On the eve of a planned trip to Moscow by National Security Advisor John Bolton to discuss election hacking, the Department of Justice unsealed an indictment Friday afternoon charging a Russian national for her alleged involvement with another "troll farm" that US prosecutors say attempted to tamper with the midterm election.
According to the Washington Post, the charges - the first alleging meddling in the midterms - have been brought against Elena Khusyaynova, 44, who was accused of conspiracy to defraud the United States.
Khusyaynova is believed to manage the finances of "Project Lakhta," a "foreign influence operation" that prosecutors say was intended to "to sow discord in the US political system" by pushing "arguments and misinformation" about "immigration, the Confederate flag, gun control, and the NFL national anthem protests."
The charges follow warnings by President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and the Director of National Intelligence that Russia and China have sought to interfere in the midterms. Trump has claimed that this interference has been directed against Republican candidates as part of China's retaliation for his disruptive trade war.
"This effort was not only designed to spread distrust towards candidates for U.S. political office and the U.S. political system in general, but also to defraud the United States by impeding the lawful functions of government agencies in administering relevant federal requirements."
In a statement, he DNI clarified that the US has "no evidence" that this "Project Lakhta" tried to infiltrate the US's voting infrastructure in a way that could actually sway vote totals.
In a statement, the Director of National Intelligence said officials “do not have any evidence of a compromise or disruption of infrastructure that would enable adversaries to prevent voting, change vote counts or disrupt our ability to tally votes in the midterm elections.”
But the statement noted, "We are concerned about ongoing campaigns by Russia, China and other foreign actors, including Iran, to undermine confidence in democratic institutions and influence public sentiment and government policies. These activities also may seek to influence voter perceptions and decision making in the 2018 and 2020 U.S. elections."
The announcement, which was joined by the Justice Department, FBI and Department of Homeland Security, comes on the eve of a trip National Security Advisor John Bolton is making to Moscow, where he is expected to raise the issue with his counterparts.
The indictment claims the operation was financed by oligarch Yeveniy Prigozhin and two companies he controls. Prigozhin - better known as "Putin's Chef" - was targeted by sanctions in March. Prigozhin also allegedly controlled the Internet Research Agency, the troll farm that was the object of a Mueller indictment earlier this year.
Court papers said Khusyaynova’s operation was funded by Russian oligarch Yeveniy Prigozhin and two companies he controls, Concord Management and Consulting LLC and Concord Catering.
A criminal complaint filed against the woman charges that she managed the finances of Project Lakhta, including detailed expenses for activities in the U.S. such as paying for activists, advertisements on social media, registering domain names, the purchase of proxy servers, and promoting news postings on social media.
Finally, and perhaps most terrifying, is the fact that the operation's budget was a mere $35 million - it is now apparently a lot cheaper to manipulate the American mind than Hillary's billion-dollar spend tried to (or perhaps, just perhaps, this is a mickey-mouse operation merely using trolling to gather traffic and not some mysterious effort to disrupt America's democracy).
Given the timing, this appears to be yet another attempt by deep state operatives to force the Trump Administration to take a more aggressive tack with Russia. While we imagine the charges will cast a shadow over Bolton's trip and his meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the big question now is whether charges will be forthcoming against China.