KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
There is another major development from the team investigating interference in the 2016 presidential election. A grand jury has indicted 13 Russians and three businesses with conspiracy to disrupt the American political system. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced the charges at the Justice Department this afternoon.
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ROD ROSENSTEIN: The defendants allegedly conducted what they called information warfare against the United States.
MCEVERS: With us to talk more about this is NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson. Hello.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Kelly.
MCEVERS: So these are the first criminal charges to cover actual interference in the presidential election, right? What did we learn today about that?
JOHNSON: We learned it started in April 2014, focused on a company based in St. Petersburg, Russia, called the Internet Research Agency. Ultimately, court papers say 80 employees worked on this project. Two of them even traveled to the United States to collect intelligence, and they were pretty good at concealing their tracks. They bought space on U.S. computer servers, created hundreds of social media accounts, bought Facebook ads and held rallies, even, in the U.S. By 2016, the court papers say their budget was one million dollars a month, all with the goal of sowing discord in the U.S. political system.
MCEVERS: One million dollars a month. That's a lot. This indictment focuses on Russians. What does it say specifically about the involvement of any Americans?
JOHNSON: Well, the court documents say these operations were intended to spread derogatory information - in other words, dirt about Hillary Clinton and to denigrate other candidates, including senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, and to promote Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. The indictment says Russians did pay some real Americans. And it said they did have some contact with some unnamed Trump campaign people. But the court papers say those people were unwitting. Let's take another listen to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
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ROSENSTEIN: 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.
JOHNSON: And I'd point out, Kelly, he did caveat those words. He said in the indictment. So for now, there's no public evidence that Americans were involved as alleged co-conspirators. Rosenstein also said that after the election, these same defendants held a pro-Trump rally in New York City, but they also hosted an anti-Trump rally in the same city on the same day.
MCEVERS: So presumably, all these defendants are still in Russia, you know, and far away from the long reach of, you know, United States law enforcement. I mean, is there any chance they could face trial here?
JOHNSON: There's a chance, but it's a slight one. The Justice Department says there have been no communications with Russians about the indictment. But authorities here are going to follow the ordinary process to seek extradition. As for the Russian response, the Foreign Ministry has called these charges absurd in a post on Facebook. And another Russian information agency said they found a defendant who said he wasn't upset at all about these charges.
MCEVERS: The special counsel investigation is now 9 months old. Is this indication that they're slowing down - you know, these indictments today?
JOHNSON: I think quite the opposite. Shortly after the charges against these Russians were made public, the special counsel also unsealed a guilty plea from earlier this week against a California man named Richard Pinedo. He pleaded guilty to identity fraud. He allegedly sold hundreds of bank account numbers to get around security features from big digital payment companies. Another surprise from the special counsel.
We don't know what else he has up his sleeve. But what we do know is that there are apparently some negotiations between special counsel Mueller and Rick Gates, who played a role on the Trump campaign and in the inauguration, who's been charged with conspiracy and money laundering. Rick Gates may be preparing to plead guilty soon.
MCEVERS: All right. We'll keep an eye on that. And I'm sure you will keep us updated. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson, thank you.
JOHNSON: You're welcome.
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