WASHINGTON — Twelve Russian military intelligence officers hacked into the Clinton presidential campaign and Democratic Party and released tens of thousands of private communications in a sweeping conspiracy by the Kremlin to meddle in the 2016 U.S. election, according to an indictment announced days before President Donald Trump’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The indictment represents special counsel Robert Mueller’s first charges against Russian government officials for interfering in American politics, an effort U.S. intelligence agencies say was aimed at helping the Trump campaign and harming the election bid of his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
The 29-page indictment lays out how, months before Americans went to the polls, Russian officers schemed to break into key Democratic email accounts, including those belonging to Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. Politically damaging emails for Clinton appeared on WikiLeaks in the election’s critical final stretch.
The charges allege the Russian defendants, using a persona known as Guccifer 2.0, in August 2016 contacted a person close to the Trump campaign to offer help. And they say that the hackers, hours after Trump in a speech encouraged Russia to find missing Clinton emails, tried for the first time to break into email accounts used by Clinton’s personal office, along with 76 Clinton campaign email addresses.
The indictment does not allege that Trump campaign associates were involved in the hacking effort or that Americans were knowingly in touch with Russian officers, and it does not allege that any vote tallies were altered by hacking. The White House seized on those points in a statement that offered no condemnation of the alleged Russian conspiracy.
It was unclear whether the indictment might factor into Trump’s meeting with Putin on Monday. He has repeatedly expressed skepticism about Russian involvement in the hacking and has been accused by Democrats of cozying up to the Russian president. Trump complained anew about the Russia investigation before the indictment, saying the “stupidity” was making it “very hard to do something with Russia.”
The Kremlin, meanwhile, denied anew that it tried to sway the election. “The Russian state has never interfered and has no intention of interfering in the U.S. elections,” Putin’s foreign affairs adviser, Yuri Ushakov, said Friday.
If the involvement of the officers in the Russian intelligence agency known as the GRU is proved, it would shatter the Kremlin denials of the Russian state’s involvement in the U.S. elections given that the GRU is part of the state machine.
The Russian defendants are not in custody, and it is not clear they will ever appear in an American courtroom, though the Justice Department in recent years has seen value in indicting foreign hackers in absentia as public deterrence.
The indictment identifies the defendants as officers with Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff, also known as GRU. It accuses them, starting in March 2016, of covertly monitoring the computers of dozens of Democratic officials and volunteers, implanting malicious computer code known as malware to explore the networks and steal data and using phishing emails to gain access to accounts.
One attempt at interference noted in the indictment came hours after Trump, in a July 27, 2016, speech, suggested Russians look for emails that Clinton said she had deleted from her tenure as secretary of state.
“Russia, if you’re listening,” Trump said, “I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.”
That evening, the indictment says, the Russians attempted to break into email accounts used by Clinton’s personal office, along with 76 Clinton campaign email addresses.
By June 2016, the defendants began planning the release of tens of thousands of stolen emails and documents, the indictment alleges. The messages were released through fictitious personas like DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0.
According to the indictment, Guccifer 2.0 received a request for stolen documents from an unidentified congressional candidate and provided them, and sent pilfered materials on the Black Lives Matter movement to a journalist.
On Aug. 15, the indictment says, Guccifer 2.0 reached out to someone in regular contact with the Trump campaign and asked the person if he or she had seen anything “interesting in the docs I posted?” Guccifer 2.0 offered help and said it would be a “great pleasure.”
The indictment doesn’t identify the person, though Roger Stone through his lawyer on Friday acknowledged a “24-word exchange with someone on Twitter claiming to be Guccifer 2.0.”
“This exchange is now entirely public and provides no evidence of collaboration or collusion with Guccifer 2.0 or anyone else in the alleged hacking of the DNC emails,” said lawyer Grant Smith.
The indictment also says someone at Wikileaks contacted Guccifer 2.0 weeks before the Democratic National Convention asking for material on Clinton in advance, to prevent her from solidifying support from rival Sen. Bernie Sanders.
WikiLeaks periodically released the stolen Podesta emails in the run-up to the election.
The hack displayed the private communications of the campaign, including deliberations about messaging that played into attacks that Clinton was calculating and a political flip-flopper. Private speeches she gave to financial industry firms were particularly damaging within the left wing of the Democratic party and among independents frustrated with the influence of Wall Street in politics.
The charges come as Mueller continues to investigate potential co-ordination between Russia and the Trump campaign to influence the presidential election.
Before Friday, 20 people and three companies had been charged in the Mueller investigation. The 20 are four former Trump campaign and White House aides, three of whom have pleaded guilty to different crimes and agreed to co-operate, and 13 Russians accused of participating in a hidden but powerful social media campaign to sway U.S. public opinion in the 2016 election.
Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, said on Twitter that it was time to end the Mueller investigation since “no Americans are involved” in Friday’s indictment. But with Mueller still investigating, it’s not known whether further indictments are taking shape or will.
At the Justice Department, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein called for a unified approach to foreign meddling.
“When we confront foreign interference in American elections, it is important for us to avoid thinking politically as Republicans or Democrats and instead to think patriotically as Americans,” he said. “Our response must not depend on who was victimized.”
The Trump-Putin meeting is scheduled for Monday in Finland.
Top Senate Democrat Chuck Schumer urged Trump to cancel the meeting until Russia takes steps to prove it won’t interfere in future elections. He said the indictments are “further proof of what everyone but the president seems to understand: President Putin is an adversary who interfered in our elections to help President Trump win.”
Associated Press writers Darlene Superville, Richard Lardner, Desmond Butler and Mary Clare Jalonick in Washington and Raphael Satter in London contributed to this report
Eric Tucker, The Associated Press