Special Counsel Robert Mueller announced Friday charges against 13 Russian officials and 3 Russian companies for conspiring to “obstruct the lawful functions of the US government through fraud and deceit.”
Five of the defendants were charged with identity theft and three were hit with wire and bank fraud charges. All 13 were charged with conspiracy to defraud the US.
Twelve of the 13 defendants worked for the Internet Research Agency, which is described in the indictment as a “troll factory” in St. Petersburg where employees were paid good money to operate fake American accounts on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube.
“We were engaged in the ugliest things that only 20-year-old very cheerful lads – who perfectly understand what amusing place they found themselves in – could do,” said Alan Baskayev, one of 80 “trolls” who maintained fake online identities as part of an operation that by September 2016 was spending over $1 million per month to “sow discord in the US political system,” explains the indictment.
“Like everyone, I needed the money. I decided it was an excellent bargain, considering that the conscience played no part in it at all,” said Baskayev, adding that he pretended to be a “white guy from Minnesota,” a “redneck from Kentucky,” and an “African-American from New York.”
This wasn’t just a prank, but a “highly coordinated disinformation campaign,” reports The New York Times.
The Russian trolls hijacked Twitter feeds with fake news stories about chemical accidents, police shootings, and Ebola cases. The articles, linked to genuine events, were designed to push political hot buttons in the US.
The effort eventually evolved into supporting Trump’s campaign and opposing Clinton’s, but the overarching goal was much broader: “impairing, obstructing, and defeating the lawful governmental functions of the US by dishonest means in order to enable the Defendants to interfere with US political and electoral processes, including the 2016 US presidential election.”
Through fake social media accounts, the Russians shared “derogatory information about a number of candidates.” They made fraudulent ad purchases and communicated with “unwitting individuals” associated with President Trump.
The 37-page indictment sites a February 2016 email instructing the troll factory staff to “use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump – we support them).”
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on Friday made it clear that the indictment does not suggest collusion between Trump and the Kremlin, nor does it suggest the Russian operation contributed to President Trump’s victory. “There is no allegation in this indictment that any American was a knowing participant in this illegal activity. There is no allegation in the indictment that the charged conduct altered the outcome of the 2016 election.”
The White House in a statement said that President Trump “is 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.”
Even so, New York Senator Charles Schumer (D) has called on President Trump to implement the sanctions on Russia that were passed by Congress last summer. “The Administration needs to be far more vigilant in protecting the 2018 elections, and alert the American public any time the Russians attempt to interfere,” added Schumer.
â€¨Russia’s response to the allegations ranged from scorn to disbelief.
“There are no official claims, there are no proofs for this,” said Russian presidential envoy Andrei Kutskikh. “That’s why they are just children’s statements.”
“I am very surprised that, in the opinion of the Washington court, several Russian people interfered in the elections in the United States. I do not know how the Americans came to this decision,” said Mikhail Burchik, one of the 13 Russians named in the indictment.