Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation into Russia’s impact on the 2016 election entered a new phase Friday, as his team indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian organizations for their “conspiracy” to illegally influence the US presidential campaign.
It was an indictment unprecedented in American history—a direct and public charge that America’s main foreign adversary meddled extensively, expensively, and expansively in the core of the American democratic process, attempting to influence voters, spread disparaging information about the Democratic nominee, and “help” presidential candidate Donald Trump take office.
The new charges were simultaneously unveiled by Mueller and expanded upon in rare public remarks by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees Mueller’s investigation. It is the first time that Mueller, who had previously charged or received guilty pleas from four Trump aides, brought criminal charges that dealt with the core of his mission, to investigate Russia’s influence in the most recent presidential campaign.
“The indictment alleges that the Russian conspirators want to promote discord in the United States and undermine public confidence in democracy,” said Rosenstein in his prepared remarks. “We must not allow them to succeed.”
A Historic Indictment
While earlier indictments and charges have pointed to individual meetings and mysterious contacts between the Trump campaign and various Russian nationals, Friday’s surprise indictment—another political bombshell in an investigation that has at every step surprised the public—was the first to directly link the activities around the campaign to a large, sophisticated operation directed and funded directly from Russia itself that involved social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and involved fake accounts like @TEN_GOP, aka “Tennessee GOP.”
Those charged involve a of so-called “specialists” and “translators” who worked on the Russian campaign efforts, as well as a much more notable name: Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, a wealthy Russian oligarch who is close to President Vladimir Putin and is known as “Putin’s cook,” for his history of running a fast food stand. Prigozhin, who is alleged in the indictment to have overseen the operations, has long been known to have been involved in the election efforts; he and some of the companies indicted by Mueller were part of the December 2016 sanctions levied by President Obama.
Mueller’s 37-page indictment—impressive for the sheer level of detail that the special counsel and US intelligence agencies appear to have collected as part of the wide-ranging counterintelligence investigation—paints a picture of an online campaign that dates back at least to 2014, and extends right through the election itself, an effort that involved the spreading of fake news and the careful curation of online identities that purported to be politically active Americans.
‘We must not allow them to succeed.’
Deputy Attorney General Rob Rosenstein
While the indictments did not directly point to the knowing involvement of the Trump campaign, it did cite unwitting campaign contacts with the Russians, and began to put hard numbers to the size and staggering scale—including a monthly budget of more than $1.2 million, “hundreds” of employees, and undercover travel to the United States—of Russia’s attempts to use “information operations” to aid Trump and disparage Hillary Clinton’s campaign, targeting some of the most famous hashtags of the election, like #Trump2016, #MAGA and #Hillary4Prison, as well as paid political advertisements featuring phrases like “Vote Republican, vote Trump, and support the Second Amendment.”
The indictment marked the first public sign of an as yet hidden avenue of Mueller’s investigation—the “information operations” conducted by the notorious so-called “troll factory” known as the Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg—and a sign that Mueller aims to investigate the full breadth of the Russian activities surrounding the campaign.
The indictment says that some of the involved Russians traveled to the United States “under false pretenses for the purposes of collecting intelligence,” built an extensive infrastructure of computer systems inside the United States to help obscure their activities, and focused their activities on “purple states like Colorado, Virginia & Florida.” Their efforts include the establishment of fake—and real, stolen—identities that included Paypal accounts and fake drivers’ licenses.
The Troll Factory
Much of the indictment focuses on the mysterious IRA, located at 55 Savushkina Street in St. Petersburg. IRA employees were allegedly tasked with writing social media posts on divisive political issues, focusing especially on creating “political intensity through supporting radical groups.” According to the indictment, they created pages on Instagram, Facebook, and other platforms to spread content around issues like immigration and religion; a group called “Blacktivist”, which had previously been linked to Russia, garnered at least 360,000 likes on Facebook for its Black Lives Matter posts before being outed.
Throughout the presidential election, the IRA allegedly ramped up its efforts to attack and discredit all candidates other than Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. The Russian administrators of one immigration-focused page, the indictment says, caught flack for a “low number of posts dedicated to criticizing Hillary Clinton.”
According to the indictment, the IRA coupled its content efforts with the purchase of ads on social media platforms, spending thousands of dollars a month to expand their reach. Like any diligent marketer, the operation purportedly kept close track of analytics, and offered guidelines on how many accounts to run and how to optimize text, graphics, and video elements.
As the campaign heated up in earnest, dating at least as far back as April 2016, the IRA began allegedly creating and distributing ads explicitly promoting the Trump and opposing Clinton. In an example provided by the Justice Department, one ad reads: “Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote.” (The indictment notes, as one might expect, that the IRA did not file those expenses with the Federal Election Commission.)
The campaign extended into the real world as well, with the IRA apparently organizing and promoting political rallies in New York City, Florida, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina, often posing as US-based grassroots activists who were unable to attend. The Mueller indictment states that they didn’t just promote these events themselves; they also reached out to the administrators of other large Facebook groups in hopes to widen their audience. At one point, they allegedly hired a Clinton impersonator to travel from Florida to NYC to help fire up the pro-Trump crowd.
Russian operatives allegedly masked their efforts a few ways; using virtual private networks set up on servers in the US, registering hundreds of email addresses through US providers, and even stole the identities of real US citizens in order to route payments through Paypal. And while some of these activities had previously been reported, the indictment makes clear the overwhelming scope.
The charges cap weeks of high-drama surrounding Mueller’s investigation, which President Trump has long called a “Witch Hunt,” and saw a deeply partisan split over a controversial memo written by House Intelligence Chair Devin Nunes who has tried to undermine the legitimacy of the investigation for months. However, the powerful level of detail included, and Rosenstein’s own remarks, make clear the seriousness of the investigation—and make it all but untenable for Trump or the GOP to move against Mueller or Rosenstein now that they have clearly established that the efforts to aid Trump’s campaign trace directly to key Kremlin insiders.
While the charging documents don’t hint that anyone on the Trump campaign personally knew of Russia’s efforts, the indictments make it increasingly hard for the White House to ignore Putin’s meddling. Mueller’s message was clear: This was no one-off effort, nor a low-profile series of misunderstandings and accidental contacts.
President Trump has failed to engage substantively on Russia’s unprecedented attack.
Friday’s indictment came at the end of a week that began with the nation’s intelligence chiefs testifying on Capitol Hill that their unanimous opinion was both that Russia had meddled in the 2016 campaign—and that it would continue to do in this year’s 2018 midterm elections. Their remarks provided a stark reminder of how President Trump has failed to engage substantively on Russia’s unprecedented attack.
Nor is there any sign Russia’s malicious cyberactivity is slowing; just Thursday, the White House joined British and other Western intelligence agencies in naming Russia as the source of last year’s devastating NotPetya ransomware attack, which targeted Ukrainian websites and spread around the world, causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.
While the new charges don’t come with any immediate arrests, it’s not impossible that some of the 13 Russian activities might someday face a US courtroom. The fact that they are now under public federal indictment means that they might face arrest anytime they travel overseas, whether for work or pleasure, and might also eventually face sanctions by the Treasury Department that could involve seizure of their overseas assets, or blocking them from participating in the global banking system.
The FBI and US law enforcement has had sporadic success in recent years arresting and extraditing Russian hackers during overseas trips and vacations. Last year, the FBI and Spanish National Police arrested Russian hacker Peter Levashov while he was on vacation in Spain; he was extradited to Connecticut earlier this month to stand trial there.
But regardless of repercussions, Mueller’s indictment stands as a historic document, a clear case that Russia not only meddled with US democracy—they spared no effort in doing so.