Special counsel Robert Mueller rocked Washington, D.C., on Friday with the announcement of a new series of indictments of Russian agents who allegedly interfered with the U.S. presidential election in 2016.
The 37-page indictment contains a number of key revelations about the investigation, and for the first time U.S. government law enforcement authorities have in detail demonstrated the operations of a sophisticated Russian-run conspiracy complete with stunts, rallies, paid political advertisements, a fake social media presence, and falsified identities with which Russians pretended to be Americans and even communicated with “unwitting” members of the President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign.
It also seems to disprove the notion that the Trump campaign engaged in collusion with the Russians, at least in this particular case, despite contacts these Russians allegedly had with Trump campaign officials and associates. But the latest Mueller indictment details the extent to which Russians aggressively sowed the seeds of chaos in American politics to push on behalf of Trump and Democrat Bernie Sanders and against Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton and Republicans Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
President Trump says that this indictment vindicates him with regards to the Russia investigation, demonstrating that there was no collusion between his campaign and the Russians.
While Trump is correct on that note that this indictment does not demonstrate collusion between his campaign and the Russians, the indictment does once and for all clearly demonstrate that the Russians engaged in a sophisticated effort to influence U.S. political events in 2016. It also leaves open the possibility of future action by Mueller, as evidenced by the language the special counsel used in the indictment–and the language used by Department of Justice officials rolling out the indictment for the press.
Bloomberg News cited a “person with knowledge” of Mueller’s investigation in a report on Friday afternoon to note that this indictment is just the beginning of actions to be expected and avenues to be explored by Mueller in the coming months ahead. Bloomberg’s Chris Strohm wrote.:
Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his prosecutors haven’t concluded their investigation into whether President Donald Trump or any of his associates helped Russia interfere in the 2016 election, according to a person with knowledge of the probe. Friday’s indictment of a St. Petersburg-based “troll farm” and 13 Russian nationals should be seen as a limited slice of a comprehensive investigation, the person said. Mueller’s work is expected to continue for months and also includes examining potential obstruction of justice by Trump, said the person, who requested anonymity to discuss an investigation that is largely confidential.
The indictment targets 13 Russians as well as Internet Research Agency, LLC, which is a Saint Petersburg-based organization that pushes influence operations on behalf of the Russian government. The indictment alleges that those 13 Russians and Internet Research Agency, as well as fellow Russian firms Concord Management and Consulting LLC and Concord Catering,
…knowingly and intentionally conspired with each other (and with persons known and unknown to the Grand Jury) to defraud the United States by 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.
The scheme, the indictment alleges, began as far back as 2014 and continued until after the 2016 presidential election. U.S. intelligence authorities and officials say the Russians intend to engage in similar actions in 2018’s midterm elections here in the United States, and future elections thereafter.
While the indictment does not say how much money these Russian entities spent on this, it does say that Concord and Russian oligarch and Vladimir Putin ally Yevgeny Prigozhin “spent significant funds to further” the operations of Internet Research Agency and “to pay the remaining defendants” along with others not charged in this indictment but employed by Internet Research Agency.
In a Friday report filed from Saint Petersburg, the New York Times’ Neil MacFarqhuar noted that Prigozhin is a Russian oligarch with deep connections to Putin.
“Despite his humble, troubled youth, Mr. Prigozhin became one of Russia’s richest men, joining a charmed circle whose members often share one particular attribute: their proximity to President Vladimir V. Putin,” MacFarqhuar wrote. “The small club of loyalists who gain Mr. Putin’s trust often feast, as Mr. Prigozhin has, on enormous state contracts. In return, they are expected to provide other, darker services to the Kremlin as needed.”
Prigozhin himself, per the Times quoting him via Russian state media outlet Ria Novosti, responded to the indictment in dark terms.
“The Americans are very impressionable people, they see what they want to see,” Prigozhin said. “I have a lot of respect for them. I am not upset at all that I ended up on this list. If they want to see the devil, let them see him.”
The Mueller indictment alleges that these Russian actors engaged in paid and other social media efforts as well as staging political rallies and sowing discord in the United States using identity politics by propping up causes like Black Lives Matter, pro-Islamic causes, religious entities, and more. And they did it by posing as U.S. persons with falsified or stolen identities. The indictment reads:
Defendants, posing as U.S. persons and creating false U.S. personas, operated social media pages and groups designed to attract U.S. audiences. These groups and pages, which addressed divisive U.S. political and social issues, falsely claimed to be controlled by U.S. activists when, in fact they were controlled by Defendants. Defendants also used the stolen identities of real U.S. to post on ORGANIZATION-controlled social media accounts. Over time, these social media accounts became Defendants’ means to reach significant numbers of Americans for purposes of interfering with the U.S. political system, including the presidential election of 2016.” Some of these Russia-based Defendants, the indictment alleges, “traveled to the United States under false pretenses for the purpose of collecting intelligence” and obtained and “procured and used computer infrastructure” that was partially American-based “to hide the Russian origin of their activities and to avoid detection by U.S. regulators and law enforcement.
The indictment also details contacts that these Russians, posing as Americans with assumed or stolen identities, had multiple contacts with “unwitting” campaign officials with President Trump’s campaign.
Internet Research Agency, the indictment says, had a “strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system” and that the Defendants “posted derogatory information about a number of candidates, and by early to mid-2016, 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. Defendants also stages political rallies inside the United States, and while posing as U.S. grassroots entities and U.S. persons, and without revealing their Russian identities and ORGANIZATION affiliation, solicited and compensated real U.S. persons to promote or disparage candidates. Some Defendants, posing as U.S. persons and without revealing their Russian association, communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump Campaign and with other political activists to seek to coordinate political activities.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who is overseeing Mueller’s investigation after the recusal of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, said in a press appearance announcing these indictments that no real U.S. persons who communicated with these fake U.S. persons who were really Russians actually knew that they were talking with Russians about these activities. Presumably, Rosenstein’s comments would include the various Trump campaign officials and associates who were in contact with them. Rosenstein said at the press conference:
There is no allegation in this indictment that any American had any knowledge, and the nature of the scheme was the Defendants took extraordinary steps to make it appear as though they were ordinary American political activists even going so far as to base their activities on a virtual private network based here in the United States. If anybody traced it back to that first jump, they would appear to be Americans.
Rosenstein also said there is nothing in this indictment that suggests that the outcome of the election was impacted. “There is no allegation in the indictment of any effect on the outcome of the election,” Rosenstein said.
But the allegation does detail a sophisticated scheme by which Russians tried to influence the American political discourse at such a volatile time in U.S. politics—and that they did it through “fraud and deceit” by “making expenditures in connection with the 2016 U.S. presidential election without proper regulatory disclosure” and “failing to register as foreign agents carrying out political activities within the United States” as well as “obtaining visas through false and fraudulent statements.”
The indicted Russian organization Internet Research Agency allegedly created a team of “specialists” who were “tasked to create social media accounts that appeared to be operated by U.S. persons” then “divided into day-shift and night-shift hours and instructed to make posts in accordance with the appropriate U.S. time zone.” Internet Research Agency also allegedly “circulated lists of U.S. holidays so that specialists could develop and post appropriate account activity” and that said specialists were “instructed to write about topics germane to the United States such as U.S. foreign policy and U.S. economic issues.”
They created social media groups designed to enflame the fringes of American society, including pushing Black Lives Matter, immigration control, religious groups, and certain geographic areas inside the United States. Examples cited in the indictment include accounts called things like Blacktivist, United Muslims of America, Army of Jesus, Secured Borders, South United, and Heart of Texas.
“By 2016, the size of many ORGANIZATION-controlled groups had grown to hundreds of thousands of online followers,” the indictment says.
The Defendants also allegedly bought social media ads starting in or around 2015 designed to promote their controlled entities, “spending thousands of U.S. dollars every month.” They falsely made a Twitter account called @TEN_GOP to make it appear as though they were the Republican Party of Tennessee, a major political party in a U.S. State.
As Rosenstein detailed in the press conference, the indictment also explains how the Russians allegedly hid their Russian identities by buying “space on computer servers located inside the United States in order to set up virtual private networks (‘VPNs’).”
“Defendants and their co-conspirators connected from Russia to the U.S.-based infrastructure by way of these VPNs and conducted activity inside the United States—including accessing online social media accounts, opening new accounts, and communicating with real U.S. persons—while masking the Russian origin and control of the activity,” the indictment says.
They also stole U.S. persons’ identities—or used stolen identities—to engage in this scheme so they could create PayPal accounts. The indictment says:
In or around 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators also used, possessed, and transferred, without lawful authority, the social security numbers and dates of birth of real U.S. persons without those persons’ knowledge or consent. Using these means of identification, Defendants and their co-conspirators opened account at PayPal, a digital payment service provider; created false means of identification, including fake driver’s licenses; and posted on ORGANIZATION-controlled social media accounts using the identities of these U.S. victims. Defendants and their co-conspirators also obtained, and attempted to obtain, false identification documents to use as proof of identity in connection with maintaining accounts and purchasing advertisements on social media sites.
Regarding the 2016 election, the Defendants’ efforts began per the indictment as far back as 2014—and over time became clearer as to their intentions. “They engaged in operations primarily intended to communicate derogatory information about Hillary Clinton, to denigrate other candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump,” the indictment says.
In line-item number 45 on page 17 of the indictment, it says that the Russians “also used false U.S. personas to communicate with unwitting members, volunteers, and supporters of the Trump Campaign involved in local community outreach, as well as grassroots groups that supported then-candidate Trump.”
“These individuals [the American Trump backers referenced] and entities at times distributed the ORGANIZATION’s materials through their own accounts via retweets, reposts, and similar means,” the indictment says. “Defendants and their co-conspirators then monitored the propagation of content through such participants.”
In addition, via an Instagram account controlled by the Russian Internet Research Agency called “Woke Blacks,” in the weeks before the general election the account encouraged American minorities not to vote at all. Another Russian-controlled Instagram account called “Blacktivist” urged black people to vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein, something that would hurt Hillary Clinton’s chances. And in early November 2016, the indictment says a Russian controlled “United Muslims of America” account encouraged Muslims not to vote for Clinton.
The indictment also says that the Russians from April 2016 through November 2016, while using false identities, “began to produce, purchase, and post advertisements on U.S. social media and other online sites expressly advocating for the election of then-candidate Trump or expressly opposing Clinton.”
“Defendants and their co-conspirators did not report their expenditures to the Federal Election Commission, or register as foreign agents with the U.S. Department of Justice,” the indictment says about the ads.
In addition, to pay for the ads, the Russians “established various Russian bank accounts and credit cards, often registered in the names of fictitious U.S. personas created and used by the ORGANIZATION on social media.” They also allegedly used PayPal accounts.
The ads, several examples of which are detailed on line-item number 50 in the indictment on page number 20, are expressly political pleas to vote for Trump or oppose Clinton.
Perhaps even more significantly, the indictment alleges that these Russian operatives engaged in the staging of political rallies in the United States to further their objectives, starting approximately in June 2016.
“To conceal the fact that they were based in Russia, Defendants and their co-conspirators promoted these rallies while pretending to be U.S. grassroots activists who were located in the United States but were unable to meet or participate in person,” the indictment says, adding that the Russians used their social media presence and contacts at they had spent years building to promote the rallies.
One particularly interesting tidbit comes on line-item 53 on page 21, where it says the Russian-controlled group “United Muslims of America” promoted a rally titled: “Support Hillary. Save American Muslims,” a July 9, 2016 rally in Washington, D.C.
“Defendants and their co-conspirators recruited a real U.S. person to hold a sign depicting Clinton and a quote attributed to her stating ‘I think Sharia Law will be a powerful new direction of freedom,’” the indictment says. “Within three weeks, on or about July 26, 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators posted on the same Facebook page that Muslim voters were ‘between Hillary Clinton and a hard place.’”
In June, July, and August 2016, the indictment says, other pro-Trump Russian-controlled social media accounts organized and promoted a variety of pro-Trump or anti-Clinton rallies in New York and “offered money to certain U.S. persons to cover rally expenses.”
They also pushed to create pro-Trump rallies in Florida around this time, and in Pennsylvania. Then, after the election, the Russians organized rallies for and against then-President-elect Donald Trump.
In the case of the Florida efforts, the indictment details how the Russians created a false U.S. persona named “Matt Skiber” in August 2016 to communicate with real people connected with the Trump campaign. The indictment says:
On or about August 15, 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators received an email at one of their false U.S. persona accounts from a real U.S. person, a Florida-based political activist identified as the ‘Chair of the Trump Campaign’ in a particular Florida county. The activist identified two additional sites in Florida for possible rallies. Defendants and their co-conspirators subsequently used their false U.S. persona accounts to communicate with the activist about logistics and an additional rally in Florida.
The Russians then allegedly used an Instagram account they controlled to buy ads to push the rally. The indictment continues:
On or about August 18, 2016, the real ‘Florida for Trump’ Facebook account responded to the false U.S. persona ‘Matt Skiber’ account with instructions to contact a member of the Trump Campaign (‘Campaign Official 1’) involved in the campaign’s Florida operations and provided Campaign Official 1’s email address at the campaign domain donaldtrump.com. On approximately the same day, Defendants and their co-conspirators used the email address of a false U.S. persona, firstname.lastname@example.org, to send an email to Campaign Official 1 at that donaldtrump.com email account…
In the email, which is partially quoted, the Russian posing an American writes to the unidentified unassuming Trump campaign official that they are organizing a rally on Aug. 20, 2016, to support Trump. The Russian wrote:
Let us introduce ourselves first. ‘Being Patriotic’ is a grassroots conservative online movement trying to unite people offline… [W]e gained a huge lot of followers and decided to somehow help Mr. Trump get elected. You know, simple yelling on the Internet is not enough. There should be real action. We organized rallies in New York before. Now we’re focusing on purple states such as Florida.
The email, per the indictment, identifies “thirteen ‘confirmed locations’ in Florida for the rallies and requested the campaign provide ‘assistance in each location.’”
They also sent money via wire transfer to a separate U.S. person “to build a cage large enough to hold an actress depicting Clinton in a prison uniform” then communicated again with a second Trump campaign official via official email—and then the Russians used the fake “Matt Skiber” Facebook account to communicate with a real third Trump campaign official in Florida. The indictment then details several other rallies in Florida, New York, and Pennsylvania that the fake Russians helped organize, including payment via interstate wire transfer for costs.
That all is part of count one in the indictment, Conspiracy to Defraud the United States. Count two, Conspiracy to Commit Wire Fraud and Bank Fraud, as well as counts three through eight—all Aggravated Identity Theft charges—all build upon many of the revelations in the first part of the indictment.