Russian Troll Farm Meddled in U.S. Election, Special Counsel Robert Mueller Alleges in Indictment

Special counsel Robert Mueller has handed down indictments against more than a dozen Russians for allegedly meddling in the U.S. presidential election. SAUL LOEB/AFP/Gett

Updated | Russian nationals interfered in the 2016 presidential election in a sophisticated, multiyear cyberattack that targeted the campaign of Hillary Clinton in favor of that of Donald Trump, special counsel Robert Mueller's office revealed in an eight-count indictment released Friday.

The indictment names 13 Russian individuals and three entities from that country as defendants. The defendants include the Internet Research Agency, which has been described as an internet troll farm, and Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a Russian businessman known as "Putin's chef." And it marks the first time Russian nationals have been indicted for attempting to interfere in the election.

Related: Who is Richard Pinedo?

"The indictment alleges that the Russian conspirators want to promote discord in the United States and undermine public confidence in democracy," Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said at a press conference Friday. "We must not allow them to succeed."

The Internet Research Agency was formed in 2013 and had previously been under scrutiny for its alleged interference in the 2016 election and what the indictment calls its effort to conduct "information warfare against the United States of America."

Last January, the U.S. intelligence community cited the operation as part of a campaign ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin to influence the election against Clinton. Congressional committees investigating Russian meddling and possible coordination with the Trump campaign have also cited the operation, in particular its social media presence.

The company began its alleged interference as early as May 2014, saying it intended to "sprea[d] distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general," according to the court documents.

The perpetrators created "false U.S. media pages and groups designed to attract U.S. audiences" in order to "sow discord in the U.S. political system," the court papers claim. Also, the fraud was allegedly designed to help two candidates in particular—Bernie Sanders and Trump—while seeking to hurt Clinton, the leading Democratic candidate, and Republicans Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.

"Specialists were instructed to post content that focused on 'politics in the USA' and to 'use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump—we support them),'" the documents read.

"It is imperative to intensify criticizing Hillary Clinton," one of the hackers was told, according to the indictment.

Following the unsealing of the indictment, Sanders said in a tweet, "It has been clear to everyone (except Donald Trump) that Russia was deeply involved in the 2016 election and intends to be involved in 2018. It is the American people who should be deciding the political future of our country, not Mr. Putin and the Russian oligarchs."

The indictment states that the defendants posed as American activists to attract American followers and influence the election. The effort allegedly included buying political advertising on social media, staging political rallies and stealing the identities of real Americans, according to the indictment. Some of the operatives also allegedly traveled to the U.S. without registering as foreign agents, after obtaining visas through false and fraudulent statements.

The defendants Concord Management and Consulting LLC and Concord Catering funded the Internet Research Agency, obscuring the payments as being related to software support and development, and distributed the money through more than a dozen bank accounts of affiliates, prosecutors said.

The defendants include high-ranking employees at the Internet Research Agency, at least two of whom allegedly bought cameras, SIM cards and drop phones, and discussed evacuation plans from the U.S., presumably if their activities were discovered. To obtain travel visas, they lied and said their trips were for personal reasons and did not say they worked for the Internet Research Agency, according to the indictment.

Those two defendants visited at least nine states as part of an effort that "staged political rallies inside the United States...while posing as U.S. grassroots entities and U.S. persons," the documents add. A co-conspirator allegedly visited a 10th state.

Prigozhin, known as "Putin's chef," told the state-affiliated Russian outlet RIA Novosti on Friday in response to the allegations, "Americans are very impressionable people, they see what they want to see. I have great respect for them. I'm not at all upset that I'm on this list. If they want to see the devil—let them see one."

The people and entities in the indictment are the first foreign defendants named in the special counsel's investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. In a tweet on Friday afternoon, Trump reiterated a denial he has previously made about coordination between his campaign and the Russians.

"Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for President," he wrote. "The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong - no collusion!"

Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for President. The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong - no collusion!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 16, 2018

The White House added in a statement Friday afternoon, "President Donald J. Trump has been fully briefed on this matter and is glad to see the special counsel's investigation further indicates that there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia and that the outcome of the election was not changed or affected."

The statement continued, "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. We must unite as Americans to protect the integrity of our democracy and our elections."

Earlier Friday, Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein had noted the gravity of the indictments to reporters, but hastened to add that the court papers don't name any Americans, whether inside or outside the Trump campaign.

"There is no allegation in this indictment that any American was a knowing participant in this illegal activity," Rosenstein said, though some on social media pointed out that he was clearly talking only about this document.

Indeed, in other news on Friday, Mueller's team unsealed a guilty plea from Richard Pinedo, who admitted to buying and selling bank account numbers using stolen U.S. identities. The timing of that plea deal may connect it to the indictment of the Russians, who used fake bank accounts to hide the movement of money in their alleged election meddling.

Mueller's team has previously announced charges against Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, George Papadopoulos and Michael Flynn, all of whom were involved in the Trump campaign. Papadopoulos and Flynn have since pleaded guilty to lying to federal agents about their contacts with foreign nationals.

"With this indictment, the special counsel and his team have taken an important step to hold Russia accountable," Senator Mark Warner, the Democratic vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said in a statement.

Representative Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said in a statement, "Although the Obama administration failed to act on the committee's warnings, it's gratifying to see that Russian agents involved in these operations have now been identified and indicted."

The Democratic ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, Representative Adam Schiff, said in a statement, "The indictment reaffirms what our intelligence community concluded, what our committee's investigation has borne out, and what President Trump denies: that Russia interfered in our election in an effort to assist his presidential campaign and harm Hillary Clinton's campaign."

But, Schiff added, "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."

This article has been updated to include more information from the indictment and with comments by President Donald Trump, the White House, Yevgeniy Prigozhin and members of Congress. Read the full indictment below.​