This Is What $1.25 Million Dollars a Month Bought the Russians

A birthday card! An all-American trip! Tweets! Stolen American identities!

Trump and Putin speak at an APEC meeting in Nov. 2017. (MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images)
Trump and Putin speak at an APEC meeting in Nov. 2017. (MIKHAIL KLIMENTYEV/AFP/Getty Images)

On Friday, the Department of Justice announced criminal charges against 13 Russians for interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Special counsel Robert Mueller accused the 13 — plus three Russian entities, including the infamous Internet Research Agency “troll farm” — of carrying out a wide-ranging disinformation campaign that involved stolen identities, fake social media accounts, and even a bizarre White House birthday subterfuge.

The operation, according to the indictment, was backed by Yevgeny Prigozhin, otherwise known as “the chef,” a Kremlin associate who once served caviar and truffles to former President George W. Bush — and dished out trouble to U.S. domestic politics. Prigozhin is accused of using his companies, including Concord Management and Consulting and Concord Catering, to fund the operation.

The endeavor, at one point, had a budget of $1.25 million a month, allowing it to pay hundreds of operatives to engage in a surreal campaign meant to interfere in American democracy that appears to have been financed in part through a catering company (one that reportedly treats workers poorly, at that).

What did these undercover operatives do with the money?

The special counsel alleges their operations were intended to meddle in U.S. elections, including the 2016 presidential election, and to disrupt people’s faith in politicians and their own institutions. In practice, that meant creating false U.S. personas to operate social media pages and groups. Some allegedly stole real Americans’ identities in order to create PayPal accounts, with which they paid for political advertisements with taglines such as, “You know, a great number of black people support us saying that #HillaryClintonIsNotMyPresident” and “Hillary is a Satan, and her crimes and lies have proved just how evil she is.”

They also created and managed social media accounts that were made to appear to be operated by real U.S. citizens. One, @TEN_GOP, was apparently retweeted by now-President Donald Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., as well as White House counselor Kellyanne Conway and onetime deputy assistant Sebastian Gorka.

The account had over 100,000 followers.

After connecting with “a real U.S. person affiliated with a Texas-based grassroots organization,” the defendants and their co-conspirators learned that they should focus on “purple states like Colorado, Virginia, & Florida.” Defendants Aleksandra Krylova, Anna Bogacheva, and Maria Bovda applied for visas and said they were traveling for personal reasons (ostensibly because “I’m trying to meddle in U.S. elections and also sow discord and distrust” wouldn’t have gone over well at the U.S. Embassy).

Krylova and Bogacheva allegedly went to Nevada, California, New Mexico, Colorado, Illinois, Michigan, Louisiana, Texas, and New York to “gather intelligence.” Mueller said the defendants also “organized” rallies but, “to conceal the fact that they were based in Russia,” pretended to be activists who were simply unable to meet up in person.

Perhaps most inexplicably, in late May of 2016, the defendants allegedly arranged for a “real U.S. person” to stand outside the White House with a sign that read “Happy 55th Birthday Dear Boss,” but then let the person know that the sign was not for then-President Barack Obama, whose birthday is in August, but for “a leader here and our boss … our funder.”

The indictment seems to indicate they really meant Prigozhin, whose birthday is June 1 and who did indeed turn 55 that year.

Mueller stresses in the indictment that the defendants worked in conspiracy with people “known and unknown” to the grand jury, which could mean more indictments are coming. Among the areas Mueller’s team is investigating is whether anyone from the Trump campaign colluded with Russia in electoral interference.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), vice chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, expressed support for the indictments. “I’m glad to see that work [by the Senate intelligence committee] vindicated today by the Special Counsel’s indictment of the ‘Internet Research Agency,’ the Russian troll farm that was a key component of Russia’s attempts to interfere in the U.S. elections in 2016, and which continues to spew divisive and false content aimed at undermining the United States,” he said in a statement.

Trump seemed to disagree. “Russia started their anti-US 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!” the president tweeted. “Mark today as the day that the Democrats’ Russia-Trump collusion conspiracy theory unraveled!” GOP spokesperson Kayleigh McEnany trumpeted.

Not all Republican lawmakers appear to interpret the charges that way.  Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said in a statement that “Mueller just put Moscow on notice.”

“This ought to be a wakeup call to Washington: Putin’s shadow war is aimed at undermining Americans’ trust in our institutions,” he said.

Actually, the wake-up call could have been much sooner: Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta reported on the “troll farm” as early as 2013.

As for the chef, funder, and birthday boy — in response to the news of the indictment, he told Russian outlet RIA Novosti, “Americans are very impressionable people, they see what they want to see. I have great respect for them. I’m not at all upset that I’m on this list. If they want to see the devil — let them see one.”

Whether Americans see the devil or not, this is hardly the first time Prigozhin has caught the attention of U.S. authorities. The U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned him in December 2016 for providing support to Russia’s military occupation of Ukraine, and two of his companies were sanctioned by the Treasury Department. Including, yes, the catering business.

Emily Tamkin is the U.S. editor of the New Statesman and the author of The Influence of Soros, published July 2020. Twitter: @emilyctamkin

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