Thirteen Russians and three Russian companies were charged Friday with an elaborate plot to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election through social media propaganda aimed at helping Republican Donald Trump and harming the prospects of his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, prosecutors announced Friday.
The indictment, brought by the office of special counsel Robert Mueller, represents the most direct allegation to date of illegal Russian meddling during the election. It says Russians created bogus Internet postings, posed online as American political activists and fraudulently purchased advertisements — all with the goal of swaying political opinion during the bitterly contested race.
The intent of the meddling, the indictment says, was to “sow discord in the U.S. political system, including the 2016 presidential election.”
The indictment arises from Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the election and whether there was improper co-ordination between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. The charges are similar to the assessment of the U.S. intelligence community, which months after the election described a Russian government effort to meddle in the election on Trump’s behalf.
The Russians’ “strategic goal” was to sow discord, the indictment says. By early-to-mid 2016, their efforts “included” supporting Trump’s campaign and disparaging Democrat Clinton. The charges say that Russians also communicated with “unwitting individuals” associated with the Trump campaign and other political activists to co-ordinate activities.
Trump himself has been reluctant to acknowledge the meddling. His spokeswoman, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said Friday that Trump had been briefed on the indictment but there was no other immediate comment.
The charges are latest allegations arising from Mueller’s probe and represent the first criminal case against Russians. Before Friday, four people, including Trump’s former national security adviser and former campaign chairman, had been charged.
According to the indictment, the Internet Research Agency, a Russian troll farm, started interfering as early as 2014 in U.S. politics, extending to the 2016 presidential election. The defendants, “posing as U.S. persons and creating false U.S. personas,” operated social media groups designed to attract U.S. audiences by stealing U.S. identities and falsely claiming to be U.S. activists.