Bending Toward Justice: Mueller indicts Russians with interfering in U.S. elections to help Trump

Photo: (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images; Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Special Counsel Robert Mueller filed federal criminal charges on Friday against 13 Russian nationals, two Russian-related organizations, and a Russian disinformation group known as the Internet Research Agency (IRA) in a sprawling indictment arising out of the investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 election.

The 37-page indictment against the Russian nationals and IRA details their conspiracy to interfere “with the US political and electoral processes, including the presidential election of 2016” by creating false U.S. personas, false social media accounts, and traveling to the U.S. to gather intelligence and engage in political activity.

Additionally on Friday, Mueller unsealed a one-count Information against Richard Pinedo, an American citizen living in California, who appears to have unknowingly assisted the Russian nationals in carrying out their scheme. Pinedo plead guilty to one count of identity fraud and is cooperating with the Special Counsel’s continuing investigation. Pinedo’s guilty plea and statement of offense can be found here and here.

The indictment against the Russians alleges that, beginning in 2014, IRA built an operation in St. Petersburg, Russia with the express purpose of sowing discord in the United States and interfering with the 2016 presidential election. IRA’s operation allegedly included hundreds of employees focused on building fictitious personas, graphics, data analysis, search engine optimization, and social media presence on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Other defendants charged funded this operation, at $1.25 million per month.

As the 2016 election cycle ramped up, the Russian defendants allegedly created hundred of fictitious social media accounts with the look and feel of American people and groups. The indictment claims that IRA employees were instructed to post about issues that would attract Americans dissatisfied with the political and economic climate. Social media groups and pages were created to focus on immigration, Black Lives Matter, and religion. They took special care to use a VPN in the U.S., so that their social media activities could not be traced back to Russia.

Starting in February 2016, the indictment alleges, the IRA operation focused on disseminating derogatory information about Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio, and positive information about Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. They also used their fictitious personas to communicate with Trump campaign employees and volunteers, and spread their campaign messages; post anti-Hillary messages on social media directed to minority voters, discouraging their participation in the election or to vote for Jill Stein; spread messages about voter fraud.

According to the indictment, the defendants bought paid political advertisements urging voters to support Trump and not Clinton, and organized pro-Trump and anti-Clinton rallies in Florida, New York, and Pennsylvania.

The defendants are charged with eight criminal counts: conspiracy to defraud the United States, including the Federal Election Commission, Justice Department, and State Department; conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud; and six counts alleging identity theft.

The Special Counsel did not charge the Russians with violating federal campaign finance laws, even though it is illegal for foreign nationals to contribute money, goods or services to a U.S. election campaign. Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor and Democratic candidate for Attorney General in Illinois, commented on Twitter that Mueller seems to have taken a less aggressive posture, by charging the Russians with easily provable federal crimes.

No Trump campaign employees or volunteers are charged in this indictment. But nothing in the indictment clears the Trump campaign of wrongdoing, despite a statement issued by the White House Friday afternoon claiming that the indictment shows there was no collusion with the Trump campaign. Friday’s indictment simply focuses on the Russian operation. It remains to be seen what additional charges will be filed, and against whom.

Bloomberg reported Friday afternoon that Mueller’s investigation into possible collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign continues.

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