Russian conspiracy targeted Charlotte and North Carolina, Mueller indictment says

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, speaks to the media with an announcement that the office of special counsel Robert Mueller says a grand jury has charged 13 Russian nationals and several Russian entities, Friday, Feb. 16, 2018, in Washington. The defendants are accused of violating U.S. criminal laws to interfere with American elections and the political process. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

The Associated Press

CHARLOTTE — 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.”

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 after 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.

“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.

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