Updated 1:23 p.m. | The Justice Department’s special counsel announced Friday the indictments of a dozen Russian military officers involved in Moscow’s effort to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election. And a senior Democratic lawmaker reacted swiftly by accusing President Donald Trump of “dangerous distortions” about the operation.
The indictment accuses the Russians of being heavily involved in hacking computer networks of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign organization. The military officers allegedly broke into those systems — and others in the United States — to plant malicious software, steal emails and nab other documents. To conceal their efforts, Rosenstein said, the Russians used networks “around the world” and paid for that access with Cryptocurrency.
The indictment’s stunning allegations against Russian military officers and the GRU spy agency come a few days before President Donald Trump will meet face-to-face with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Finland — a summit Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer said the U.S. leader should promptly cancel.
The newly indicted Russian military officers communicated with two Americans during the 2016 election cycle, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said. But he noted the indictment does not allege those two Americans knew they were communicating with Russians, nor does it state any U.S. citizen committed a crime.
Watch: Rosenstein Announces Indictment of 12 Russian Officials
Rosenstein noted the indictment is not a signal the Russian operations changed the outcome of the election. Trump has been briefed on the indictments, he added.
Earlier Friday during a press conference overseas with his British counterpart, Trump vowed to press Putin about his government’s interference in the 2016 American election — though he appeared to leave open, as always, the possibility that he won’t.
“I will absolutely bring that up. I don’t think you’ll have any, ‘Gee, I didn’t, I didn’t, you got me,’” he told reporters. “I don’t think you’ll have any Perry Mason here. I don’t think. But you never know what happens. But I’ll very firmly ask the question.”
The deputy AG denied the indictment was released to coincide with the Putin-Trump summit. He said it was made public because Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller concluded he had sufficient evidence to take it to a federal grand jury.
Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, who was DNC chairwoman at the time of the hacking, issued a statement Friday that said the organization “was the first major target of the Russian attack on our democracy.”
The White House quickly tried to use the indictment to further its claims that the president’s 2016 campaign did not conspire with Russians.
“Today’s charges include no allegations of knowing involvement by anyone on the [Trump] campaign and no allegations that the alleged hacking affected the election result,” White House deputy press secretary Lindsay Walters said. “This is consistent with what we have been saying all along.”
The deputy AG moments earlier described the charges.
“Eleven of the defendants are charged with conspiring to hack into computers, steal documents, and release documents in an effort to interfere with the election,” Rosenstein said.
“One of those defendants and a 12th Russian officer are charged with conspiring to infiltrate computers of organizations responsible for administering elections, including state boards of election, secretaries of state, and companies that supply software and other technology used to administer elections,” he added.
With the indictments, Mueller sent another signal that the Kremlin was directly involved in the election interference operation. The White House has stopped short of saying whether it amounts to a hostile action, but it has ordered sanctions against some Russian spy entities and individuals with ties to Putin using previous special counsel indictments as justification even as the president will not criticize Putin publicly.
As previous Mueller indictments, this one singles out the Main Intelligence Directorate of the Russian General Staff, also known colloquially as the GRU.
“The units engaged in active cyber operations to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. One GRU unit worked to steal information, while another unit worked to disseminate stolen information,” Rosenstein said.
The military officers also were responsible for creating and maintaining the online personas “DCLeaks” and “Guccifer 2.0.” Both were used to release “thousands” of the stolen DNC and Clinton campaign emails, the deputy AG said.
Mueller also revealed in the document that between June 2016 and October 2016, an unnamed candidate for Congress requested information from the Russians, who turned it over via the “Guccifer” persona. That came after the group allegedly floated the documents to multiple unnamed people.
The officers also gave some of the materials to an unnamed — for now — organization and “discussed timing the release of the documents in an attempt to enhance the impact on the election,” he said.
Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats said Friday that Russian cyber entities are probably “one click away” from repeating the kind of interference in the upcoming elections as Moscow did in 2016.
“Russia is the most aggressive foreign actor” that continues to target American companies and agencies with cyber attacks, Coats said at a Hudson Institute event.
Gopal Ratnam contributed to this report.