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Mueller Charges Russians With Meddling 02/17 09:37

   In an extraordinary indictment, the U.S. special counsel has accused 13 
Russians of an elaborate plot to disrupt the 2016 presidential election, 
charging them with running a huge but hidden social media trolling campaign 
aimed in part at helping Republican Donald Trump defeat Democrat Hillary 

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- In an extraordinary indictment, the U.S. special counsel 
has accused 13 Russians of an elaborate plot to disrupt the 2016 presidential 
election, charging them with running a huge but hidden social media trolling 
campaign aimed in part at helping Republican Donald Trump defeat Democrat 
Hillary Clinton.

   The federal indictment, brought Friday by special counsel Robert Mueller, 
represents the most detailed allegations to date of illegal Russian meddling 
during the campaign that sent Trump to the White House. It also marks the first 
criminal charges against Russians believed to have secretly worked to influence 
the outcome.

   "As you can see with the FBI indictment, the evidence is now really 
incontrovertible and available in the public domain" that Moscow interfered in 
the race, Trump's national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, said Saturday at a 
conference in Germany. Moments earlier, Russia's foreign minister, Sergey 
Lavrov, speaking through an interpreter, had dismissed the indictment as "just 

   The Russian organization was funded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the indictment 
says. He is a wealthy St. Petersburg businessman with ties to the Russian 
government and President Vladimir Putin.

   Trump quickly claimed vindication Friday, noting in a tweet that the alleged 
interference efforts began 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!" he tweeted.

   But the indictment does not resolve the collusion question at the heart of 
the continuing Mueller probe, which before Friday had produced charges against 
four Trump associates. U.S. intelligence agencies have previously said the 
Russian government interfered to benefit Trump, including by orchestrating the 
hacking of Democratic emails, and Mueller has been assessing whether the 
campaign coordinated with the Kremlin.

   The latest indictment does not focus on the hacking but instead centers on a 
social media propaganda effort that began in 2014 and continued past the 
election, with the goal of producing distrust in the American political 
process. Trump himself has been reluctant to acknowledge the interference and 
any role that it might have played in propelling him to the White House.

   The indictment does not allege that any American knowingly participated in 
Russian meddling, or suggest that Trump campaign associates had more than 
"unwitting" contact with some of the defendants who posed as Americans during 
election season.

   But it does lay out a vast and wide-ranging Russian effort to sway political 
opinion in the United States through a strategy that involved creating internet 
postings in the names of Americans whose identities had been stolen; staging 
political rallies while posing as American political activists and paying 
people in the U.S. to promote or disparage candidates.

   While foreign meddling in U.S. campaigns is not new, the indictment for an 
effort of this scope and digital sophistication is unprecedented.

   "This indictment serves as a reminder that people are not always who they 
appear to be on the internet," Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said 
Friday. "The indictment alleges that the Russian conspirators want to promote 
discord in the United States and undermine public confidence in democracy. We 
must not allow them to succeed."

   The 13 Russians are not in custody and not likely to ever face trial. The 
Justice Department has for years supported indicting foreign defendants in 
absentia as a way of publicly shaming them and effectively barring them from 
foreign travel.

   The surreptitious campaign was organized by the Internet Research Agency, a 
notorious Russian troll farm that the indictment says sought to conduct 
"information warfare against the United States of America."

   The company, among three Russian entities named in the indictment, had a 
multimillion-dollar budget and hundreds of workers divided by specialties and 
assigned to day and night shifts. According to prosecutors, the company was 
funded by companies controlled by Prigozhin, the wealthy Russian who has been 
dubbed "Putin's chef" because his restaurants and catering businesses have 
hosted the Kremlin leader's dinners with foreign dignitaries.

   Prigozhin said Friday he was not upset by the indictment.

   "Americans are very impressionable people," he was quoted as saying by 
Russia's state news agency. They "see what they want to see."

   Also Friday, Mueller announced a guilty plea from a California man who 
unwittingly sold bank accounts to Russians involved in the interference effort.

   The election-meddling organization, looking to conceal its Russian roots, 
purchased space on computer servers within the U.S., used email accounts from 
U.S. internet service providers and created and controlled social media pages 
with huge numbers of followers on divisive issues such as immigration, religion 
and the Black Lives Matter movement.

   Starting in April 2016, the indictment says, the Russian agency bought 
political ads on social media supporting Trump and opposing Clinton without 
reporting expenditures to the Federal Election Commission or registering as 
foreign agents. Among the ads: "JOIN our #HillaryClintonForPrison2016" and 
"Donald wants to defeat terrorism ... Hillary wants to sponsor it."

   "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.

   Sens. Cruz, R-Texas, and Rubio, R-Fla., ran against Trump in the Republican 
primary; Sanders, an independent senator from Vermont, opposed Clinton in the 
Democratic primary.

   The indictment details contacts targeting three unnamed officials in the 
Trump campaign's Florida operation. In each instance, the Russians used false 
U.S. personas to contact the officials. The indictment doesn't say if any of 
them responded, and there's no allegation that any of the campaign officials 
knew they were communicating with Russians.

   Two defendants traveled to the U.S. in June 2014 to gather intelligence on 
social media sites and identify targets for their operations, the indictment 
alleges. Following the trip, the group collected further intelligence by 
contacting U.S. political and social media activists while posing as U.S. 
citizens. They were guided by one contact to target "purple states like 
Colorado, Virginia and Florida," prosecutors say.

   According to one internal communication described by prosecutors, the 
specialists were instructed to "use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and 
the rest (except Sanders and Trump --- we support them)." And according to one 
internal review, a specialist was criticized for having a low number of posts 
criticizing Clinton. The person was told "it is imperative to intensify 
criticizing Hillary Clinton" in future posts.

   The indictment also asserts that the posts encouraged minority groups not to 
vote or to vote for third parties and alleged Democratic voter fraud.

   Before a Florida rally, the Russians paid one person to build a cage on a 
flatbed truck and another to wear a costume portraying Clinton in a prison 
uniform. But they also organized some rallies opposing Trump, including one in 
New York after the election called "Trump is NOT my president."

   The Russians destroyed evidence of their activities as Mueller's 
investigation picked up, with one of those indicted sending an email in 
September 2017 to a family member that said the FBI had "busted" them so they 
were covering their tracks.

   That person, Irina Viktorovna Kaverzina, wrote the family member, "I created 
all of these pictures and posts, and the Americans believed that it was written 
by their people."


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