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Russians linked to U.S. election interference indicted despite Trump calling probe a hoax

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced a sweeping federal indictment on Friday afternoon against "Russian conspirators," detailing a highly orchestrated campaign to interfere with the 2016 election by tarnishing Hillary Clinton and promoting Donald Trump. William Brangham reports and Judy Woodruff learns more from John Carlin, a former assistant attorney general.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A major addition tonight to the Russia file. It is a sweeping federal indictment that names individual Russians and several companies, and details a highly orchestrated campaign to interfere with the U.S. election in 2016.

    Deputy U.S. Attorney General Rod Rosenstein laid out the particulars this afternoon.

    William Brangham begins our coverage.

  • Rod Rosenstein:

    The indictment charges 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies for committing federal crimes while seeking to interfere in the United States political system, including the 2016 presidential election.

  • William Brangham:

    The deputy attorney general laid out a detailed indictment from the office of special counsel Robert Mueller, alleging a complex campaign by Russians to interfere in the 2016 election.

    It was designed, he said, to sow chaos in the American political system, and specifically to tarnish Hillary Clinton and promote Donald Trump.

    Among the raft of charges, violating U.S. election laws, wire and bank fraud, and visa violations.

    Rosenstein, who is overseeing the special counsel probe, said the effort was run from this building in St. Petersburg, Russia. It's called the Internet Research Agency, and it houses a battalion of computer specialists and provocateurs.

    Today's indictment included numerous examples of just how micro-targeted the group's efforts were. By hiding their true identities, Russian activists created social media accounts that appeared to be operated by U.S. persons. They created thematic group pages on social media sites like Facebook and Instagram.

    They routinely deployed hashtags like #Trump2016 and #Hillaryforprison.

    The indictment cites an internal memo from the group urging its staffers to "use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest, except Sanders and Trump. We support them."

    Last spring, the "NewsHour"'s Nick Schifrin spoke with a former staffer from this same Russian organization. He told Schifrin about their simple, blunt-force approach to sowing discord online in American politics.

  • Marat Mindiyarov:

    Suddenly, you see a lot of comments at night, and they're all the same, yes? And it's exactly the people are doing their job. They have their topic. They have a time to do it. They write it, and you see it.

  • William Brangham:

    The man who allegedly funded this group was named in the indictment today. He is Yevgeny Prigozhin, dubbed Putin's chef for providing catering services to the Russian president.

    And it is Vladimir Putin whom U.S. intelligence agencies last year allege directed the overall election interference effort, which also included hacking the e-mail servers of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman.

    Today, Rosenstein said the Russians contacted — quote — "unwitting individuals associated with the Trump campaign and with other political activists to coordinate their activities."

    But, he added:

  • Rod Rosenstein:

    There's no allegation in this indictment that any American had any knowledge. And the nature of the scheme was the defendants took extraordinary steps to make it appear that they were ordinary American political activists.

  • President Donald Trump:

    It's a Democrat hoax that was brought up as an excuse for losing an election.

  • William Brangham:

    President Trump has made no secret of his disdain for the entire Russian investigation, which he claims is driven by Democrats who are upset with his election. He says claims of Russian meddling are a fraud. And he has repeatedly attacked all the officials and committees investigating whether Russia did meddle and whether his campaign was involved.

    After the indictment dropped today, the president tweeted: "Russia started their anti-U.S. campaign 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."

    As for the president's labeling the entire Russia election narrative a hoax, his director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, appearing on Tuesday, along with counterparts from the CIA, NSA, FBI and other agencies, was emphatic about Russia's past actions and their future plans.

  • Dan Coats:

    There should be no doubt that Russia perceived that its past efforts as successful, and views the 2018 U.S. midterm elections as a potential target for Russian influence operations.

  • William Brangham:

    There was no word from Rosenstein on when, or even whether, the indicted Russians will be brought to the United States for trial.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham in Washington, D.C.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Russian officials said today that the charges are — quote — "absurd."

    With us now to discuss the current threat and what today's indictment tells us about the special counsel investigation is John Carlin. He served as assistant attorney general for national security from 2014 until late 2016. While in office, he oversaw terrorism and cyber-security investigations. He is now a lawyer in private practice.

    John Carlin, welcome back to the program.

    So, we know this is an indictment. It is not a finding of guilt, but how strong a case is the special counsel making here that the Russians systematically tried to interfere in the elections?

  • John Carlin:

    These are extraordinarily detailed allegations in this indictment.

    And I should say, under Justice Department guidelines, you can't bring an indictment unless you believe that you can convince a jury beyond a reasonable doubt of the guilt of each and every one of these defendants.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, they are Russian individuals. They are not in the United States, so the idea they are going to be brought to justice is, what, pretty slim.

  • John Carlin:

    It seems unlikely that Putin's Russia is going to turn them over if the United States makes a request.

    But dating back to when we indicted five members of the People's Liberation Army in China for their cyber-enabled activities, this has been a part of a strategy for the Justice Department, which is to make when you can incredibly clear with detail, so the American people and the world can see what these foreign actors tried to do to undermine the United States and others.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    John Carlin, we have been hearing a lot about this investigation for months and months. What do we learn here about the depth — the depths that they went to, to try to change the outcome of the election?

  • John Carlin:

    And that's why this is so extraordinarily important that people review this document, not just because what it shows about what they did in the past, which is it ranged from having an 80-person individual with a budget of over a million dollars a month doing things ranging from organizing actual — bringing operatives to the United States to organize little political rallies, to paid advertisements that were paid for people using false identities to undermine our election.

    It not only shows what they did in the 2016 election but consistent with what we heard from all of this administration's top intelligence officials earlier this week when they testified before the Senate, it also shows they're going to do it again in 2018, unless we urgently take action to prevent it.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we also heard them say that there's no U.S. person who knowingly was participating in this. And, of course, the White House and the president are pointing to that and saying the president said, no proof of any collusion with my campaign.

  • John Carlin:

    Well, two things.

    One is, as they should, as prosecutors and career professionals, they limit it to what are the allegations in this particular indictment.

    But let's focus on this indictment for a day. I would hope that our commander in chief and that members of both parties would look at this and say, it is up unacceptable for Putin's Russia, who hates democracy, to try to undermine our elections in this manner, and, number one, there will be consequences that are paid, and we are going to take action, as the United States and with our allies. And, number two, we are going to immediately take steps to prevent this from occurring again.

    And I hope to hear that in the future.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Is there anything in here, John Carlin, that tells you whether we are halfway through the investigation into Russian interference, most of the way through? Can you tell from reading this document?

  • John Carlin:

    Well, this — it's an extraordinarily broad campaign that was conducted to undermine our election.

    So, it's ranged — when you look at the other charges, Judy, we have already had individuals who worked on the campaign as national security advisers plead guilty to contacts — to lying about contacts with Russian agents. You have a former campaign manager — and these are allegations — he's facing trial for having hidden the fact he was taking millions of dollars from Putin's interests.

    Now you have this vast apparatus that was set up to do things ranging from propaganda to human operatives inside the United States to organize fake political campaigns. So, I don't know that we can say — we need to take it one step at a time.

    I'm sure one thing we have learned is that these investigators are dedicated to finding the facts, to showing what they can show under the law, as they're required to do, and to protecting us ultimately from this type of foreign interference.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just quickly, we heard the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, say there is no statement here that this changed the outcome of the election. But it seems that is still to be determined, isn't it?

  • John Carlin:

    And I don't — one thing I don't I think you will see, unless it involves a change in a ballot, career intel analysts, prosecutors, if it's a propaganda type campaign with fake political rallies and the like, they are going to leave that to other experts to make the historical judgment whether it changed the actual outcome of the election.

    That's not what national security professionals are good at. What they have done today is given the facts, so that others can make that assessment.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All right. Well, John Carlin, we're going to ask you to stay with us.

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