“There is no allegation in this indictment that any American was a knowing participant in this illegal activity,” Rod Rosenstein
Democrats say the indictment proves Russian meddling is no ‘hoax,’ while Trump allies say charges of Trump campaign collusion with the Kremlin remain baseless.
By MICHAEL CROWLEY and LOUIS NELSON (Politico)
Special counsel Robert Mueller charged 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities on Friday with an illegal “information warfare” scheme to disrupt the 2016 presidential election and assist the candidacy of President Donald Trump.
The dramatic indictment reveals a bold covert effort that went beyond the previously-known use of “fake news” and social media misdirection to divide American voters and harm Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
It charges that as early as 2014, Russian nationals physically entered the U.S., and, hiding their true identities, gathered intelligence, organized political rallies — and even paid Americans to assist their political sabotage. The Russians allegedly paid one American in Florida to dress up as Hillary Clinton in a prison uniform and hired another to build a cage to “imprison” the Clinton impersonator at a Florida rally.
The effort was led by the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency, a notorious online misinformation operation with suspected Kremlin ties, according to the indictment, and involved what the court filing called “unwitting” U.S. citizens and Trump campaign officials
The indictment concludes that the Internet Research Agency “had a strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system.” While noting that the operation undermined multiple presidential candidates, including Trump GOP rivals Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, the document says that the shadowy Russian agency’s operations “included supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump… and disparaging Hillary Clinton.”
No Trump campaign officials or associates are named in the indictment, which does not address the Russian hacking and theft of Democratic emails during the 2016 campaign or the other known contacts between Trump associates and Russians.
Nor does the indictment say whether the defendants were acting on orders from the Kremlin. But U.S. intelligence officials have previously stated that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally approved a wider election interference operation. Russia experts said the Kremlin was likely behind the effort.
“It’s hard to read the indictment and not see the ‘troll factory’ as conducting a Kremlin-sponsored covert action aimed at the U.S. political system,” said Andrew Weiss, a former Clinton White House National Security Council aide who handled Russia issues.
Weiss and others noted that one of the indicted Russians, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, who controls two companies that finance the Internet Research Agency, is a close Putin ally. The State Department sanctioned Prigozhin last year, citing his ties to senior Russian government officials and Russia’s defense ministry.
Democrats said the new charges underscored the gravity of Mueller’s investigation and the need for his political independence amid calls from conservatives for an end to his work.
Trump himself claimed vindication in a Friday afternoon tweet.
“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!” Trump wrote.
Mueller’s indictment does not say one way or another whether the Russian efforts might have influenced voter behavior, however, although U.S. intelligence officials have previously said that Russian hacking efforts did not manipulate voting machines to alter the official election vote count.
The document does allege that some of the defendants were in communication with Trump’s campaign, but not that Trump officials knowingly colluded with Russia. Its specific charges include conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud and aggravated identity theft.
“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 said.
According to Mueller’s indictment, the defendants allegedly posed as Americans in online interactions with political and social activists. In once instance, the Russians “communicated with a real U.S. person affiliated with a Texas-based grassroots organization” who recommended they focus on so-called “purple” states such as Colorado, Virginia and Florida. The indictment alleges that the Russians then began using the term “purple states” in subsequent planning.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein emphasized at a Friday news conference that the indictment does not accuse any Americans of wrongdoing.
“There is no allegation in this indictment that any American was a knowing participant in this illegal activity,” Rosenstein told reporters. “There is no allegation in the indictment that the charged conduct altered the outcome of the 2016 election.”…….
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