Government

Indictment: Russian troll farm cast Clinton as fraudster during Iowa Democratic caucus

State Democratic leaders ask parties to act against more meddling

Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton smiles as she addresses a crowd gathered in the cafeteria at Vernon Middle School in Marion on Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016. The former U.S. Secretary of State returned to Iowa for her
Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton smiles as she addresses a crowd gathered in the cafeteria at Vernon Middle School in Marion on Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016. The former U.S. Secretary of State returned to Iowa for her "Get Out the Caucus" weekend to encourage Iowans to participate just eight days before caucus night. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

One of the ways a Russian online troll farm meddled in the 2016 presidential election was to claim on Facebook that Hillary Clinton committed voter fraud in Iowa’s Democratic caucuses, a federal indictment charged Friday.

Albeit brief, the mention of the Iowa caucuses in the 37-page indictment is cause for the state to investigate what role — if any — Russian operatives played here at the time, said former Iowa Democratic gubernatorial nominee Jack Hatch.

“This was the most serious acknowledgment of a dangerous intervention in our political process,” he said Friday in a phone interview. “The Legislature, the Secretary of State and the governor should call for an independent investigation. ... Was it more than Facebook ads? Did they have operatives here? We need to investigate this.”

The indictment does not allege that Russian meddling changed the outcome of the presidential election. In Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz beat Donald Trump and Clinton narrowly edged out Sen. Bernie Sanders on Feb. 1, 2016.

But it does allege the Russian impostors sought to diminish the Clinton campaign in part by bolstering the rival Sanders campaign.

Hatch, who lost to then-Gov. Terry Branstad in the 2014 election, said the indictment makes clear Russian operatives were looking to drive a wedge in the Democratic Party and encourage Sanders supporters to stay home or vote for Trump.

The indictment makes short mention of Iowa, citing an incident six months after the state contests: “On or about August 4, 2016, defendants and their co-conspirators began purchasing advertisements that promoted a post on the ORGANIZATION-controlled Facebook account ‘Stop A.I.’ The post alleged that ‘Hillary Clinton has already committed voter fraud during the Democrat Iowa caucuses.’”

Friday, Republican Iowa Secretary of State Paul Pate in a statement said it is clear “Russians have tried and continue to try and manipulate our elections with propaganda and misinformation to cause disenfranchisement of voters.”

He pointed out, as he has said before, that Russians never gained access to Iowa voting results. “We must not confuse their propaganda campaigns with the fact that no votes were tampered with and there were no unauthorized intrusions into Iowa’s voter registration database,” he stated.

Carlos Cruz, a spokesman for the Republican Party of Iowa, noting that the indictment does not allege the Russian operation affected the outcome, questioned its impact in Iowa.

“This does not suggest or reveal that the Russians were involved in the caucus process,” he said. “That line doesn’t disclose where or to whom the advertisements were targeted, and without that, it can’t be reasonably inferred that they were targeted at Iowa.”

But Democrats were quick to call the indictment further evidence of Russian interference.

“Today’s revelations concerning Russian interference in the 2016 elections should alarm every Iowan and every American,” said Andy McGuire, an gubernatorial candidate who was chairwoman of the Iowa Democratic Party in 2016. “Leaders of both parties, including members of Iowa’s congressional delegation, need to step up and take action to prevent meddling in future elections.”

Sue Dvorsky, who was an Iowa staff person for the Clinton campaign at the time, said the indictment helps explain to her pressures they were feeling in 2016.

“What feels correct to me about what this reporting is this is what it felt like on the ground every day in 2016,” said Dvorsky, who was the women’s outreach coordinator. “We’d push the rock up hill every day only to have it roll back down on top of us. It was a difficult campaign and would have been a difficult campaign no matter what, but the struggle was out of proportion. Now it makes sense because we were facing unknown forces.”

Troy Price, a senior adviser to the Clinton campaign and now chairman of the Iowa Democratic Party, called on the Republican Party to “finally step up to protect the integrity of our election process.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3177; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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