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 Russian organization was funded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, the indictment says. He is a wealthy St. Petersburg businessman with ties to the Russian government and President Vladimir Putin.
Trump quickly claimed vindication Friday, noting in a tweet that the alleged interference efforts began 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 tweeted.
But the indictment does not resolve the collusion question at the heart of the continuing Mueller probe, which before Friday had produced charges against four Trump associates. U.S. intelligence agencies have previously said the Russian government interfered to benefit Trump, including by orchestrating the hacking of Democratic emails, and Mueller has been assessing whether the campaign coordinated with the Kremlin.
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.
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.
The Russian group's strategy included purchasing internet advertisements in the names of Americans whose identities it had stolen, staging political rallies while posing as American political activists and paying people in the U.S. to promote or disparage candidates.
"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."
The surreptitious campaign was organized by the Internet Research Agency, a notorious Russian troll farm that the indictment says sought to conduct "information warfare against the United States of America."
The company, among three Russian entities named in the indictment, had a multimillion-dollar budget and hundreds of workers divided by specialties and assigned to day and night shifts. According to the indictment, the company was funded by companies controlled by Prigozhin, the wealthy Russian who has been dubbed "Putin's chef" because his restaurants and catering businesses have hosted the Kremlin leader's dinners with foreign dignitaries.
Prigozhin said Friday he was not upset by the indictment.
"Americans are very impressionable people," he was quoted as saying by Russia's state news agency. They "see what they want to see."
The election-meddling organization, looking to conceal its Russian roots, purchased space on computer servers within the U.S., used email accounts from U.S. internet service providers and took control of social media pages on divisive issues such as immigration, religion and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Starting in April 2016, the indictment says, the Russian agency bought political ads on social media supporting Trump and opposing Clinton without reporting expenditures to the Federal Election Commission or registering as foreign agents. Among the ads: "JOIN our #HillaryClintonForPrison2016" and "Donald wants to defeat terrorism ... Hillary wants to sponsor it."
The indictment details contacts targeting three unnamed officials in the Trump campaign's Florida operation. In each instance, the Russians used false U.S. personas to contact the officials. The indictment doesn't say if any of them responded.
Two of the defendants traveled to the U.S. in June 2014 to gather intelligence on social media sites and identify targets for their operations, the indictment alleges. Following the trip, the group collected further intelligence by contacting U.S. political and social media activists while posing as U.S. citizens. They were guided by one contact to target "purple states like Colorado, Virginia and Florida," prosecutors say.
"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."
Cruz and Rubio ran against Trump in the Republican primary; Sanders opposed Clinton in the Democratic primary.
According to one internal communication described by prosecutors, the specialists were instructed to "use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump_we support them)." And according to one internal review, a specialist was criticized for having a low number of posts criticizing Clinton. The person was told "it is imperative to intensify criticizing Hillary Clinton" in future posts.
The indictment also asserts that the posts encouraged minority groups not to vote or to vote for third parties and alleged Democratic voter fraud.
Ahead of a Florida rally, the Russians paid one person to build a cage on a flatbed truck and another to wear a costume portraying Clinton in a prison uniform. But they also organized some rallies opposing Trump, including one in New York after the election called "Trump is NOT my president."
The Russians destroyed evidence of their activities as Mueller's investigation picked up, with one of those indicted sending an email in September 2017 to a family member that said the FBI had "busted" them so they were covering their tracks.
That person, Irina Viktorovna Kaverzina, wrote the family member: "I created all of these pictures and posts, and the Americans believed that it was written by their people."
A Gage County man was recognized for his service during the Korean War by the Gage County Board of Supervisors at a meeting Wednesday.
Walter Vitosh served in the United States Army in Korea from Sept. 10, 1952 until June 10, 1954. A lifelong resident of Gage County, Vitosh was honored with the county’s monthly program.
Vitosh served with B-Battery of the 92nd AFA Battalion. During his service, he received multiple awards, including the National Defense Service medal, the United Nations Service medal and the Korean Service medal, with one bronze service star.
“I'm really overwhelmed, what's happening to me,” Vitosh told the board. “Thinking that, with my age I am now, that this probably wouldn't have come about, but it has.”
Board Chairman Myron Dorn said that sometimes veterans say that they feel they might not deserve the honor, but that the board, the county and the country sincerely appreciate their service.
“It's one of the great honors that we have as a board that we get to honor some of our veterans,” Dorn said. “Because, without you and the service that all of you have done, we may not be here and may not be able to do what we're doing.”
Numerous members of Vitosh’s family were on hand for the honor, including two of his daughters.
Vitosh said he had a daughter while he was in Korea and wasn’t able to see her for nine months until he returned to the U.S.
“I got word from the Red Cross that I was a papa to a daughter,” he said.
A Beatrice man was arrested following a high-speed pursuit through Gage County on Thursday.
Zachary T. Bond, 25, appeared in Gage County District Court on Friday morning on a felony charge for operating a motor vehicle to avoid arrest. His bond was set at $250,000, due to pending cases of felony child abuse, terroristic threats and felony domestic assault in District Court, as well as a pending case for possession of a controlled substance.
At about 1:20 p.m. on Thursday, State Trooper Aaron Schoen was near Apple Road and South 25th, a county road near Cortland, when he saw a white car that did not stop at a stop sign.
Schoen said he tried to catch up to the vehicle. He clocked the car at more than 70 miles per hour, but it reached speeds of 87 miles per hour on the gravel road. When the white car reached Highway 41, it ran the stop sign and proceeded east at a high rate of speed, Schoen said.
The trooper attempted to stop the white Mitsubishi Lancer, but it did not slow down and topped out at 106 miles per hour on Highway 41, passing other vehicles along the way. The vehicle turned north on Highway 34B and continued at a high rate of speed.
The trooper saw three people in the car, two males in the front seat and a female passenger in the backseat.
The vehicle then went west on Apple Road for one mile, turned north on South 68th Road for a mile and then went east on Gage Road for another mile, Schoen said, all at a high rate of speed. Schoen followed the car as it went north on the 34B spur again and into Firth.
The Mitsubishi was traveling at approximately 50 miles per hour in Firth’s 20 mile per hour zone and ran another stop sign at Third and May streets, the trooper said.
The street came to a dead end and the driver proceeded to drive through yards and into an alley. The trooper reversed and went around the block to the other side of the alley, where the vehicle was seen stuck in a yard.
Both males were still in the vehicle and placed in restraints, but the female passenger fled on food.
A glass pipe was found in the center console during a search of the vehicle, Schoen said.
Bond was lodged in the Gage County Jail and charged with one felony count of operating a motor vehicle to avoid arrest and misdemeanor charges of willful reckless driving, careless driving and possession or use of drug paraphernalia.
His bond was set at $250,000, with a $25,000 deposit. Bond is due back in court in March.
According to an arrest warrant from June of 2017, Bond was charged with two counts of child abuse, terroristic threats and third-degree domestic assault, after allegedly having an “explosive” anger episode in which a 1-year-old in the residence started to cry. This allegedly made Bond even more angry, and he picked the child up and shook her repeatedly.
He then allegedly shoved the child into a woman’s arms and punched the child in the head with a closed fist before punching the woman in the head multiple times and taking her cell phone.
The woman told police that a couple of hours later, Bond got angry again, this time prompting a 3-year-old in the residence to cry. He allegedly began spanking the child, then threw him onto a futon bed. Bond allegedly grabbed a pillow and held it over the 3-year-old’s face.
The woman was able to stop the assault on the child, though Bond then struck her in the head multiple times, the warrant said.