A federal grand jury in Washington, DC, under the authority Special Counsel Robert Mueller, approved charges Friday against 13 Russian nationals for offenses related to the 2016 U.S. Presidential election.
The defendants are all alleged to be part of the “Internet Research Agency,” a company the indictment alleges is based in St. Petersburg, Russia, and operates through a number of front organizations with the aim on influencing American elections.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversees Mueller’s special counsel investigation, announced the indictment at the main Department of Justice building in Washington, DC.
“There is no allegation in this indictment that any American was a knowing participant in this illegal activity,” Rosenstein said. “There is no allegation in the indictment that the charged conduct altered the outcome of the 2016 election.”
Special Counsel’s Office spokesman Peter Carr described the indictment as covering “13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities accused of violating U.S. criminal laws in order to interfere with U.S. elections and political processes.”
The group is alleged to have spent years, back to at least 2014, building a social media following of hundreds of thousands by playing off of existing divisions and sympathies in the American political landscape. When 2016 rolled around, the groups operatives are alleged to have disparaged Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio, and used its influence to support Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.
As Rosenstein explained, the goal of the alleged conspiracy is not as simple as supporting one candidate. The conspirators are alleged to have held rallies for and against president-elect Donald Trump on the same day in November, 2016.
“After the election, the defendants allegedly staged rallies to support the president-elect, while simultaneously staging rallies to protest his election,” Rosenstein told reporters. “For example, the defendant organized one rally to support the president-elect and another rally to oppose him, both in New York, on the same day.”
The indictment strongly implies links to the Kremlin. Over $1 million in rubles is alleged to have been funneled into the conspiracy through sources like “Concord Catering,” a company with significant contracts with the Russian government.
The indictment contains no explicit allegation of collusion with Donald Trump’s or any other 2016 campaign. Most Americans, including at least one Trump campaign official, who communicated with the Russian conspirators are described as “unwitting.” As Rosenstein explained:
The Russians also recruited and paid real Americans to engage in political activities, promote political campaigns, and stage political rallies. The defendants and their co-conspiractors pretended to be grassroots activists. According to the indictment, the Americans did not know that they were communicating with Russians.
Following the announcement Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) called special counsel Robert Mueller’s Friday indictments of Russian nationals for U.S. election interference “evidence” of a crime President Trump “tried to cover up.”
“For all of those who have been asking ‘where is the evidence of a crime?’ — this is it. This is the criminal conspiracy,” Cummings said in a statement. “This is what President Trump and his allies have repeatedly called a ‘hoax’ and ‘fake news.’ This is what they tried to cover up.”
“This is what we might never have known if President Trump had been successful in shutting down this investigation,” he added.
The top Democrat on the House Oversight Committee said the charges “show precisely how the Russians worked to help the Trump campaign, in startling and extensive detail.”
Cummings also highlighted how the Russian groups and nationals had allegedly taken steps to try and suppress the minority vote during the 2016 election.
He called for Congress to take steps to help protect Mueller and his investigation.
“We all must support his ability to complete his investigation independently and prevent anyone from undercutting or interfering with his continued work,” Cummings said.