WASHINGTON — A federal grand jury empaneled by Special Counsel Robert Mueller indicted 13 Russians and three Russian entities on Friday, laying out evidence that foreign nationals interfered in the 2016 election and boosted the candidacy of President Donald Trump.
The 37-page indictment represents a massive blow to Trump and his supporters on Capitol Hill, who for months have tried to undermine Mueller's investigation and have dismissed the existence of pro-Trump Russian activity in the 2016 election.
Trump has maintained that there was no collusion between his campaign and Russia during the 2016 election, and called Mueller's probe a "witch hunt" and a "hoax." He has both conceded that Russia meddled in the election and said he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin when he denied meddling.
Mueller's team indicted a Russian state-controlled troll farm called the Internet Research Agency, as well as two Russian organizations that funded election interference operations — Concord Management and Consulting and Concord Catering — and 13 individuals accused of working with those groups.
Mueller, who was tasked with investigating possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign in the 2016 election, had already brought criminal charges to four aides to the Trump campaign. But Friday's indictment represents the first charges in direct connection with election interference.
Mueller charged the defendants with one count of conspiracy to defraud the U.S., one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud, and six counts of aggravated identity theft.
The special counsel also released a plea deal on Friday with Richard Pinedo, who admitted to knowingly using other people's identification in connection with "unlawful activity." He was paid at least US$1,000 for those activities during a one-year period, according to an unsealed court filing.
Russia's effort to interfere with the U.S. political system dates back to at least 2014, according to the indictment. By September 2016, just before the presidential election, the monthly budget for election interference operations was more than US$1.25 million.
The defendants posed as Americans to create social media pages, purchase political advertisements and stage political rallies, the indictment alleges. In some cases, the defendants stole the identities of real Americans to carry out these activities. Posing as Americans, some of the defendants "communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump campaign and with other political activists to seek to coordinate political activities," the indictment said.
Some of the people listed in the indictment traveled to the U.S. "under false pretenses for the purpose of collecting intelligence to inform Defendants' operations" and to purchase computer infrastructure that would obscure the Russian origin of their online activities, according to the indictment. They allegedly falsely claimed they were traveling to the U.S. for personal reasons and did not fully disclose whom they worked for when applying for a visa.
Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general who appointed Mueller and has overseen the investigation, said at a press conference on Friday that there was no allegation presented in the indictment that the Russian activity actually had an impact on the outcome of the election. That essentially means that DOJ isn't taking a position on whether the Russian activity swung the election. Rosenstein said there was no evidence presented that Americans knew they were working with Russians.
After the indictment was made public on Friday, Trump doubled down on denying any coordination between his campaign and Russia.
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!
"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," Trump said via a statement Friday. "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. We must unite as Americans to protect the integrity of our democracy and our elections."
Contact With Trump Campaign
In August of 2016, the indictment alleges, a person who identified themselves as the chair of the Trump campaign for a Florida county communicated with the Russians, who were pretending to be Americans. The person allegedly discussed logistics and locations for rallies.
The indictment alleges three instances in which the Russians, posing as Americans, contacted Trump campaign officials in Florida responsible for coordinating logistics in the state. In two instances, the Russians allegedly obtained the contact information for Trump campaign officials from someone with access to the "Florida for Trump" Facebook page. The Russians allegedly used a fake Gmail address to contact two of the campaign officials. The Russians allegedly contacted the third official using a fake Facebook account with the name "Matt Skiber."
The indictment does not say whether the Trump campaign officials ever wrote back. The campaign officials and volunteers who the Russians communicated with, according to the indictment, were "unwitting."
The Russians also allegedly used the Twitter account @March_for_Trump to contact a volunteer with the campaign in New York and got the volunteer to provide signs for a rally in support of Trump.
The Troll Farm
According to the indictment, the Internet Research Agency employed individuals to work throughout the night so that they could post during times that would make sense in U.S. time zones. The organization circulated a list of U.S. holidays so that employees could tailor their social media content and instructed them to write about U.S. foreign policy and economic issues. The goal was to create "political intensity through supporting radical groups, users dissatisfied with [the] social and economic situation and oppositional social movements," the indictment alleged.
By 2016, some of the IRA-controlled groups and accounts had hundreds or thousands of online followers. Trump personally thanked one of the more popular Russian-operated Twitter accounts, @TEN_GOP. On several occasions, Donald Trump Jr. retweeted the account, which attracted more than 100,000 followers.
Around 2015, the defendants began purchasing ads on social media sites to promote their efforts, spending several thousand dollars a month, according to the indictment. The Russian-run ads were expressly pro-Trump and anti-Clinton, the indictment alleges.
The Russians purchased computer servers located inside the U.S. to set up virtual private networks (VPNs) to hide their Russian identities, according to the indictment. They also allegedly "registered and controlled hundreds of web-based email accounts hosted by U.S. email providers under false names so as to appear to be U.S. persons and groups."
Posing As Americans
Around 2016, the Russian defendants used the social security numbers and dates of birth of American citizens to open PayPal accounts, create fake driver's licenses and post on social media posing as those Americans. They also used their assumed identities to purchase political ads. Some of those ads were paid for with credit cards registered under the names of fictitious Americans. The defendants allegedly failed to report their expenditures to the Federal Election Commission or register as foreign agents with the Justice Department.
The advertisements contained inflammatory language that was pro-Trump and critical of Clinton. They say things like "Hillary Clinton doesn't deserve the black vote," "Donald wants to defeat terrorism...Hillary wants to sponsor it," "Hillary Clinton has already committed voter fraud during the Democrat Iowa caucus" and "Hillary is a Satan, and her crimes and lies had proved just how evil she is."
The Russians also allegedly used social media to try and encourage minority groups not to participate in the election. The indictment claims they used an Instagram account called "Woke Blacks" to say African-Americans would be better off not voting in the 2016 election. They also allegedly used another Instagram account called "Blactivist" to encourage voting for Jill Stein as well as "United Muslims of America" social media accounts to encourage Muslims to boycott the election.
By posing as U.S. citizens, some of the defendants were able to gain information about where to focus their operations. During one exchange with a real American affiliated with a Texas-based grassroots group, some of the defendants learned they should focus on states like Colorado, Virginia, and Florida, according to the indictment.
After the election, they continued to coordinate rallies, both in support of Trump and also events protesting the results of the election.
The indictment alleges that the Russians tried to impede the investigation by deleting and destroying data, including emails and social media accounts. After Facebook disclosed that it was cooperating with the U.S. government in September 2017, the conspirators allegedly tried to cover up their activity. One of the defendants wrote an email to a family member indicating their involvement in the scheme and their attempts to cover their tracks.
"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," she allegedly wrote. "I created all these pictures and posts, and the Americans believed that it was written by their people."