Special counsel Robert Mueller won indictments Friday charging 13 Russian nationals and several companies with interfering in the 2016 U.S. election in order to aid President Trump.
The indictment also accuses three companies of organizing and paying for the massive effort, that at its height had a budget of more than $1.2 million a month and employed more than 80 people.
They created some fake identities, stole others from actual U.S. citizens, created a massive online presence and even staged rallies to try to “sow discord” in the election, the 37-page indictment says.
Prosecutors said the conspiracy dated back to 2014, or well before either Mr. Trump or Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton were officially candidates.
But the indictment specifically says that by the 2016 election the operation was specifically “supporting the president campaign of them-candidate Donald J. Trump (“Trump Campaign”) and disparaging Hillary Clinton.”
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said they also attempted to dupe Trump campaign figures into working with them — though he said at this point, prosecutors aren’t accusing any Americans of intentionally providing assistance.
“There is no allegation that any American is a knowing participant,” Mr. Rosenstein said. “There is no allegation that the charge altered the outcome of the 2016 election.”
Mr. Rosenstein said the Russians’ activities after the election were even more chaotic, staging both rallies to support Mr. Trump and protests to complain about his election.
The White House said the president was briefed on the indictments.
Mr. Trump said the meddling didn’t change the outcome of the election.
“Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for President,” Mr. Trump tweeted Friday afternoon. “The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong - no collusion!”
Mr. Trump has repeatedly called the allegations of Russian meddling a “hoax.”
The indictment offers extraordinary allegations of just how much interference there was. The operatives, educated about U.S. elections by an unwitting grass-roots activist in Texas, began to target “purple” states. They also controlled social media accounts like @TEN_GOP, which falsely claimed to be run by the Tennessee Republican Party.
The operation also used fake accounts to reach out to U.S. press outlets to try to promote their dissension-sowing activities, the indictment says.
A statement posted Friday afternoon on the Facebook page of Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova sharply criticized the indictment, asserting that the U.S. Justice Department’s charges were “absurd.”
“Thirteen people intervened in the U.S. election?!” Ms. Zakharova wrote, according to an English-language translation of the post generated by Facebook. “Thirteen against the billions budgets of the Secret Service? Against intelligence and counterintelligence, against latest developments and technology?.. Absurd?”
“But this is a modern American political reality,” she added.
She issued a similar strong denial of the U.S. charges on Twitter, calling them “completely absurd” and dismissing the idea that “just 13 people” could swing an entire election in the United States.
All 13 Russians named in the indictment were charged with conspiracy to defraud the U.S. Five were charged with identity theft and three with wire and bank fraud.
Some of the operators traveled to the U.S. on intelligence-collecting missions, and set up computer systems in the U.S. to avoid having their activities traced back to Russia.
“The nature of the scheme was the defendants took extraordinary steps to make it appear that they were ordinary American political activists, even so far to base their activities on a virtual private network here in the United States,” Mr. Rosenstein said.
“This indictment serves as a reminder people are not always who they appear to be on the internet,” he said.
The special counsel said the operation was headquartered in the Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg, Russia, corporation that dedicated more than 80 employees to trying to interfere in the 2016 election. Two other Russian companies, Concord Management and Consulting and Concord Catering, controlled the budget and oversaw the operations, providing more than $1.2 million a month by September 2016.
They called the operation “Project Lakhta.”
The indictment was handed up by a grand jury in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia.
Mr. Mueller was charged with investigating Russian meddling into the 2016 election, and has already won indictments and guilty pleas from several figures connected with Mr. Trump’s campaign.
Mr. Mueller was named special counsel by Mr. Rosenstein last year. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has recused himself from the matter.
Richard Painter, who served as White House ethics counsel under President George W. Bush, called the indictments a first step towards revealing the complete picture of Russian interference.
“This is only the social media side things,” he said. “Russia had a number of strategies and the social media aspect only came to light recently. I don’t think Mueller is finished with anything. We still don’t which Russians hacked the DNC’s emails.”
But Mr. Painter cautioned that even if the indicted individuals return to the U.S. to face charges, a move he characterized as unlikely, they may not have much to say about the overall election meddling.
“The Russians had a big operation and I’m not sure the social media people knew about the other operations,” he said.
Mr. Painter said that just because individuals in the Trump campaign knowingly work with the Russians on the social media operation does not mean they were not knowledgeable about other aspects of Russian interference.
“Mueller hasn’t said anything about the stolen emails or the meeting in Trump Tower,” he said referring to a June 2016 meeting involving Mr. Trump’s son, Donald Jr., son-in-law Jared Kushner, then-campaign chair Paul Manafort and Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. The Russian attorney had promised the campaign documents that would allegedly incriminate Hillary Clinton.
• Dave Boyer contributed to this story.
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