A court hearing on special counsel Robert Mueller’s criminal case against Russian internet trolls accused of interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election devolved into squabbling on Wednesday, as a defense lawyer for one of the Russian firms charged in the case squared off with a prosecutor about their initial interactions.
The contentious but brief court session was the first hearing in the case before Judge Dabney Friedrich, President Donald Trump’s newest appointee to the U.S. District Court in Washington.
Mueller’s office obtained a grand jury indictment in February charging 13 Russian individuals and three Russian companies with using social media and other means to foment strife in the U.S. in 2016 with a goal of advancing Trump’s electoral chances.
None of the defendants were expected to appear to face the charges, but one of the companies, Concord Management and Consulting, hired American attorneys who announced plans fight the case.
The fireworks at Wednesday’s hearing came after one of those defense lawyers, Eric Dubelier, complained to Friedrich that the government hadn’t responded to or even acknowledged more than 70 discovery requests he made last month. Instead, prosecutors have offered a massive quantity of social media data from accounts that were allegedly set up under fake identities for the purpose of influencing American politics.
“We had a very brief call on Friday initiated by the government,” Dubelier said. He said prosecutors told him much of the information was in Russian, but they had no translations. “I said, ‘How do you know what’s in it?’”
“I anticipate we are going to get this massive dump of social media accounts in Russian. This is an American court,” the defense attorney added. “That’s not what we’ve asked for. What I’d like to get is information that actually helps us defend our client.”
Prosecutor Jeannie Rhee disputed that prosecutors were being recalcitrant.
“We’ll get to what they asked for. … It is not a ‘data dump,’ Your Honor,” Rhee said. She said the social media accounts in question were a key part of the effort to interfere in the 2016 election.
“That it’s so voluminous just underscores the vastness of the offense conduct in this case,” the prosecutor said.
Rhee appeared to anger Dubelier by indicating that he cut short the discovery discussion last week.
“Defense counsel hung up and and ended the call within 9 minutes,” Rhee said, adding that an hour had been set aside for the talks. “The government doesn’t want to raise these issues for purposes of a ‘he said, she said.’”
Dubelier came back to the lectern to call Rhee’s account “demonstrably false,” saying that each side asked whether the other had anything further to say before disconnecting. “That’s different than hanging up the phone on somebody. I resent the implication that the special prosecutor has made,” Dubelier said, his voice rising.
The exchanges suggested that the litigation in the case is likely to be hard fought. Concord Management, which is based in St. Petersburg, Russia, appears to have little to lose but its legal fees. Prosecutors have suggested in court filings that the company’s decision to appear may have been a gambit to obtain details on the U.S. government’s investigation. The indictment alleges that the firm is controlled by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian oligarch known as Putin’s chef. He is also charged personally in the criminal case but has not appeared.
“There are a lot of defendants in this case,” Dubelier told the court on Wednesday. “It appears we’re the only one that is going to show up.”
Concord has already demanded its right to a speedy trial under U.S. law.
Prompted by Friedrich on Wednesday, Dubelier also outlined a series of motions he plans to file, including claims that the “conspiracy to defraud the United States” charge the company faces is legally faulty and that Mueller’s team has targeted the firm for a selective prosecution.
“We are going to challenge the authority of the special counsel generally,” the defense attorney said. “We’re going to challenge the authority of the special counsel specifically to bring this case.”
While the government unsuccessfully sought to postpone an arraignment for the firm that took place last week before a federal magistrate judge, Rhee gave no indication on Wednesday that prosecutors were shying away from a trial for Concord Management.
Asked by Friedrich whether the case would involve classified information, Rhee replied, “We would hope not, Your Honor.” However, she said some of the materials have “national security sensitivity.”
Both sides said they expected to be able to work out an order to maintain the confidentiality of the information prosecutors turn over from the investigation. It’s unclear whether that order will permit Dubelier and his colleague Kate Seikaly to share any of that information with Prigozhin or whoever is footing the bill for the company’s defense.
Friedrich set another hearing in the case for June 15.