In a striking and unexpected abandonment of a once-heralded prosecution initiated by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the Justice Department moved Monday to drop charges against two Russian companies that were accused of funding a social media meme campaign to further their “strategic goal to sow discord in the U.S. political system, including the 2016 presidential election.”
Late Monday, with jury selection in the case set to begin in just two weeks, a federal judge granted the DOJ's motion to kill the prosecution for several counts of conspiring to defraud U.S. agencies tasked with combating election interference. The government acknowledged the Russian companies were never likely to actually face punishment anyway and cited possible national security risks with going forward to trial.
Concord Management and Consulting LLC and Concord Catering were among three companies and 13 individuals charged in February 2018 by Mueller. Their alleged criminal effort included social media postings and campaigns aimed at dividing American public opinion and sowing discord in the electorate, officials said, although no impact on voters was ever demonstrated.
Of the 13 Russians and three Russian companies charged by Mueller in the social media disinformation effort, Concord was the sole defendant to enter an appearance in Washington’s federal court and contest and the allegations. Mueller's 37-page indictment said the actions detailed by prosecutors dated back to 2014. (Mueller later brought separate charges in the summer of 2018 against other entities related to a hack of Democrats' emails.)
President Trump noted that no Russian collusion with his campaign was ever proven, and Republicans and even left-of-center commenators argued that Russian disinformation was mostly irrelevant, given that social media and other platforms are already rife with inaccuracies.
"Before a pandemic, there was a time when we were relentlessly told to fear Russian social media accounts," mused journalist Aaron Mate on Monday. "Their juvenile memes not only elected Trump, but also 'sowed chaos.' When Mueller indicted 13 Russians over it, he was hailed as a hero. Well, DOJ just dropped the case."
Various media outlets had hyped the indictment, with NPR calling the Russians' activities an "attack" on democracy.
"For me, personally, hearing these charges and hearing what they were charging these Russians for -- it was the first time that I felt like finally, finally, for the first time since we realized all this was happened, finally, it feels like someone is defending us," MSNBC host Rachel Maddow said at the time, seemingly holding back tears.
Concord is controlled by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a wealthy businessman known as “Putin’s chef” for his ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. He has been hit with U.S. sanctions over Russian interference in the 2016 election and is charged alongside his company in the indictment brought by Mueller.
The company, with the help of a high-powered law firm, filed a series of motions over the last two years, including to dismiss charges and to exclude certain evidence from the case.
In January 2019, prosecutors said confidential material from the Russia investigation, which had been handed over to defense attorneys for Concord, was altered and released online as part of a disinformation campaign to discredit the special counsel's Russia investigation.
The files surfaced online in a link posted by a pro-Russia Twitter account. But the Justice Department stopped short of accusing Concord of leaking the material.
Still, they argued that the company’s request to have sensitive new evidence sent to Russia “unreasonably risks the national security interests of the United States.”
Some of the court appearances in the case have been unusually contentious, with the federal judge overseeing it chastising a lawyer for the company, Eric Dubelier, for references in court filings to Looney Tunes and the 1978 raunchy comedy “Animal House” to criticize the Mueller investigation.
“I’ll say it plain and simply: Knock it off,” U.S District Judge Dabney Friedrich told Dubelier at a January 2019 court appearance.
Dubelier, who has referred to the case as involving a “made up” crime, has made allegations of prosecutorial misconduct and even once accused the judge of bias.
"The real Department of Justice" never would have brought the case," Dubelier said at one 2018 hearing. At another point, he curtly rejected a DOJ summons, saying prosecutors "are already behaving in a manner that is inconsistent with the practices of the DOJ."
He also accused the DOJ of having "indicted the proverbial ham sandwich." And, the Twitter user Techno Fog observed that Dubelier also flatly accused one of Mueller's prosecutors of being a liar.
But with the case approaching trial, prosecutors beat a hasty retreat, and said they had to weigh the risk of potentially exposing sensitive national security information against the benefits of continuing with the case against a company that likely wouldn’t face any significant punishment in the United States.
In the court filing on Monday, prosecutors said Concord had been “eager and aggressive in using the judicial system to gather information about how the United States detects and prevents foreign election interference.”
“In short, Concord has demonstrated its intent to reap the benefits of the Court’s jurisdiction while positioning itself to evade any real obligations or responsibility,” prosecutors wrote in Monday’s filing. “It is no longer in the best interests of justice or the country’s national security to continue this prosecution."
At the same time, Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers and U.S. Attorney for Washington Timothy Shea defended the initial indictment.
"There is a substantial federal interest in defending American democratic institutions, exposing those who endeavor to criminally interfere with them, and holding them accountable, which is why this prosecution was properly commenced in the first place," the prosecutors said.
They added: "In light of the defendant’s conduct, however, its ephemeral presence and immunity to just punishment, the risk of exposure of law enforcement’s tools and techniques, and the post-indictment change in the proof available at trial, the balance of equities has shifted."
Concord Catering did not have attorneys appear in court, but prosecutors said they would seek to drop charges against that company as well because it too was controlled by Prigozhin and “based on the likelihood that its approach to litigation would be the same as Concord.”
Prosecutors vowed to continue to pursue their case against the 13 Russians who were named in Mueller's indictment, along with the troll farm that Concord was alleged to have funded, the Internet Research Agency.
Fox News' Jake Gibson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.