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.

Daily Beast: D.C. Media Venture Boasts Indicted Russian Agent as CFO

— In June, USA Really tried to set up shop in Washington D.C. It just implicated itself in a multi-million dollar criminal conspiracy. Check out my latest byline at The Daily Beast.

Via “D.C.-Based Russian Media Venture Boasts that Indicted Kremlin Operative Is Its CFO” by Lachlan Markay and Dean Sterling Jones, The Daily Beast, October 26, 2018:

When federal authorities allege a massive, foreign-government-backed campaign to undermine America’s democratic institutions, the expected reaction from those accused of complicity is to put some distance between themselves and the culprits.

But when Elena Khusyaynova, the alleged financier of a sprawling Russian disinformation effort, was indicted last week, one Russian media outlet rushed to associate itself with the St. Petersburg accountant. USA Really, a conspiratorial website run by a Russian media executive and Kremlin policy adviser, quickly boasted on its website that Khusyaynova was the company’s chief financial officer.

It’s not clear what USA Really hoped to gain through the admission. The site is quick to deny that Russia had any involvement in the 2016 election. But its gleeful association with Khusyaynova suggests that USA Really is not the independent, inquisitive news organization that it claims to be, but rather an adjunct of a deep-pocketed propaganda apparatus that federal prosecutors say amounts to a criminal conspiracy against the United States.

Click here to read the full story.

Being Alexander Malkevich

— When the head of Russia’s new disinformation campaign arrived in Washington DC this week, reporters for NBC News and Foreign Policy were there to meet him

Last week, I blogged an original story about Alexander Malkevich, a Russian government policy adviser and head of USA Really, a troll factory-linked propaganda organisation in Washington DC.

Shortly after I published my post, I received an unhinged comment from someone named Michael using a USA Really e-mail address, in a seeming attempt to persuade reporters to disregard what I’d written.

“Are you semicrazy person?” the comment read. “Please, go see a doctor help the society and yourself. May be you just have a vivid imagination. I’m not sure, but it looks like you took too much acid (aka LSD) in your childhood…Collegues! ATTENTION! He sucks! He is lame, it’s dangerous to use his info. It will be definetely fake-news then.”

And so on.

Evidently, the dissuasion effort failed: the story was picked up by The Daily Beast, and covered by The Washington Post and Politico.

This week, Malkevich had scheduled a flash mob event to take place at the White House to celebrate Donald Trump’s 72nd birthday, and a roundtable event at a WeWork office space opposite the White House to discuss fake news (WeWork is a company that rents private offices).

Alexander Malkevich (source)

Things did not go to plan.

Malkevich was forced to significantly scale down the flash mob event—which originally included a symphony orchestra—after applying for the wrong permit. Then, according to Russia’s Federal News Agency, which is overseeing the USA Really project, Malkevich was removed and banned from re-entering the WeWork office space he’d rented. WeWork declined to comment for this item.

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Now NBC News and Foreign Policy have published profiles of Malkevich.

Via “This man is running Russia’s newest propaganda effort in the U.S. — or at least he’s trying to” by Ben Collins and Brandy Zadrozny, NBC News, June 15, 2018:

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Alexander Malkevich stood outside the White House on Thursday, braving the 85-degree heat in a skintight long-sleeve shirt with Che Guevara’s face emblazoned on it. Thursday was flag day, as well as the birthdays of Malkevich, Che and President Donald Trump, and he was leading a very small political rally.

But this wasn’t one of the typical protests that crop up on Pennsylvania Avenue. Malkevich sits on Russia’s Civic Chamber commission on mass media, an official arm of President Vladimir Putin’s government. He was there to promote his new Russia-funded, English-language news site, USA Really. Wake Up Americans.

Like most of Russia’s efforts to manipulate U.S. politics, the website traffics in content on divisive issues such as promoting secessionist movements in the U.S. — the same kinds of activities that caused a furor when they were exposed as having influenced the 2016 presidential election.

Malkevich’s hopes of generating a similar furor now, two years later, seem to have degenerated into self-parody, however. Instead of actors with signs and musicians playing symphony music, as Malkevich had envisioned, he stood among tourists and “Free Tibet” protesters with only his business partner, Alex Dolgonos.

“It’s hot out here, but it’s much hotter in some of those rooms we’ve been kicked out of,” Malkevich said.

[…]

USA Really has a variety of links to Russia. The domain name for USA Really was registered privately from a Russian address, and promoted by the Federal News Agency, which is allegedly owned by “Putin’s Chef,” restaurateur oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who was among 13 Russians indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller for their campaign to sow discord before the 2016 U.S. election. Since April, the jobs section of the Federal News Agency’s website has been recruiting English-speaking journalists for USA Really.

USA Really’s monthlong campaign in the U.S. has hit roadblocks in recent days, according to a statement of grievances from Malkevich posted on the Federal News Agency website. Facebook removed USA Really’s page, and according to Malkevich, Twitter has imposed restrictions on its account.

Malkevich repeatedly ignored or deflected questions about USA Really’s funding.

[…]

Malkevich told NBC News that he’s working on his English and that he’s staffing up for bureaus in New York and Washington. He also said USA Really wouldn’t repeat troll farm tactics of impersonating Americans on social media, while denying knowing anyone involved in the embroiled Internet Research Agency,

“We want to do everything legal,” he said.

Malkevich said he was enjoying his time in Washington, despite being disappointed at what he called “Red Scare” books in places like the gift shop of the Spy Museum about a half-mile from the White House.

“I see all of these stories about how 10 Russian hackers changed the election. Where is CIA? Where is FBI? They can’t stop 10 Russian hackers?” he said.

Malkevich chatted amiably about his venture. But under the unrelenting heat, he grew agitated when asked about the Internet Research Agency.

“I like America, but I keep getting into problems with all of these officials,” Malkevich said. “And now all of these people asking about the Russian trolls.”

Via “Russian Troll or Clumsy Publicity Hound?” by Amy MacKinnon, Foreign Policy, June 15, 2018:

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Alexander Malkevich might be the new face of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s attempt to subvert U.S. democracy. Or he might be a bumbling provocateur.

Malkevich, a Russian media executive with ties to the Kremlin, arrived in Washington this week to launch USA Really, an English-language news site that spreads the kind of disinformation and discord attributed to Russian trolls in a high-profile indictment earlier this year.

[…]

On Wednesday of this week, he showed up at a coffee shop in downtown Washington, D.C., for his first interview with an American reporter. He wore a white T-shirt emblazoned with a photo of the Russian foreign minister looking irritated and the phrase “debili blyat,” which roughly translates as “fucking morons.”

“This is my answer for these strange people that are frightened by us,” Malkevich said.

His new website is no less sophomoric. In the past few days, it has included stories headlined “Man Served His Friends Tacos Made From His Severed Limb” and “No Sex for Cops in Louisiana.”

Malkevich is a former manager of local TV and radio stations in Russia. He’s also a member of the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation, which advises the government on policymaking.

He says he was approached by a group of Russian journalists and businessmen to found USA Really after he gave a speech to the Russian Civic Chamber, a parliamentary advisory body, about the need to establish more media outlets abroad.

“We only have a few media working abroad. It’s so hard for them to stand against all this oppression,” he said.

[…]

“Now we see that there is real freedom of speech in Russia,” he said. “But a Russian media company cannot do anything in the USA.”

Social media websites, heavily criticized for serving as a megaphone for the Russian disinformation campaigns during the U.S. election campaign, have been aggressively policing USA Really.

Facebook shut down the website’s page within a day of its launch in May. On Twitter, USA Really has been prevented from posting direct links to its website, forcing it to route articles through Google Plus posts.

Malkevich said the site has been able to post photos on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, but it is blocked from adding captions and hashtags.

The reasons for the crackdown are not totally clear. While the website is connected to individuals and entities subject to U.S. sanctions and indictments, through its affiliation with Federal News Agency, Malkevich is not included on either list and was able to enter the United States on a tourist visa.

[…]

Malkevich admitted that he’s had difficulty recruiting native English speakers to work for the publication, but he has high hopes for the project.

“I want to make this media interesting and very much involved in the everyday life of Americans,” he said. “And maybe, in some years I can be a Pulitzer Prize winner.”

Toward the end of the interview, an employee wiping down the table behind him splashed cleaning fluid on his phone.

“Spies from the FBI. Poison,” he joked.

“Of course, I am being sarcastic,” he added. “But there is still some concern.”

Beast from the East

— Round-up of news coverage re: Shooting the Messenger story about a DC-based Russian disinformation media campaign headed by a Russian government policy adviser

Last week, I blogged an original story about a new Washington DC-based Russian disinformation campaign that was the culmination of over a month’s research.

The story was subsequently picked up by The Daily Beast and cited in The Washington Post and Politico daily round-ups.

Via “New Russian Media Venture Wants to Wage ‘Information War’ in Washington, D.C.” by Lachlan Markay, The Daily Beast, June 10, 2018:

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A Russian government adviser who aims to wage an “information war” in the U.S. and Europe is running a new media venture a block from the White House that cybersecurity experts say has ties to the country’s infamous disinformation apparatus.

In April, Russia’s Federal News Agency (FAN) announced the creation of an American outlet called “USA Really.” Its website and accompanying social media pages sprang up in May and quickly began promoting a mid-June rally to be held in front of the White House in protest of “growing political censorship… aimed at discrediting the Russian Federation.”

At the helm of the project is Alexander Malkevich, a Russian media executive and a member of the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation, a body created by President Vladimir Putin in 2005 to advise government policymaking.

Malkevich sits on the Civic Chamber’s commission on mass media and communication. He is also running the show at USA Really, according to an FAN video on the project. The video features shots of a USA Really office space adorned with an American flag, a Confederate flag, and a framed “Make America Great Again” poster of President Donald Trump.

[…]

USA Really’s “flash mob” protest was initially scheduled for June 14, in what it says was a recognition of Flag Day and President Donald Trump’s birthday. But rather than applying for a rally protest with D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), which oversees such events, it asked the city’s film and television office for a film permit, the type that movie studios obtain before taping scenes on D.C. streets.

The FAN posted a copy of an email from the film office, which referred USA Really to the MPD. “Your permit application is denied,” the email read, “since we’ve determined that this is a rally more so than a filming.”

The FAN claimed on its website that it subsequently spoke with the MPD, which also denied them a permit and warned that they had alerted the CIA, which does not operate on U.S. soil, of USA Really’s activities. MPD told Dean Sterling Jones, a Belfast-based investigative writer who’s followed the USA Really case for weeks and first reported Malkevich’s involvement, that it had received no requests for a rally permit from the group.

[…]

For all its talk of combating misinformation, USA Really appears to be as invested in vendettas as it is in truth-telling. On Saturday, 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.”

Via “The Daily 202: North Korea summit prep encapsulates Trump’s winging-it presidency” by James Hohmann, The Washington Post, June 11, 2018:

A Russian government adviser has launched a new media venture aimed at waging an “information war” in the United States and Europe. The outlet, called “USA Really,” attempted to hold a White House rally in protest of “growing political censorship … aimed at discrediting the Russian Federation,” but its permits were denied. (Daily Beast)

Via “Power Briefing: All eyes on Trump-Kim meeting” by Anna Palmer, Jake Sherman, Daniel Lippman, and Zach Montellaro, Politico, June 11, 2018:

— “New Russian Media Venture Wants to Wage ‘Information War’ in Washington, D.C.,” by The Daily Beast’s Lachlan Markay: “In April, Russia’s Federal News Agency (FAN) announced the creation of an American outlet called ‘USA Really.’ Its website and accompanying social media pages sprang up in May and quickly began promoting a mid-June rally to be held in front of the White House in protest of ‘growing political censorship… aimed at discrediting the Russian Federation.’

“At the helm of the project is Alexander Malkevich, a Russian media executive and a member of the Civic Chamber of the Russian Federation, a body created by President Vladimir Putin in 2005 to advise government policymaking.”