Federal prosecutors on Friday alleged that a Russian woman is the chief accountant of Project Lakhta, a sprawling Kremlin campaign to influence politics in the U.S. and European Union. It’s an operation that the FBI, in a criminal complaint, says is ongoing.
The complaint accuses the woman, Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova, of keeping detailed records of payouts to a social-media campaign of which the St. Petersberg-based troll farm, the Internet Research Agency, is just one component. Its chief financing, the FBI complaint continues, comes from Concord Management and Consulting, run by the oligarch Yevgeniy Prigozhin, sometimes called “Putin’s Chef.”
From April 2014 “to the present,” the complaint continues, Khusyaynova “managed financially all aspects of Project operations, which included media and influence activities directed at the United States, European Union, and Ukraine, as well as the Russian Federation.” She appears to have “kept detailed financial documents” providing some of the most specific evidence to date of the Kremlin-tied origins of an onslaught of inauthentic and inflammatory social-media posts polluting American and allied political discourse.
How to Weaponize American Bigotry
Amongst the chief themes of the Russian influence campaign has been to exploit American white supremacy. The complaint adds a new level of detail. In addition to well-known Russian trolling on the NFL protests against racist policing, immigration and the Confederate flag, the complaint says that the Russians’ social-media themes included “the Charlottesville ‘Unite The Right’ rally” that killed anti-racist protester Heather Heyer in August 2017.
An unnamed conspirator in Project Lakhta described their goal as to “effectively aggravate the conflict between the minorities and the rest of the population.”
The conspiracy also revealed how the Russians view the American debate on race, as well as its own racist views. “Colored LGBT are less sophisticated than white; therefore, complicated phrases and messages will not work,” the complaint quotes a conspirator. “Be careful dealing with racial content. Just like ordinary Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans, colored LGBT people are very sensitive to #whiteprivilege and they react to posts and pictures that favor white people.”
So-called sanctuary cities, another enemy of Trump in his immigration crackdown, ought to have their leaders “surrender their American citizenship, for they behave as true enemies of the United States of America.”
‘Geezer’ McCain and ‘Fake Conservative’ Rubio
The Russian influence campaign, as has been widely reported, involved transactionally pretending to be either on the left or the right. Enemies of Donald Trump – and Russia – came in for particular instructions from within Project Lakhta, often in terms reminiscent of Trump himself.
The late Senator John McCain should be branded “as an old geezer” who belongs in a nursing home, according to Project Lakhta conspirators quoted in the complaint. McCain’s “pathological hatred” of Trump was a potent area of emphasis, the conspirator continued, with such “dishonorable scoundrels, such as McCain, immediately aim[ing] to destroy all the conservative voters’ hopes as soon as Trump tries to fulfill his election promises.”
“The Russian trolls were supposed to brand House Speaker Paul Ryan, a key congressional ally of Trump’s, ‘a complete and absolute nobody incapable of any decisiveness.’”
House Speaker Paul Ryan, a key congressional ally of Trump’s whose 2016-era opposition faded after election day, was to be branded “a complete and absolute nobody incapable of any decisiveness.”
Another one-time Trump rival turned supporter, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, should be “expos[ed] as a fake conservative who is a traitor to Republican values who in his soul despises the American Constitution and civil liberties.”
‘Illegals & Dead Voters’
The messaging also instructed Project Lakhta operatives to emphasize voter fraud, a marginal phenomenon, embraced by Trump, that provides a pretext for voter suppression. “There is an urgent need to introduce voter IDs for all the states, above all in the blue (liberal and undecided) states,” reads an August 2017-era instruction. “State in the end that the Democrats in the coming election will surely attempt to falsify the results.” A Russian-created Twitter account, @amconvoice, tweeted in February 2018: “The only way the Democrats can win 101 GOP seats is to cheat like they always do with illegals & dead voters.”
‘Democrat’ Mueller Could Mean Civil War
Project Lakhta’s support for Trump came with a harder rhetorical edge. The complaint – presumably based on intercepted communications quoted in the document – specifically discusses whipping Americans up into a frenzy over a prospective domestic insurrection to protect Trump. One particular target is Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who did not issue Friday’s complaint.
Pivoting off a piece from right-wing blowhard Michael Savage, Project Lakhta sought to “forcefully support” Savage’s message that “any attempt to remove Trump is a direct path to civil war in the United States. … in case Republicans will not stop acting as traitors, they will bring upon themselves forces of civil retribution during the 2018 elections.”
If Congress “continues to act like the Colonial British government did,” the conspirators instructed in August 2017 – without explanation – “this will call for another revolution.”
That same month, the Russians sought to leverage an article from the far-right conspiracy site WND accusing Mueller of “scandal.” In Trump-friendly terms, the Russians looked to brand Mueller as “a puppet of the establishment … a politician with proven connections to the Democratic Party.” Mueller is a Republican. No matter: “Emphasize that the work of [Mueller’s] commission is damaging to the country and is aimed to declare impeachment of Trump” – the circumstance the Russians were simultaneously messaging would lead to civil war.
But they also played the other side. Project Lakhta account @KeniJJackson tweeted in December 2017: “If Trump fires Robert Mueller, we have to take to the streets in protest. Our democracy is at stake.”
Russian Trolls: Send Us to Gitmo!
Perhaps the most surreal moment in Project Lakhta came from Russian troll accounts feigning outrage about Russian trolling.
Posing as a Trump opponent, one such Twitter account tweeted on the day Mueller indicted 13 people affiliated with the Internet Research Agency: “Still think this Russia thing is a hoax and a witch hunt? Because a lot of witches just got indicted.” Another added: “I hope that all those Internet Research Agency f*ckers will be sent to gitmo.”
Cash, Guns, and Rallies
The complaint charges Project Lakhta with creating substantial numbers of inauthentic social-media profiles to pose as Americans backing the Trump agenda. Among them, the complaint alleges, was a “Rachel Edison” Facebook account that promoted the National Rifle Association – which the Russians, in a separate effort, were infiltrating. “Rachel Edison” wanted Americans to know that the NRA would translate electoral gains in the midterm election into “permanent gun rights for Americans.” She continued: “I think next 4 years will be great for all Americans, and for gun lovers especially!”
Other posts from “Edison” spoke of the media’s “warped judgment” on gun violence and policing. Another page, “Bertha Malone,” yielded 400 Facebook posts, the complaint alleges, “containing inflammatory political and social content focused primarily on immigration and Islam.” Among them was a meme saying “if only media had been as bothered by Obama’s ties to the Muslim Brotherhood as they are by Trump’s fake ties to Russia” – posted, of course, by a Kremlin troll. “Instead this stupid witch hunt on Trump [sic], media should investigate this traitor and his plane [sic] to Islamize our country,” it continued.
As The Daily Beast first reported, the Russians’ inauthentic accounts permitted them to organize real-life political rallies. But efforts at those rallies continued well after Trump’s election. A fake “Helen Christopherson” account in July 2017 contacted three unnamed U.S. organizations to set up “flash mobs” opposing Trump at the White House—seeking “resistance activists, show tune lovers and karaoke fans.”
The Russians also wanted to drive political donations. One of Project Lakhta’s Twitter accounts, @CovfeveNation, tweeted instructions for Americans to donate money to defeat Democratic politicians like Maxine Waters, Elizabeth Warren and Nancy Pelosi.
Conspiracy to Defraud
The complaint charges Khusyaynova with conspiracy to commit fraud against the United States, alleging the Internet Research Agency used deceit to evade two provisions of U.S. campaign law. The Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA) requires foreign agents to register with the Justice Department before attempting to influence U.S. voters or politicians, and the Federal Election Campaign Act (FECA) forbids foreign nationals from making "a contribution or donation of money or other thing of value” in connection with a U.S. election.
The same legal theories underlies Robert Mueller’s February indictment against 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies allegedly involved in Project Lakhta. Attorneys for Concord Management and Consulting, the only defendant to file an appearance in the case, have asked a federal judge to throw out the case on the grounds that the indictment doesn’t explain how FARA and FECA might apply to Internet trolling.
“[T]his Indictment is unprecedented; never before has a foreign corporation such as Concord, with no presence in the United States, been charged criminally for allegedly funding the political speech of individuals on social media, at rallies, or in advertisements during a U.S.presidential election campaign,” wrote Concord attorney Eric Dubelier.
“One Russian account contacted three unnamed U.S. organizations to set up ‘flash mobs’ opposing Trump at the White House—seeking ‘resistance activists, show tune lovers and karaoke fans.’”
U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich is taking the argument seriously. On Thursday she ordered Mueller’s team to specifically address that point in a new filing due Tuesday.
Khusyaynova’s complaint on Friday charges that the Russian influence campaign is ongoing. But it came even as U.S. intelligence said that there was as yet no evidence – as The Daily Beast recently reported – of foreign penetration of U.S. election-relevant systems.
"Currently, we do not have any evidence of a compromise or disruption of infrastructure that would enable adversaries to prevent voting, change vote counts or disrupt our ability to tally votes in the midterm elections,” a joint statement from the director of national intelligence, Justice Department, Department of Homeland Security and FBI claimed Friday, though it stressed: “We are concerned about ongoing campaigns by Russia, China and other foreign actors, including Iran, to undermine confidence in democratic institutions and influence public sentiment and government policies.”
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly referred to the criminal complaint as an indictment.