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US charges Russian with plot to create election distrust

U.S. President Donald Trump.
U.S. President Donald Trump.Pool/Photographer: Pool/Getty Images

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration on Thursday charged a Russian national in a sweeping plot to sow distrust in the American political process and also imposed sanctions against a Ukrainian lawmaker accused of interfering in the U.S. presidential election in November.

The criminal charges accuse Artem Mikhaylovich Lifshits of stealing American identities to open fraudulent banking accounts and promote messaging aimed at undermining confidence in the political system. The plot calls to mind the foreign influence in 2016 described by special counsel Robert Mueller, who charged Russian nationals with stirring up discord on divisive social issues.

Lifshifts was one of four people cited by the Treasury Department, along with Andrii Derkach, a Russian-linked Ukrainian lawmaker, for interfering in the upcoming election by releasing edited audio recordings designed to denigrate Democrat Joe Biden. Those recordings have been promoted by President Donald Trump.

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The action by the Treasury Department is the second time in as many months that the administration has called out Derkach by name. U.S. intelligence officials said in a statement last month that Derkach’s disclosure of the recordings, which capture conversations between Biden and Ukraine’s then-president, were part of a broader Russian effort to disparage Biden before the Nov. 3 election.

The administration’s move was especially notable because the statement announcing it said Derkach’s recordings advance anti-Biden claims that rely on “false and unsubstantiated narratives.” Trump has promoted those recordings by retweeting posts that include them.

“Derkach almost certainly targeted the U.S. voting populace, prominent U.S. persons, and members of the U.S. government, based on his reliance on U.S. platforms, English-language documents and videos, and pro-Russian lobbyists in the United States used to propagate his claims,” the Treasury Department said in designating Derkach and three other Russia-linked individuals under an executive order designed to target election interference.

Derkach is a graduate of a Russian spy academy who, the Treasury Department says, maintains close ties to Russian intelligence services.

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“Andrii Derkach and other Russian agents employ manipulation and deceit to attempt to influence elections in the United States and elsewhere around the world,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement. “The United States will continue to use all the tools at its disposal to counter these Russian disinformation campaigns and uphold the integrity of our election system.”

In May, Derkach released audio recordings of purported conversations between Biden, while vice president, and Ukraine’s former president, Petro Poroshenko. The release was intended to promote a baseless narrative that Biden had demanded the firing of Ukraine’s top prosecutor because the prosecutor was investigating a gas company in Ukraine where Biden’s son Hunter held a board seat.

Biden was representing the official position of the Obama administration and many Western allies in seeking the removal of the prosecutor who was perceived as soft on corruption.

The other three people who were sanctioned are connected to the Internet Research Agency, a troll farm that U.S. officials have said interfered in the 2016 election by sowing discord and spreading misinformation through bogus social media accounts.