Russians trying to influence the 2016 presidential election targeted minority communities in an effort to suppress voter turnout, federal prosecutors said in an indictment against more than a dozen individuals and companies unveiled Friday.
The 37-page indictment from Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III offered new insight into the lengths investigators believe Russian entities went to meddle in the election. Mueller accused 13 Russians and three Russian companies of using stolen identities, organizing fake campaign events and creating hundreds of social media accounts to sway voters.
While Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein stressed that the indictment did not allege that any Americans intentionally took part, the document laid out in stark terms the breadth of the Russian effort, which aimed in its latter stages at helping elect Donald Trump.
“The defendants allegedly conducted what they called information warfare against the United States, with the stated goal of spreading distrust towards the candidates and the political system,” said Rosenstein, the former U.S. attorney for Maryland. “The indictment alleges that the Russian conspirators want to promote discord in the United States.”
Thirteen Russian nationals and three Russian entities have been indicted by a federal grand jury, accused of violating U.S. law in order to interfere with the 2016 U.S. elections and political processes.
As part of that effort, prosecutors said, the defendants encouraged minority groups not to vote in the 2016 election, or to vote for a third-party candidate — choices that would have benefited Trump and other Republicans. One account that targeted African-Americans posted a month before the election that “we’d surely be better off without voting AT ALL.”
That raised concerns among elected leaders in Maryland, which has a high share of African-American voters, who frequently drive statewide elections. Though estimates vary, black voters made up about 40 percent of the Democratic primary turnout in Maryland for Barack Obama's first presidential run in 2008, for instance.
The state also has a long history with political operatives working to suppress turnout.
“Of particular concern, the indictments show how the Russians tried to suppress the votes of minorities across the United States in order to help Donald Trump win the presidency,” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the top Democrat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.
Trump focused Friday on the point that the indictment did not implicate anyone on his campaign, repeating his often-cited position that there was “no collusion” between his staff and the Russians. But the indictment also undermined past contentions by the president that the various investigations into the election represent a “witch hunt” or a “hoax.”
“It’s time we stop the outlandish partisan attacks, wild and false allegations, and far-fetched theories, which only serve to further the agendas of bad actors, like Russia, and do nothing to protect the principles of our institutions,” Trump said in a statement. “We must unite as Americans to protect the integrity of our democracy and our elections.”
The Mueller investigation, which continues, has led to the indictment or conviction of four former Trump aides.
Among the social media accounts that Friday’s indictment alleges the defendants controlled was one called Blacktivist. Twitter and Facebook accounts with that name attempted to promote a rally to mark the anniversary of the death of Freddie Gray last year, The Baltimore Sun has reported.
One of the Blacktivist Facebook page posts was about Allen Bullock, a Baltimore teen who pleaded guilty to a riot charge after smashing a traffic cone through a car windshield during the 2015 unrest.
Days before the election, prosecutors alleged, “defendants and their co-conspirators purchased an advertisement to promote a post on the organization-controlled Instagram account “Blacktivist” that read in part: ‘Choose peace and vote for [Green Party candidate] Jill Stein. Trust me, it’s not a wasted vote.’”
The Russian effort to sow discord was particularly active in Maryland. The heavily Democratic state was never considered in play in the presidential election, but lawmakers have said that Russian entities targeted the state for social media advertising after the 2015 riots.
The indictment did not indicate that any of the activity it described occurred in Maryland.
Cummings, a Baltimore Democrat, said the indictments “show precisely how the Russians worked to help the Trump campaign, in startling and extensive detail.”
Several Republicans saw the events differently. Rep. Andy Harris of Baltimore County, the only Republican in Maryland’s 10-member delegation, said the charges should “stand as a message to the Russians” that “the United States will not tolerate their attempts to sow chaos in our country.”
Prosecutors accused the Russians of “impairing, obstructing and defeating the lawful functions of the government through fraud and deceit for the purpose of interfering with the U.S. political and electoral processes, including the presidential election of 2016.”
One of those charged was Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a wealthy Russian businessman and caterer who has been publicly identified as a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Prosecutors said a company controlled by Prigozhin called Concord Management and Consulting funded and directed the interference campaign in the United States and other countries, employing the Internet Research Agency, a shadowy internet troll factory that operated from St. Petersburg in Russia.
“Concord was the [agency’s] primary source of funding for its interference operations,” the indictment reads. “Concord controlled funding, recommended personnel and oversaw organization activities.”
In 2014, the organization created a special department focused on using YouTube, Facebook and other social media platforms to influence the 2016 presidential election.
The group had a “strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system,” prosecutors said, apparently quoting internal Russian documents.
More than 80 employees were assigned to the project. By 2016, prosecutors said, its monthly budget exceeded $1.2 million a month.