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Special counsel Robert Mueller indicts 13 Russians, alleging 2016 election interference

Mueller probes deeper into talk at Trump Tower
Robert S. Mueller III in 2011.
(James Berglie / TNS)

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III indicted 13 Russians and three Russian companies Friday, accusing them of using stolen identities, fake campaign events and hundreds of social media accounts while spending millions of rubles to interfere in the 2016 presidential election in a secret effort to aid the Trump campaign.

The 37-page indictment, the first charges by Mueller’s office accusing Moscow of illegal meddling in the election, says that the Internet Research Agency, a Russian firm known for using troll accounts to post on news sites, orchestrated the interference campaign and that its operatives tried to communicate with at least three unnamed Trump campaign officials using fake identities.

“By early to mid-2016, Defendants’ operation included supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump … and disparaging Hillary Clinton,” says the indictment.

Although the indictment alleges that the Russians contacted unnamed people in the Trump campaign, it does not allege that any Trump campaign officials knowingly cooperated with the effort.

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“There is no allegation that any American was a willing participant” in the Russian plan, and there is no allegation that it altered the outcome of the election, Deputy Atty. Gen. Rod J. Rosenstein said in a brief news conference discussing the indictment.

Nonetheless, the indictment seriously undermines President Trump’s repeated contention that the entire Russia investigation is a “hoax” or “witch hunt.” It details specific activities the Russians took, initially focused on creating general discord in the U.S., but eventually focused specifically on boosting Trump’s campaign.

At least some of the indicted people have previously been identified as having close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump had been briefed on the indictment.

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A few hours later, Trump responded with a tweet, suggesting that the indictment resolved questions about whether his campaign collaborated with Moscow.

“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!” he said.

The indictment, apparently quoting internal Russian documents, says the operation began with a “strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system” in general before focusing on backing Trump.

At various times during the campaign, the Russians undertook activities disparaging Trump’s Republican rivals, including Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida.

The Russians also worked to help Sen. Bernie Sanders, the independent from Vermont, in his effort to defeat Clinton in the Democratic primaries, and Jill Stein, whose Green Party campaign reduced Clinton’s votes in the general election in some states.

Though the indictment does not allege that the Russian activities altered the outcome of the election, it doesn’t foreclose that possibility. Given how close the election was in several key states, proving whether any particular activity might have changed the outcome is all but impossible.

“There’s no way to know what the impact was. We really don’t know the scale, we really don’t know whose minds were changed,” said Clint Watts, a former FBI agent and researcher on cyber-influence campaigns.

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One key element of the campaign, however, clearly might have worsened a Clinton vulnerability. The Russians aimed a significant part of their effort toward alienating minority voters, with an eye toward getting them to stay home rather than vote. Low minority turnout was one element of Clinton’s loss in some major states, such as Michigan.

The details in the indictment show that the Russian campaign was far more sophisticated and serious than previously known, Watts said. The ways in which the Russians concealed their identities and made their operation look “authentically American” in order to trick Americans into helping them provided evidence of a sophisticated operation with ties to Russian intelligence, he added.

“This is not what just any goofball could do,” he said. “They got real Americans to do influence for them, unwittingly. That’s next-level.”

The indictment accuses the 13 Russians and three businesses of “impairing, obstructing and defeating the lawful functions of the government through fraud and deceit for the purpose of interfering with the U.S. political and electoral processes, including the presidential election of 2016.”

Rosenstein said the Justice Department had not yet had contact with Russian officials about extraditing any of the accused.

One of those charged was Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a wealthy Russian businessman and caterer who has been publicly identified as a close associate of Putin’s.

A company controlled by Prigozhin, Concord Management and Consulting, funded and directed the interference campaign in the U.S. and other countries, employing the Internet Research Agency, a shadowy internet troll factory that operated from St. Petersburg in Russia, according to the indictment, which refers to the agency as “the organization.”

“Concord was the organization’s primary source of funding for its interference operations,” the indictment says. “Concord controlled funding, recommended personnel and oversaw organization activities.”

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In 2014, the organization created a special department focused on using YouTube, Facebook and other social media platforms to influence the U.S. presidential election.

More than 80 employees were assigned to the project and by 2016, its monthly budget exceeded $1.2 million a month, the charging documents say.

The Russians created fake social media accounts, posing as Americans and in some cases using stolen identities of real Americans, to post messages about divisive issues such as guns and immigration.

The attempts to sow division continued after the election, Rosenstein said, noting that the Russians staged rallies in New York to support and oppose Trump on the same day.

Democrats said the indictment vindicated Mueller’s investigation.

“For all of those who have been asking ‘where is the evidence of a crime?’— this is it. This is the criminal conspiracy,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the senior Democrat on the House Oversight Committee.

“This is what President Trump and his allies have repeatedly called a ‘hoax’ and ‘fake news.’ This is what they tried to cover up,” Cummings said. “This is what we might never have known if President Trump had been successful in shutting down this investigation.”

The indictment suggests that Mueller’s investigators have obtained internal documents from the Internet Research Agency which shed light on its internal operations. The charging documents also quote from personal emails of Russians involved in the interference, indicating that Mueller has gotten access to sensitive U.S. intelligence communications intercepts.

“We had a slight crisis at work, the FBI busted our activity (not a joke),” one of the Russians, who was working in the U.S., wrote in September to family members back home.

The FBI move came after Facebook and other social media platforms began cooperating with Mueller’s investigation, supplying information about Russian-controlled accounts.

According to the indictment, the Russian operatives bought credit card and bank account numbers online to evade the security checks at PayPal.

On Friday, Mueller’s office revealed that one of those who sold account numbers, Richard Pinedo, 28, of Santa Paula, Calif., had pleaded guilty to one count of identity fraud.

The criminal charge against Pinedo says he knowingly dealt with people outside the U.S., both in buying and selling account numbers, but a law enforcement official said there is no evidence that he knew he was dealing with a Russian intelligence operation.

The indictment describes how several defendants in 2014 “traveled to the United States under false pretenses for the purpose of collecting intelligence to inform the organization’s operations,” making stops in California, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Louisiana, Texas, New York and Georgia.

The visit was conducted with many of the trappings of an intelligence operation, complete with drop phones, evacuation scenarios and a virtual private network to allow the Russians to conceal the origin of their social-media posts.

Concealment of their identities was key to the Russian effort, Rosenstein said. “The nature of the scheme was, the defendants took extraordinary steps to make it appear that that they were ordinary American political activists,” he said.

The indictment includes considerable detail of some of the Russian activities. In June 2016, for example, several of the Russians, posing as Americans, communicated with a “Texas-based grass-roots organization, who told them to focus on closely contested states,” the indictment says.

“Defendants and their co-conspirators learned from the real U.S. person that they should focus their activities on ‘purple states like Colorado, Virginia & Florida,’” the indictment reads.

The indictment describes how Russian “specialists” were organized into day and night shifts, so they could post on social media sites around the clock.

The fake pages referred to immigration, the Black Lives Matter movement and Muslim rights, as well as right-wing causes and regional grievances, including one called “South United.” By 2016, many of the pages had “hundreds of thousands of followers,” the charging document says.

On Feb. 10, 2016, the organization instructed specialists “to use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump — we support them),” the indictment says, quoting Russian documents.

In August 2016, a Russian operative using the fake identity “Matt Skiber” recruited an American to buy a costume “depicting Clinton in a prison uniform” and the organization later paid for a cage “large enough to hold an actress depicting Clinton.”

david.cloud@latimes.com

Twitter: @davidcloudLAT


UPDATES:

2:00 p.m.: This article was updated with additional detail from the indictment and reaction.

12:45 p.m.: This article was updated with a tweet from President Trump and additional details from the indictment.

11:50 a.m.: This article was updated with additional details from the indictment.

This article was originally published at 10:40 a.m.


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