The scathing indictment unsealed Friday by special counsel Robert Mueller outlines a multi-state scheme to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. But the document makes clear that the operation in Florida, the nation’s largest swing state, was in a class by itself.
The indictment is packed with details of how Russian nationals duped Donald Trump campaign volunteers and grass-roots organizations in Florida into holding rallies they organized and helped fund with foreign cash. And Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio himself was a target of an effort to “denigrate” him and several other presidential candidates.
In total, Mueller indicted 13 Russian nationals and a trio of Russian entities for meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign, an operation that focused on hyping Trump, but also on sowing discord and undermining Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz and Rubio.
During the heat of the 2016 race, Trump campaign officials in Florida said they were surprised by all the grass-roots support for the president — which seemed entirely organic at the time. In keeping with those comments in 2016, those same campaign officials say they were never made aware of any Russian involvement.
Susie Wiles, one of Trump’s top Florida advisers, said staff and volunteers did their due diligence when planning events and coordinating with grass-roots supporters — but detecting Russian impostors wasn’t on anyone’s radar.
“We looked out for things when people came to rallies,” Wiles said in a phone interview. “We weren’t looking for fake Americans that were really Russians. The world seems different now.”
Wiles said she does not remember encountering any groups planning rallies or working in coordination with the campaign that seemed outside the norm of traditional political organizations.
“I don’t think anyone had any idea,” Wiles said. “There are always ways someone can manipulate the system, but this was not something we saw.”
Sue Snowden, head of the Trump campaign’s Palm Beach County operation, said she was “not qualified to answer” questions about the indictment before hanging up on a POLITICO reporter.
“I was never approached by the FBI,” said Karen Giorno, Trump’s campaign manager in Florida, when asked about whether the campaign had any warning of the Russian activity.
In the charging documents, Mueller noted specific instances when Russian nationals interacted directly with Trump campaign staff, who were oblivious to the fact they were being hoodwinked by Russian agents.
“In or around August 2016, defendants and their co-conspirators used false U.S. personas to communicate with Trump campaign staff involved in local community outreach,” read the indictment.
The interactions were part of planning events that were collectively called “Florida Goes Trump” rallies, and held throughout the state. Russians also helped organize some of the most recognizable anti-Hillary Clinton displays of the election cycle in Florida.
“For example, defendants and their co-conspirators asked one U.S. person to build a cage on on a flatbed truck … and another U.S. person to wear a costume portraying Clinton in a prison uniform,” the indictment read.
“Defendants and their co-conspirators paid these individuals to complete the requests,” it continued.
The caged Clinton stunt was a hit among Trump supporters. On Sept. 23, for instance, NBC2 reported that a Cape Coral man erected a caged Clinton display in his front yard.
“I feel like I’m doing my little part at least in my little neck of the woods,” homeowner Gary Howd said.
While many GOP operatives who were working in Florida in 2016 don’t recall running across organizations that raised real red flags, some still saw warning signs. Republican consultant and commentator Rick Wilson, for instance, spent months warning about Russian intrusion. And his Tallahassee neighbor, former Republican Party of Florida Executive Director David Johnson, detected something amiss as well.
“It was all the social media stuff, that’s where you could see something was weird,” said Johnson, who consulted for Jeb Bush’s super PAC in 2016. “It was syntax errors and odd ways of saying things that were apparent.”
The Florida Goes Trump rallies were held in more than 20 cities across the state on Aug. 20, 2016. News releases touting the event were rife with grammatical errors and used language ripped from a traditional Trump stump speech.
“We want to support our candidate and show the whole country that we must unite and make America great again!” read a posting about the rallies. “On August 20, we want to gather patriots on the start of Floridian towns and cities and march to unite America and support Donald Trump!”
Russian-linked Facebook group “Being Patriotic” sent messages to its followers as it was planning the rallies, stressing the importance of winning Florida.
“Florida is still a purple state and we need to appoint it red,” read the message, according to the indictment. “If we lose Florida, we lose America.”
Beyond the rallies, the Russian scheme also used its social media reach to falsely tie Clinton to voter fraud in South Florida, a region with a long history of voting abnormalities.
Russian-linked Twitter accounts on Nov. 2, well into the state’s early-voting period, blasted out a tweet saying voter fraud was occurring because “tens of thousands of ineligible mail in Hillary voters are being reported in Broward County, Florida.”
Broward County is home to the biggest concentration of registered Democrats in the state.
Mueller also said that Russia-linked social media accounts targeted other presidential candidates, including an effort to smear Rubio, though it did not provide specific examples.
Rubio’s presidential campaign manager, Terry Sullivan, said he wasn’t surprised with Russian interference but doesn’t recall being warned about Rubio being targeted.
“I feel relatively confident that we were not hacked and nobody had access to our emails and anybody who knows me knows I can say salty things at the time and those would have gotten out,” Sullivan said.
Alberto Martinez, who was Rubio’s chief of staff at the time, also said revelations his boss was targeted are not surprising.
“When you work for someone who is outspoken in condemning the regimes in Moscow, Havana and Beijing, you assume you will be the subject of foreign espionage and influence campaigns,” he said.
Kyle Cheney contributed to this report.
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