The Justice Department on Friday indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian groups of violating criminal laws with the intent to interfere “with U.S. elections and political processes,” according to the agency.
The indictment 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.
In one case, for example, one 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.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said 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.
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.
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.
According to the agency, “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.”
White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said the president has been briefed on the indictments.
The new indictment comes amid a wide-ranging probe by special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian meddling in the U.S. election as well as possible collusion by Trump associates.
Four former members of the Trump campaign have faced charges as a result of the 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.
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