WASHINGTON -- A U.S. grand jury has indicted 13 Russians and three Russian companies, including one known informally as the "Troll Factory," for meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, and on charges including bank fraud, conspiracy, and identity theft.
The charges, announced February 16 by the Special Counsel Robert Mueller, are the most significant criminal allegations to emerge to date from Mueller's deepening probe of Russian activities in the United States.
In the court document released by Mueller's office, the jury said that the Russian entities began interfering in U.S. political processes as early as 2014.
The 37-page indictment said some of those charged posed as "U.S. persons" who then communicated with individuals associated with President Donald Trump's election campaign. It said those individuals were "unwitting" in their communications with the Russians.
In comments to reporters after the indictment’s release, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said that there was no indication that the Russian meddling affected the outcome of the 2016 presidential race.
"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,” Rosenstein said.
Trump, who has downplayed the ongoing criminal and congressional investigations as well as mounting evidence about Russian interference, said the indictment, and Rosenstein's remarks, were further vindication.
"Russia started their anti-U.S. 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!" he wrote in a post to Twitter.
Later, Trump called on Americans to unite against efforts to divide the country by "bad actors, like Russia."
"It is more important than ever before to come together as Americans. We cannot allow those seeking to sow confusion, discord, and rancor to be successful. 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," Trump said in a statement.
A leading Democrat in Congress said the detailed allegations in the indictment should prompt Trump to admit that the investigation into Russian interference in the election was not a "hoax" created by Democrats, as Trump repeatedly claimed.
"Russia’s aggressive effort to interfere in [the] presidential election amounts to an act of war." said Senator Ben Cardin, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"It is time for Mr. Trump to muster all the tools available to seek justice on behalf of the American people and protect our nation from ongoing attacks on our electoral and social systems," he said.
In Moscow, a Kremlin spokesman told news agencies that he was “not familiar” with the indictment yet. The spokeswoman for Russia's Foreign Ministry posted a caustic response on her Facebook page.
"Thirteen people meddled in the U.S. election?! 13 against billion dollar budgets? Against intelligence and counterintelligence, against the latest methods and technology? Isn't that absurd? Yes, but it's the contemporary American political reality," Maria Zakharova wrote.
The main entity targeted is known as the Internet Research Agency, which the indictment said “had a strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election. 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 organization gained its name as a “troll factory” from its efforts, documented by Russian and Western journalists, to post misleading or confusing information in blogs, chat rooms, and on news sites’ reader comment pages.
Based in St. Petersburg, the company is widely believed to be financed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a man known as the "chef" to President Vladimir Putin for his catering contracts with the Kremlin.
Prigozhin, who was named in the indictment, was previously hit with financial sanctions by the U.S. Treasury Department for his alleged actions in supporting separatists in eastern Ukraine. He has also been linked to a private military company that sent Russian mercenaries to fight in Syria. Some of those mercenaries are believed to have been killed by U.S. air strikes last week.
In comments to the RIA Novosti news agency, Prigozhin rejected the allegations.
"Americans are very emotional. They see what they want to see. If they want to see the devil, let them see the devil,” he was quoted as saying.
The charges announced included conspiracy, bank fraud, identity theft, and failure to register as a foreign agent under U.S. law.
Mueller’s team of investigators and prosecutors is conducting a far-reaching criminal investigation into Russian meddling, as well as interactions between associates of Trump and Russian officials. His office has handed down two previous indictments, including for Trump’s former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and has resulted in two guilty pleas, including one by Trump’s first national security adviser, Mike Flynn.
In a related matter on February 16, Mueller's office also released an announcement that a California man had pleaded guilty to identity fraud, stealing identities to create bank account numbers. The bank accounts were allegedly used to launder money, the counsel's office said.
The issue of Russia’s interference had been gradually building in 2016, but it wasn’t until January 2017 that the U.S. intelligence community released a pointed assessment, formally laying out the accusations against Moscow.
With Mueller’s team making progress, and three congressional investigations looking into similar issues, some experts had been predicting that Russia might scale back its efforts to influence the political system in the United States and in some European nations.
However, earlier this week, the heads of several major U.S. intelligence agencies, including the FBI, the CIA, and the NSA, testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee, saying that Russians efforts were continuing unabated.
"At a minimum, we expect Russia to continue using propaganda, social media, false-flag personas, sympathetic spokespeople, and other means of influence to try to exacerbate social and political fissures in the United States," said Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence, who serves as head of the 17-member U.S. intelligence community.