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12 Russian agents indicted in Mueller inquiry

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein speaks during a news conference at the Department of Justice, Friday, July 13, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Evan Vucci/Associated Press
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein speaks during a news conference at the Department of Justice on Friday.

WASHINGTON — The special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election issued an indictment of 12 Russian intelligence officers on Friday in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton presidential campaign. The indictment came only three days before President Trump was planning to meet with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia in Helsinki.

The 29-page indictment is the most detailed accusation by the American government to date of the Russian government’s interference in the 2016 election, and it includes a litany of brazen Russian subterfuge operations meant to foment chaos in the months before Election Day.

From phishing attacks to gain access to Democratic operatives, to money laundering, to attempts to break into state elections boards, the indictment details a vigorous and complex effort by Russia’s top military intelligence service to sabotage the campaign of Trump’s Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton.

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The timing of the indictment, by Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel, added a jolt of tension to the already freighted atmosphere surrounding Trump’s meeting with Putin. It is all but certain to feed into the conspiratorial views held by the president and some of his allies that Mueller’s prosecutors are determined to undermine Trump’s designs for a rapprochement with Russia.

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The president has long expressed doubt that Russia was behind the 2016 attacks, and the 11-count indictment illustrates even more the distance between his skepticism and the nearly unanimous views of the intelligence and law enforcement agencies he leads.

“Free and fair elections are hard fought and contentious, and there will always be adversaries who work to exacerbate domestic differences and try to confuse, divide and conquer us,” Rod J. Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, said Friday during a news conference announcing the indictment.

“So long as we are united in our commitment to the shared values enshrined in the Constitution, they will not succeed,” he said.

It was a striking statement a day after Republican members of Congress, engaging in a shouting match during a hearing, attacked Peter Strzok, the FBI agent who oversaw the early days of the Russia investigation, and questioned the integrity of the Justice Department for what they charged was bias against the president.

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The announcement created a bizarre split screen on cable networks of the news conference at the Justice Department and the solemn pageant at Windsor Castle in England, where Trump and his wife, Melania, were reviewing royal guards with Queen Elizabeth II.

Russia has denied that its government had any role in hacking the presidential election, and on Friday, Trump said he would confront Putin directly. But the president said he did not expect his Russian counterpart to acknowledge it.

“I don’t think you’ll have any, ‘Gee, I did it, you got me,’ ” Trump said during a news conference hours before the indictment was announced. He added that there would not be any “Perry Mason” — a reference to the 1950s and 1960s courtroom TV drama in which Perry Mason, a criminal defense lawyer played by Raymond Burr, often got people to confess. “I will absolutely firmly ask the question.”

But Trump also said he believed that the focus on Russia’s election meddling and whether his campaign was involved were merely partisan issues that made it more difficult for him to establish closer ties with Putin.

The Kremlin agreed. A statement on Friday from Russia’s Foreign Ministry said that the indictment was meant to “spoil the atmosphere before the Russian-American summit.”

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After the indictment was announced, Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, and others in his party called on Trump to cancel his one-on-one meeting with Putin.

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The indictment builds on a declassified report released in January 2017 by several intelligence agencies, which concluded that “Putin and the Russian government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him.”

Trump has long questioned the findings of intelligence agencies, suggesting alternate scenarios for who might have carried out the hacking campaigns. “It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK?” Mr. Trump said during the first presidential debate in September 2016.

Friday’s indictment did not include any accusations that the Russian efforts succeeded in influencing the election results, nor evidence that any of Trump’s advisers knowingly coordinated with the Russian campaign — a point immediately seized upon by the president’s allies.

Rudolph W. Giuliani, the president’s lawyer, said in a Twitter post that the indictment showed “no Americans are involved,” and he called on Mueller to end the inquiry. “The Russians are nailed,” Giuliani wrote.

Still, the indictment added curious new details to the events leading up to the November 2016 elections.

The indictment revealed that on July 27, 2016, Russian hackers tried for the first time to break into the servers of Clinton’s personal offices. It was the same day that Trump publicly encouraged Russia to hack Clinton’s e-mails.

“I will tell you this, Russia: If you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 e-mails that are missing,” Trump said during a news conference in Florida. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”

The indictment does not mention those remarks.

Separately, the indictment states that the hackers were communicating with “a person who was in regular contact with senior members of the presidential campaign.” Two government officials identified the person as Roger J. Stone Jr., a longtime adviser to Trump and the subject of close scrutiny by the FBI and Mueller’s team. There is no indication that Stone knew he was communicating with Russians.