Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced the indictment of 13 Russians as a brazen scheme “with the stated goal of spreading distrust” toward the U.S. political system, but the charges lay out a litany of cyber skullduggery aimed at a narrower mission: boosting Donald Trump and bashing Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election.
The grand jury charges, secured by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, are replete with examples of how an 80-member team, allegedly bankrolled by a crony of Russian President Vladimir Putin, managed to flood American cyberspace with social media messages backing Trump or echoing some of his campaign’s harshest anti-Clinton themes. The Russians’ tilt toward Trump began in early and mid-2016, it charges – not late in the campaign as previously believed.
The Russians tweeted hashtags such as “#Hillary4Prison” and “Clinton FRAUDation” and used fictitious names and PayPal accounts to buy political ads, one stating: “Donald wants to defeat terrorism … Hillary wants to sponsor it,” the indictment says. Almost by remote control, Russians arranged political rallies in Texas and Florida by posting social media messages that lured Trump volunteers – apparently unwittingly – to assist them, it alleges.
Trump and his campaign at times used similar inflammatory language.
The charges of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. government and other entities, along with identity theft, mark the first time the United States has accused what appear to be agents of a foreign government of criminally interfering with an election. They amount to an exhaustively detailed rebuke of a Kremlin intelligence operation and a flashing red light warning election officials and the American public that the interference was real, sophisticated and likely to be repeated in 2018.
Rosenstein, the Trump appointee with the precarious job of overseeing Mueller’s investigation under the threat that the president might seek to fire them both, seemed to perform a political high-wire act in briefly announcing the charges at a hastily assembled news conference Friday. He showed support for Mueller, but his characterization of the indictment only named Trump once -- in describing two post-election rallies on the same day in New York, one backing his election, the other protesting it.
Although the investigation still is under way and includes other facets, Rosenstein seemed to support Trump’s repeated declarations that there was “no collusion” between his campaign and the Russians.
“There is no allegation in this indictment that any American was a knowing participant in this illegal activity,” Rosenstein said, adding that the indictment does not allege Russia’s cyberattacks had any impact on the outcome of the election.
Trump was quick to pick up on that finding. He tweeted a short time later: “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.”
Some former prosecutors warned that the Trump campaign isn’t necessarily off the hook, though.
"There is nothing in here to contradict the very real possibility that people at the very top of the Trump campaign and Trump himself conspired with Russians to help him win the election," said Nick Akerman, a former Watergate prosecutor and a partner at Dorsey & Whitney.
Added Akerman: "This indictment tells us in minute detail that we've been had and that the Russians were out to get our lunch"
Alan Rozenshtein, a former prosecutor in the Justice Department’s National Security Division, said that regardless of whether the indictment implicates Trump, "It's never good for the president to read an indictment brought by his own Justice Department that a foreign adversary nation interfered in a very close presidential election on his behalf."
Jesse Ferguson a former spokesperson for Clinton's presidential campaign, said the indictment shows “we failed to defend our democracy from that attack. The question is, what did the president know, when did he know it and why is he trying so hard to cover it up?"
The indictment provides exhaustive details of Russia’s activities, hinting that unnamed co-conspirators had aided investigators. It cites numerous examples of how Russian operatives fashioned attacks on Clinton that mirrored those used by Trump’s campaign.
For instance, it charges that starting roughly in the summer of 2016, the Russian defendants and others they worked with launched "voter fraud" attacks on the Democratic Party, using Facebook ads and other social media.
In early August, a Russian-controlled Facebook account called "Stop A.I." alleged that "Hillary Clinton has already committed voter fraud during the Iowa Democrat caucus,” it says.
Then around Aug. 14, another Russian operative-controlled Twitter account @TEN_.GOP alleged that voter fraud allegations were under investigation in North Carolina, the indictment says.
Around Nov.2, days before the election, yet another Russian-linked account alleged voter fraud, apparently in Florida’s absentee ballots, it says. They accused Clinton’s campaign of "#Voterfraud by counting tens of thousands of ineligible mail in Hillary votes in Broward County (Fla.)."
These fake Russian operations aimed at feeding suspicions of widespread Democratic voter fraud mimicked themes that Trump and his top allies, including conservative political operative Roger Stone, were promoting.
“The only way we can lose, in my opinion, I really mean this, Pennsylvania, is if cheating goes on,” Trump told a largely white rally in August 2016 in Altoona, Pa. “Go down to certain areas and watch and study [to] make sure other people don’t come in and vote five times.”
The entire operation, the indictment charges, was financed through a maze of companies controlled by Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin, a wealthy figure known as “Putin’s chef.” Prigozhin, who got the nickname because he owned one of Putin’s favorite restaurants, was among Russians sanctioned in late 2016 by former President Barack Obama in retaliation for the Kremlin’s election meddling. One company that Prigozhin allegedly used to move money in the operation is called Concord Catering.
The indictment reveals that the St. Petersburg operation, part of what the Russians call the Internet Research Agency, had a bigger budget than the $2 million estimated in prior media reports, reaching $1.2 million a month by September of 2016. Those charged are largely alleged leaders of the U.S. operation.
Two operatives from the so-called Russian troll factory traveled to the United States in the summer of 2014 and surveyed the political landscape by driving through nine states, including Texas, Illinois and Florida.
The indictment goes into great detail about how the defendants posed as U.S. persons to interact with a real and apparently unwitting Americans in Florida, Pennsylvania, Texas and New York to organize rallies and to purchase anti-Hillary Clinton ads.
In one case, a fake Facebook persona named Matt Skiber sent a private message to a real Facebook account called Florida for Trump, getting real Floridians to hold rallies. Around Aug. 18, the indictment alleges, a real person from the Florida for Trump account shared instructions with the fake account on how to contact an official member of the Trump campaign involved in Florida operations.
The Russian group used the email address of a fake persona, email@example.com, to connect with an unidentified official with a donaldtrump.com email account, the indictment says. Money was then transmitted to a real person to build a cage large enough to hold an actress posing as an imprisoned Hillary Clinton.
The examples went on and on, with fake personas communicating with and in some cases wiring money to real people for rallies planned in Miami, West Palm Beach and a “Miners for Trump” group in Pennsylvania.
The charging documents also cite 14 fraudulent bank account numbers used by the Russians to evade PayPal’s security measures and send wire transfers. The operatives allegedly bought fake U.S. driver’s licenses and other false documents needed to effectuate a fake persona, using online exchanges to move money into hard-to-trace digital currencies such as bitcoin. They used the stolen identities of two real Americans, identified only by their initials T.W. and J.W., according to the charges.
Early on, the Russians duped a Texas grassroots organization and learned that they should be focused on states that might be in play during the election.
“During the exchange, Defendants and their co-conspirators learned from the real U.S. person that they should focus their activities on ‘purple states like Colorado, Virginia & Florida,’” a reference to states where the race was considered a toss-up, the indictment says. From then on, the Russians frequently discussed targeting “purple states,” it says.
By 2016, alleges the Mueller indictment, online groups controlled by the Russian operation boasted hundreds of thousands of followers. The operation used this following to post around Aug. 11, 2016, rumors that voter fraud was being investigated in North Carolina, another swing state.
These rumors were being spread via the group-controlled Twitter account @Ten_GOP, which has been since shut down. Several months later, on Nov. 2, the same account posted accusation of voter fraud, suggesting tens of thousands of ineligible mail-in votes were be counted for Hillary Clinton.
The indictment ads that in June and July 2016, the defendants and co-conspirators used a Facebook account for Being Patriot, a Twitter account for @March_for_Trump and other related accounts to organize two actual New York rallies, one for Trump and one against Hillary Clinton.
Here again they used fake U.S. personas to contract real Americans to help organize the rallies, even offering money to cover expenses. Using the @March_for_Trump account they contacted a Trump Campaign volunteer, who provided signs for the March for Trump rally.
Building on that success, the accused again in August used fake personas to get real people to organize “a series of connected rallies in Florida” collectively known as Florida Goes Trump, the indictment charges. Using fake personas, they reached out to multiple Florida grassroots groups and communicated with Trump campaign local outreach staff.
In addition to the sweeping indictment, Mueller’s office revealed that on Feb. 12, Californian Richard Pinedo pleaded guilty to one count of identity fraud alleging he used his company, Auction Essistance, to circumvent the security systems of online digital payment companies – apparently to help the Russians. He acknowledged selling bank-account numbers over the Internet, sometimes using stolen identities, and purchased bank account numbers from an unidentified individual abroad.
Pinedo appears to be a source of the bank accounts that the Russians used to buy ads from Facebook and other social media platforms or to compensate people who organized Trump rallies.
One Russia expert who is a former U.S. government official said the indictment “now opens the door to further investigation of the active participation of American citizens on behalf of an adversarial foreign power to help Trump win."
This official stressed that today's indictment will "make it much more difficult to fire Mueller. It's now an extremely high profile counter intelligence investigation with indictments of more than a dozen Russian operatives."
Former prosecutor Rozenshtein, now a University of Minnesota law school professor, agreed. He said the indictment likely "strikes more fear into every single person in the Trump campaign or the administration waiting for an interview with the special counsel."
As for what the disclosure portends about the vulnerability of the nation’s myriad state- and county-run election systems to Russian attacks heading into next November’s mid-term elections, experts are worried.
"It's unclear what the government's response has been to this point to prevent this kind of stuff going forward," said Lawrence Norden, deputy director of the Brennan Center's Democracy program.
"If you think it just ends with weaponized content and electioneering, you're fooling yourself," said.Gregory Miller, a co-founder of the Open Source Election Technology Institute, echoing fears that future efforts will extend to the mechanisms of voting themselves.
Peter Stone is a special correspondent to McClatchy
Ben Wieder in Washington contributed