Return to Transcripts main page

WOLF

Mueller Indicts 13 Russian Nationals for Election Meddling. Aired 1:30-2p ET

Aired February 16, 2018 - 13:30   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[13:30:00] JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT: In the wake of this horrible shooting in Florida, you've heard that argument again, making the argument that the FBI's been wasting its time on a hoax investigation into Russian interference when they should have been doing things to prevent shootings here in the U.S. Again, using every opportunity to attack those involved in the Russia investigation as somehow wasting their time, and to attack the investigation itself as a hoax. The president uses that phrasing repeatedly. Now here in a legal document, which, again, has to meet a much higher standard in terms of what you see there in intelligence assessment.

(CROSSTALK)

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: Pardon me, Jim.

Let's listen to the deputy A.G.

ROD ROSENSTEIN, DEPUTY ATORNEY GENERAL: -- an indictment presented by the Special Counsel's Office.

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.

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: According to the allegations in the indictment, 12 of the individual defendants worked, at various times, for a company called Internet Research Agency, LLC, a Russian company based in St. Petersburg.

The other individual defendant, Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin, funded the conspiracy through companies known as Concord Management and Consulting, LLC; Concord Catering; and many affiliates and subsidiaries. The conspiracy was part of a larger operation called Project Lakhta. Project Lakhta included multiple components, some involving domestic audiences within the Russian Federation, and others targeting foreign audiences in multiple countries.

Internet Research Agency allegedly operated through Russian shell companies. It employed hundreds of people in its online operations, ranging from creators of fictitious personas, to technical and administrative support personnel, with an annual budget of millions of dollars.

Internet Research Agency was a structured organization headed by a management group and arranged into departments, including graphics, search engine optimization, information technology and finance departments.

In 2014, the company established a translator project focused on the United States. In July of 2016, more than 80 employees were assigned to the translator project. Two of the defendants allegedly traveled to the United States in 2014 to collect intelligence for their American influence operations.

In order to hide the Russian origins of their activities, the departments allegedly purchased space on computer servers located here in the United States in order to set up a virtual private network. The defendants allegedly used that infrastructure to establish hundreds of accounts on social media networks such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, making it appear that those accounts were controlled by persons located in the United States.

They used stolen or fictitious American identities, fraudulent bank accounts and false identification documents. The defendants posed as politically and socially active Americans, advocating for and against particular candidates. They established social media pages and groups to communicate with unwitting Americans. They also purchased political advertisements on social media networks.

The Russians also recruited and paid real Americans to engage in political activities, promote political campaigns and stage political rallies. The defendants and their co-conspirators pretended to be grassroots activists. According to the indictment, the Americans did not know that they were communicating with Russians.

After the election, the defendants allegedly staged rallies to support the president-elect, while simultaneously staging rallies to protest his election. For example, the defendants organized one rally to support the president-elect and another rally to oppose him, both in New York, on the same day.

On September 13th of 2017, soon after the news media reported that the special counsel's office was investigating evidence that Russian operatives had used social media to interfere with the 2016 election, one defendant allegedly wrote, quote, "We had a slight crisis here at work. The FBI busted our activity. So I got preoccupied with covering tracks together with my colleagues," end quote.

ROSENSTEIN: The indictment includes eight criminal counts. Count one alleges a criminal conspiracy to defraud the United States by all of the defendants. The defendants allegedly conspired to defraud America by impairing the lawful functions of the Federal Election Commission, the United States Department of Justice and the Department of State.

Those organizations of the U.S. government are responsible for administering federal requirements for disclosure of foreign involvement in certain domestic activities.

Count two charges conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud by Internet Research Agency and two of the individual defendants. And counts three through eight charge aggravated identity theft by Internet Research Agency and four individuals.

Now, there is no allegation in this indictment that any American was a knowing participant in this illegal activity. There is no allegation in the indictment that the charged conduct altered the outcome of the 2016 election.

I want to caution you that everyone changed with a crime is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty in court. At trial, prosecutors must introduce credible evidence that is sufficient to prove each defendant guilty beyond any reasonable doubt to a unanimous jury. The special counsel's investigation is ongoing. There will be no comments from the special counsel at this time.

This indictment serves as a reminder that people are not always who they appear to be on the internet. The indictment alleges that the Russian conspirators want to promote discord in the United States and undermine public confidence in democracy. We must not allow them to succeed.

The Department of Justice will continue to work cooperatively with other law enforcement and intelligence agencies and with the Congress to defend our nation against similar current and future efforts.

I want to thank the federal agents and prosecutors who are working on this case for their exceptional service, and I'll be happy to take a few questions.

QUESTION: Mr. Rosenstein...

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: Jack, is there concern that this -- the (ph) indictment undermines the outcome of the election?

ROSENSTEIN: Well, haven't I (ph) identified for you the allegations in the indictment? There's no allegation in the indictment of any effect on the outcome of the election.

Jessica (ph).

QUESTION: On page 4 of the indictment, paragraph 6, it specifically talks about the Trump campaign, saying that defendants communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump campaign.

My question is, later in the indictment, campaign officials are referenced, not by their name; by "campaign official 1" or "2" or "3." Were campaign officials cooperative, or were they duped? What is their relationship with this?

ROSENSTEIN: Again, 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, even going so far as to base their activities on a virtual private network here in the United States so, if anybody traced it back to that first jump, they appeared to be Americans.

Catherine (ph)?

STAFF: We'll take one more question (ph).

QUESTION: Have you had any assurances from the Russians that they will provide these individuals for prosecution?

ROSENSTEIN: There's been no communication with the Russians about this. We'll follow the ordinary process of seeking cooperation and extradition.

(CROSSTALK)

ROSENSTEIN: Thank you very much.

[13:38:34] KEILAR: That was a stunning appearance there by the Deputy Attorney General. And it really just gets to the question of, what is the Robert Mueller special counsel Russia investigation all about. This is what it is about. Detailed instances of Russia meddling in the 2016 election. There's been this political cloud about whether this is real, whether there was involvement of the Trump campaign. This is clear that this was very real. This is not a hoax. This is not created.

This is -- Evan Perez, according to the deputy attorney general, there's no charge that it changed the outcome of the election. But that's where it's going to lead a lot of people to wonder. Because that was the whole point, was that it was supposed to sow some sort of disenfranchisement, undermine the idea that you can count on what your democracy is doing. When you look at some of the details here that people traveled to the U.S., to Colorado, to Michigan, which was such a key state in the election, to Texas, to New York, that there were contacts with the Trump campaign, perhaps unwitting, is what it appears from here. But a reminder from Rod Rosenstein that some people are not who they appear to be, even if they reroute all their Internet traffic through the U.S. to not appear as if they are Russian.

EVAN PEREZ, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: This was an extraordinarily successful operation. It wasn't very expensive. Russians were spending about $1.25 million a month. That was their budget for this Internet research agency.

Rod Rosenstein said this was simply information warfare. They called it Project Lakhta, which is named apparently for a neighborhood, an area in St. Petersburg, Russia. So they had a project name. They had a design. They went back, all the way back to 2014, as you mentioned. They got visas for the United States. They traveled here. They collected intelligence. They went back --

(CROSSTALK) [13:40:29] KEILAR: What intelligence would they be collecting? Some have wondered, did they tailor their message when they went back and pretended to be U.S. activists? Were they tailoring their message to areas where it would be more vulnerable? Where they trying to get the lay of the land politically --

(CROSSTALK)

PEREZ: The suspicion has always been that they came -- that they spent some serious time studying the American system, studying which states were the ones that were in play. The question of whether or not there was some targeting of this activity has always been one at the top of everyone's mind. I don't think this indictment answers all of those questions, but I think that's the type of intelligence that would have been collected by the Russians before carrying this out.

Let me just real quick mention that one of the Twitter accounts that they created is for the Tennessee GOP, which is --

(CROSSTALK)

KEILAR: It's what it appears to be, right? Tenn_GOP.

PEREZ: Tenn_GOP. It was intended to give people the idea you're following the Tennessee Republican Party. This was --

KEILAR: How many followers?

PEREZ: Pretty popular. It says 100,000 online followers. We know that we've seen that Kellyanne Conway, Donald Trump Jr were among the people who retweeted tweets from Tenn_GOP. So this was a successful operation. It had sown discord beyond, I think, their dreams, the Russian dreams, for a paltry amount of money, really.

KEILAR: I want to head to the White House where we have our Pam Brown with some reporting.

Pam, I wonder, is the White House reacting to this yet?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: The White House, we're told, is working on a statement that is will be putting out shortly. And I'm told by an official familiar with working on this statement that it will touch on the fact there were these 13 Russian indictments and the fact that, according to this official, no one in the Trump campaign, to include the president, ever wittingly worked with or colluded with the Russians. As you all have been talking about in this indictment, there is -- there's a point to be made about people in the Trump campaign unwittingly working with some of these Russians. You just pointed out the Tennessee GOP Twitter account. We know Don Jr, Kellyanne Conway, among others, retweeted that. So basically, this indictment is -- the statement from the White House, as far as earlier today, was meant to make the point that no one wittingly ever worked with any of these Russians. We're told that the president was briefed on these 13 indictments this morning by the deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, as well as the FBI Director Christopher Wray. And all of this begs the question, Brianna, will this change the

president's tune as far as the Russians meddling in the election? So far, he has not embraced that. He has cast doubt on whether the elections meddled in the election. Because, according to sources, he believed it cast down on the legitimacy of him winning the presidency. Now that this is going to be put before a judge in a court of law, a higher bar in the intelligence assessment, will the president finally come out and embrace the fact that the Russians did meddle in the election? We'll have to wait and see what his response is -- Brianna?

KEILAR: All right, Pam Brown at the White House, thank you so much, Pamela.

I want to bring in Shimon Prokupecz again.

It was so interesting to hear Rod Rosenstein there when he made the announcement of these indictments and detailed the findings. These are fascinating, Shimon, from the idea you had this agency that was operating very much like a start-up, with graphics, they had search engine optimization, they had a finance department. We're learning all these details. But it was also so clear from what he was saying that this is very much in progress. We're only partway along the road to the destination of this special counsel and its ultimate findings in this investigation.

SHIMON PROKUPECZ, CNN CRIME & JUSTICE REPORTER: That's exactly right. There were questions asked about really what's next. He made a point that, in this indictment, I think he said it twice, in this indictment, there is no indications, at least in this indictment, that any Americans had knowledge. We don't know what's ahead. We know the special counsel -- I think this is what a lot of people are going to be wondering about, so it's important to talk about, is what's next. What's left? You have all the Russians now who were believed to be behind this operation indicted. You have a call of other people indicted that were associates of the president during the campaign. So now the question is, what's next. And Rod Rosenstein says the investigation is ongoing. The special counsel's investigation is ongoing. So that is still ongoing. This does not in any way mean this is over. I think that's an important point to make.

Additionally, I think in reading this indictment, just tells you the level of sophistication, but the way the FBI here infiltrated this operation, you know, presumably, resources overseas, some of the technical help. But there's this line that Rosenstein mentioned about how the Russians here discovered the FBI was on to them, that the FBI busted our activity, it said so in the indictment as well and, basically, they started to cover their tracks. So the FBI has been monitoring this group clearly for quite some time. I think that's an important detail. It tells you, though, as sophisticated as they may have been, the FBI was able to infiltrate them.

[13:45:50] KEILAR: I want to bring in Jim Sciutto to talk a little bit about how savvy these Russian operators were.

Jim, they brought political advertisements, according to this indictment, on social media in the names of U.S. persons and entities. And then all of this was funded through Russian fronts, right, including a catering company run by a Russian money man Yevgeniy Prigozhin? I mean, this was sophisticated.

SCIUTTO: Yes. We did a story on him a few years ago. This is a guy known as Putin's chef. He's more than that. He provides food to the Russian army. He's a rich guy, very close to Putin. He's the money behind this agency. He's one of those indicted today.

What strikes me is the political savviness of the Russian interference here. You see in the indictment, and you heard some of this referred to by the deputy attorney general, they focused on purple states. They went around the country, they did their research, they asked people, and they decided to focus on Colorado, Virginia, Florida. They visited Michigan as well. Smart enough to focus their efforts on states where it would have the most influence. They had goals of doing things like depressing minority voting, knowing that would hurt the Democrats. They alleged voter fraud by the Democratic Party, knowing that would hurt Democrats. They did, by mid-2016, the indictment states, and this is right in line with what the U.S. intelligence assessment said, by middle of that year, the goal became to help Donald Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton. That's not how this interference began, keep in mind. Remember, the intelligence community said early on it was just to sow doubts, kind of screw with American's minds. But as it got closer to the election, the clear intention became to help Trump and hurt Hillary Clinton. And to do so in a way, again with that savviness, focus efforts on swing states. Rile up issues that they knew motivated Republican voters and de- motivated Democratic voters. You know, things like alleging voter fraud by the Democratic Party.

The final note I would make is -- this interference continues up to this day. In the hours after the shooting in Parkland, it was Russian bots that were pushing out points and talking points about gun rights, et cetera, is how often those Russian bots, their talking points are in line with what you'll hear from many in the right wing of the Republican Party here. It's just -- it shows a remarkable savviness and remarkable effort here to maximize this influence on the U.S. election.

And it's happening now, Brianna. You heard the CIA director say last week, Russia is interfering now, today, with the intention, they expect, of interfering in 2018 and 2020.

KEILAR: It was very scary, in fact, the warnings that they gave, especially as it is so clear that the administration is not organizing a coordinated effort to respond to those threats, Jim.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Absolutely. And I --

(CROSSTALK)

SCIUTTO: On that point, Brianna, I want to echo the very point you made. I speak to intelligence officials and Republicans and Democrats -- Republicans and Democrats briefed on the intelligence about Russian interference -- I asked them what needs to be done to protect U.S. elections going forward, and they all make the point -- and this is not a partisan point. They said you cannot have a credible defense without a whole of government response. You can't just have one agency here, one agency there. They say that whole of government response is impossible without the president's backing. And the president still considers, remarkably, this whole story a hoax.

KEILAR: As we've learned from you, Josh, there are constraints. There are some legal constraints, right, when it comes to coordinating some of these responses to this? I mean this really does take the proper jurisdiction of the White House, the National Security Council, to execute this.

JOSH CAMPBELL, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: Absolutely right. I think that's why Mueller's team is so diverse. One thing, Evan, you've lived this, right, for the last year and more. I think we've seen, we've tried to read the tea leaves every time some new person was appointed to Mueller's team. What's this person's background? What do they bring to the table? As you look through this indictment, you kind of start seeing that fuller picture. They brought in the white-collar crime people. They brought in the financial crime people. This is why.

(CROSSTALK)

CAMPBELL: The cyber experts, those with counterintelligence experience. It starts to make a little more sense.

One thing that is interesting, and to pick up on what Carrie was mentioning earlier, you know, this investigation didn't start with Mueller. This is something that preceded Mueller. It was going on in the FBI. A couple of questions I have is, is this information coming primarily from what Mueller found after the investigation started or is this something they were on to early on? Remember, the indictment goes back to 2014.

It's also interesting, would we be here if Comey wasn't fired and Mueller wasn't appointed the special counsel? It's very curious.

And the last thing is, as an investigator, what's next? What's the next shoe to drop? What comes after this? I think if you look at these charges, the serious topics we've talked about here, even just within the last hour, any one of these would prove the utility of Mueller's team. Taken together, it's just stunning.

[13:50:47] KEILAR: I want to bring in Democratic Congressman Eric Swalwell, back with us. He's on the House Intelligence Committee.

Sir, when you look at this, very clear evidence of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Just extraordinary detail. A very savvy operation by Russians when it came to an information warfare campaign, employing hundreds of individuals, some of them in administrative roles. A lot of them pretending to be U.S. activists and trying to mislead people on social media. Some of them paying, obviously, for all of this operation to go on. Where does this leave the House Intelligence Committee investigation? Where does this leave the Senate Intelligence Committee investigation? Things are just falling apart, certainly, in your chamber. Does this help to give any sort of direction?

REP. ERIC SWALWELL, (D), CALIFORNIA: Hopefully, it's an inflection point that moves us to get serious to put reforms in place so we have that whole of government response.

One thing that struck me from Rod Rosenstein's presentation, which was this timeline is now coming into focus. He noted that they really ratcheted up their interference campaign in 2016. What was happening at this time? George Papadopoulos, we know from his guilty pleas, was told in April 2016 that the Russians had dirt on Hillary Clinton. In the summer of 2016, Candidate Trump invited the Russians to hack Hillary Clinton's e-mails. Also in June 2016, the candidate's son received a meeting from the Russians offering dirt on Hillary Clinton. Then you have his data team, Cambridge Analytica, reaching out to Julian Assange seeking hacked e-mails from the Russians. And you have Roger Stone intimating that an attack is coming, that John Podesta is going to spend his time in the barrel. So the candidate created an environment where the Russians felt comfortable, believing he was willing and eager to receive it. It's up to Bob Mueller's team to find out if collusion existed but he certainly, I think, gave them a green light.

KEILAR: Did it strike you where he said repeatedly that there's no charge that this altered the outcome of the election?

SWALWELL: That's not their job to determine if it altered the election or not. That's Congress' job. I've written legislation with Elijah Cummings and Republicans to have an independent commission, just as we did after September 11th. That's where you would truly be able to do that with independently appointed bipartisan panel election experts. Their job is to see if any crimes were committed and if they can prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. It looks like they believe they can do that now.

KEILAR: Do you think it may have changed the outcome of the election?

SWALWELL: I just want a chance to find out that question, Brianna. All I see are attacks on the process in Congress, you know, alleging that the FBI committed abuses or our chairmen working with the White House rather than bringing in witnesses so we can to get to the bottom of that. We just want a fair hearing on that, most importantly, because the Russians are still here. If we're going to understand what they're going to do in the next election, we need a full picture of what they did last election.

KEILAR: Congressman, if you wouldn't mind standing by for me while I bring Carl Bernstein on the phone to talk with us about this.

Carl, these are stunning details that we are reading in page after page. Dozens of pages in this indictment detailing just the extraordinary detail to which this operation, which employed hundreds of employees, trying to conduct information warfare and meddle in the U.S. election. What's your reaction to this as you hear all these details and as you look to what this means moving forward in this investigation? CARL BERNSTEIN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR (via telephone): Well, first of all,

as you say, the details are extraordinary. They're granular. They're also huge, significant. They're convincing. They give a great picture of what the Russians did in a way that makes it impossible for the president of the United States to credibly question what has occurred here.

And that's the other aspect of this. Mueller's timing and Rod Rosenstein's timing on this announcement could not be more brilliant in terms of undercutting the president of the United States in his attacks on the Mueller investigation. The fact that Rod Rosenstein himself chose to do this briefing on television, on national television, when he has been largely not visible to the American public. And the fact that Donald Trump has been intent, for months, on firing and replacing Rod Rosenstein and trying to shut down Mueller's investigation. That is the other element of this that is a master stroke by Mueller and by Rosenstein that makes it extraordinarily difficult for Trump to end this investigation, for him to curtail it. It undermines his continuing to demean and obstruct the investigation.

I have little doubt that it will force some Republicans to try to protect Mueller, Rosenstein, and the integrity of this investigation. And it changes for the immediate moment the whole dynamic in which the president of the United States and his Republican acolytes and enablers in the Congress of the United States have been trying to discredit and shutdown this investigation. Now this investigation would appear to be not only up and running with very strong legs, it gives a picture of the interface between what happened in the election and what the Russians did --

(CROSSTALK)

BERNSTEIN: -- in a way that makes it impossible to deny.

[13:56:37] KEILAR: It's a really important point that you bring up there, Carl.

Carrie Cordero, to that point, Carl is saying that this gives Robert Mueller the cover to continue. I mean, it's so clear this is undeniable what has gone on here. This is not a political witch hunt. This is a detailed explanation of Russian meddling in the election. What does this mean for Robert Mueller going forward as he's operating in this hyper political atmosphere?

CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I don't think anyone should take way from the indictment that it was strategically timed to protect the investigation or anything. They brought this indictment when they were ready. As soon as the special counsel's investigative team thought they had the facts and were ready to present the indictment, that they believe they have a reasonable belief of success on the merits of prosecuting this case, they brought the indictment, and that's what brings the timing.

One takeaway I give you from this indictment, as we're going through now, it was that it was a conspiracy. This was a conspiracy of an organization led by the Russian government. If we go back to the president's November 17 statement when he said he believed Vladimir Putin that they weren't involved, that is wrong. This was a conspiracy that was funded with millions of dollars, that involved hundreds of individuals, that involved front companies, that involved counter --

(CROSSTALK)

CORDERO: -- traditional Russian counter -- I see all sorts of traditional Russian intelligence techniques, including using fraudulent identities and those types of techniques. This was a conspiracy led by the Russian government dating back years before the 2016 election.

KEILAR: Carrie, they set up -- these Russian operatives, came to the U.S. and actually -- they would have bought server space, right, in the United States? So that you heard Rosenstein say there, the first jump, if you're tracing back to where is this coming from. Oh, it's an I.P. address in the United States --

(CROSSTALK)

KEILAR: -- it's American.

CORDERO: That shows the sophistication in terms of their understanding of how our law enforcement works, how our surveillance laws work. There's a lot of information public now about how our surveillance law works. They understood it and they exploited it --

(CROSSTALK)

KEILAR: -- check the first jump, right? They traced it back. So they could look ultimately -- you read this indictment. They have the address of the office, Evan, where this operation was operating.

PEREZ: From our own reporting, we know there's a lot more that the FBI has in its possession. Some officials who were already in November of 2016, they thought they had enough information to try to bring some charges. Clearly, there was additional work being done. Now we're seeing the fruits of this. I think this was a conspiracy that was extraordinarily successful.

CAMPBELL: Yes. And if you look at -- you read had through this indictment, this is asymmetric psychological warfare on the United States. Simply put. It's a broad, as we said, conspiracy, a deliberate attempt to influence our society. One thing, too, that stands out --

(CROSSTALK)

KEILAR: They're using our own system. And they're using our own system against us.

CAMPBELL: They're using our own system. And it shows us the gravity of the situation. It shows us what our FBI investigators are up against. I'll tell you one thing that I don't think that the folks get enough

credit on is the sophistication that these counterintelligence agencies face.

KEILAR: We are going to continue to cover this.

Thirteen Russian nationals indicted. We just heard the announcement from the Department of Justice. We are pouring through, right now, this indictment, dozens of pages with extraordinary details. It shows just how sophisticated this effort was.