The special counsel probing interference in the last presidential election charged 13 Russian nationals and three Russian groups with violating criminal laws with the intent of meddling “with U.S. elections and political processes” on Friday.
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The 37-page indictment, signed by special counsel Robert Mueller, depicts an elaborate scheme in which some of the Russians accused allegedly came to the U.S. with the deliberate intention of undermining the American political and electoral process, including the 2016 presidential election The new indictment comes amid a wide-ranging probe by the special counsel into Russian meddling in the U.S. election and is also the first set of charges by Mueller for 2016 presidential election interference.
In one case, for example, an American was paid to dress up as Hillary Clinton clad in a prison uniform and another person was hired to construct a cage on a flatbed truck — all part of a coordinated effort to organize rallies in Florida in the lead up to the presidential election.
In another case, the defendants and their co-conspirators operated a twitter account using the handle @TEN_GOP in an attempt to pretend to be the Tennessee Republican Party. The handle amassed more than 150,000 followers.
The actual Tennessee Republican Party said they reported this fake account to Twitter on multiple occasions. Twitter said in a House Intelligence Committee hearing in November that it took the account down and the incident helped them re-evaluate their policies.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said on Friday the Russians charged called their work “information warfare against the United States” with the goal of spreading distrust of candidates and the political system in general.
In 2014 and through the 2016 elections, one of the main organizations in the indictment, Internet Research Agency began a coordinated effort to influence the American political system. Individuals listed in the indictment worked to support that goal.
Some defendants “communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump campaign” without revealing their association with Russia. The indictment also says the defendants posted negative information about a number of candidates during the last general election.
The individuals operated social media pages and groups designed to attract American audiences with a strategic goal to “sow discord in the U.S. political system”. They staged rallies and had a basic infrastructure which included computers and other support systems.
One Russian conspirator, after learning Facebook was cooperating with the FBI, wrote of a scramble to mask efforts.
“We had a slight crisis here at work, the fbi busted our activity (not a joke). So I got preoccupied with covering tracks together with the colleagues,” the person wrote according to the indictment. “I created all these pictures and posts, and the Americans believe that it was written by their people.”
Ultimately, the “defendants’ operations included supporting the presidential campaign on then-candidate Donald J. Trump and disparaging Hillary Clinton” his Democratic rival, according to the indictment.
“The indictment charges all of the defendants with conspiracy to defraud the United States, three defendants with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud, and five defendants with aggravated identity theft.”
Later on Friday, President Donald Trump responded on Twitter noting that the activity in the indictment began before his campaign.
Russia started their anti-US campaign 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!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 16, 2018
The White House also released a statement underscoring that they are ” glad to see the Special Counsel’s investigation further indicates—that there was NO COLLUSION between the Trump campaign and Russia and that the outcome of the election was not changed or affected.”
“it is more important than ever before to come together as Americans. We cannot allow those seeking to sow confusion, discord, and rancor to be successful. It’s time we stop the outlandish partisan attacks, wild and false allegations, and far-fetched theories, which only serve to further the agendas of bad actors, like Russia, and do nothing to protect the principles of our institutions,” Trump said in the statement. “We must unite as Americans to protect the integrity of our democracy and our elections.”
Four former members of the Trump campaign have faced charges as a result of the special counsel’s broader investigation, including George Papadopoulos, Rick Gates, former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and former national security adviser Mike Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in December.
Rosenstein told reporters the newest indictment contains no allegations of knowing collusion by members of the Trump team or a determination that the election was influenced as a result of the Russians’ activities.
“This indictment serves as a reminder that people are not always who they appear to be on the internet. The indictment alleges that the Russian conspirators want to promote discord in the United States and undermine public confidence and democracy. We must not allow them to succeed,” Rosenstein said.
Trump has called Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the election and possible collusion by Trump associates a “witch hunt,” and an “excuse” cooked up by Democrats for their 2016 losses.
In testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee earlier this week, top U.S. intelligence chiefs said it was likely Russia would seek to meddle again in U.S. politics in the 2018 midterms. The officials also said they had not been specifically directed by Trump to stop Russian efforts to influence the election, though CIA Director Mike Pompeo said he has been directed by Trump to generally address threats to the U.S.
The Kremlin told ABC News it has no comment at this point.
ABC News’ Halimah Abdullah, Jack Date, Stephanie Ebbs, Alexander Mallin, Matthew Mosk, Ali Rogin, and Pierre Thomas contributed to this report.