WASHINGTON — Special counsel Robert Mueller on Friday charged 13 Russians and three Russian companies with stealing identities, employing hundreds of individuals and spending millions of dollars in a social media campaign aimed at interfering in the 2016 presidential election.
The 37-page indictment made public Friday details how a Russian operation that began in 2014 aimed “to sow discord” in U.S. elections and supported Donald Trump’s campaign while disparaging Hillary Clinton — a charge that echoes the intelligence community’s assessment.
Prosecutors said the Internet Research Agency, based in St. Petersburg, Russia, conducted a sophisticated, well-organized social media campaign through shell companies funded by Russian oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin, who is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The eight-count indictment charges those Russian individuals and companies committed bank fraud, identity theft and violated federal laws to prevent and disclose improper foreign influence on U.S. elections and the political system.
Yet it does not allege that the Russians’ social media campaign, bogus protest rallies and contacts with the Trump campaign altered the outcome of the 2016 election, and it does not allege that any American was a knowing participant in the scheme.
Before he left for Florida for the weekend, Trump tweeted, “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!”
In his statement, he repeated that assertion, but also said, “We must unite as Americans to protect the integrity of our democracy and our elections.”
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), a top member of the House Intelligence Committee, said the indictment still “leaves open the vital question of whether Americans, including any associated with the Trump campaign, knowingly played a role in Russia’s active measures.”
The indictment was announced at the Justice Department by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who is overseeing Mueller’s investigation into Russian election meddling and whether Trump’s campaign coordinated with Russia. Mueller did not appear at the event.
“This indictment serves as a reminder that people are not always who they appear to be on the Internet,” Rosenstein said. “The indictment alleges that the Russian conspirators want to promote discord in the United States and undermine public confidence in democracy.”
Rosenstein said none of the 13 Russians charged is in custody and that the Justice Department will go through formal channels to extradite them.
Prigozhin denied the charges. “The Americans are very impressionable people; they see what they want to see,” he was quoted as saying by the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti. “I am not upset at all that I ended up on this list. If they want to see the devil, let them see him.”
Prosecutors charge that the Internet Research Agency LLC operated through Russian shell companies and employed hundreds of people for its online operations using fake sites, names and hashtags.
Beginning in 2014, the agency sent two of the named defendants to the United States to gather intelligence for the American political influence operation and set up the “translator project” that would employ more than 80 people to focus on influencing Americans, prosecutors said.
That project used stolen or fictitious identities, fraudulent bank accounts and false documents to purchase political ads and to establish hundreds of Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts, including pages to communicate with unwitting Americans, the indictment said.
On June 15, 2016, for example, a volunteer for the Trump campaign in New York agreed to provide signs for a “March for Trump” rally after being contacted by a Russian posing as a grass roots activist using the account @March_for_Trump, prosecutors said.
After the election, the Russians sought to sow discord by organizing one rally to support Trump and another rally to protest him on the same day, Nov. 12, 2016, in New York, according to the indictment.
On Sept. 13, 2017, after news reports that the Special Counsel’s Office was investigating evidence that Russian operatives had used social media to interfere in the 2016 election, one defendant allegedly wrote in an email to a family member: “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 my colleagues.”