Russian Plot Touched Unwitting Grass-Roots Trump Supporters

The request was simple: organize or attend a sign-waving rally supporting Donald Trump. But some of the Florida Republicans on the receiving end of those requests now know that they didn’t come from Republican allies, but from Russian adversaries.

Caught up in an elaborate Russian plot without their knowledge, a handful of these small-time Trump supporters said their votes were not swayed and they didn’t do anything they weren’t happy to do. Still, their interactions with the Russians highlight the ways, both big and small, that the nation’s campaign process was infiltrated.

“I was going to do what I was going to do anyway. I was a Trump supporter, they didn’t convince me,” said Jim Frishe, a real estate development consultant and candidate for county office, who organized a sign-waving event in Clearwater that was part of a statewide series of rallies promoted by the Russians.

​Russian-organized rallies

The Florida rallies are one small facet of the indictment issued Friday by special counsel Robert Mueller charging 13 Russians and three Russian companies with interfering in the 2016 election. The most detailed allegation of illegal Russian meddling to date, it says they assumed U.S. identities, sowed discord on social media, communicated with “unwitting” Americans and even set up political rallies from afar.

As part of that, the indictment says the Russians used a Facebook group, a Twitter account and other “false U.S. personas” to organize coordinated “Florida Goes Trump” rallies Aug. 20, 2016. They reached out to campaign staff, grassroots groups supporting Trump, and specific individuals to participate.

Frishe, 68, said he was called by someone identifying themselves as with a group called “Florida for Trump” and asked to organize a sign-waving rally. He said between 15 and 18 people showed up and that he didn’t receive any signs or money or other support. He never heard from them again.

He said he was not overly concerned about the indictment, or his minor role in the drama, and that Russian interference is “nothing new.”

“It’s not surprising,” Frishe said. “It doesn’t have a huge impact in this country.”

Effort sizable

Still, the indictment details a sizable effort to disrupt the 2016 presidential election, aimed in part at helping Republican Donald Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton. It involved creating internet postings in the names of Americans whose identities had been stolen; staging political rallies while posing as American political activists; and paying people in the U.S. to promote or disparage candidates.

Lilia Morraz was another person who put together an event. She said she got involved after she encountered the (at)March_for_Trump account on Twitter, one of the accounts the Russians used.

“I am really active on Twitter. They were saying Trump was not going to be elected. I happened to write to them and say it’s not true,” said Morraz, 60, of Miami.

Morraz said that from there, she was asked about good places to hold a rally in Miami and then “they told me, yes, go ahead and do it.” So she organized an event outside a restaurant that both she and (at)March_for_Trump promoted. She said hundreds attended and she made signs herself and received no money.

Morraz was skeptical about a Russian plot.

“I just don’t believe it. It’s like everything you see on TV. I don’t believe 90 percent of it,” she said.

Identity used

Another Florida Republican, Betty Trigueiro, says she didn’t attend the Florida Goes Trump rallies. But her name and phone number were included in a Facebook post promoting the event without her permission.

Trigueiro, 62, of Bradenton, said that in August 2016 she started getting some Twitter messages from people she did not know with details on pro-Trump events. She thinks they may have gotten her contact information from her time as secretary of a local Republican club. She said she never attended any of the events.

While she was troubled that there appeared to efforts to “infiltrate and cause chaos,” Trigueiro wasn’t convinced the outcome was impacted.

“There was too many people that wanted him elected,” she said.

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Russian Plot Touched Unwitting Grass-Roots Trump Supporters

The request was simple: organize or attend a sign-waving rally supporting Donald Trump. But some of the Florida Republicans on the receiving end of those requests now know that they didn’t come from Republican allies, but from Russian adversaries.

Caught up in an elaborate Russian plot without their knowledge, a handful of these small-time Trump supporters said their votes were not swayed and they didn’t do anything they weren’t happy to do. Still, their interactions with the Russians highlight the ways, both big and small, that the nation’s campaign process was infiltrated.

“I was going to do what I was going to do anyway. I was a Trump supporter, they didn’t convince me,” said Jim Frishe, a real estate development consultant and candidate for county office, who organized a sign-waving event in Clearwater that was part of a statewide series of rallies promoted by the Russians.

​Russian-organized rallies

The Florida rallies are one small facet of the indictment issued Friday by special counsel Robert Mueller charging 13 Russians and three Russian companies with interfering in the 2016 election. The most detailed allegation of illegal Russian meddling to date, it says they assumed U.S. identities, sowed discord on social media, communicated with “unwitting” Americans and even set up political rallies from afar.

As part of that, the indictment says the Russians used a Facebook group, a Twitter account and other “false U.S. personas” to organize coordinated “Florida Goes Trump” rallies Aug. 20, 2016. They reached out to campaign staff, grassroots groups supporting Trump, and specific individuals to participate.

Frishe, 68, said he was called by someone identifying themselves as with a group called “Florida for Trump” and asked to organize a sign-waving rally. He said between 15 and 18 people showed up and that he didn’t receive any signs or money or other support. He never heard from them again.

He said he was not overly concerned about the indictment, or his minor role in the drama, and that Russian interference is “nothing new.”

“It’s not surprising,” Frishe said. “It doesn’t have a huge impact in this country.”

Effort sizable

Still, the indictment details a sizable effort to disrupt the 2016 presidential election, aimed in part at helping Republican Donald Trump defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton. It involved creating internet postings in the names of Americans whose identities had been stolen; staging political rallies while posing as American political activists; and paying people in the U.S. to promote or disparage candidates.

Lilia Morraz was another person who put together an event. She said she got involved after she encountered the (at)March_for_Trump account on Twitter, one of the accounts the Russians used.

“I am really active on Twitter. They were saying Trump was not going to be elected. I happened to write to them and say it’s not true,” said Morraz, 60, of Miami.

Morraz said that from there, she was asked about good places to hold a rally in Miami and then “they told me, yes, go ahead and do it.” So she organized an event outside a restaurant that both she and (at)March_for_Trump promoted. She said hundreds attended and she made signs herself and received no money.

Morraz was skeptical about a Russian plot.

“I just don’t believe it. It’s like everything you see on TV. I don’t believe 90 percent of it,” she said.

Identity used

Another Florida Republican, Betty Trigueiro, says she didn’t attend the Florida Goes Trump rallies. But her name and phone number were included in a Facebook post promoting the event without her permission.

Trigueiro, 62, of Bradenton, said that in August 2016 she started getting some Twitter messages from people she did not know with details on pro-Trump events. She thinks they may have gotten her contact information from her time as secretary of a local Republican club. She said she never attended any of the events.

While she was troubled that there appeared to efforts to “infiltrate and cause chaos,” Trigueiro wasn’t convinced the outcome was impacted.

“There was too many people that wanted him elected,” she said.

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Florida School Shooting Survivor Holds Lawmakers Accountable Over Gun Laws

“We are going to be the last mass shooting,” vowed Emma Gonzalez, a survivor of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, who spoke at a gun-control rally Saturday, three days after an armed former student killed 17 of her classmates and teachers.

Gonzalez spoke bluntly to her audience, hundreds of people who gathered at the Fort Lauderdale federal courthouse, about 45 kilometers (28 miles) from the suburb where the shooting took place. 

“The people in the government who are voted into power are lying to us,” Gonzalez said.”We are prepared to call B.S. [point out a lie].” 

“They say that tougher gun laws do not decrease gun violence,” she said. “They say a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun. We call B.S.”

Gonzalez said mental health — a factor President Donald Trump and other authorities had pointed to in their responses to the shooting — was not the main problem; she blamed Florida’s lenient gun laws, under which the teenage shooter, Nikolas Cruz, legally purchased his weapon.

“He would not have harmed that many students with a knife,” she said.

Gonzalez elicited a strong response from the audience when she mentioned the amount of money politicians take from the National Rifle Association (NRA), a powerful lobbying group. “To every politician who is taking donations from the NRA,” she cried, “shame on you.”

WATCH: At Florida Rally, School Shooting Survivors Argue for Gun Controls

“Shame on you!” the crowd responded, turning the phrase into a chant.

WATCH: ‘People I Know Have Died’

​Gun rally

Meanwhile, about 60 kilometers (37 miles) away at the Dade County fairgrounds, hundreds of gun enthusiasts attended a gun show featuring more than 100 vendors of firearms and accessories.

Show manager Jorge Fernandez told the Reuters news service that the company holding the event, Florida Gun Shows, decided against canceling the show because of financial concerns.

At the show, Adolfo David Ginarte, 30, told Reuters that it would be “un-American” to cancel the gun show because of the mass shooting. “Facts don’t care about your feelings,” he said. “Things are going to happen. … This isn’t the first time and, unfortunately, it’s not going to be the last time.”

Joe Arrington, 29, told Reuters he did not believe more regulation would have stopped the shooting. “I think a lot of agencies didn’t do their job necessarily like they were supposed to,” he said.

On Friday, the FBI — the top national law enforcement agency — admitted that it ignored a tipoff about the gunman.

“Very sad that the FBI missed all of the many signals sent out by the Florida school shooter. This is not acceptable,” U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted Saturday evening. “They are spending too much time trying to prove Russian collusion with the Trump campaign – there is no collusion. Get back to the basics and make us all proud!”

The agency acknowledged it did not follow “established protocols” after receiving information about the shooter on its national tip line. The FBI said someone with a close relationship to Cruz left information on January 5 about the teenager’s desire to kill people and other disturbing details. 

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions responded by ordering an immediate review of how the Justice Department and the FBI respond to warnings about potential mass killers. 

Trump visits with victims

Trump and his wife, Melania, visited Florida on Friday, to meet with law enforcement officials and some of the victims of Wednesday’s shooting.

At a Broward County hospital near the scene of the shooting, Trump praised the medical staff who treated the victims, saying, “The job they’ve done is incredible.” He also praised the speed with which first responders arrived at the school. When asked by reporters whether the nation’s gun laws needed to be changed, Trump did not respond.

Trump was to spend the long Presidents Day weekend at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, about 55 kilometers (34 miles) from Parkland.

Cruz, who was being held at the Broward County jail without bond, has admitted carrying out the shootings with a semiautomatic AR-15 rifle, according to the county sheriff’s office. Cruz, who had been expelled for disciplinary reasons last year from the school, faces 17 counts of premeditated murder.

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Florida School Shooting Survivor Holds Lawmakers Accountable Over Gun Laws

“We are going to be the last mass shooting,” vowed Emma Gonzalez, a survivor of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, who spoke at a gun-control rally Saturday, three days after an armed former student killed 17 of her classmates and teachers.

Gonzalez spoke bluntly to her audience, hundreds of people who gathered at the Fort Lauderdale federal courthouse, about 45 kilometers (28 miles) from the suburb where the shooting took place. 

“The people in the government who are voted into power are lying to us,” Gonzalez said.”We are prepared to call B.S. [point out a lie].” 

“They say that tougher gun laws do not decrease gun violence,” she said. “They say a good guy with a gun stops a bad guy with a gun. We call B.S.”

Gonzalez said mental health — a factor President Donald Trump and other authorities had pointed to in their responses to the shooting — was not the main problem; she blamed Florida’s lenient gun laws, under which the teenage shooter, Nikolas Cruz, legally purchased his weapon.

“He would not have harmed that many students with a knife,” she said.

Gonzalez elicited a strong response from the audience when she mentioned the amount of money politicians take from the National Rifle Association (NRA), a powerful lobbying group. “To every politician who is taking donations from the NRA,” she cried, “shame on you.”

WATCH: At Florida Rally, School Shooting Survivors Argue for Gun Controls

“Shame on you!” the crowd responded, turning the phrase into a chant.

WATCH: ‘People I Know Have Died’

​Gun rally

Meanwhile, about 60 kilometers (37 miles) away at the Dade County fairgrounds, hundreds of gun enthusiasts attended a gun show featuring more than 100 vendors of firearms and accessories.

Show manager Jorge Fernandez told the Reuters news service that the company holding the event, Florida Gun Shows, decided against canceling the show because of financial concerns.

At the show, Adolfo David Ginarte, 30, told Reuters that it would be “un-American” to cancel the gun show because of the mass shooting. “Facts don’t care about your feelings,” he said. “Things are going to happen. … This isn’t the first time and, unfortunately, it’s not going to be the last time.”

Joe Arrington, 29, told Reuters he did not believe more regulation would have stopped the shooting. “I think a lot of agencies didn’t do their job necessarily like they were supposed to,” he said.

On Friday, the FBI — the top national law enforcement agency — admitted that it ignored a tipoff about the gunman.

“Very sad that the FBI missed all of the many signals sent out by the Florida school shooter. This is not acceptable,” U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted Saturday evening. “They are spending too much time trying to prove Russian collusion with the Trump campaign – there is no collusion. Get back to the basics and make us all proud!”

The agency acknowledged it did not follow “established protocols” after receiving information about the shooter on its national tip line. The FBI said someone with a close relationship to Cruz left information on January 5 about the teenager’s desire to kill people and other disturbing details. 

U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions responded by ordering an immediate review of how the Justice Department and the FBI respond to warnings about potential mass killers. 

Trump visits with victims

Trump and his wife, Melania, visited Florida on Friday, to meet with law enforcement officials and some of the victims of Wednesday’s shooting.

At a Broward County hospital near the scene of the shooting, Trump praised the medical staff who treated the victims, saying, “The job they’ve done is incredible.” He also praised the speed with which first responders arrived at the school. When asked by reporters whether the nation’s gun laws needed to be changed, Trump did not respond.

Trump was to spend the long Presidents Day weekend at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, about 55 kilometers (34 miles) from Parkland.

Cruz, who was being held at the Broward County jail without bond, has admitted carrying out the shootings with a semiautomatic AR-15 rifle, according to the county sheriff’s office. Cruz, who had been expelled for disciplinary reasons last year from the school, faces 17 counts of premeditated murder.

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Demonstrators Rally in Florida for Tougher Gun-Control Laws 

Hundreds of demonstrators gathered Saturday outside the U.S. Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to rally for more stringent gun-control laws, days after the third most deadly school shooting in American history.

Amid chants of “End gun violence,” group leaders, local legislators and other public figures addressed what they felt was an urgent need for tougher laws governing the ownership of guns.

“I have called out Congress and told them … their job is to work for the people,” one young woman told the throng of demonstrators. “And they’re not working for the people. The country wants gun reform and they refuse to talk about it. They talk about mental health. They talk about bullying. They say it’s not the time. Now is the time! There is no other time!” she said to loud cheers and applause.

Broward County Schools Superintendent Robert Runcie, who was expected to attend the rally, posted on Twitter that the deadly shooting might have sparked enough outrage to force legislative action on gun control:

The demonstrators gathered one day after U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered a review of how the Justice Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation respond to warnings about potential mass killers. 

That action followed an admission Friday by the FBI that it had ignored a tip about the gunman who killed 17 people and wounded 14 others at a school in Florida on Wednesday.

The agency acknowledged that it had not followed “established protocols” after receiving information about the shooter, Nikolas Cruz, on its national tip line. The FBI said someone with a close relationship to Cruz left information on January 5 about the teenager’s desire to kill people and other disturbing details.

Robert Lasky, special agent in charge of the FBI’s field office in Miami, said the office did not receive the tip. “We truly regret any additional pain that this has caused,” he told reporters.

‘Relentlessly committed’ to improvement

FBI Director Christopher Wray said in a statement Friday that he was devoted to “getting to the bottom” of the matter and that FBI employees were “relentlessly committed to improving all that we do and how we do it.”

In a statement, Florida Governor Rick Scott called for Wray’s ouster, saying his agents’ “failure to take action against this killer is unacceptable. The FBI has admitted that they were contacted last month by a person who called to inform them of Cruz’s ‘desire to kill people,’ and ‘the potential of him conducting a school shooting.’ ”

“Seventeen innocent people are dead and acknowledging a mistake isn’t going to cut it,” the governor’s statement said. “An apology will never bring these 17 Floridians back to life or comfort the families who are in pain. The families will spend a lifetime wondering how this could happen, and an apology will never give them the answers they desperately need.”

Scott noted that “we constantly promote ‘see something, say something,’ and a courageous person did just that to the FBI. And the FBI failed to act.” Therefore, he said, “the FBI director needs to resign.”

President Donald Trump made no comment to reporters on Friday as he left the White House for Florida.

Arriving in the state a few hours later, he and first lady Melania Trump drove to a hospital in Pompano Beach, meeting with some victims of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in nearby Parkland.

Walking with Dr. Igor Nichiporenko, Trump praised the medical staff who treated the victims, saying, “The job they’ve done is incredible.” He also praised the speed with which first responders arrived at the school.

When asked by reporters whether the nation’s gun laws needed to be changed, Trump did not respond as he walked into a room.

Later, Trump traveled to the Broward County Sheriff’s Office, meeting with several law enforcement officers. “Thank you all very much. Fantastic job. Thank you,” he told the officers.

Trump also met with Officer Mike Leonard, who said he was the one to locate and apprehend Cruz.

Speaking to Leonard, Trump said, “That was so modest. I would have told it much differently. I would have said, ‘Without me, they never would have found him,’ ” prompting laughter in the room.

Trump is to spend the long Presidents Day weekend at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, about 55 kilometers (34 miles) from Parkland.

17 murder counts

Cruz, who was being held at the Broward County Jail without bond, has admitted carrying out the shootings with a semiautomatic AR-15 rifle, according to the county sheriff’s office. Cruz, who had been expelled for disciplinary reasons last year from the school, faces 17 counts of premeditated murder.

Some members of Congress from Florida, including Senator Marco Rubio and Representative Ted Deutsch (who represents the district where the killings took place), called for congressional investigations into how the FBI fumbled the tip about Cruz.

VOA White House correspondent Steve Herman contributed to this story.

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US Man Pleads Guilty in Fraud Case Connected to Russia Election Probe

A California man has pleaded guilty to inadvertently selling bank accounts to Russians who were indicted Friday by a federal grand jury for interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Richard Pinedo pleaded guilty to using stolen identities to set up bank accounts that were then used by the Russians, according to a February 12 court filing.  

The special counsel investigating Russian meddling on Friday announced charges against 13 Russian citizens and three Russian entities for interfering in the election.  

The indictment alleges that the Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg-based social media company with Kremlin ties, 12 of its employees, and its financial backer orchestrated an effort to influence the 2016 election campaign in favor of President Donald Trump. 

 

Prosecutors charged Yevgeniy Prigozhin, a businessman with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, with funding the operation through companies he controls, Concord Management and Consulting LLC, Concord Catering and a number of subsidiaries.  

 

Prigozhin and his businesses allegedly provided “significant funds” for the Internet Research Agency’s operations to disrupt the U.S. election, according to the indictment. 

 

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said that the Russian conspirators sought to “promote social discord in the United State and undermine public confidence in democracy.”

 

“We must not allow them to succeed,” Rosenstein said at a news conference in Washington. 

 

The conspiracy was part of a larger operation code-named Project Lakhta, Rosenstein said. 

 

“Project Lakhta included multiple components – some involving domestic audiences within the Russian Federation and others targeting foreign audiences in multiple countries,” Rosenstein said. 

 

Mueller, who has made no public statements about the Russia investigation since his appointment last May, did not speak at the news conference. 

 

Charges against Russian nationals

 

The indictment charges all the defendants with conspiracy to defraud the United States. Three defendants are charged with conspiracy to commit wire and bank fraud, and five individuals with aggravated identity theft.

 

None of the defendants charged in the indictment are in custody, according to a spokesman for the Special Counsel’s office. 

 

The U.S. and Russia don’t have an extradition treaty and it’s unlikely that any of the defendants will stand trial in the U.S.

 

The 37-page charging document alleges that the Russian conspirators sought to coordinate their effort with Trump campaign associates, but it does not accuse anyone on the Trump campaign of colluding with the Russians.

 

Trump took to Twitter after the indictment was announced to again deny his campaign worked with the Russians.

 

“Russia started their anti-U.S. 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!”

 

The indictment marks the first time Mueller’s office has brought charges against Russians and Russian entities for meddling in the 2016 election.  

 

Mueller’s sprawling investigation has led to the indictments of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and associate Rick Gates.Former Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and former campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos have pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about their contacts with Russian officials.

 

Details of indictment

 

The indictment says the Russian campaign to “interfere in the U.S. political system” started as early as 2014 and accelerated as the 2016 election campaign got underway. 

 

During the 2016 campaign, the Russian operatives posted “derogatory information” about a number of presidential candidates.  But by early to mid-2016, the operation included “supporting” Trump’s presidential campaign and “disparaging” Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

                          

Taking on fake American identities, the Russian operatives communicated with “unwitting” Trump campaign associates and with other political activists “to seek to coordinate political activities,” the indictment says.

 

The indictment describes how Russian operatives used subterfuge, stolen identities and other methods to stage political rallies, buy ads on social media platforms, and pay gullible Americans to “promote or disparage candidates.”

 

To avoid detection by U.S. law enforcement agencies, the Russian operatives used computer networks based in the United States, according to the indictment.

“These groups and pages, which addressed the divisive U.S. political and social issues, falsely claimed to be controlled by U.S. activists when, in fact, they were controlled by defendants,” the indictment reads.

 

A number of the operatives are alleged to have traveled to the United States under “false pretenses to collect intelligence to inform the influence operations.”

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