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Russian Investigation Update

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Department of Justice has accused a Russian accountant of information warfare. Federal prosecutors say it's an attempt by Russia to disrupt the upcoming midterm elections. NPR national Justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is following this case and joins us now. Hey, Carrie.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: So tell us about this accountant. How does she fit into the ongoing investigation of Russian interference in U.S. elections?

JOHNSON: Her name is Elena Khusyaynova. She's from St. Petersburg, Russia, and she's still inside Russia today. Prosecutors have charged her with conspiracy to defraud the United States. She was the accountant, the bean counter, for this Russian campaign to interfere with elections here in the U.S. and others around the world between 2016 and 2018. The budget for this operation was $35 million.

CHANG: Wow.

JOHNSON: But DOJ says only part of that was spent buying ads and setting up discord here in America. Now, this woman works for a company controlled by a Russian oligarch also known as Putin's chef because he got his start in catering.

CHANG: (Laughter).

JOHNSON: That oligarch has already faced U.S. sanctions, and a company tied to him was already charged in Washington, D.C., earlier this year.

CHANG: Now, these are the first charges federal prosecutors have filed over Russian interference in the midterm elections. What do they tell us about how Russians are conducting this so-called information warfare?

JOHNSON: These people are awfully persistent. This effort certainly continued even after large numbers of Russians were charged earlier this year by the special counsel, Robert Mueller. And today's charges do not involve the Mueller team. This case is being brought by the U.S. attorney in Alexandria, Va., Zach Terwilliger, and the Justice Department's National Security Division.

As for the Russian MO here, it seems to involve using divisive issues like gun control, immigration, race relations, exploiting divisions already within the United States. The court papers include examples of Facebook ads and language that beats up on former President Obama, late Senator John McCain of Arizona and offered directions to the co-conspirators like, listen, Russians; if you're posting something that's aimed at American liberals, don't mention the website Breitbart.

CHANG: (Laughter).

JOHNSON: And likewise, if you're targeting U.S. conservatives, steer clear of mentioning BuzzFeed. So these people...

CHANG: BuzzFeed.

JOHNSON: ...Have some sophistication about their audience.

CHANG: (Laughter) So I understand U.S. intelligence officials delivered another warning about election security shortly after these charges were announced. What were they concerned about? What was the warning?

JOHNSON: This was a joint statement from the director of national intelligence, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security. They say they're concerned about ongoing campaigns by Russia, China and other foreign adversaries, including Iran, to undermine confidence in elections and to use social media to target American voters. But they add, we don't have any evidence of a compromise or disruption that would basically prevent people from voting or change vote counts.

CHANG: I know you also spent some time in a Virginia courthouse today. Your job never ends. You were there following the ongoing saga of Paul Manafort, President Trump's former campaign chairman. What's the latest there?

JOHNSON: Yeah. The judge in Virginia has dismissed 10 charges on which that Virginia jury deadlocked earlier this year. He set a sentencing date for Paul Manafort for February 2019. Manafort of course has pleaded guilty in a related case in Washington, D.C. He's cooperating with investigators. The judge says if Manafort's cooperation is not done by the time of sentencing, he can always get a break or leniency later on.

Ailsa, Manafort appeared today in court in a green jail uniform in a wheelchair. His lawyer, Kevin Downing, says he has some health issues. A source close to Manafort says it's a problem with his diet in jail, keeping him in a wheelchair for now.

CHANG: My goodness. That's NPR's Carrie Johnson. Thanks, Carrie.

JOHNSON: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.