Politics

Revealing Tales from the Election Interference Indictment

Russian operatives allegedly kept an internal list of more than 100 real Americans, their political views and activities that they had been asked to perform by the Russians pretending to be grassroots political organizers.

The Justice Department used an indictment Friday to tell the story of some of those requests and the social media campaigns that the Russian operatives put together, enabling them to grow hundreds of thousands of online followers.

Watch: Intelligence Officials Aware of Russian Activity Aimed at 2018 Elections

Those details — as wild as payments to Americans to build a fake prison to hold a Hillary Clinton impersonator during a campaign rally — paint a picture of how Russians used Americans to “sow discord in the U.S. political system.”

Here are five of the most revealing tales from the indictment:

The Russian operatives communicated with three Trump campaign officials involved in the Republican’s Florida offices, but the indictment does not name those campaign officials and offers few details about the interactions.

In August 2016, the real Florida for Trump Facebook page told the false persona account of “Matt Skiber” to send an email to the domain donaldtrump.com — and the Russian operatives responded the same day.

“Let us introduce ourselves first,” wrote another persona, using the fake email address joshmilton024@gmail.com. “‘Being Patriotic’is a grassroots conservative online movement trying to unite people offline. . . . [W]e gained a huge lot of followers and decided to somehow help Mr. Trump get elected. You know, simple yelling on the Internet is not enough. There should be real action. We organized rallies in New York before. Now we’re focusing on purple states such as Florida.”

The next day, a Russian-controlled Twitter account, “March for Trump,” sent an email to Campaign Official 2 at a donaldtrump.com email account.

And the day after that, the real Florida for Trump Facebook account sent another message to the Russia-controlled “Matt Skiber” account, which then contacted Campaign Official 3 via Facebook.

Justice Department officials say the campaign officials did not know they were communicating with Russian-controlled social media accounts.

The indictment lists a Russian-backed Twitter account called Tennessee GOP, which used a Twitter handle called “@Ten_GOP,” claimed to be controlled by the Tennessee Republican Party and that garnered 100,000 online followers.

Twitter has deleted the account, first created in November 2015. But internet archives show it was active and filled with divisive pro-Trump, anti-Clinton rhetoric and urged Americans to spread the word.

“Every time you RT this pic it will notify @HillaryClinton and she will see the face of #Benghazi victim’s mom Patricia Smith,” the Russian-backed account tweeted in September 2016. “Make it viral!” It was retweeted more than 4,600 times.

“Just a reminder: Obama wants our children to be converted to Islam! Hillary will continue his mission! #ObamaTownHall,” another tweet states. That message was retweeted 275 times.

On May 9 last year, the day after Trump fired James B. Comey as FBI director, the Russian-controlled Twitter account had a bit of fun and used Trump’s signature line from his reality television show, “The Apprentice.”

“Comey last month: ‘You’re stuck with me for about another 6 and a half years . . . ’ Pres. Trump today: ‘You’re fired.’, ” the tweet said.

That got 799 retweets.

At many campaign rallies for Trump, crowds chanted “Lock her up” — a reference to the FBI investigation into Clinton's mishandling of classified information as secretary of State — and the Russian operatives sought to capitalize.

And apparently some unwitting Americans got paid by Russians to play along.

In August 2016, the Russian-controlled “Matt Skiber” Facebook account recruited a real person in the United States to acquire signs and a costume for an actress depicting Clinton in a prison uniform, the indictment states.

A week later, the Russian operatives sent money to another real American who had been recruited by a false persona “to build a cage large enough to hold an actress depicting Clinton in a prison uniform.”

In September 2016, the Russian operatives contacted the real U.S. person who had impersonated Clinton at a rally in West Palm Beach and sent her money “as an inducement to travel from Florida to New York and to dress in costume at another rally they organized.”

In May 2016, the Russian operatives arranged for a real U.S. person to stand in front of the White House in Washington under false pretenses to hold a sign that read “Happy 55th Birthday Dear Boss.”

According to The New York Times, that was apparently was a reference to one of the persons named in the indictment, Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin. The indictment states he had operated and funded Russian companies involved in the influence campaigns.

In September 2017, when Facebook and Twitter began publicly identifying Russian ads, accounts and messages on their platforms, the Russian operators began destroying evidence, according to the Justice Department.

One of the defendants named in the case, Irina Viktorovna Kaverzina, wrote in a Sept. 13, 2017, email to a family member: “We had a slight crisis here at work: the FBI busted our activity (not a joke). So I got preoccupied with covering tracks with colleagues,” the indictment said, citing the message.

The operative went on to say, “I created all these pictures and posts, and the Americans believed that it was written by their people.”

Kate Ackley contributed to this report.

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Welcome to At the Races! You can keep track of House and Senate races with this weekly newsletter. Sign up here. We want to hear what you think. Email us with your questions, tips or candidate sightings. — Simone Pathé and Bridget Bowman

This week … Democrats fretted about primaries, Republicans were rethinking running for Senate, and some candidates got personal in ads.

Primary Predicament: Democrats in California are increasingly concerned that their funky primary system could squander their chances of flipping GOP seats in November. With the jungle primary, the top two vote getters in the primary advance to the general, regardless of party. So some Democrats, especially members of Congress, are concerned that crowded Democratic fields could split the vote, causing two Republicans to move on to the general election. So what are they doing about this? Check it out here.

*Bookmark* Are these GOP California seats in play? Check out their race ratings in Roll Call’s Election Guide, with ratings from Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales.

Don’t Call It a Comeback (Yet): This week two Republicans who had ruled out Senate bids signaled they might be willing to reconsider. GOP Sen. Bob Corker said he was “listening” to those who were encouraging him not to retire after all. The Tennessee Republican has had an on-again, off-again relationship with President Trump. Corker’s spokeswoman said people had reached out to Corker with “concerns about the outcome of this election because they believe it could determine control of the Senate and the future of our agenda.” (CC: GOP Rep. Marsha Blackburn, who had announced a Senate run after Corker said he was retiring. Blackburn’s campaign blasted anyone who doubted her general election viability as a “sexist peg.”)

Concern about holding onto the Senate has also caused some Republicans to push North Dakota GOP Rep. Kevin Cramer to reconsider his decision to run against Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp. Cramer confirmed Tuesday that he was rethinking his decision, out of respect for people in D.C. and back home who were pushing him to run, and said he was the only candidate who could take on Heitkamp. Cramer has created a Facebook event for his “Senate announcement and rally” on Friday. A GOP strategist confirmed Thursday that Cramer is running for Senate.

Opening Up: Sexual assault has rocked Congress. And now congressional candidates are opening up about their own experiences in TV and digital ads. Sol Flores, an underdog in the Democratic primary for Illinois’ 4th District, shared her childhood story of abuse — and what she did about it — in a video released this week. But she’s not the first candidate to share her story. Florida Democrat Mary Barzee Flores (no relation) talked about being assaulted by a boss in a digital ad her campaign released last fall.

Watch these women’s ads and learn more about their races in this two-minute video.

She’s Back At It: Martha McKenna is returning to the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee as executive director of its independent expenditure arm. She was the first woman to head a Senate campaign committee’s IE program in 2012, and she held the job again for the 2014 cycle. The EMILY’s List veteran helped elect many of the Democratic women she’ll be charged with helping defend this year. Read much more about McKenna in this 2012 profile from Nathan Gonzales, and learn more about her deep roots in Baltimore in this 2015 Kyle Trygstad piece from our archives.

So You Want to Run for Congress? If you’re running a good campaign (or trying to), you’ll come into the Roll Call offices to sit down with the Inside Elections team to discuss your candidacy. Scared? Nervous? Don’t be. Or at least don’t act like it. We just want to meet you before your head is stuffed with talking points. In fact, Nathan’s here to help. Watch his new comedy sketch about what to expect when you get here.

The special election in Pennsylvania’s 18th District is 26 days away. Trump will travel to the district next week for a rally for the GOP candidate, state Rep. Rick Saccone. Outside Republican groups have spent several million dollars so far on television ads backing Saccone and attacking Democratic candidate Conor Lamb. The DCCC was briefly on air for Lamb, but Chairman Ben Ray Luján was noncommittal Wednesday about whether the committee would spend additional resources to help him.

The Case of the Mysterious PAC: Part 3. Nathan continues his investigation into who is really behind the Club for Conservatives PAC. His latest installment includes some answers, sibling sass and a bit about “people in their cubicles at other locations.”

Minnesota Republican Pete Stauber had the chance to try out for the U.S. Olympic hockey team several times. He never made the team, recalling vividly the moment the roster was posted and his name wasn’t on it. Now the former professional hockey player with the Detroit Red Wings operation is running for Congress. Republicans see him as one of their top recruits and think his chances have improved now that Minnesota’s 8th District is an open seat. Stauber’s brother, meanwhile, is in Pyeongchang coaching the U.S. women’s hockey team.

Democrats targeted Michigan’s 8th District in 2014 and 2016 but came up short. After landing “Little House on the Prairie” actress Melissa Gilbert last cycle, she dropped out. Macomb County assistant prosecutor Suzanna Shkreli got into the race in July of the on-year but ended up losing to GOP Rep. Mike Bishop by 17 points, while Trump carried the district by nearly 7 points.

This cycle, Democrats made Bishop an early target, and they’re excited about former Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense Elissa Slotkin’s chances. She outraised Bishop in the third and fourth quarters of 2017. She ended 2017 with $710,000 to Bishop’s $972,000. Inside Elections rates the race Leans Republican.

For next week, let us know which race you want to know more about: NM-02 or Maine Senate.

Talk to us. It’s easy. Email us at attheraces@cqrollcall.com and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can. As always, send us any race you think we should pay more attention to and we’ll look into it.

Senators, they’re just like us — also really into the Olympics! Colorado Sens. Cory Gardner (who chairs the NRSC when he’s not practicing curling) and Michael Bennet teamed up for their own Olympic event. More on that from Heard on the Hill.

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