The Justice Department announced Friday it had charged a Russian woman who prosecutors say conspired to interfere with the 2018 U.S. election, marking the first criminal case that accuses a foreign national of interfering in the upcoming midterms. Elena Khusyaynova, 44, was charged with conspiracy to defraud the United States. Prosecutors said she managed the finances of “Project Lakhta,” a foreign influence operation they said was designed “to sow discord in the U.S. political system” by pushing arguments and misinformation online about a host of divisive political issues, including immigration, the Confederate flag, gun control and National Football League protests during the national anthem. The charges against Khusyaynova came just as the Office of the Director of National Intelligence warned that it was concerned about “ongoing campaigns” by Russia, China and Iran to interfere with the upcoming midterm elections and the 2020 race — an ominous message just weeks before voters head to the polls.
Prosecutors said the sophisticated campaign Khusyaynova was a part of “did not exclusively adopt one ideological viewpoint” but instead tried to push incendiary positions on various political controversies on social media platforms. The Russians involved, prosecutors said, created fake personas and spread their divisive messages on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The group attempted to sow conflict along racial lines and sometimes advocated positions that directly opposed each other, apparently agnostic to whom they supported as long as it turned Americans against one another, prosecutors said.
For example, in relaying how to discuss an August 2017 story about special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, one operation participant said Mueller should be termed “a puppet of the establishment” whose work was “damaging to the country,” according to prosecutors. But later that year, another operation member tweeted: “If Trump fires Robert Mueller, we have to take to the streets in protest. Our democracy is at stake.”