RUSSIANS ARRESTED: Russian scheme to help Trump exposed
THE US government has charged 13 Russians and three Russian companies over a sophisticated, multimillion-dollar operation designed to sway the 2016 US election in Donald Trump's favour.
According to a 37-page indictment lodged overnight, the 13 Russian nationals were members of St Petersburg-based company Internet Research Agency LLC, which was engaged in a campaign of "information warfare" to help Mr Trump win the presidency and to disparage his rival, Hillary Clinton.
There is no suggestion in the indictment, however, that anyone in the Trump campaign knowingly took part in the Russian conspiracy or that it actually affected the election's outcome.
"From in or around 2014 to the present, [the] defendants knowingly and intentionally conspired with each other … to defraud the United States by impairing, obstructing and defeating the lawful functions of the government through fraud and deceit for the purpose of interfering with the US political and electoral processes, including the presidential election of 2016," the indictment reads.
The organisation had a "strategic goal to sow discord in the US political system".
"Defendants posted derogatory information about a number of candidates and, by early- to mid-2016, [the] defendants' operations included supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J Trump and disparaging Hillary Clinton," the court document states.
The accused Russians posed as American citizens, bought political advertisements on social media either supporting Mr Trump or opposing Mrs Clinton, pretended to be grassroots activists and staged "March for Trump" and "Down with Hillary" political rallies on US soil to "spread distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general".
The conspiracy - codenamed "Project Lakhta" - had a budget of $US1.25 million per month during the height of the campaign.
The detailed indictment, signed by special counsel Robert Mueller, undermines Mr Trump's argument that claims of Russian meddling in the US election are a "hoax" designed to justify Mrs Clinton's loss.
The Russian conspiracy, which employed hundreds of people, was funded by Yefgeniy Vikorovich Prigozhin and companies he controlled.
Internet Research Agency LLC was so sophisticated that it had separate departments for graphics, search engine optimisation, information technology and finance.
The defendants bought space on computer servers in the US and operated via a virtual private network in order to hide their Russian roots.
"The defendants allegedly used that infrastructure to establish hundreds of accounts on social media networks such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter making it appear that those accounts were controlled by persons located in the United States," US deputy attorney-general Rod Rosenstein said in a press conference overnight.
"They used stolen or fictitious American identities, fraudulent bank accounts and false identification documents.
"The defendants posed as politically and socially active Americans advocating for and against particular candidates.
"They established social media pages and groups to communicate with unwitting Americans."
By 2016, the project was focused on the US election.
"They engaged in operations primarily intended to communicate derogatory information about Hillary Clinton, to denigrate other candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump," the indictment states.
The operation's employees were instructed to "use any opportunity to criticise Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump - we support them)".
The operation appeared designed to manipulate disgruntled voters across the political spectrum, and in doing so it created Facebook and Instagram pages on topics as diverse as immigration ("Secured Borders") #BlackLivesMatter ("Blacktivist") and religion ("United Muslims of America" and "Army of Jesus"). Their pages attracted hundreds of thousands of followers.
The conspiracy also used its fake online personas to encourage Americans not to vote. For example, it told its followers on the organisation-controlled Instagram account "Woke Blacks" in 2016: "[A] particular hype and hatred for Trump is misleading the people and forcing Blacks to vote for Killary (sic). We cannot resort to the lesser of two devils. Then we'd surely be better off without voting AT ALL."
Operatives also encouraged pro-Trump demonstrations in battleground states, such as Florida.
However, the Russian operation wasn't as straightforward as simply supporting Mr Trump. Mr Rosenstein said the conspiracy was designed to "promote discord in the United States and undermine public confidence in democracy".
One way the accused did this was by simultaneously staging rallies for and against Mr Trump after he was elected.
"For example, the defendants organised one rally to support the president-elect and another to oppose him, both in New York on the same day," he said.
Before Mr Trump was elected, some of the defendants, who were posing as Americans, communicated with "unwitting" members of the Trump campaign to "co-ordinate political activities", the indictment alleges.
"There is no allegation in this indictment that any American was a knowing participant in this illegal activity," Mr Rosenstein said.
"The nature of the scheme was that the defendants took extraordinary steps to make it appear that they were ordinary political activists."
Mr Rosenstein added that there was no allegation in the indictment that the conspiracy altered the outcome of the election.
Mr Trump tweeted Friday afternoon that "the Trump campaign did nothing wrong".
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
In a later statement, White House spokeswoman Sarah Huckabee Sanders also pointed out the Russian campaign began in 2014, before Mr Trump had declared his candidacy.
"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," she said.
In the White House statement, Mr Trump said: "It is more important than ever before to come together as Americans.
"We cannot allow those seeking to sow confusion, discord, and rancour 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, 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."
The US government will now seek to extradite the 13 accused Russians to face charges that include conspiracy to defraud the US, conspiracy to commit wire and bank fraud, and aggravated identity theft.