A federal grand jury in Washington DC has indicted 13 Russian nationals and a Kremlin-linked internet firm on charges that they meddled in the 2016 US presidential election.
The US government said Russian entities began interfering in US political processes as early as 2014, according to a court document.
The Internet Research Agency allegedly served as a hub from which the defendants and other co-conspirators used social media to “sow discord in the US political system”. Some of the defendants, posing as US citizens, also communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump campaign and other political activists, the indictment said.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said the indictment is “a reminder that people are not always who they appear on the Internet. The indictment alleges that the Russian conspirators want to promote social discord in the United States and undermine public confidence in democracy. We must not allow them to succeed.”
Mr Rosenstein said there is no indication in the indictment that an American was knowingly involved in US election meddling. There is also no allegation that meddling affected the election outcome, he said.
The charges – which include conspiracy, wire fraud, bank fraud and aggravated identity theft – are the most direct allegations to date of illegal Russian meddling in the election.
They were brought by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election. His probe is also looking into whether members of Donald Trump’s campaign colluded with the Russian government. Mr Trump has denied there was any collusion.
President Trump has frequently cast doubt on Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, saying “this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story” by the Democrats to explain away Hillary Clinton’s loss.
In a statement, the White House said Mr Trump 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 US President again expressed the need for American unity.
“We cannot allow those seeking to sow confusion, discord, and rancour to be successful,” the statement said. “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.”
House Speaker Paul Ryan said in a statement that Mr Mueller’s indictment shows that Russians “engaged in a sinister and systematic attack on our political system”. The Democrat leader of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, called on Mr Trump to present a plan to confront the Russians.
The 37-page indictment lays out an elaborate effort by the Russians to encourage voters to support Mr Trump over his opponent, Hillary Clinton.
Posing as Americans, the defendants allegedly operated social media pages and groups that discussed divisive US political and social issues.
“Over time, these social media accounts became defendants’ means to reach significant numbers of Americans for purposes of interfering with the US political system,” the indictment said. “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 (”Trump Campaign”) and disparaging Hillary Clinton.”
The top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, one of the congressional panels also conducting a Russia probe, pledged to press social media companies “to be far more aggressive and proactive in responding to this threat”.
“While platforms like Facebook and Twitter are allowing Americans to communicate and share ideas in ways unimaginable just a decade ago, we’re also learning that we each bear some responsibility for exercising good judgment and a healthy amount of scepticism when it comes to the things we read and share on social media,” Senator Mark Warner said in a statement.
One of those indicted is a businessman with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Yevgeny Prigozhin is an entrepreneur from St Petersburg who has been called “Putin’s chef” by Russian media. His restaurants and catering businesses have hosted the Kremlin leader’s dinners with foreign dignitaries.
Mr Prigozhin said on Friday he was not upset about his indictment for alleged election meddling in the US, the RIA news agency reported.
“The Americans are very emotional people, they see what they want to see. I have great respect for them. I am not at all upset that I am on this list. If they want to see the devil, let them,” Prigozhin is quoted as saying.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told Reuters he was not yet familiar with the US indictments of Russian nationals. “We have not yet familiarised ourselves (with the indictments),” Mr Peskov told the news agency.
Before Friday, four people, including Mr Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn and former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, had been charged in Mr Mueller’s investigation. Mr Flynn pleaded guilty for lying to the FBI about his conversations with the Russian ambassador. Meanwhile, Mr Manafort has pleaded not guilty to all charges against him in the Russia probe.
Also on Friday, a California man pleaded guilty to identity fraud as part of Mr Mueller’s probe, according to court documents released on Friday.
Richard Pinedo pleaded guilty to buying and selling bank account numbers knowingly to circumvent online payment security systems between 2014 and 2017, the court filing said. The plea deal was separate from the indictment of the 13 Russians.
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