UNITED STATES — Special counsel Robert Mueller has indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities for allegedly meddling in the 2016 presidential election, charging them with conspiracy to defraud the United States, the Department of Justice announced Friday.
In addition, three defendants were charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud, and five defendants with aggravated identity theft.
“The defendants allegedly conducted what they called information warfare against the United States, with the stated goal of spreading distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general,” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said.
Mueller had convened the grand jury as part of his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election as well as any possible connections between Russia and Trump campaign associates.
FBI Director Chris Wray and Rosenstein briefed President Donald Trump on the indictments at the White House on Friday morning, a White House official said.
Beginning as early as 2014, the Russian organization Internet Research Agency began operations to interfere with the US political system, including the 2016 elections, according to the indictment.
The defendants allegedly posed as US persons, created false US personas and operated social media pages and groups designed to attract US audiences, the indictment reads.
The Internet Research Agency had a “strategic goal to sow discord in the US political system” including the election, according to the indictment.
Russians posted “derogatory information about a number of candidates,” and by mid-2016 they supported Trump and disparaged Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton. They bought ads and communicated with “unwitting” people tied to Trump campaign and others to coordinate political activities.
Rosenstein said Friday that the indictment does not contain any allegations that any Americans knowingly participated in the activity.
“There is no allegation in this indictment that any American was a knowing participant in this illegal activity,” he said. “There is no allegation in the indictment that the charge conduct altered the outcome of the 2016 election.”
Rosenstein added that the special counsel’s investigation is ongoing.
Social media tactics
According to the indictment, the Russians created an email address, firstname.lastname@example.org, to purport to be a US person in order to send out press releases in June 2016 for a “March for Trump” rally to New York media outlets.
The defendants allegedly used a Facebook account belonging to a fictitious person named Matt Skiber, posing as an American to contact a real US citizen to act as a recruiter for the rally, even offering money to print posters and buy a megaphone.
The advertisements weren’t limited to Trump. They also allegedly purchased ads on Facebook to promote “Support Hillary. Save American Muslims” rally to allege Clinton was supporting Islamic law. They also allegedly bought ads to promote a “Down with Hillary” rally.
The defendants focused on key purple states during the election. The Skiber account allegedly sent a private message to a real Facebook account, “Florida for Trump,” to offer support. They also allegedly used a stolen identity of a real US citizen to email grassroots groups in Florida.
The defendants allegedly attempted to cover their tracks after social media companies, including Facebook, publicly disclosed in September 2017 that they had identified Russians purchasing political and social advertisements on its platform and after media reports noted the company was cooperating with the special counsel’s investigation.
“We have a slight crisis here at work: the FBI busted our activity (not a joke). So, I got preoccupied with covering tracks together with colleagues,” one of the defendants wrote, according to the indictment.
Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova described the indictments Friday as “absurd.”
“(Thirteen) people intervened in the elections in the US?” she wrote on her Facebook page. “13 against billion-dollar budgets of special services? Against intelligence and counterintelligence, against the latest developments and technologies? … Absurd? Yes.”
“This is modern American political reality,” she added in the post.
House Speaker Paul Ryan called the Russians’ alleged actions “a conspiracy to subvert the process, and take aim at democracy itself.”
“We have known that Russians meddled in the election, but these indictments detail the extent of the subterfuge,” Ryan said in a statement. “These 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. Today’s announcement underscores why we need to follow the facts and work to protect the integrity of future elections.”
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi said in a statement that the indictments “make absolutely clear” that Russians tried to influence the presidential election to support Trump’s campaign and continue to try to interfere with our elections.
“We are on the eve of the 2018 midterm elections,” the statement added. “There is no time to waste to defend the integrity of our elections and our democracy.”
The ranking Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is also investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, said in a statement that he is “glad” to see the committee’s work “vindicated” by the indictments.
“With this indictment, the Special Counsel and his team have taken an important step to hold Russia accountable,” Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia said Friday.
Clinton, through her spokesman, Nick Merrill, declined to comment on the indictments, but her campaign spokespeople and aides are responding.
Robby Mook, Clinton’s former campaign manager, tweeted: “The intelligence community has repeatedly told us Russia meddled. Now criminal indictments from DOJ. We were attacked by a foreign adversary. Will our Congress and President stand strong and take action? Or let it happen again?”