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DOJ announces criminal charges as Russian citizen accused of election interference

The first criminal charges alleging foreign interference in next month’s midterm elections have come to light. The Department of Justice has accused a Russian citizen of spreading distrust about American policies, candidates and debates while managing finances for a social media campaign. Judy Woodruff speaks to Nina Jankowicz, a global fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, for more.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    They are the first criminal charges alleging foreign meddling in next month's midterm elections.

    The U.S. Justice Department today disclosed the complaint against a Russian citizen. A woman there is accused of managing finances for a social media campaign to spread distrust about American policy debates and candidates.

    For more details on our top story, let's turn to Nina Jankowicz of The Wilson Center. It is a nonpartisan think tank here in Washington.

    Nina Jankowicz, welcome back to the program.

    So we have heard again and again the Russians interfered, succeeded in interfering in 2016. They're still at it. What's new in this complaint?

  • Nina Jankowicz:

    Well, I think what's new is that we have hard evidence now that they're interfering on all sides of the issue, all sides of the political spectrum. And I think that's really important for Americans to know going into the elections in two weeks, that this is not a partisan issue. It's an issue about attacking our democracy.

    And clearly the Justice Department wanted to put that out there before we go to the polls.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Because in a way this can be confusing. I mean, it was — we were told in 2016 with the Russians were up to, and the people who've been indicted so far by the special counsel, Robert Mueller, have been people who seem to be working on behalf of President Trump.

    But this has people, as you say, on all sides of some of these issues.

  • Nina Jankowicz:

    Yes, exactly. We have seen pro-Robert Mueller tweets and anti-Robert Mueller tweets. We have seen things that say voter fraud is a felony. We have also seen organization of rallies that the Russians have supported, where resistance folks would turn out in front of the White House for a flash mob on July 4.

    So these are on all sides of the political spectrum. And this is exactly the tactic that Russia has used time and time again, not only here in the United States, but across Eastern Europe.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And I want to look, I mean, just as an example, and I think we have a graphic of this, of voter fraud. This was a tweet about voter fraud. It's a felony. Hold them accountable. Fight, fight, fight, and then @realDonaldTrump, POTUS.

    Now, that is an argument one does hear from Republicans.

  • Nina Jankowicz:

    Absolutely.

    But it's — again, this desire to sow chaos and dismay is a time — tried and true Russian tactic. And the idea there is just to turn us inward, to get us to fight amongst each other so that we're less focused on what Russia is doing on the international stage.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    There's also interesting information in here, Nina Jankowicz, about the — about the financing of this. This woman appears to be an accountant in Russia.

  • Nina Jankowicz:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It doesn't appear they will ever be able to extradite her to the United States to face these charges.

  • Nina Jankowicz:

    Right.

    It's extremely interesting to know that, over three years, they spent at least $35 million advertising, on domains and proxies, on the payment of actual activists, again, which is a staggering statistic.

    And if you look at what, for instance, the Global Engagement Center, the center that's created to fight disinformation at the State Department, they had a budget of $60 million for a single year. That was hard for the State Department to even get their hands on. And that was for countering state propaganda worldwide.

    This was directed toward the United States, the E.U., Ukraine and, interestingly, also within the Russian Federation.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, as you mentioned, you mentioned that flash mob. People actually showed up for that. Right?

  • Nina Jankowicz:

    Absolutely.

    And this isn't the first time we have seen activists show up to Russian-organized or supported events like this. But I think it's important to know that this is — this is not just an abstract social media campaign. This is changing people's behavior and the discourse surrounding the election.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And you were telling me what you noted here is how much it says that the special counsel and his office now know about this.

  • Nina Jankowicz:

    Absolutely. Yes, yes.

    It's a staggering level of detail. I don't know what that means for the future. But I think it's an important issue for our democracy heading into the midterms. It's not a partisan issue. And I would hope that politicians on all sides of the aisle begin to understand that and advocate for solutions that are nonpartisan to it as well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Nina Jankowicz with The Wilson Center, we thank you.

  • Nina Jankowicz:

    Thanks for having me.

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