By Michael McCurry
The special investigation into Russian meddling has taken a dramatic turn this week as special counsel Robert Mueller has indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities for allegedly meddling in the 2016 presidential election. According to the Department of Justice, three defendants have been charged with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud, as well as five defendants charged with aggravated identity theft.
“The defendants allegedly conducted what they called information warfare against the United States, with the stated goal of spreading distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general,” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said in a public announcement of charges last Friday.
The indictment describes in detail an unprecedented campaign by Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election, confirming the conclusions held by all nine of the U.S.’s intelligence agencies. However, these sweeping indictments come at odds with President Donald Trump’s repeated denial of the findings, denials which have persisted throughout his first year in office.
Following Rosenstein’s announcement of the indictments, President Trump claimed that he never denied the Russian meddling.
“I never said Russia did not meddle in the election, I said, ‘it may be Russia, or China or another country or group, or it may be a 400-pound genius sitting in bed and playing with his computer.’ The Russian ‘hoax’ was that the Trump campaign colluded with Russia – it never did!” said Trump in a tweet early in the morning on Feb. 18.
However, those following the Mueller investigation have been quick to point out that Trump has consistently denied the existence of any Russian efforts.
In a now infamous May 2017 interview with NBC’s Lester Holt, Trump claimed, “This Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.” Trump continued in that interview to say, “It is an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should’ve won.” That statement earned him the prestigious award of PolitiFact’s Lie of the Year for 2017.
In September 2017, when reports of Russian-backed Facebook ads came out, Trump tweeted, “The Russia hoax continues, now it is ads on Facebook. What about the totally biased and dishonest Media coverage in favor of Crooked Hillary?”
Trump seized on Rosenstein’s emphasis on the lack of proof of an impact on the presidential election. “Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for President,” he tweeted last Saturday. “The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong – no collusion!”
According to the indictment, the Russian organization “Internet Research Agency” started operations as early as 2014 to interfere with U.S. political discourse, later including the 2016 elections.
The defendants allegedly created false identities, posed as U.S. citizens and curated social media pages and groups designed to attract the U.S. voters’ audience, according to the indictment.
Russians posted “derogatory information about a number of candidates,” according to the indictment. They bought ads and communicated with “unwitting” people tied to the Trump campaign and others to coordinate political activities.
The indictment mentions a February 2016 memo to the staff of the Internet Research Agency instructing them to post political content on American social media sites and “use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump — we support them).” The reference to Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders, the independent senator from Vermont who challenged Clinton in the Democratic primary, shows the clear intent of Russia to defeat Hillary Clinton. Out of the 13 charged,12 were under the employ of Internet Research Agency.
Rosenstein said Friday that the indictment does not contain any allegations that any Americans knowingly participated in the activity. However, he emphasized that he was only referring to this specific indictment, opening the door for future indictments to include such allegations.
Despite Rosenstein’s caveat as mentioned above, the indictment still details the unknowing cooperation of three unnamed Trump campaign officials.
In one instance, a Russian spy wrote to Florida campaign officials identifying 13 confirmed locations where they would be holding rallies and asked the campaign to give “assistance in each location.”
The indictment does not say whether or not the unnamed campaign officials ever responded to the Russians. The defendants allegedly created false email accounts and online personalities to then purchase campaign ads online and in newspapers in battleground areas. The advertisements were not limited to Trump. They also allegedly purchased ads on Facebook to promote a “Support Hillary. Save American Muslims” rally to try and allege Clinton as supporting Islamic law. They also allegedly bought ads to promote a “Down with Hillary” rally. The defendants focused on crucial purple states during the election. They also reportedly used a stolen identity of a real U.S. citizen to organize with grassroots organizations in Florida. The defendants then attempted to cover their tracks once social media sites like Facebook began cooperating with FBI.
“We have a slight crisis here at work: the FBI busted our activity (not a joke). So, I got preoccupied with covering tracks together with colleagues,” wrote one of the 13 Russians, according to the indictment.
One of the named defendants, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is a wealthy Russian oligarch who has been nicknamed “Putin’s chef” by the Russian press. According to the indictment, Prigozhin controlled Concord Catering, a group that provided majority funding for the Internet Research Agency. Around September 2016, the indictment says the Internet Research Agency’s monthly budget for the U.S. election interference operation exceeded 73 million Russian rubles, or over $1.25 million. Prigozhin has said publicly he was “not at all upset” that he was named in the indictment.
“Americans are very impressionable people, they see what they want to see,” Prigozhin said to Russian state news agency RIA Novosti. “I have great respect for them. I’m not at all upset that I’m on this list. If they want to see the devil, let them see one.”
The indictment also details the precautions that some of the defendants took when they traveled to the U.S. to “gather intelligence.” Over a three week trip in June of 2014, two of the defendants made stops in a minimum of seven states, including Colorado, Michigan, Texas and New York, the indictment reads. They “planned travel itineraries, purchased equipment (such as cameras, SIM cards, and drop phones) and discussed security measures (including ‘evacuation scenarios’),” it says.
“The evidence that Russia has meddled in elections has become pretty close to incontrovertible and not just in the United States–there’s been evidence of Russian meddling in many European countries as well,” said Professor of Political Science Jason Jordan. “When Russia was the Soviet Union, it meddled in elections throughout the Cold War, so there’s ample evidence and reason to believe that Russia attempted to interfere and is still doing so. These indictments make that more explicit.”
Whether there is clear evidence of collusion between Trump and Russia, the inaction from the Trump White House may speak for itself, according to Dr. Jordan.
“What has become clear and what we’ve known for over a year is that Russia did interfere with our elections and the United States government has done literally nothing,” said Professor Jordan. “That to me is a form of collusion, if they interfere in your elections; whether you ask them to or not, and you do nothing about it; that’s collusion. That’s saying ‘this is acceptable behavior, please continue to do this.’”
As to why Trump could possibly still be denying Russian interference, Professor Jordan said, “You could argue that they’ve done nothing about it because it could legitimate the claim that there was interference and that, even if there were no collusion, would undermine his legitimacy.”