Alexander Malkevich stood outside the White House on Thursday, braving the 85-degree heat in a skintight long-sleeve shirt with Che Guevara’s face emblazoned on it. Thursday was flag day, as well as the birthdays of Malkevich, Che and President Donald Trump, and he was leading a very small political rally.
But this wasn’t one of the typical protests that crop up on Pennsylvania Avenue. Malkevich sits on Russia’s Civic Chamber commission on mass media, an official arm of President Vladimir Putin’s government. He was there to promote his new Russia-funded, English-language news site, USA Really. Wake Up Americans.
Like most of Russia’s efforts to manipulate U.S. politics, the website traffics in content on divisive issues such as promoting secessionist movements in the U.S. — the same kinds of activities that caused a furor when they were exposed as having influenced the 2016 presidential election.
Malkevich’s hopes of generating a similar furor now, two years later, seem to have degenerated into self-parody, however. Instead of actors with signs and musicians playing symphony music, as Malkevich had envisioned, he stood among tourists and “Free Tibet” protesters with only his business partner, Alex Dolgonos.
“It’s hot out here, but it’s much hotter in some of those rooms we’ve been kicked out of,” Malkevich said.
Russia’s information war has taken a variety of forms. The country backs some robust organizations like Russia Today and Sputnik, which resemble mainstream news organizations but have been recently forced to register as foreign agents with the Justice Department. There’s the well-known efforts to manipulate Facebook with fake news and political groups. There’s even a website that offers millennial-friendly news videos.
USA Really is the latest in these propaganda efforts — and maybe the most peculiar. The operation is small and does not seem to mind attention from U.S. media. It also didn’t try to obscure that its efforts included trying to pay actors to attend its rally.
Malkevich’s organization, at least thus far, highlights that not all of Russia’s operations are particularly well conceived. His organization has been turned away from venues at which he’d hoped to host events and rallies. His organization was removed from one venue where the group was set to hold a discussion on “how to stop fake news.”
Malkevich filed a permit application with the capital’s Office of Cable Television, Film, Music and Entertainment to rally in front of the White House lawn on Thursday. The permit called for actors to appear in front of the White House holding signs along with a group of up to seven musicians to “play symphony music in the background.”
“The general concept: public inquest against fake news and/or dishonest journalism; especially on the Flag Day,” the permit reads. “During filming, roughly 10-15 actors (holding signage marked 'real news vs. fake news') are staged in view of the White House, exchanging commentary and demanding that the media give the public the ‘truth.’ ”
The rally, however, never happened. Malkevich stood outside the White House at the time of the rally with Dolgonos, a Canadian businessman who applied for the permit and said he was providing Malkevich with legal help in launching his media operation. Around them, tourists snapped pictures, and some people waved American flags.
Malkevich told NBC News that the rally had been called off because he had been denied a permit to film. In a blog post earlier in the week, Malkevich claimed “the local police and special services, including the CIA, have been informed of the neighborhood with Russian journalists” and that the Metro police had “categorically denied” the permit.
A spokesman with the D.C. Metro police told NBC News that USA Really never applied for a permit, and suggested reaching out to the U.S. Parks Service, which also has jurisdiction over rallies outside the White House. The Parks Service did not respond to requests for comment.
USA Really has a variety of links to Russia. The domain name for USA Really was registered privately from a Russian address, and promoted by the Federal News Agency, which is allegedly owned by “Putin’s Chef,” restaurateur oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who was among 13 Russians indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller for their campaign to sow discord before the 2016 U.S. election. Since April, the jobs section of the Federal News Agency’s website has been recruiting English-speaking journalists for USA Really.
USA Really’s monthlong campaign in the U.S. has hit roadblocks in recent days, according to a statement of grievances from Malkevich posted on the Federal News Agency website. Facebook removed USA Really’s page, and according to Malkevich, Twitter has imposed restrictions on its account.
Malkevich repeatedly ignored or deflected questions about USA Really’s funding.
The new site appears to be a much lower-quality effort than content from past Russian propaganda social media ventures, some of which has been shared by advisers of President Trump and even his son Donald Trump Jr. in the days before the election.
Riddled with typos, USA Really’s stories often push divisive content about race and gay rights, like one lambasting the FBI’s Twitter account for recognizing LGBTQ Pride Month.
“Are there any congrats for the straights? No,” the post reads. Another post from the same week stokes outrage in a headline with mangled grammar. “A High School Teacher Was Fired After Forgot the Name of Transgender Student,” it reads.
Malkevich told NBC News that he’s working on his English and that he’s staffing up for bureaus in New York and Washington. He also said USA Really wouldn’t repeat troll farm tactics of impersonating Americans on social media, while denying knowing anyone involved in the embroiled Internet Research Agency,
“We want to do everything legal,” he said.
Malkevich said he was enjoying his time in Washington, despite being disappointed at what he called “Red Scare” books in places like the gift shop of the Spy Museum about a half-mile from the White House.
“I see all of these stories about how 10 Russian hackers changed the election. Where is CIA? Where is FBI? They can’t stop 10 Russian hackers?” he said.
Malkevich chatted amiably about his venture. But under the unrelenting heat, he grew agitated when asked about the Internet Research Agency.
“I like America, but I keep getting into problems with all of these officials,” Malkevich said. “And now all of these people asking about the Russian trolls.”