Updated 3:25 p.m. | The Justice Department charged Russian operatives Friday with a sweeping effort to interfere with the 2016 presidential election, spending millions of dollars to wage social media campaigns, buy political advertisements and pose as grass-roots organizers to spark political rallies on American soil.
The grand jury criminal indictment of 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies landed like a bombshell in Washington, where the debate has raged over the extent of Russia’s influence in the election while President Donald Trump has waged a campaign to quell special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation.
The long indictment packs some incredible details into allegations that an organization called the Internet Research Agency had “a strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system, including the 2016 presidential election” — and used social media and real Americans to do it.
Watch: Intelligence Officials Aware of Russian Activity Aimed at 2018 Elections
The conspiracy, according to the indictment, went so far as to organize political rallies on behalf of Trump and against Hillary Clinton in Florida, New York and Pennsylvania.
The document brings into the open what the nation’s intelligence agencies have long said about election security and Russian meddling. And it will intensify the conversations in Congress and the White House on those areas, and likely cause fallout in the long-strained relations between the United States and Russia, which has denied such activities.
“The defendants allegedly conducted what they called ‘information warfare’ against the United States with the stated goal of spreading distrust toward the candidates and the political system in general,” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said at a press conference Friday at Justice Department headquarters.
But the indictment falls short of alleging any collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian operatives, instead calling the president’s campaign “unwitting” participants. The documents also reference attempts by the Russians to denigrate other presidential candidates.
“There is no allegation in this indictment that any American was a knowing participant in this illegal activity,” Rosenstein said. “There is no allegation in the indictment that the charge altered the outcome of the 2016 election.”
“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,” the indictment states.
“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 states.
Trump contended Friday that the indictment vindicated his assertions that he and his campaign did not work with Moscow.
“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,” he tweeted while Marine One was in the air. “The Trump campaign did nothing wrong — no collusion!”
The tweet marks Trump’s first public statement concluding that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. For over a year, he has publicly declined to say he agreed with American intelligence agencies, which first warned of the meddling in October 2016.
Lawmakers said the facts alleged in the indictment erased doubt about Russian operatives interfering in U.S. elections.
“Today’s indictments should lay to rest any assertions by President Trump that the Special Counsel’s investigation is a ‘hoax’ or a ‘witch hunt,’” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York, the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.
“At this point, any step President Trump may take to interfere with the Special Counsel’s investigation — including removing Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein, or threatening to remove Special Counsel Mueller directly — will have to be seen as a direct attempt to aid the Russian government in attacking American democracy,” Nadler said.
The indictment lays out a plan long in the making, starting with Russian operative visits to America as early as 2014. By early- to mid-2016, the organization’s operations “included supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump” and “disparaging Hillary Clinton,” the indictment states.
The Internet Research Agency, based in St. Petersburg, “employed hundreds of people and online operations, ranging from creators of fictitious personas to technical and administrative support personnel, with an annual budget of millions of dollars,” Rosenstein said.
The Russian operations were funded by one of the persons named in the indictment, Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin, who operated companies called Concord Management and Consulting LLC and Concord Catering, according to the indictment.
The Russians used servers in the United States to establish hundreds of accounts on social media networks such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, Rosenstein said, and they posed as politically and socially active Americans. They pretended to be grass-roots activists and recruited and paid real Americans to engage in political activities, promote political campaigns and stage political rallies.
“After the election, the defendants allegedly staged rallies to support the president while simultaneously staging rallies to protest his election,” Rosenstein said. “For example, the defendants organized one rally to support the president-elect and another rally to oppose him, both in New York on the same day.”
To fund it, the Russians used stolen or fictitious American identities, fraudulent bank accounts and false identification documents, Rosenstein said. The charges include conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud, and aggravated identity theft.
Concord ran a broad interference campaign aimed both at domestic Russian audiences as well as the United States under the banner Project Lakhta, and by September 2016 had a budget of about 73 million rubles or about $1.25 million, according to the indictment.
Some of the 13 defendants traveled to the United States under false pretenses, posing as tourists, and visited some of the key battleground states that would be vital in the 2016 elections, the indictment said. The group also assumed false U.S. personas, sometimes stealing U.S. citizens information and using that to open bank accounts and online payment accounts on PayPal.
The indictment said some of the defendants engaged with U.S. grass-roots political activists, including one in Texas, and learned from such interactions that they must focus on so-called “purple states like Colorado, Virginia, and Florida,” that are considered swing states that could tip a presidential election in one candidate’s favor.
The Russian operators opened hundreds of fake social media accounts assuming Americans’ names and identities, including Twitter accounts purportedly championing political causes, the indictment said. One of the clear examples of such an effort was the Twitter account called Tennessee GOP, which used a Twitter handle called “@Ten_GOP” that claimed to be controlled by Tennessee Republican Party and garnered 100,000 online followers.
To hide their efforts, the Internet Research Agency and its operatives bought computer servers in the United States and set up virtual private networks that allowed their bosses back in Russia to connect to U.S. networks using such VPN access, the indictment said.
Using thousands of email accounts and Twitter handles, the operatives then targeted Democratic front-runner Clinton, as well as Republican contenders Rubio and Cruz, while largely supporting Trump and Sanders, the indictment said.
As early as February 2016, the group began circulating internal notes that called for using any “opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump — we support them),” the indictment said.
The Russian operatives also produced signs and posters using election-related tags such as “#Trump2016,” “#MAGA,” and “#HillaryforPrison,” according to the indictment.
Starting around the fall of 2016, the Russian operatives began a campaign to encourage minority groups in the United States not to vote in the presidential election, or to back third party candidate Jill Stein, according to the indictment.
The group also encouraged American Muslims to not vote for Clinton because she favored continued military action in the Middle East.
The Russian group also placed political ads on U.S. media outlets without revealing their identity or reporting such placements to the Federal Election Commission, the indictment said.
The operators then moved beyond electronic media and ads to staging actual rallies in the United States, the indictment said.
Starting in about June 2016, the Russian operators “organized and coordinated political rallies in the United States,” the indictment said. “To conceal the fact that they were based in Russia, the 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 participate or meet in person.”
In late 2016 the group used a Facebook group called “United Muslims of America” to promote a rally called “Support Hillary. Save American Muslims.” At the rally on July 9, 2016, in Washington D.C., the group recruited a real U.S. person to hold a sign that purported to quote Clinton saying, “I think Sharia law will be a powerful new direction of freedom.”
Sharia law refers to Islamic rules mentioned in the Quran.
The group then also used another fake Facebook group called “Being Patriotic” and a Twitter account @March_for_Trump to promote two political rallies in New York, according to the indictment. The first one held on June 25, 2016, was called March for Trump, and the second called Down with Hillary was organized on July 23, 2016. Similar rallies were held in Florida as well as in Pennsylvania, and the group used its Facebook accounts and fake emails to reach real U.S. persons encouraging them to participate in the rallies, the indictment said.
The group continued its activities even after the election, organizing rallies to support President-elect Trump, holding one such rally in New York on Nov. 12.
To continue sowing division among Americans, the group also organized another rally in New York on the same day titled “Trump is NOT my President.” A similar anti-Trump rally was held in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Nov. 19, the indictment said.
Read the indictment: internet_research_agency_indictment.
John T. Bennett contributed to this report.