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Russians charged with meddling in 2016 race

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, speaks to the media with an announcement that the office of special counsel Robert Mueller says a grand jury has charged 13 Russian nationals and several Russian entities, on Friday. (AP)
WASHINGTON: In an extraordinary indictment, the US special counsel has accused 13 Russians of an elaborate plot to disrupt the 2016 presidential election, charging them with running a huge but hidden social media trolling campaign aimed in part at helping Republican Donald Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton.
The federal indictment, brought on Friday by special counsel Robert Mueller, represents the most detailed allegations to date of illegal Russian meddling during the campaign that sent Trump to the White House. It also marks the first criminal charges against Russians believed to have secretly worked to influence the outcome.
The Russian organization was funded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the indictment said. He is a wealthy St. Petersburg businessman with ties to the Russian government and President Vladimir Putin.
Trump quickly claimed vindication on Friday, noting in a tweet that the alleged interference efforts began 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!” he tweeted.
But the indictment does not resolve the collusion question at the heart of the continuing Mueller probe, which before Friday had produced charges against four Trump associates. US intelligence agencies have previously said the Russian government interfered to benefit Trump, including by orchestrating the hacking of Democratic emails, and Mueller has been assessing whether the campaign coordinated with the Kremlin.
The latest indictment does not focus on the hacking but instead centers on a social media propaganda effort that began in 2014 and continued past the election, with the goal of producing distrust in the American political process. Trump himself has been reluctant to acknowledge the interference and any role that it might have played in propelling him to the White House.
The indictment does not allege that any American knowingly participated in Russian meddling, or suggest that Trump campaign associates had more than “unwitting” contact with some of the defendants who posed as Americans during election season.
But it does lay out a vast and wide-ranging Russian effort to sway political opinion in the US through a strategy that involved creating Internet postings in the names of Americans whose identities had been stolen; staging political rallies while posing as American political activists and paying people in the US to promote or disparage candidates.
The 13 Russians are not in custody and not likely to ever face trial. The Justice Department has for years supported indicting foreign defendants in absentia as a way of publicly shaming them and effectively barring them from foreign travel.
The surreptitious campaign was organized by the Internet Research Agency, a notorious Russian troll farm that the indictment says sought to conduct “information warfare against the United States of America.”