Russians intending to influence the 2016 presidential election targeted Colorado and other swing states as part of a multi-million dollar operation to “sow discord” among Americans while helping Republican Donald Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton, according to an indictment released Friday naming 13 Russians and three Russian organizations.
The federal indictment, brought by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, portrays a scheme stretching over a period of several years involving widespread use of social media, stolen identities and political rallies staged by Russians posing as political activists.
Senior officials with the Colorado Trump and Clinton campaigns said they doubted the undertaking had much effect in the battleground state — Clinton won by just under 5 points — but party leaders said the revelations underline the importance of securing the election process against outside interference.
A spokeswoman for Secretary of State Wayne Williams said he is attending a secretaries of state conference in Washington, D.C., and was aware of the indictment but wouldn’t have a comment until Tuesday, after the holiday weekend.
The operation alleged in the charging documents boosted Trump and Bernie Sanders, Clinton’s chief rival for the Democratic nomination, while disparaging Clinton and Trump primary opponents including Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Late in the campaign, social media accounts controlled by the defendants urged African-American voters to sit out the election rather than vote for “Killary” and assured leftists that a vote for Green Party nominee Jill Stein wasn’t “a wasted vote.”
In a 37-page indictment that reads like the outline of a spy novel, prosecutors detail an “information warfare” campaign waged against the United States and its election process.
The indictment doesn’t allege members of the Trump campaign knowingly collaborated with the defendants or their activities — a point emphasized by the president, who tweeted, “The Trump campaign did nothing wrong – no collusion!” — but it describes repeated contact between the Russians and “unwitting members, volunteers, and supporters of the Trump Campaign involved in local community outreach, as well as grassroots groups that supported then-candidate Trump.”
Colorado appears to play a bit part in the sprawling plot.
Prosecutors say two Russian individuals, Anna Vladislavovna Bogacheva and Aleksandra Yuryevna Krylova, traveled around the country under false identities in June 2014 to “gather intelligence,” making stops in Colorado and eight other states, including Nevada, California, New Mexico, Illinois, Michigan, Louisiana, Texas, and New York.
Posing as Americans, the two Russians communicated online with an American “affiliated with a Texas-based grassroots organization” and learned they should focus on “’purple states like Colorado, Virginia & Florida,’” the indictment says. After that, the Russians named in the indictment routinely discussed targeting “purple states.”
The indictment doesn’t allege any further activity on the ground in Colorado.
Robert Blaha, chair of the 2016 Colorado Trump campaign, told Colorado Politics Friday afternoon he hadn’t had a chance to review the indictment but wasn’t impressed with what he’d heard.
“I have no idea about information that somebody was on a trip that stopped in Colorado,” Blaha said. “That’s kind of meaningless information. Where’s the evidence they talked with somebody or had a meeting with anybody?”
“It’s a nothing burger,” he added. “I’m not saying it won’t be, but right now there’s nothing there.”
Alan Salazar, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s chief of staff and a senior advisor for Clinton’s 2016 campaign in Colorado, said he hadn’t been aware of anything like the meddling described in the indictment — the campaign, he noted, was concerned up until Election Day about potential cyberattacks on the voting system — but wouldn’t be surprised if some of the more outlandish social media posts the campaign came across were associated with the Russians.
“You’d occasionally come across a Facebook post that was just insane,” he said. “But if they had an impact in Colorado, it was probably minimal because of the good wisdom of the people of this state. The voters here weren’t being motivated by the same messages that worked for the Trump campaign in the Rust Belt and some of the Midwest states. They would’ve been swimming against the stream in a state like Colorado.”
Colorado Democratic Party chair Morgan Carroll said she hopes officials react seriously to the indictment and recent intelligence community assessments warning about continued Russian attempts to interfere with the 2018 election.
“Colorado’s congressional delegation — especially those who are members of Trump’s party — must take immediate action to protect the Mueller investigation from interference by the Trump administration,” Carroll said in a statement. “In addition, leaders in Washington and Colorado must take immediate action to secure the integrity of our voting process from efforts by foreign governments to deny the will of the people.”
Her Republican counterpart, state GOP chair Jeff Hays, said Friday he’d been traveling and hadn’t had a chance to familiarize himself with the indictments but was concerned by what he’d heard.
“Our government needs to take all means necessary to ensure the integrity of our electoral process,” he told Colorado Politics.
Jena Griswold, a Democrat challenging Williams, said the news emphasized the importance of two topics she’s been raising on the campaign trail — beefing up the state election system’s security and requiring more campaign finance transparency, including closing a loophole in federal election law that allows outside spending on social media to go unreported.
“I really believe we need to see what groups are spending on our politics to make good decisions,” she said. “There needs to be leadership from the state level pushing the federal government.” As far as ensuring election security, she added, “We are a leader in elections, but I don’t think we’re going far enough or fast enough.”