WASHINGTON — In a criminal complaint unsealed Friday, federal prosecutors described a Russian operation to sow political discord in the United States that began in 2014 and was now aimed at disrupting the midterm elections. The covert campaign was designed to inflame passions about hot-button issues and controversial figures, including the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, whose team has been investigating Moscow’s interference in the 2016 presidential race.
Russian operatives combed the American media to identify polarizing issues and then crafted social media messages to promote on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms. The complaint follows two earlier indictments this year of Russians for election interference, including hacking Democratic computers.
Some messages appeared to praise President Trump or his policies and went after his opponents or fellow Republicans who disagreed with him. Posing as Americans, the Russians warned that threats of impeachment could be a prelude to civil war.
Borrowing a favorite political theme of conservatives and some members of the Trump administration, the Russians promoted the message of widespread voter fraud, arguing that stricter voter identification laws were needed to prevent Democrats from falsifying election results.
The Special Counsel’s Inquiry
The Russians accused Mr. Mueller of bias, falsely claiming he had close ties to the Democratic Party and a history of scandals during his tenure as F.B.I. director.
The Russians sought to portray The New York Times, CNN and other media organizations as untrustworthy and deeply biased against the president. They picked up on Mr. Trump’s favored term of “fake news,” accusing the mainstream media of deliberately spreading lies about the president.
The Russians attacked “sanctuary cities” as havens for illegal immigrants who had committed heinous crimes, citing without evidence “an illegal rapist who raped an American child as the peak of wickedness.”
Before Senator John McCain died in August, hailed as a revered figure in American politics, the Russians crafted a message describing him as a lawmaker long past his prime who hated Mr. Trump and tried to subvert the president’s promises.
Senator Marco Rubio, Republican of Florida, was targeted as a threat to the party and to the agenda of all conservatives, particularly because of his relatively moderate position on immigration issues.