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Indictment: Florida, West Palm play role in Russian election-meddling

Using fake Twitter accounts and false identifications, Russian nationals organized rallies in Florida to help the candidacy of Donald Trump, an indictment unsealed Friday by Special Counsel Robert Mueller alleges.

Florida in general — and West Palm Beach in one bizarre reference — played a prominent role in a sprawling, sophisticated and well-funded election-meddling operation by the Russians to help Trump and damage the prospects of his Democratic Party opponent, former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the indictment states.

READ: Indictment with West Palm Beach references highlighted.

The indictment, which names 13 Russian nationals and a variety of firms, is a potentially explosive development in Mueller’s investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russians.

Trump has steadfastly maintained that his campaign did not coordinate efforts with Russians.

RELATED: Post coverage of President Trump

Traveling to Palm Beach Friday for another weekend at Mar-a-Lago, he reiterated that stand, tweeting: “Russia started their anti-US campaign in 2014, long before I announced that I would run for president. The results of the election were not impacted. The Trump campaign did nothing wrong — no collusion!”

The White House put out a separate statement, quoting the president saying: “It’s time we stop the outlandish partisan attacks, wild and false allegations, and far-fetched theories, which only serves to further the agendas of bad actors, like Russia, and do nothing to protect the principles of our institutions.”

It is noteworthy that the White House is quoting the president referring to Russia as a bad actor; up to this point, Trump has rarely criticized Russia despite the unanimous view of U.S. intelligence agencies that it orchestrated a campaign to interfere with the 2016 election.

Susie Wiles, who oversaw Trump’s campaign in Florida, told The Palm Beach Post Friday that Russians may have tried to help, as the indictment alleges, but she added, “I’m not aware of any of that ever occurring. Not to say that these folks didn’t want it to happen. As far as I know, it was just cyber conversation.”

Wiles said she was not interviewed by Mueller’s investigators.

In light of the allegations of Russian interference, Caroline Rowland, spokeswoman for the Florida Democratic Party, said the party is “taking steps to protect itself from future interference of any kind during the 2018 elections, but we need action and leadership on election security to ensure fair elections.”

The indictment unsealed Friday does allege that Russian help to the Trump campaign in Florida went beyond cyber conversation.

“In or around late July 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators used the Facebook group ‘Being Patriotic,’ the Twitter account @March_for_Trump, and other false U.S. persons to organize a series of coordinated rallies in Florida,” the indictment states. “The rallies were collectively referred to as ‘Florida Goes Trump’ and held on August 20, 2016.”

Another section of the indictment reads: “On or about August 15, 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators received an email at one of their fake U.S. persona accounts from a real U.S. person, a Florida-based political activist identified as the ‘Chair for the Trump Campaign’ in a particular Florida county. The activist identified two additional sites in Florida for possible rallies. Defendants and their co-conspirators subsequently used their false U.S. persona accounts to communicate with the activist about logistics and an additional rally in Florida.”

Russians also played a role in a West Palm Beach rally, according to the indictment.

“Beginning on or about August 5, 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators used the false U.S. persona @March_for_Trump Twitter account to recruit and later pay a real U.S. person to wear a costume portraying Clinton in a prison uniform at a rally in West Palm Beach,” the indictment states.

Trump frequently argued that Clinton had mishandled classified information, and his supporters would chant “lock her up, lock her up!” during his rallies.

The indictment later again referred to the West Palm Beach rally: “On or about September 9, 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators, through a false U.S. persona, contacted the real U.S. person who had impersonated Clinton at the West Palm Beach rally. Defendants and their co-conspirators sent that U.S. person money via interstate wire as an inducement to travel from Florida to New York and to dress in costume at another rally they organized.”

At 37 pages, the indictment reads like a script from the FX TV show “The Americans,” which features Russians embedding themselves and running spy operations in 1980s America.

Russians involved in what the indictment describes as a well-funded, wide-ranging operation focused on Florida and a handful of other key states. They understood the election jargon of “red” states that were reliably Republican, “blue” states that were Democratic and “purple” ones like Florida that would be hotly contested by candidates from each party.

The indictment suggests an operation that used sophisticated, detailed knowledge of American social and political culture to turn the 2016 election on its head.

Black voters were urged not to vote. Other voters were urged to back Jill Stein, the Green Party’s presidential nominee in 2016 whose support was thought to come at the expense of Clinton.

The driving force of the operation was “to sow discord in the U.S. political system, including the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Defendants posted derogatory information about a number of candidates, and by early to mid-2016, Defendant’s’ operations included supporting the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald J.Trump (“The Trump Campaign”) and disparaging Hillary Clinton,” the indictment said.

For all of its detail, the indictment does not allege wrong-doing on the part of the Trump campaign.

“Some Defendants, posing as US. persons and without revealing their Russian association, communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump Campaign and with other political activists to seek to coordinate political activities,” the indictment states.

‘Unwitting’ is the key word in that sentence, for it could be seen as buttressing the president’s claim that his campaign did not collude with Russians and was, instead, unknowingly in receipt of Russian assistance.

Still, the indictment will advance the doubts of some of the president’s opponents, who view his razor-thin victory over Clinton as the result, at least in part, of Russian help.

Multiple news outlets have reported that none of the 13 Russians indicted are in U.S. custody. If they are in Russia, they are not likely to be extradited to the U.S.

The 13 Russians have been indicted, specifically, on a series of charges: conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud; and aggravated identity theft.

Even with the limited prospect of criminal prosecutions of the Russians, the indictment raises key questions that could spell trouble for Trump down the line, including the question of how Mueller learned so much about the Russian operation and whether any of the Trump campaign officials who have pleaded guilty to other charges provided Mueller with details included in the indictment.

If former Trump campaign officials tell Mueller they or former colleagues helped the Russians, an investigation that has been a dark cloud over Trump’s presidency could start sending down bolts of lightning.

Staff writers Christine Stapleton and George Bennett contributed to this story.

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