In a plot carried out by 80 employees, the Internet Research Agency, which has come to be known as the “troll factory,” stole identities from Americans and created social media campaigns and fake online personas like Matt Skiber to try to manipulate voters, activists and Trump campaign staff members, court papers show. The Russians focused on Florida, the nation’s most critical swing state, contacting activists and Mr. Trump’s campaign primarily for help in staging rallies across the state on Aug. 20, in the heat of the presidential race, called Florida Goes Trump, according to the indictment.
Court papers do not indicate whether the Russians succeeded in winning help from the campaign’s Florida operation. And the rallies appear to have attracted few attendees and relatively little attention at the time.
The Trump campaign’s operation in Florida, as in many key states, was thinly staffed, inexperienced and often overwhelmed by the demands of a white-hot presidential race. Any procedures for vetting and verifying people or groups who sought to get involved were not widely shared by campaign staff members. And they were generally not on the lookout for infiltration efforts by anyone, let alone by Russians who had gone to great lengths to create false identities.
The informal setup and small staff was typical of the on-the-ground operations of most statewide or presidential campaigns, which tend to be chaotic hives of activity where offers of volunteer assistance are usually welcomed with little scrutiny.
“I would have been more concerned with whether or not the opposition would try to infiltrate our campaign,” Ms. Giorno said, “or whether someone who was trying to represent the campaign had a criminal record, or had the right character or background.”
Ms. Giorno said she was not involved in running the Facebook account and was “shocked” by the revelations in the indictment that someone on her staff had unknowingly opened the door for the Russians.
But, she added: “I don’t know how you stop that. Anybody can put up a fake profile on anyone.”
The Trump re-election campaign did not respond to a request for comment. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, said, “Out of respect for the special counsel, we are not going to comment.”
The employee who oversaw the Facebook account had wide latitude and focused primarily on policing for offensive content on the public-facing portion of the page, while also trying to respond to everyone who privately expressed an interest in boosting Mr. Trump.
The employee cited a desire to be polite to supporters and to make them feel heard. Expressing embarrassment over being tricked by the Russians, the employee compared the situation to “The Americans,” the television show in which Russian spies collect intelligence while passing themselves off as business owners in Washington during the height of the Cold War.
Using the information provided by the employee, the Russians at the Internet Research Agency emailed Mr. Tucker, the campaign’s Florida communications director, from an account set up under another alias, Josh Milton, court documents show. The Russians presented the Milton persona as the “team leader” of a pro-Trump social media group called Being Patriotic, according to a Facebook message.
Being Patriotic had planned rallies in 13 “confirmed locations” in Florida and asked the campaign for help at each one, the Russians using the Josh Milton email address wrote to Mr. Tucker, according to the indictment.
Days later, on the recommendation of the campaign employee operating the Florida Facebook account, the Russians contacted another campaign staff member, Beatriz J. Ramos, who served as the coalitions director for the Trump campaign in Florida, according to the indictment, which does not identify either Mr. Tucker or Ms. Ramos by name.
Mr. Tucker and Ms. Ramos said that they received a high volume of messages during the campaign, and had no recollection of receiving, let alone responding to, the messages. Both said they could not recall any messages that prompted suspicions about Russian outreach, though they acknowledged they were not attuned to that possibility, either.
“No one was talking about the Russians back then, so it’s not like something that anyone was looking out for,” said Mr. Tucker, adding that his job did not include vetting volunteers or communicating with people who wanted to set up rallies. He worked for Mr. Trump’s presidential transition after the election and is now a telecommunications official based in South Carolina.
Ms. Ramos, who briefly worked for the Trump administration before returning to Florida, suggested that Mrs. Clinton’s allies might have tried to frame the Trump campaign. “I’ve been around long enough to know that if Democrats are blaming Republicans for something, they’ve already done it, and they’ve done it worse,” she said. “So I feel like maybe your questions are best directed to someone from the Hillary campaign, rather than myself, because I’ve not seen anything that would represent any type of collusion or any Russian influence.”
Ms. Ramos and Mr. Tucker said they could not check their campaign email accounts because they no longer had access to them. The messages sent by the Russians via Facebook are no longer accessible from the Trump campaign’s Florida account, the employee said, because the Matt Skiber account from which they were sent was deactivated.
According to the indictment, the Russians deleted social media accounts and emails “in order to avoid detection and impede investigation” once it became apparent that Mr. Mueller’s team was working with Facebook and other social media companies to investigate Russian interference. Mr. Mueller’s team did collect at least some of the Facebook messages and emails sent to the Trump campaign officials in Florida.
The dates of the Facebook messages obtained by The Times roughly correspond to those referenced in the indictment.
Mr. Mueller’s investigators likely would have emails sent by the Trump staff in response to the Russian entreaties; the special counsel requested and received documents from the campaign, which instructed former staff members to retain all documents and communications related to the campaign.
Mr. Tucker, Ms. Giorno, Ms. Ramos and the employee who sent the Facebook messages said they had not been contacted by the special counsel.
“We were never notified or aware of any Russian efforts to interfere in the election by the F.B.I. or any other agency,” Ms. Giorno said. “As someone who worked very closely with then-candidate Trump, I can tell you that security and integrity of the process was paramount to him and his senior staff.”
The ability of campaigns to detect and prevent foreign infiltration could be tested again soon. Intelligence agencies and outside experts agree that Russians are planning to meddle in elections this fall and beyond, but Mr. Trump and key parts of his administration are doing little to combat such meddling.
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