Mueller indicts 13 Russians for interfering in US election
Special counsel Robert Mueller has brought charges against 13 Russian nationals and three Russian groups for interfering with the 2016 U.S. elections.
The explosive new charges allege that the Russians created false U.S. personas and stole the identities of real U.S. people in order to interfere with the 2016 presidential election, an assessment previously reached by U.S. intelligence agencies.
“This indictment serves as a reminder that people are not always who they appear to be on the Internet,” Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein said at a press briefing announcing the indictments.
“The indictment alleges that the Russian conspirators want to promote discord in the United States and undermine public confidence in democracy.”
President Trump, who has repeatedly cast doubt on whether Russia interfered with the election, has been briefed on the indictments, the White House said.
The efforts, which began in 2014, were connected to the so-called Internet Research Agency, a shadowy Russian operation based in St. Petersburg that leveraged Facebook and other social media platforms to spread divisive messages leading up to the 2016 election.
The indictment says that the goal of the entities and people indicted was to support now-President Trump’s campaign and to hurt Democrat Hillary Clinton’s, and that some defendants while posing as U.S. people communicated with “unwitting individuals associated with the Trump Campaign and with other political activists to seek to coordinate political activities.”
“Defendants’ operations included supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump (“Trump campaign”) and disparaging Hillary Clinton,” the indictment reads. “Defendants made various expenditures to carry out those activities, including buying political advertisements on social media in the names of U.S. persons and entities.”
The indictment describes a conspiracy to alter the U.S. election that involved fraudulently won visas to enter the United States, and a sophisticated operation to reach voters in key states for the purpose of affecting the election through political advertisements, events and social media operations.
The Russians are alleged to have talked to U.S. people, and to have been advised to focus efforts on swing states such as “Colorado, Virginia and Florida.”
It also states that the named individuals staged political rallies in the United States, and while posing as U.S. grassroots entities “compensated real U.S. persons to promote or disparage candidates.”
The indictment alleges that the defendants and co-conspirators, through their personas, tried to encourage minority groups not to vote in the 2016 election or to vote for third party candidates.
In addition, the defendants allegedly promoted allegations of “voter fraud” in the Democratic Party beginning in the summer of 2016, through their personas on social media and political advertisements.
“There is no allegation in the indictment on the outcome of the election,” he also stressed.
The individuals and entities are associated with the Russia-based Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll farm in St. Petersburg that was found last year to have purchased $100,000 in political advertisements on Facebook running up to the election. The social media platform told Congress that the ads, designed to exploit political and social divisions in the United States, potentially reached 126 million American users.
Twitter has also uncovered some 3,800 fake accounts and 50,000 bots tied to the shadowy Russian operation.
The defendants are being charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States; three defendants also face additional charges of conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud, and five with charges of aggravated identity theft.
A California man pleaded guilty to identity fraud on Friday shortly after Mueller issued the indictments.
The man, Pichard Pinedo, sold bank account numbers over the Internet that helped individuals circumvent security protocols of online digital payment companies
Rosenstein said that the U.S. going forward must work to ensure that such conspiracies to alter U.S. elections do not succeed in undermining the nation’s democracy.
“The Department of Justice will continue to work cooperatively with other law enforcement and intelligence agencies, and with the Congress, to defend our nation against similar current and future schemes,” he said.
Rosenstein is the top Justice official overseeing Mueller. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia investigation.
—Updated at 1:36 p.m.