Robert Mueller indicts 13 Russian nationals, three entities for election meddling

WASHINGTON, Feb 16 (Reuters) - A Russian Internet agency and more than a dozen Russians interfered in the 2016 U.S. election campaign in a multi-pronged effort to support Donald Trump and disparage rival Hillary Clinton, the U.S. Special Counsel said in an indictment on Friday.

The charges by the office of Robert Mueller described a conspiracy that started in 2014 to disrupt the U.S. election by people who adopted false online personas to push divisive messages; traveled to the United States to collect intelligence; and staged political rallies while posing as Americans.

Russia's Internet Research Agency "had a strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election," the indictment states.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told reporters in announcing the charges that the investigation was not finished.

RELATED: Key Trump officials, advisers of note in the Russia probe

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Key Trump officials, advisers of note in the Russia probe

Tom Barrack

The close friend to Donald Trump and CEO of private equity firm Colony Capital recommended that Trump bring in Paul Manafort for his presidential campaign.

R. James Woolsey

Woolsey, the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), has cooperated with Mueller's investigation and worked with Michael Flynn and was present at a meeting where they discussed removing the controversial Turkish Muslim cleric Fetullah Gulen from US soil. 

(Christopher Goodney/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

The former senior Trump campaign official and White House adviser was present and crucial during the firings of Michael Flynn and James Comey.

The former head of the Trump transition team following the 2016 election has said previously that he believes he was fired due to his opposing the hiring of Michael Flynn as national security adviser.

Jeff Sessions

Former U.S. senator Jeff Sessions from Alabama joined Trump's campaign as a foreign policy adviser in February 2016. Sessions was nominated to be U.S. attorney general by President Trump and was then confirmed by the Senate. Reports then emerged that Sessions had spoken twice with Sergey Kislyak while he was senator -- a fact that he left out of his Senate hearing testimony. Instead, he said in writing that he had not communicated with any Russian officials during the campaign season. Sessions defended himself saying he had spoken with Kislyak specifically in a senate capacity.

Paul Manafort

Paul Manafort signed on as Donald Trump's campaign manager in March 2016. A longtime Republican strategist and beltway operative, Manafort had previously served as an adviser to former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich -- a pro-Russia leader who was violently ousted in 2014. Manafort resigned from his campaign position in August 2016 amid questions over his lobbying history in Ukraine for an administration supportive of Russia. The former campaign manager reportedly remained in Trump's circle during the post-election transition period.

Michael Flynn

Gen. Michael Flynn was named President Trump's national security adviser in November of 2016. Flynn reportedly met and spoke with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in December, at one point discussing sanctions. Flynn originally told Vice President Pence he did not discuss sanctions -- a point the Department of Justice said made the national security adviser subject to blackmail. Flynn resigned from his position in February.

Donald Trump

2016 election winner Donald Trump is at the center of special counsel Robert Mueller's probe into Russia's handlings.

Sam Clovis

Clovis, a former member of the Trump campaign, arrives on at the U.S. Capitol December 12, 2017 to appear before a closed meeting of the House Intelligence Committee. Clovis worked with George Papadopoulos, a former Donald Trump campaign foreign policy advisor who struck a plea deal on charges of lying to the FBI.

(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Roger Stone

Stone is a longtime Republican political consultant who served as a campaign adviser to Trump who continued to talk with the then-GOP candidate after stepping away from his adviser role. Stone claimed last year that he had knowledge of the planned WikiLeaks release of emails pertaining to Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee. Stone recently admitted to speaking via direct message with "Guccifer 2.0" -- an online entity U.S. officials believe is tied to Russia. Stone says the correspondence was “completely innocuous.”

Carter Page

Page worked for Merrill Lynch as an investment banker out of their Moscow office for three years before joining Trump's campaign as a foreign policy adviser. During his time with Merrill Lynch, Page advised transactions for two major Russian entities. Page has called Washington "hypocritical" for focusing on corruption and democratization in addressing U.S. relations with Russia. While Page is someone Trump camp has seemingly tried to distance itself from, Page recently said he has made frequent visits to Trump Tower.

J.D. Gordon

Before Gordon joined the Trump campaign as a national security adviser in March 2016, he served as a Pentagon spokesman from 2005 through 2009. Like others involved in Trump-Russia allegations, Gordon met with ambassador Kislyak in July at the Republican National Convention, but has since denied any wrongdoing in their conversation. He advocated for and worked to revise the RNC language on and position toward Ukraine relations, so it was more friendly toward Russia's dealings in the country.

Former Trump campaign aide Michael Caputo (L)

Caputo waves goodbye to reporters after he testified before the House Intelligence Committee during a closed-door session at the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center July 14, 2017 in Washington, DC. Caputo resigned from being a Trump campaign communications advisor after appearing to celebrate the firing of former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. Denying any contact with Russian officials during the 2016 campaign, Caputo did live in Moscow during the 1990s, served as an adviser to former Russian President Boris Yeltsin and did pro-Putin public relations work for the Russian conglomerate Gazprom Media.

(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Stephen Miller, White House Senior Advisor for Policy

Jason Miller
Former White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer
Eric Trump
Donald Trump Jr.
Ivanka Trump
White House Senior adviser Jared Kushner
Executive assistant to Donald Trump Rhona Graff
White House Communications Director Hope Hicks
Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski
US Vice President Mike Pence
Katrina Pierson
K.T. McFarland
Former White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci
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"Defendants posted derogatory information about a number of candidates, and by early to mid-2016, Defendants' operations included supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump ... and disparaging Hillary Clinton," the court document said.

The indictment broadly echoes the conclusions of a January 2017 U.S. intelligence assessment, which found that Russia had meddled in the election, and that its goals eventually included aiding Trump. In November 2016, the Republican candidate won a surprise electoral college victory over Democratic Party candidate Clinton, who won the popular vote.

A Kremlin spokesman said he was not yet familiar with the U.S. indictment.

Trump has never unequivocally accepted the intelligence report and has denounced Mueller's probe into whether his campaign colluded with the Kremlin as a "witch hunt."

President Trump has been briefed on the indictment announced on Friday, White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said.

Some of those charged, posing as Americans, communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump campaign, the indictment said. Last year, two former Trump campaign aides pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI - charges brought by Mueller's office.

The indictment of the Russians, coupled with the FBI disclosure that it failed to heed a warning about the Florida high school shooter, were blows to the White House, still reeling from the fallout of a scandal involving a former aide accused of domestic abuse by two ex-wives.

Trump, who had hoped to focus the entire week on his infrastructure proposal, was closeted in the Oval Office as the reports rolled in, and his communications team was slow to respond to the ever-growing list of queries.

'CONSPIRATORS'

Rosenstein told a press conference "the indictment alleges that the Russian conspirators want to promote discord in the United States and undermine public confidence in democracy. We must not allow them to succeed."

The indictment appeared likely to provide ammunition to Democrats and others arguing for a continued aggressive investigation of the election interference.

It names the Internet Research Agency, based in St. Petersburg, Russia, 13 Russian nationals and two other companies.

The indictment describes a sophisticated, multi-year and well-funded operation, dubbed "Project Lakhta," by Russian entities to influence the election, beginning as early as May 2014.

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US President Barack Obama applauds outgoing Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) director Robert Mueller (L) in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington on June 21, 2013 as he nominates Jim Comey to be the next FBI director. Comey, a deputy attorney general under George W. Bush, would replace Mueller, who is stepping down from the agency he has led since the week before the September 11, 2001 attacks. AFP PHOTO/Nicholas KAMM (Photo credit should read NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP/Getty Images)
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It reveals a deeper level of sophistication and planning than previously known behind Moscow's purported attempts to interfere.

The indictment said that Russians 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.

It said the defendants and others began producing, purchasing and posting political advertisements of U.S. social media.

They included "I say no to Hillary Clinton/I say no to manipulation," "JOIN our #HillaryClintonForPrison2016,” “Donald wants to defeat terrorism . . . Hillary wants to sponsor it,” and “Trump is our only hope for a better future."

Facebook and Twitter, the social media companies whose platforms were used, both declined to comment on the indictment.

The Russians sought to measure the impact of their online social media operations, tracking the size of U.S. audiences reached through posts and other types of engagement, such as likes, comments and reposts, according to the indictment

The Internet Research Agency was registered with the Russian government as a corporate entity in July 2013 and the St. Petersburg location "became one of the organization’s operational hubs" through which the defendants and others "carried out their activities to interfere in the U.S. system," including the presidential election, the indictment said.

The organization employed hundreds of people, ranging from creators of fictitious person to technical experts, and by September 2016, its budget was in excess of $1.2 million, the court document said.

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats told the Senate Intelligence Committee on Tuesday that he had already seen evidence Russia was targeting U.S. elections in November, when Republican control of the House of Representatives and Senate are at stake, plus a host of positions in state governments.

"Frankly, the United States is under attack," Coats said at an annual hearing on worldwide threats.

(Reporting by Warren Strobel, Dustin Volz; additional reporting by David Shepardson, David Alexander, Steve Holland and David Ingram; editing by Mary Milliken and Grant McCool)

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