Russian Trolls Gatecrashed a D.C. Midterm Election Party at the National Press Club

The Federal News Agency allegedly engaged in attempts to interfere in U.S. elections. Last week it gatecrashed a National Press Club election night party attended by Michael Avenatti: “Putin must be so proud”

Attendees at a National Press Club election night event have become targets of a disinformation campaign by Moscow’s Federal News Agency (FAN), which U.S. federal prosecutors recently linked to Kremlin-backed efforts to interfere in U.S. elections.

The $95 per ticket event, dubbed the Hottest Election Night Party in Washington, boasted an all-star guest list including celebrity attorney Michael Avenatti, who represents porn star Stormy Daniels in two lawsuits against President Donald Trump, and former presidential adviser David A. Keene.

In its indictment of St. Petersburg accountant Elena Khusyaynova in September, the Department of Justice identified FAN as one 12 entities that allegedly “employed hundreds of individuals in support” of Project Lakhta, a multi-million dollar social media influence operation that aimed “to sow division and discord in the U.S. political system.”

Russian government media adviser Alexander Malkevich, who covered the event for FAN, says he travelled to D.C. earlier this month as “an observer in the November 6 elections” as part of a broader effort to help Russia “fight back in the world information war.”

Alexander Malkevich (source)

Last week, Malkevich’s reporting of the event was cited by Russian state-owned news outlets including Sputnik News and Ria Novosti as part of a cross-platform media campaign seemingly intended to boost Malkevich’s profile and stir up anti-U.S. feelings in Russia.

The campaign was launched via the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation, from which Malkevich chairs a group that advises the Kremlin on media policy. In a press release published on the chamber’s website, Malkevich claimed that he made a speech at the event comparing electoral systems in the U.S. and Russia.

“I am deeply shocked by the level of violations that were committed in states with democratic leadership, where representatives of this party rule,” the website quotes Malkevich as having said. “I know about a completely blatant situation when a public observer from the election commission of New York was removed from the polling station, having learned that she is Russian. And this is despite the fact that she had a document in her hands!”

In an e-mail, the event’s organisers denied that Malkevich made any such speech.

“We did not invite him to speak. Alexander did not give a speech,” said a spokesperson for Alexandria, Virginia-based election tour company Political Events, which organised the event. “We had a banner on the wall in front of our room with a microphone. He must have stood in front and had someone take a photo.”

Malkevich at the National Press Club (source)

Subsequent articles on the FAN website ramped up the disinformation tactics.

One article, titled “A porn star lawyer is ready to be president of the United States,” claimed that Malkevich had been physically accosted at the event by members of Michael Avenatti’s entourage.

“[After] Avenatti’s speech, I wanted to talk to him,” said Malkevich. “I was not given such an opportunity: his entourage pushed me back, and in rather strong words said ‘We cannot allow the Russians to spoil the future career of a potential president of the country.'”

Photos from the event do not corroborate Malkevich’s claims, and there have been no additional reports about the alleged incident.

Michael Avenatti (left) / Alexander Malkevich (right)

In an e-mail, Avenatti emphatically denied the unsubstantiated claims.

“This never happened and I don’t travel with an entourage,” said Avenatti. “Putin must be so proud of this nonsense.”

The National Press Club did not return a request for comment.

*   *   *

Malkevich made headlines in June when he travelled to D.C. to promote USA Really, a self-described “community-supported news” website created by FAN’s editor-in-chief Yevgeny Zubarev “to promote crucial information and problems, which are hushed up by the conventional American media controlled by the establishment and oligarchy of the United States.”

Articles on the USA Really website, such as the anti-Semitic “Star of David spotted amidst migrant caravan: Who’s behind the invasion?,” mirror the same kind of false, misleading, and purposefully offensive content peddled by the Robert Mueller-indicted Internet Research Agency, better known as the Russian troll factory.

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To promote the launch of the website, Malkevich had organised a flash mob to take place at the White House on Donald Trump’s 72nd birthday. Things did not go to plan.

Malkevich was forced to cancel the event after his application for a rally permit was rejected. He was subsequently removed and banned from re-entering an office he’d rented for a roundtable discussion on fake news.

In a series of deeply conspiratorial articles, USA Really hinted at a sinister plot by “deep state” security forces to violate its First Amendment rights.

“[There] are forces bent on the suppression of expression and speech – basic 1st amendment stuff here,” claimed an anonymously penned article on the website. “This project hasn’t even officially started yet, but the deep state and the security services have already launched into their standard defamation campaign.”

Shooting the Messenger was unable to locate any deep state officials for comment, and USA Really provided no evidence for its claims other than a screenshot of an e-mail (published on the FAN website) clearly showing that Malkevich had sent his rally request to the wrong government department.

After scooping the story, Shooting the Messenger received a comment from someone at USA Really named Michael, seemingly intended to deter reporters from covering what he described as a “sucker job” written by “some anonymous dude from the internet.”

As reported by The Daily Beast:

On Saturday, [investigative writer Dean Sterling Jones] received a diatribe from someone named Michael using a USA Really email address in response to a post he’d written on the group.

“Are you a semicrazy person?” Michael asked, according to a copy of the message provided to The Daily Beast. “WFT is wrong with you? How can you suck so much with fact interpretation?”

Asked about that exchange, Michael, who said he was emailing from Moscow, struck a conciliatory tone. “Actually, I appreciate Dean’s work a lot so I offered her to write to us too,” he wrote, apparently unclear of Jones’ gender. “So I cannot tell you what I objected in her beautiful articles.”

Evidently, the dissuasion effort didn’t work, and by late June Malkevich had landed profiles in NBC News, McClatchy D.C. Bureau, and Foreign Policy, among others. They weren’t exactly flattering either.

“Russian Troll or Clumsy Publicity Hound?” asked Foreign Policy in its article detailing Malkevich’s calamitous attempts to set up shop in D.C.

The New York Times was even less flattering in its assessment of Malkevich, describing the bumbling provocateur as being “more like a Sacha Baron Cohen character than a sinister propagandist.” In that article, Malkevich denied any connection to Russian troll operations, but refused to say who funded the USA Really website.

“I don’t know anybody from so-called troll farms,” he told the Times. “I am [only] interested in cooperation and friendship between our two great countries.”

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As Malkevich tried his best to remain button-lipped, Michael returned with a second unhinged comment.

“You’re really crazy person, not just semicrazy,” he wrote, this time with an IP address placing him in Moscow. “See the doctor for the specific.”

*   *   *

Less than six months after Malkevich’s U.S. media blitz, USA Really has become ensnared in the F.B.I.’s probe into Russian election interference.

Last month, the website appeared to implicate itself in a vast criminal conspiracy when it loudly proclaimed that Elena Khusyaynova, the indicted St. Petersburg accountant accused of financing Project Lakhta’s election-meddling campaigns, currently works as its chief financial officer.

It’s unclear what USA Really hoped to achieve by the admission, but it appears that investigators are now looking into the website.

According to Russia’s Foreign Ministry, on November 9 Malkevich was briefly detained at a Washington airport and told that USA Really must register in the U.S. as a foreign agent. The USA Really website subsequently posted what it claimed was a search and seizure warrant for Malkevich signed by Virginia district judge Michael S. Nachmanoff.

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The Department of Justice declined to comment for this item.

It isn’t the first time Malkevich has faced scrutiny over USA Really’s ties to the Russian state, but with prosecutors working to uncover an ever-expanding network of dark money, trolls, and oligarchs, it likely won’t be the last.

In the meantime, social media accounts controlled by the infamous Russian troll factory are busy protesting the news of Malkevich’s detainment.

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