WASHINGTON — In an extraordinary indictment, the U.S. special counsel accused 13 Russians Friday of an elaborate plot to disrupt the 2016 presidential election, charging them with running a huge but hidden social media trolling campaign aimed in part at helping Republican Donald Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton.
The federal indictment, brought by special counsel Robert Mueller, represents the most detailed allegations to date of illegal Russian meddling during the campaign that sent Trump to the White House. It also marks the first criminal charges against Russians believed to have secretly worked to influence the outcome.
The latest indictment does not focus on the hacking but instead centers on a social media propaganda effort that began in 2014 and continued past the election, with the goal of producing distrust in the American political process. Trump himself has been reluctant to acknowledge the interference and any role that it might have played in propelling him to the White House.
The indictment does not allege that any American knowingly participated in Russian meddling, or suggest that Trump campaign associates had more than "unwitting" contact with some of the defendants who posed as Americans during election season. It does lay out a vast and wide-ranging effort to sway political opinion in the United States.
In a statement to 10News Congressman Scott Peters said:
“Today’s indictments by the Special Counsel confirm that this is no hoax - the Russians interfered, influenced, and tampered with our 2016 election and they are seeking to hurt our democracy. This underscores that Mr. Mueller must be allowed to complete his investigation free from interference and that we must follow the facts wherever they lead us. It’s also another reason for the President must immediately impose the Russian sanctions approved by Congress.”
Congresswoman Susan Davis also sent a statement to 10News saying:
“Mueller’s indictments affirm that Russia was actively working to interfere in our election in an attempt to swing it toward President Trump. These indictments also send a powerful message that meddling in American elections will not be tolerated. As the Special Counsel’s investigation continues, a number of questions remain: Was any American involved with the activity, including anyone from the Trump campaign?”
The 13 Russians are not in custody and not likely to ever face trial. The Justice Department has increasingly favored indicting foreign defendants in absentia as a way of publicly shaming them and effectively barring them from foreign travel.
"This indictment serves as a reminder that people are not always who they appear to be on the internet," Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said Friday. "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."