President Trump is pointing to the indictment of 13 Russians and three companies for interfering in the 2016 election as vindication for his campaign after it has faced accusations of collusion for more than a year.
The indictment issued Friday by the Justice Department at the request of special counsel Robert Mueller accused Russians of creating fake identities online to “sow discord” in the 2016 election. Officials said the efforts dated back to 2014, while President Obama was still in office and before Mr. Trump declared himself a candidate.
Rep. Adam B. Schiff, California Democrat, acknowledged that the Obama administration should have done more when it became known in 2014 that Russians were attempting to cause chaos, but he said the indictment doesn’t clear Mr. Trump’s campaign of any wrongdoing.
“It is inexplicable that the president of the United States continues to sit on sanctions that Congress passed,” Mr. Schiff told CNN.
“This is a president who claims vindication anytime anyone sneezes,” he said.
Mr. Trump seized on that opportunity, saying Mr. Schiff was right that Mr. Obama erred with his handling of Russian interference.
“He is finally right about something. Obama was President, knew of the threat, and did nothing. Thank you Adam!” Mr. Trump tweeted.
Sen. Bernard Sanders, Vermont independent, also cast some blame on Mr. Obama during an appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” saying “maybe he should have done more.”
From election turnout to the press to campaign rallies, there is little about the 2016 presidential contest that Russian trolls didn’t have their hands in, according to the indictment.
The St. Petersburg-based operation studied up on the U.S. election to the point that it began talking about “purple states” where its efforts would be most effective in trying to sway the election, the indictment says.
No avenue was ignored.
The trolls tried to stir up rumors that Hillary Clinton, the Democratic candidate, had engaged in voter fraud. They paid for advertisements pushing for gun rights supporters to back Mr. Trump, and they even ran an online ad calling Mrs. Clinton “a Satan.”
Perhaps most devious were the efforts to suppress voter turnout among black and Muslim voters.
Near the election, one Russian-controlled social media account going by the name United Muslims of America announced: “American Muslims [are] boycotting elections today, most of the American Muslim voters refuse to vote for Hillary Clinton because she wants to continue the war on Muslims in the middle east and voted yes for invading Iraq.”
The 37-page indictment also detailed ads paid for by the Russian operation saying “Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote” and an Instagram account “Blacktivist” that urged voters: “Choose peace and vote for Jill Stein. Trust me, it’s not a wasted vote.”
The operatives pretended to be Americans. They even set up computer systems and accounts on U.S. soil so anyone attempting to trace them would reach the conclusion that they were activist Americans, the indictment says.
The tactics were particularly troublesome for some analysts. Christopher Anders, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington office, said they “should jar every American committed to the long fight for voting rights.”
“The Russians allegedly masqueraded as African-American and American Muslim activists to urge minority voters to abstain from voting in the 2016 election or to vote for a third-party candidate,” he said. “The alleged Russian campaign to depress turnout of minority voters is wrong.”
Mr. Anders called for an investigation to learn whether those voter suppression messages were coordinated with the Trump campaign.
“Such actions, if proven, would be criminal,” he said.
But former special counsel Kenneth W. Starr, who oversaw the Bill and Hillary Clinton’s Whitewater investigation, said the word “unwittingly” in the indictment suggests there was no collusion with Trump campaign officials.
“There’s not a word in the indictment that suggests collusion,” Mr. Starr said on Fox News’ “Sunday Morning Futures.”
Meanwhile, Rep. Trey Gowdy, South Carolina Republican and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said the indictment shows Mr. Mueller’s investigation is on track in its targeting of foreign enemies.
“I’ve known all along that Russia tried to subvert our 2016 election, and they’re going to do the same thing in 2020 and every election thereafter unless and until we do what the indictment says, which is: We view this as America being the victim,” Mr. Gowdy said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
Mr. Gowdy said social media companies should be more proactive in identifying fake accounts.
“I would tell all my fellow citizens: Be really skeptical of anything you read on social media, and do your own independent research,” he said.
• Guy Taylor contributed to this report.
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