WASHINGTON - Special counsel Robert Mueller on Friday (Feb 16) indicted 13 Russian nationals for participating in an alleged criminal plot to undermine the 2016 presidential election.
The indictment revealed more details than previously known about Moscow’s purported effort to interfere, including that a Russian Internet agency oversaw a criminal and espionage conspiracy to tamper in the 2016 US presidential campaign to support Donald Trump and disparage Hillary Clinton. The Russians adopted false online personas to push divisive messages, travelled to the United States to collect intelligence; and staged political rallies while posing as Americans.
The indictment comes on top of two Trump advisers having pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI - Michael Flynn and George Papadopoulos - and two more being indicted for alleged financial crimes that predated the campaign - Paul Manafort and Rick Gates.
Here are some things we've learned from the indictments.
1. The sophisticated effort to influence the election began as far back as 2014
The indictment describes a sophisticated, multi-year and well-funded operation by Russian entities to influence the election, beginning as early as May 2014, well before President Donald Trump entered the race.
Dubbed “Project Lakhta,” the campaign had a goal to “spread distrust toward the candidates and the political system in general”.
By mid-2016, it became focused on boosting Trump and demeaning his rivals including Democrat Hillary Clinton. The group used a cluster of companies linked to one called the Internet Research Agency, operating out of St. Petersburg, and called its campaign “information warfare".
The effort allegedly involved “hundreds” of people working in shifts and with a budget of millions of dollars.
They unlawfully used stolen social security numbers and birth dates of Americans to open accounts on the PayPal digital payment platform and to post on social media using those fake identities, the indictment said.
Members of the group went on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram to post content that tapped on the flash points of immigration, religion and race that reached “significant numbers” of Americans.
They posed as Christian activists, anti-immigration groups and supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement. One account posed as the Tennessee Republican Party and generated hundreds of thousands of followers, prosecutors said.
Content created by the group was even retweeted by the president’s two eldest sons Don Jr and Eric, as well as other top campaign officials and members of Trump’s inner circle.
“I created all these pictures and posts, and the Americans believed that it was written by their people,” one of the Russians, Irina Viktorovna Kaverzina, wrote as the operation was being unmasked.
2. The plot was overseen by Putin's close ally
According to the indictment, the effort was overseen by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. It states that Prigozhin frequently met in 2015 and 2016 with Mikhail Bystrov, the top official in the Internet Research Agency.
Prigozhin has been identified by the Russian news media as the financial backer of the agency. He is a caterer who has been nicknamed “Putin’s chef” because of his close ties to the Russian president. He has been photographed with the Russian president. Concord Management and Consulting and Concord Catering, two Russian businesses also charged by Mueller’s team on Friday, previously have been identified as Prigozhin's vehicles.
The 56-year-old rose from a troubled youth, serving a prison sentence for robbery and other crimes, to becoming one of Russia’s richest men after starting several deluxe restaurants in St Petersburg. While he has denied involvement in the operation, his critics say he has emerged as Putin’s go-to oligarch for a variety of sensitive and often-unsavory missions in return for enormous state contracts.
3. The effort didn’t just focus on Trump and Clinton
The effort wasn’t just aimed at bolstering the candidacy of Trump and damaging Clinton’s campaign. The group’s work also focused on producing material damaging to Trump’s Republican rivals Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio. Aside from Trump, the group is said to have supported Green presidential candidate Jill Stein and Clinton’s Democratic rival Bernie Sanders.
“Use any opportunity to criticise Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump – we support them),” an internal message circulated through the Internet Research Agency told the operatives at the beginning of 2016.
Mueller’s investigation identified 13 digital advertisements paid for by the Russian operation. All of them attacked Clinton or promoted Trump.
“Hillary is a Satan, and her crimes and lies had proved just how evil she is,” one advertisement stated.
Days before Americans went to the polls, one Instagram account controlled by the Russians – called Blacktivist – also urged its followers to “choose peace” and vote for Stein, who had been expected to siphon support from Clinton’s campaign.
4. It was not just a virtual operation
Individuals involved in the conspiracy travelled to and around the United States, visiting nine states for political intelligence gathering, according to the court documents.
Their stops included Nevada, California, New Mexico, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan – a pivotal state in the election – Louisiana, Texas, Georgia and New York, according to the indictment.
An unnamed Texas-based American political operative is said to have instructed them to focus on so-called “purple states” – which swing between Republican and Democratic control.
Two of the women involved in the field research bought cameras, SIM cards and disposable cellphones for the trip and devised “evacuation scenarios” in case their real purpose was detected. After completing the trip, a report about their findings was delivered to the main office in St Petersburg.
5. It doesn’t say the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, but doesn’t rule it out either
Anybody looking for clues about the collusion investigation into the Trump campaign won’t find much. If anything, the indictments may hearten Trump allies in that they don’t draw a line to the campaign – which suggests there was a large-scale effort independent of any possible collusion.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein even specified that Americans who were contacted by the Russian nationals “did not know they were communicating with Russians”.
But that’s about as much insight that can be drawn. Nothing is known about what else could be coming down the pike, and any ties to Trump campaign officials may have been withheld from this indictment in order to avoid disclosing details of an ongoing investigation.
Asked whether campaign officials had knowledge of the scheme or were duped, Rosenstein chose his words carefully. “There is no allegation in this indictment that any American had any knowledge,” Rosenstein said. The words “in this indictment” mean his comments are pretty narrow.
6. Harder for Trump to dismiss Mueller’s probe as a 'witch hunt'
At one point in the indictment, a price tag is put on the effort aimed at influencing the election: US$1.25 million (S$1.7 million) in one month, as of September 2016. That’s as much as some entire presidential campaigns were spending monthly during the primaries, lending credence to the idea that this was a large-scale effort connected to the Russian government.
Trump has often sought to downplay the idea that Russia interfered in the 2016 election – even suggesting he believed Russian President Vladimir Putin’s assurances that it didn’t happen. This document lays it out in extensive detail.
The argument that this is a “witch hunt”, which Trump has argued and more than eight in 10 Republicans believe, just became much more difficult to make. And the document would seem to make pretty clear the Mueller investigation is not just targeted at taking down Trump, either.
7. The indictment does not say that Russia changed the outcome of the election
In his remarks to reporters, Rosenstein also specified that the indictment does not determine whether Russia's interference effort changed the results of the 2016 election. He said there was "no allegation in the indictment of any effect on the outcome of the election."
Some Trump allies have jumped on that, believing it meant that Russia did not win the race for Trump.
What Rosenstein was actually saying was that the indictment doesn't make a determination - just like the intelligence community's report back in January 2017 made no determination of the effect on the election.
US intelligence officials have said they have no way of calculating the effect of the Russian influence.
SOURCES: WASHINGTON POST, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NYTIMES, REUTERS