Mueller Indicts 13 Russians, 'Putin's Chef,' Over 2016 Election Interference

Indictment includes infamous Internet Research Agency in St. Petersburg

Rod Rosenstein, deputy attorney general, briefed the media about U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller announcing an indictment of 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities, accusing them of interfering in the 2016 presidential election and operating fake social media accounts on February 16, 2018. Credit: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Thirteen Russian operatives, including a man widely known as "Vladimir Putin's chef," and the shadowy St. Petersburg organization called the Internet Research Agency (IRA) were named today in a 37-page criminal indictment filed by Robert Mueller, the Russiagate special counsel. It's a bombshell that marks a major step forward in the investigation of Russia's 2016 meddling in the U.S. presidential election, providing important new details about who in Russia did what in the area of manipulating social media, including Facebook, Twitter and other platforms to support the election of Donald Trump.

Mueller is investigating possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians, and he's also looking into obstruction of justice charges against Trump, his aides and family members, and the White House. But these charges go to the heart of the actions by Russia itself in trying to affect the outcome of the 2016 vote.

Since last summer, of course, there have been widespread media reports, investigations and hearings before Congressional committees, and various statements by Facebook and Twitter about Russian involvement in social media activities around the 2016 election. Just this week, Jonathan Albright, a Columbia University researcher, published a new study showing how thousands of Russian Twitter accounts – some with more than 10,000 followers – tweeted and retweeted mainstream and right-wing news media stories as part of Russia's 2016 election meddling. But now, with Mueller's indictment, the Department of Justice has provided the names of particular Russian individuals involved and pulled back the curtain on how they did it.

All 13 individuals are named in the indictment, including Yevgeniy Viktorovich Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch who is the man behind the Internet Research Agency, the so-called "troll factory" located in St. Petersburg, Russia. During the 2016 election, according to Mueller's indictment, Prigozhin and the IRA coordinated an illegal series of actions – including money transfers, identity theft and fraud – to launch a major social media campaign aimed at undermining Hillary Clinton's campaign. Prigozhin, who is otherwise known as "Vladimir Putin's chef," operates a catering company and a related consulting firm, Concord Catering and Concord Management and Consulting LLC, both of which participated in the 2016 U.S. election conspiracy and both of which were also indicted by Mueller.

Prigozhin, who's been under U.S. sanctions since 2016, is said to have close ties with the Russian military. According to the Treasury Department, Prigozhin "has extensive business dealings with the Russian Federation Ministry of Defense, and a company with significant ties to him holds a contract to build a military base near the Russian Federation border with Ukraine."

The indictment, rich in detail, says that as early as 2014 Prigozhin, the IRA and others "knowingly and intentionally conspired with each other … for the purpose of interfering with the U.S. political and electoral processes, including the presidential election of 2016." Several of the defendants named in the indictment traveled to the United States during the election, using fraudulently acquired visas, according to the indictment, which adds: "Some Defendants, posing as U.S. persons and without revealing their Russian association, communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump Campaign." The indictment didn't elaborate on which Trump campaign officials were in contact with the Russian operatives.

But Mueller's investigators obtained internal documents from the Internet Research Agency and its operatives revealing that a "real U.S. person" – i.e., not a Russian spy or poseur – told the Russian operatives to focus their social media postings and other activity on "purple states like Colorado, Virginia & Florida," and that after that the Russians routinely referred to efforts to target "purple states." Russian "specialists," according to Mueller, "were instructed to post content on 'politics in the USA' and to 'use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump – we support them).'" When efforts on Facebook and elsewhere flagged, the specialists – and there were hundreds, according to the indictment – were criticized for having a "low number of posts dedicated to criticizing Hillary Clinton" and that "it is imperative to intensify criticizing Hillary Clinton."

On Twitter and elsewhere, the Russian operation used numerous election-related hashtags, including #Trump2016, #TrumpTrain, #MAGA, #Hillary4Prison, and others, the indictment charges. The IRA and its specialists and U.S.-based operatives stole the identities of Americans to create Twitter and Facebook accounts, sought to organize rallies and demonstrations around the country, and used militant-sounding Muslim and African-American fake outlets to design messages to scare voters away from Clinton. The indictment provides more than a dozen examples of social media advertisements created by the Russians, including on just weeks before the election that read: "Hillary is a Satan, the her crimes and lies had proved just how evil she is."

"Today's indictment by Special Counsel Mueller is a significant step forward in exposing Russia's political and electoral interference in our democracy and holding Russia, and its agents, accountable. The indictment spells out in exhaustive detail the breadth and systematic nature of Russia's conspiracy, dating back to 2014, as well as the multiple ways in which Russian actors misused online platforms to carry out their clandestine operations," said Representative Adam Schiff, the California Democrat who is the ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. "While it does not include an allegation that any U.S. persons conspired wittingly with the Russian actors, the indictment leaves open the vital question of whether Americans, including any associated with the Trump campaign, knowingly played a role in Russia's active measures campaign."

Earlier this week, Schiff said that material already in HPSCI's possession indicates collusion between Trump and Russia. "There is certainly an abundance of non-public information that we've gathered in the investigation. And I think some of that non-public evidence is evidence on the issue of collusion," he said. In a news conference broadcast live in connection with Mueller's action, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein – the official who oversees the Russiagate inquiry and who supervises the Mueller inquiry – said that the indictment says nothing about whether or not the Russian actions succeeded in changing the outcome of the vote. But, he added, "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."