days after an American named Richard Pinedo pleaded guilty to using identities stolen from U.S. citizens to bypass the security systems of online payments companies. Pinedo also bought and sold bank account numbers over the Internet using stolen identities.
The charging documents against Pinedo do not mention a connection with the Russian indictment but were released by Mueller’s office shortly after that indictment was disclosed. Mueller’s office was created specifically to investigate Russian meddling in the elections.
A section of the indictment against the Russians appears to refer to conduct by Pinedo.
“Defendants and their co-conspirators also used, without lawful authority, the social security numbers, home addresses, and birth dates of real U.S. persons to open accounts at PayPal, a digital payments company,” the indictment against the Russians says.
On Friday afternoon, after being briefed about the indictment by Rosenstein, and after the release of the document, President Trump tweeted about the case.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders soon after released a prepared statement from Trump in which he said, “It is more important than ever before to come together as Americans.”
“We cannot allow those seeking to sow confusion, discord, and rancor to be successful. It’s time we stop the outlandish partisan attacks, wild and false allegations, and far-fetched theories, which only serve to further the agendas of bad actors, like Russia, and do nothing to protect the principles of our institutions,” Trump said. “We must unite as Americans to protect the integrity of our democracy and our elections.”
While Trump and the White House on Friday were quick to claim that the indictment found no collusion by Trump’s campaign with Russia, Bloomberg News reported that Mueller and his prosecutors have not concluded their investigation on that question.
Bloomberg cited an unidentified person with knowledge of Mueller’s probe.
A spokesman for Clinton said she had no comment on the indictment.
The indictment said that the Internet Research Agency was registered with the Russian government as a corporate entity in 2013.
“By in or around May 2014, the organization’s strategy included interfering with the 2016 U.S. presidential election, with the stated goal of “spread[ing] distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general,” the indictment said.
House Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wisc., said, “We have known that Russia meddled in the election, but these indictments detail the extent of the subterfuge.”
“The Russians engaged in a sinister and systematic attack on our political system. It was a conspiracy to subvert the process, and take aim at democracy itself,” Ryan said. “Today’s announcement underscores why we need to follow the facts and work to protect the integrity of future elections.”