Crime

Russian conspiracy targeted Charlotte and North Carolina, Mueller indictment says

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How do bots and trolls work to infiltrate social media platforms and influence U.S. elections? We take a closer look at these insidious online pests to explain how they work.

As the largest city in a pivotal swing state, Charlotte and North Carolina became targets of Russian operatives accused Friday of attempting to disrupt the 2016 presidential election.

Special prosecutor Robert Mueller’s 37-page indictment charges more than a dozen Russian nationals and businesses of attempting to defraud the United States by using “fraud and deceit for the purpose of interfering with the U.S. political and electoral system, including the presidential election of 2016.”

Some in the Conservative media are calling for the resignation of Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel who recently filed charges in the Trump-Russia investigation.

Prosecutors say Charlotte and greater North Carolina did not escape the conspiracy. According to the indictment:

▪ @Ten_GOP, a Twitter account started by the Russian conspirators, which at one time attracted more than 100,000 followers, started posting phony allegations in August 2016 that voter-fraud investigations had been launched in North Carolina.

▪ After Donald Trump carried the state and was the surprise winner of the November 2016 election, Russian conspirators posing as grass-roots activists helped arrange a Nov. 19 rally in Charlotte called “Charlotte Against Trump.”

The indictment says similar rallies in support of Trump were staged by the group in other U.S. cities. All were designed to foment discontent throughout the country, the indictment says.

▪ The conspirators also infiltrated community groups such as Black Lives Matter. A key player in the effort was a St. Petersburg, Russia-based troll farm called Internet Research Agency, a defendant in Mueller’s indictment.

In one instance not mentioned in the document, Internet Research Agency recruited community activists in Raleigh to speak at a political rally following the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police fatal shooting in September 2016 of Keith Lamont Scott, BuzzFeed reported. Scott’s death, two months before the presidential election, set off two days of sometimes violent demonstrations in Charlotte.

It was not immediately clear if the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s offices in Charlotte participated in the investigation that preceded Mueller’s indictment.

The indictment proves that North Carolina and other presidential swing states were targeted by the conspirators, UNC Charlotte political scientist Eric Heberlig said. But, he said the impact on the election is impossible to know.

“There’s no way to know how many votes shifted, if any,” Heberlig said. “They targeted North Carolina and the other swing states because they were all expected to be close.”

While Trump carried North Carolina by a more comfortable margin than what polls predicted, Heberlig said, the Russian activity in North Carolina “certainly didn’t hurt his ability to win the state.”

Reaction to the indictment began to swell as it circulated among North Carolina leaders on Friday.

Attorney General Josh Stein described efforts to undermine the electoral process as “intolerable.”

“In our democracy, the right to vote and to have one’s vote be counted accurately and mean something is absolutely critical. Anyone – particularly a foreign national or foreign government – who tampers with the security of our elections not only is a criminal, but also undermines public confidence in the most essential act in our democratic system,” he said.

State GOP Chairman Robin Hayes of Concord welcomed the indictment and called for further investigation of any group trying to divide the country.

“The more sunshine and the quicker the better,” the former congressman said. “Let’s clean it up. Let’s shine the light on it. Let’s create the vacuum so these kinds of operations, foreign or domestic, cannot exist.”

Mueller has been investigating the Trump campaign for signs of possible collusion with the Russian efforts, and several of the president’s former aides have pleaded guilty to crimes and agreed to cooperate with the probe.

However, U.S. Rep. Robert Pittenger, an ardent Trump supporter facing a tough re-election fight this year, was quick to interpret the indictment as an exoneration of the president. Based on the indictment, he said any alleged Trump-Russia election conspiracy “have been proven false.”

“While we have known for some time that Russia meddled with our election,” Pittenger said, “their efforts had no impact on the results and there was no coordination nor collusion with the Trump campaign.”

Heberlig, however, said it’s “very much a stretch” to interpret the Friday indictment as the conclusion of Mueller’s investigation. In fact, he said, it would be consistent with the prosecutor’s handling of the probe up to now to start outside the Trump campaign and work inward, if that’s where any evidence of collusion leads.

“When he says, ‘I’m done,’ you know he’s done,” Heberlig said. “I have no expectation that this is the end.”

Jim Morrill contributed.

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095, @MikeGordonOBS

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