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Russian Charged As Money Manager In Disinformation Campaigns

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

U.S. Justice Department has charged another Russian with interfering in U.S. elections. But this time, the target is the midterms less than three weeks away. NPR national justice correspondent Carrie Johnson joins us. Carrie, thanks so much for being with us.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Hi, Scott.

SIMON: What exactly are the Russians trying to do?

JOHNSON: The Russians are engaged in an information warfare campaign, targeting elections in the U.S. and other countries. The Justice Department says their budget over the last two years was $35 million, Scott, all to buy Internet domain names, ads on Facebook and cause other disruptions online. And the method is going to sound familiar - messages aimed at controversial issues like gun control, immigration, race relations. These messages mention people like former President Barack Obama, the late Arizona Senator John McCain, whom they called an old geezer, and even the special counsel investigating Russian interference, Robert Mueller.

All these new details emerged in a criminal charge against a Russian woman named Elena Khusyaynova. She's the accountant for this operation, the bean counter living in St. Petersburg, Russia.

SIMON: This new case coincides with a warning from the U.S. intelligence community about the upcoming elections in three weeks. What worries them most?

JOHNSON: Yeah. The director of national intelligence, the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI issued an unusual joint statement on Friday warning that there are ongoing campaigns by Russia, China, Iran and other adversaries to undermine confidence in our democracy. They say these plotters are deploying social media and propaganda.

But the U.S. officials say there's no evidence these countries have been able to prevent anyone here in the U.S. from voting or that they've been able to change votes or make it harder for American election officials to count those votes when they happen.

Still, you'll remember that more than two dozen Russians have already been indicted this year for conspiring to interfere in the 2016 elections. And the message this week is that they are at it again, or maybe they never stopped.

SIMON: We should remind ourselves - this is so serious. This has to do with the ability of citizens to cast vote, which is the lowest and most important lever of democracy. What's the reaction been like so far in the Capitol?

JOHNSON: You know, President Trump has kind of brushed off these new charges. He says there's nothing here to do with his campaign. And he says if there are hackers out there, they probably liked his opponent in 2016, Hillary Clinton, better than him. He was also critical, yesterday, of former President Obama, Trump said, for not doing more in 2016 to deter these attacks back then. Of course, the Obama administration tried to issue a warning, but they say that idea was shot down by Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell at the time.

As for other reactions from the Capitol, Senator Mark Warner, Democrat - the senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee - says it's time for Congress to get involved here. He says that social media companies need to commit to work with lawmakers to update laws and better protect against this kind of foreign election interference.

SIMON: Another story this week on the Russian investigation front I want to ask you about. The president's former campaign chairman, of course, Paul Manafort was back in court on Friday in a wheelchair, I understand. What's the latest?

JOHNSON: Yeah. A judge in Virginia says Paul Manafort will be sentenced in February 2019 in his bank and tax fraud case. Remember, those charges did not directly involve Russia, but Paul Manafort had a lot of dealings with oligarchs in Ukraine and Russia. And he was around for key moments in the Trump campaign - that Trump Tower meeting with Russians in June 2016, also, a time when the platform was changed with respect to Ukraine at the Republican National Convention. There's no timeline for when Manafort's cooperation with authorities might end.

And as for Manafort, he didn't look so good yesterday, Scott. He was in a wheelchair, as you said. His lawyer said he has some serious health issues. A source tells me they're related to his diet in prison. But maybe some of that will clear up once he gets into Federal Bureau of Prisons' custody later this year - next year.

SIMON: NPR's Carrie Johnson, thanks so much for being with us.

JOHNSON: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.