Special counsel Robert Mueller has issued his first indictments with a direct connection to his central mandate: a conspiracy by Russia to interfere with the 2016 election.
After securing guilty pleas and cooperation agreements from former Trump aides Michael Flynn and George Papadopoulos—with reportedly another coming from indicted Trump campaign official Rick Gates—Mueller has targeted 13 people affiliated with a Kremlin-connected troll farm, the Internet Research Agency.
Their “conspiracy,” Mueller charged in a Friday indictment, “had as its object impairing, obstructing and defeating the lawful governmental functions of the United States by dishonest means in order to enable the Defendants to interfere with U.S. political and electoral processes, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”
Even as President Donald Trump continues to reject the January U.S. intelligence assessment of Russian intrusion in the elections, Mueller has moved beyond that assessment—now finding probable cause of specific Russian interference, and detailing a story of how it occurred, its years-old origins, and, alarmingly for Trump, bringing it all closer to his allies.
“Some Defendants, posing as U.S. persons and without revealing their Russian association, communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump Campaign and with other political activities to seek to coordinate political activities,” Mueller writes.
Mueller is currently seeking a direct interview with Trump, who last month referred to “collusion” with Russia as a “Democrat hoax… brought up as an excuse for losing an election.” For his entire presidency, Trump has held to a mantra that “Russia is fake news.” As recently as November, Trump said he accepts Russian president Vladimir Putin’s assurance that no election interference occurred: “He said he absolutely did not meddle in our election. He did not do what they are saying he did.”
After Mueller released the indictment, an attorney for Trump praised Mueller.
“I think the special counsel found the culprits. I think he did a good job. I think he did a hell of a job,” Trump lawyer John Dowd, a key interlocutor between the White House and Mueller, told The Daily Beast.
The Russians’ primary target was Hillary Clinton, for whom Vladimir Putin held particular animus owing to her tenure as secretary of state. Specialists at the IRA received instructions to “use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump—we support them),” Mueller quotes an internal “outline of themes for future content” as saying.
“For all of those who have been asking ‘where is the evidence of a crime?’—this is it. This is the criminal conspiracy,” said Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat. “This is what President Trump and his allies have repeatedly called a ‘hoax’ and ‘fake news.’ This is what they tried to cover up.”
While the St. Petersburg-based troll farm’s activities are central to Mueller’s latest indictment, the Internet Research Association—as first reported by The Daily Beast—conducted substantial real-world activities that were symbiotic and facilitative of its online mayhem. Mueller calls them “intelligence” operations. His embattled Justice Department overseer, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, called them “information warfare against the United States” on Friday.
Rosenstein’s press conference to discuss the indictment came at his own risk. Due to his institutional tie to Mueller, the deputy attorney general has been under sustained political fire by Trump and his allies over the investigation. In December, Trump reportedly asked if Rosenstein was “on my team”—even after Rosenstein in May proved willing to help Trump fire FBI director James Comey, which led directly to Mueller’s empanelment.
Consistent with Senate testimony from ex-FBI agent Clint Watts, the indictment alleges that they seeds of the 2016 election interference were sown in 2014.
Two chief IRA members, Mueller charges, “planned travel itineraries, purchased equipment (such as cameras, SIM cards and drop phones), and discussed security measures (including ‘evacuation scenarios’) for defendants who traveled to the United States.”
Pretending to be Americans, Aleksandra Krylova and Anna Bogacheva went across the United States, Mueller alleges, during a June 2014 trip, stopping in “Nevada, California, New Mexico, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Louisiana, Texas and New York to gather intelligence.” They filed intelligence reports afterward, Mueller alleges. The month before the trip, IRA members were already discussing internally “efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”
While the indictment names 13 Russians as conspirators in the election interference, there is an unnamed 14th. The indictment lists an anonymous, unindicted man as a “co-conspirator” who joined with the named Russians who applied for American visas under false pretenses. The co-conspirator made it into the country. Months after Krylova and Bogacheva’s road trip, this anonymous Internet Research Agency operative spent five days in Atlanta and sent colleague Sergey Polozov “a summary of his trip’s itinerary and expenses.”
By 2016, they were operationalizing their now-nuanced understanding of American politics and social media. And they had genuine American partners, witting or otherwise. “A real U.S. person affiliated with a Texas-based grassroots organization,” told the Russians “they should focus their activities on ‘purple states like Colorado, Virginia and Florida,’” Mueller alleged. The specific and ultimate impact of the Russian focus on such states—that is, the voting impact—remains unknown. Rosenstein, already under fire from Trump, pointedly noted that the indictment does not allege any impact on the vote.
In addition to the in-person rallies The Daily Beast has already reported that the troll farm organized, the Russians appear to have had fun. On May 29, 2016, the trolls got “a real U.S. person” to stand in front of the White House “under false pretenses” to hold up a happy-birthday sign for the “Dear Boss” of the cutout Russian firm that funded the Internet Research Agency’s American operations. In September of the following year, a Russian troll referred to the FBI “bust[ing] our activity” in an email to family, and boasted: “I created all these pictures and posts, and the Americans believed that it was written by their people.”
That echoed what one of the indicted men told a Russian news agency on Friday: “Americans are very impressionable people; they see what they want to see. 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.”
Mueller charged that the troll farm engaged in identity theft and established fraudulent social-media accounts to spread propaganda to targetable audiences both pro- and anti-Trump. As The Daily Beast has extensively detailed, the Russians pounced on issues from immigration to racialized policing to gun violence. The objective was “supporting radical groups, users dissatisfied with [the] social and economic situation and oppositional social movements,” echoing the intelligence assessment’s central view that Russia began its election interference to heighten domestic U.S. political discord.
Deniability of their Russian origin came through stealing and falsifying American passports, driver’s licenses, Social Security numbers, and birthdates, which they used to establish American identities tied to online ads and social-media accounts. One such false identity was the alias “Matt Skiber,” Mueller charged, who offered to an unwitting Trump supporter aid facilitating a “March For Trump” rally.
They appear to have been aided by an American whom, Mueller also revealed on Friday, has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with his investigation. Richard Pinedo operated a scheme to sell Americans bank account numbers and other services to “to circumvent the security features of large online digital payment companies.” Among his suppliers was an unnamed “individual he knew to be outside the United States.” The indictment charges that they routed money through at least six banks and PayPal.
Among their marks, Mueller charges, were “unwitting members, volunteers, and supporters of the Trump Campaign involved in local community outreach, as well as grassroots groups that supported then-candidate Trump.” Believing they were dealing with other Americans, those Trump supporters “distributed [IRA] materials through their own accounts via retweets, reposts and similar means.”
The IRA organized August 2016 rallies called “Florida Goes Trump” and promoted them online. Those rallies echoed Trump’s “Lock Her Up” theme for Clinton. Russian trolls “asked one U.S. person to build a cage on a flatbed truck and another U.S. person to wear a costume portraying Clinton in a prison uniform,” which occurred at a West Palm Beach rally. The false “Matt Skiber” was involved in that one as well, asking the secretly-Russian-run Being Patriotic Facebook group: “What about organizing a YUGE pro-Trump flash mob in every Florida town?”
Around August 18, the “Florida For Trump” Facebook account administrator gave “Skiber” instructions to “contact a member of the Trump Campaign (Campaign Official 1) involved in the campaign’s Florida operations. A different fake account, email@example.com, emailed the official to offer the support of Being Patriotic: “You know, simple yelling on the Internet is not enough. There should be real action. We organized rallies in New York before. Now we’re focusing on purple states such as Florida.”
But not all of them were presumed Trump supporters. In a case first reported by The Daily Beast, Russian imposters cybersquatting the Facebook page of the United Muslims of America posted a plea to “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.” Offline, they “recruited a real U.S. person” to hold a Clinton sign with a fake quote: “I think Sharia Law will be a powerful new direction of freedom.”
In total, Mueller charges, the troll farm had an internal list of “over 100 real U.S. persons” they contacted—complete with “a summary of their political views,” their Russian-directed activities and their contact information—to monitor what Mueller called “their recruitment efforts and requests.”
And in an example of the Russians fueling both sides of U.S. political division, they greeted Trump’s election with dueling pro- and anti-Trump rallies in New York, as well as a “Charlotte Against Trump” rally a week later in North Carolina.
Those post-election rallies Mueller cited in his indictment also spoke to what U.S. Senators, representatives and intelligence officials have repeatedly warned: that the Russian interference in U.S. elections will be repeated, particularly since the Kremlin has borne no cost for its interference.
—with additional reporting by Betsy Woodruff