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Thirteen Russian nationals have been indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of interfering in the 2016 presidential election — including supporting Donald Trump's campaign and "disparaging" Hillary Clinton, special counsel Robert Mueller announced Friday.
The indictments — part of Mueller's ongoing investigation — are the first tied directly to Russian meddling in the race for the White House.
"Some defendants, posing as U.S. persons and without revealing their Russian association, communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump Campaign and with other political activists to seek to coordinate political activities," the indictment says.
Some of those charged also "posted derogatory information" about candidates in the Republican primaries, including Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and supported Bernie Sanders and Trump. By the time of the general election, the Russians' efforts included "supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J. Trump and disparaging Hillary Clinton," the indictment says.
Trump, in responding to the indictment, tweeted that the interference efforts began before he announced his presidential bid and that his campaign "did nothing wrong." An official statement issued by the White House said the president was glad the investigation indicates there was "NO COLLUSION" between the campaign and Russia, but the indictments did not clear the campaign.
On Saturday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said he had "no response" to the news of the indictments.
"Until we see the facts everything else is just blabber," he told participants at the annual Munich Security Conference.
Russia has repeatedly denied any effort to influence the U.S. election.
At a news conference Friday, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said the defendants allegedly "conducted what they called 'Information Warfare' against the United States, with the stated goal of spreading distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general."
Rosenstein also said that "there is no allegation in this indictment that any American was a knowing participant in this illegal activity" or that the outcome of the 2016 election was affected. The statement appeared to leave open the possibility that further indictments may be coming against others.
Some defendants traveled to America to collect intelligence and to reach a significant "number of Americans for purposes of interfering with the U.S. political system, including the presidential election of 2016," the indictment says.
It charges all of the defendants and three Russian entities with conspiracy to defraud the U.S., three defendants with conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud, and five with aggravated identity theft. It is unlikely any of them will be prosecuted in the U.S.
A White House official told NBC News that Trump was briefed Friday morning about the indictments by Rosenstein.
John Dowd, the president's outside lawyer, lauded the indictments.
"Very happy for our country. Bob and his team did a great job," Dowd told NBC News, referring to Robert Mueller.
Trump has previously and repeatedly slammed Mueller's Russia probe as a Democratic "hoax" and a "witch hunt." He has also denied that Russia interfered in the election, and has rejected the assessment by U.S. intelligence agencies that Moscow meddled, calling it a "hit job" aimed to damage his ability to work with foreign leaders. At the same time, Trump has also taken Russian President Vladimir Putin at his word in denying any interference from Moscow.
Rosenstein said the indictment "is a reminder that people aren't always who they appear to be on the Internet."
He explained that the defendants allegedly purchased space on computer servers in the U.S. to set up a virtual private network and established hundreds of accounts on social media networks, such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, making it appear that the accounts were controlled by people in the U.S.
The defendants used those accounts to organize political rallies in the U.S. and to spread fake political ads that criticized Clinton.
In one instance, the defendants used social media to ask a person in the U.S. to build a cage on a flatbed truck and asked another person to wear a costume portraying Clinton in a prison uniform. The defendants paid the people in the U.S. for the requests, the indictment said.
At one point in September 2017, the indictment says, the defendants and co-conspirators tried to destroy evidence to cover their tracks.
One of them wrote to a family member, saying, "We had a slight crisis here at work: the FBI busted our activity (not a joke). So, I got preoccupied with covering tracks together with the colleagues."
Starting in June 2016, the "defendants and their co-conspirators organized and coordinated political rallies in the United States," the indictment says. The defendants hid the fact that they were based in Russia by "pretending" to be U.S. grass-roots activists who were "unable to meet or participate in person."
Then, in July 2016, the defendants used a Facebook group called "Being Patriotic," a Twitter account with the handle "@March_for_Trump," to organize a series of coordinated rallies in Florida, the indictment alleged.
"The rallies were collectively referred to as 'Florida Goes Trump' and held on August 20, 2016,” the indictment says.
Other accounts created by the defendants featured fake anti-Clinton political ads.
According to the indictment, an excerpt from one political ad on social from April 2016 read, "You know, a great number of black people support us saying that #HillaryClintonIsNotMyPresident."
An excerpts from another, from October 2016, read, "Hillary is a Satan, and her crimes and lies had proved just how evil she is."
According to the indictment, the defendants also opened financial accounts under false names at U.S. banks and financial institutions to send and receive money to supports its efforts.
To open accounts at banks and with PayPal, the defendants obtained social security numbers, home addresses and birth dates of real U.S. persons, the indictment charged. They purchased other credit card and bank account numbers and fake U.S. driver’s licenses from online sellers to evade security measures at PayPal and maintain their accounts.
Mueller’s team, in a separate, announcement, said that a California man, Richard Pinedo, had pleaded guilty this month to selling bank account and other stolen identify information to the Russian defendants accused of interfering in the election.
Pinedo's attorney, Jeremy Lessem, said in a statement Friday that Pinedo "had absolutely no knowledge of the identities and motivations of any of the purchasers" and acknowledged he made a mistake.
"Through an online website, Mr. Pinedo sold bank information which allowed individuals to fraudulently verify and establish accounts with online financial institutions. Doing so was a mistake, and Mr. Pinedo has accepted full responsibility for his actions," Lessem said in the statement.