Russian influence operation attempted to suppress black vote: Indictment

The indictment describes repeated efforts to foment distrust of Hillary Clinton.

— -- Special Counsel indictments against 13 Russian nationals revealed that a key aspect of the alleged covert assault on the 2016 presidential election was an attempt to suppress turnout by African-American voters, an undertaking described in great detail in the papers filed in federal court Friday.

“Of particular concern, the indictments show how the Russians tried to suppress the votes of minorities across the United States in order to help Donald Trump win the presidency,” Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, said in a statement.

The indictment describes repeated efforts to foment distrust of Democrat Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, evidence of an effort to “encourage U.S. minority groups not to vote in the 2016 U.S. presidential election or to vote for a third-party U.S. presidential candidate.” Christopher Anders, deputy director of the ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office, said this alleged suppression of minority votes should be of grave concern to both American citizens and investigators.

“Buried literally in the middle of the indictment is a paragraph that should jar every American committed to the long fight for voting rights,” Anders wrote in a statement. “The Russians allegedly masqueraded as African-American and American Muslim activists to urge minority voters to abstain from voting in the 2016 election or to vote for a third-party candidate… Both the special counsel and Congress should investigate whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russian agents in this alleged targeting of minority voters in 2016. Such actions, if proven, would be criminal.”

According to the indictment, the alleged conspirators used an Instagram account called “Woke Blacks” to tell followers a month before the 2016 election that “we’d surely be better off without voting AT ALL.” Less than a week before Election Day, the accused Russians purchased Instagram advertisements on an account called “Blacktivist” that read in part: “Choose peace and vote for Jill Stein. Trust me, it’s not a wasted vote.”

In October 2017, ABC News interviewed several black activists who described efforts to recruit them that, in retrospect, they realized were tied to the Russian operation.

Conrad James, an activist in Raleigh, North Carolina, says he was approached in September 2016 by a woman who claimed to represent BlackMattersUS and asked him to speak at a rally they were hosting in Charlotte. James said more than 600 people turned up.

“They definitely were trying to stir-up trouble,” James said of BlackMattersUS. “Their intent was obviously to have some type of emotionally filled rally where people are adding fuel to the fire that was already happening around Charlotte.”

A pair of bloggers whose social media posts and YouTube videos were pushed out from the Internet Research Agency, the St. Petersburg troll farm named in the indictment, carried the most pointed political messages.

“We, the black people, we stand in one unity” said one post, by a pair of bloggers purporting to be from Atlanta named Williams and Kalvin. “We stand in one to say that Hillary Clinton is not our candidate.”

Federal officials and Facebook executives confirmed to ABC News that the William and Kalvin videos, first reported on by the Daily Beast, originated not in Atlanta, but in Russia.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said during a press conference Friday that, in the end, officials do not believe the Russian operations did anything to alter the final vote tally of the presidential contest.

“There is no allegation in the indictment that the charged conduct altered the outcome of the 2016 election,” Rosenstein said.

White House spokesperson Raj Shah issued a statement acknowledging the Department of Justice’s findings and commending their work.

“We condemn all foreign attempts to create chaos and discord within our electoral system and praise the Department of Justice’s efforts to bring these bad actors to justice,” said Shah.

President Trump took to Twitter on Friday to cast the indictment as a vindication of his campaign.

“Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for President,” Trump tweeted. “The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong - no collusion!”

Black turnout in the 2016 election dropped for the first time in a presidential election in 20 years, according to findings by the Pew Research Center. Turnout fell from a record-high 66.6% in 2012 to 59.6% in 2016, the Pew Research Center found, the largest drop on record for blacks.

At two rallies in December 2017, Trump appeared to expressed appreciation to black voters for not turning up to the polls.

“They didn't come out to vote for Hillary. They didn't come out,” Trump said at a rally in Hershey, Pa. “And that was a big — so thank you to the African-American community.”

He made similar remarks in Michigan, saying African American voters “came through big league.”

“If they had any doubt, they didn't vote,” he said. “And that was almost as good.”