Feds Charge Russians for Staging Pro-Trump Rallies in Miami and South Florida

Feds Charge Russians for Staging Pro-Trump Rallies in Miami and South Florida
Photo by Michele Eve Sandberg
The FBI today revealed the biggest news yet in the ongoing investigation of Donald Trump's alleged ties to Russian agents: A grand jury charged 14 Russian nationals with interfering in the U.S. electoral system beginning in 2013 or earlier.

How'd they do it? The bureau contends Russians used false identities and tried to stage pro-Trump rallies — and even flash mobs — in multiple undisclosed Florida counties. The feds say the Russian agents allegedly fooled the real "Trump for Florida" campaign into working with them. Russian agents also allegedly paid for rally organizers to hire an actress to play Hillary Clinton wearing a prison uniform.

The FBI says the Russians also wired a Miami pro-Trump activist money to set up a Trump rally September 11, 2016. That activist is not named in the indictment.

"On or about August 2, 2016, Defendants and their co-conspirators used the false U.S. persona 'Matt Skiber' Facebook account to send a private message to a real Facebook account, 'Florida for Trump,' set up to assist then-candidate Trump in the state of Florida," the indictment reads.

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein today said that the actions alleged in the indictment did not appear to have swung the election for Trump. In any case, the indictment shows that Russian agents had a startling amount of access to Florida political activists.

The information is not technically new: The Daily Beast first reported in September that one since-deleted Russian account in question, called "Being Patriotic," staged "Florida Goes Trump" rallies in Fort Lauderdale and Coral Springs. (The Palm Beach Post also follow the Daily Beast's reporting and looked into whether "Being Patriotic" had set up rallies in Palm Beach County, too.) The group of trolls belonged to a Russian firm called the "Internet Research Agency" — reporter Adrian Chen profiled the group in June 2015 for the New York Times.
The indictment does not say whether Trump campaign officials in Florida knew they were dealing with Russian agents or were simply fooled by their false IDs.

The indictment says the Russian agents also stole the identity of a real person, referenced as simply "T.W." in legal documents, and used that person's identity to contact pro-Trump organizers across the Sunshine State. For most of August 2016, the Russian agents communicated with Trump campaign officials (including one with a "donaldtrump.com" email address) to coordinate the "Florida Goes Trump" flash mobs. The feds say the Russians also bought ads on social media for the rallies.

On September 9, the feds say, the Russian agents wired money to a woman in West Palm Beach who'd been going from rally to rally dressed as Clinton. Like other Americans referenced in the indictment, she is not named.

This is a breaking story. This post will be updated.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.