At cen­ter of Mueller’s in­quiry, a cam­paign that ap­peared to wel­come Rus­sia’s help

The Buffalo News - - WASHINGTON NEWS - By Ros­alind S. Hel­der­man and Tom Ham­burger

Spe­cial coun­sel Robert Mueller has con­cluded his in­ves­ti­ga­tion with­out charg­ing any Amer­i­cans with con­spir­ing with Rus­sia to in­ter­fere in the 2016 cam­paign and help elect Don­ald Trump.

But hun­dreds of pages of le­gal fil­ings and in­de­pen­dent re­port­ing since Mueller was ap­pointed nearly two years ago have painted a strik­ing por­trayal of a pres­i­den­tial cam­paign that ap­peared un­trou­bled by a for­eign ad­ver­sary’s at­tack on the U.S. po­lit­i­cal sys­tem – and eager to ac­cept the help.

When Trump’s el­dest son was of­fered dirt about Hil­lary Clin­ton that he was told was part of a Rus­sian govern­ment ef­fort to help his father, he re­sponded, “I love it.”

When long­time Trump friend Roger Stone was told a Rus­sian na­tional wanted to sell dam­ag­ing in­for­ma­tion about Clin­ton, he took the meet­ing.

When the anti-se­crecy group Wik­iLeaks pub­lished doc­u­ments that the Demo­cratic Na­tional Com­mit­tee said had been stolen by Rus­sian op­er­a­tives, Trump’s cam­paign quickly used the in­for­ma­tion to its ad­van­tage. Rather than con­demn the Krem­lin, Trump fa­mously asked Rus­sia to steal more.

Even af­ter tak­ing of­fice, Trump has been hes­i­tant to con­demn Rus­sia’s ac­tions, in­stead call­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion a “witch hunt” and de­nounc­ing the work of fed­eral in­ves­ti­ga­tors seek­ing to un­der­stand a Rus­sian at­tack on the coun­try he leads.

The pres­i­dent has adamantly in­sisted there was “NO COL­LU­SION,” as he has fre­quently tweeted.

And be­fore the con­clu­sion of Mueller’s in­quiry, Repub­li­cans pointed to com­ments from Se­nate In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee Chair­man Richard Burr, RN.C., who in Fe­bru­ary as­serted that a lengthy in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the cam­paign by his com­mit­tee has not lo­cated any di­rect ev­i­dence that any­one as­so­ci­ated with Trump’s cam­paign co­or­di­nated with Rus­sia.

The de­tails of Mueller’s find­ings re­main un­known ex­cept to rel­a­tively few peo­ple. Fri­day, af­ter he sub­mit­ted his con­fi­den­tial re­port to At­tor­ney Gen­eral Wil­liam P. Barr, a se­nior Jus­tice Depart­ment of­fi­cial said the spe­cial coun­sel has not rec­om­mended any fur­ther in­dict­ments. Barr said he plans to pro­vide a sum­mary of Mueller’s ma­jor con­clu­sions for law­mak­ers in the com­ing days.

In re­cent court fil­ings, Mueller’s pros­e­cu­tors had hinted that they were pur­su­ing ac­tive lines of in­ves­ti­ga­tion re­lated to pos­si­ble co­or­di­na­tion be­tween Trump as­so­ciates and Rus­sia.

One of the ar­eas they were ex­am­in­ing: the hand­off by Trump cam­paign chair­man Paul Manafort of 2016 polling data to a Rus­sian em­ployee who al­legedly has ties to Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence. Another: long­time Trump ad­viser Roger Stone’s al­leged ef­forts to gather in­for­ma­tion about the ma­te­rial Wik­iLeaks held at the direc­tion of an uniden­ti­fied se­nior Trump cam­paign of­fi­cial, ac­cord­ing to his Jan­uary in­dict­ment.

Only a re­lease of Mueller’s re­port, which is not guar­an­teed, would fully an­swer where those in­quiries led.

John Sipher, a for­mer CIA of­fi­cer who ran agency op­er­a­tions in Rus­sia, said that coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence in­ves­ti­ga­tions – which is how the Rus­sia probe be­gan – rarely lead to crim­i­nal charges, be­cause they are largely in­tended to piece to­gether in­for­ma­tion care­fully and pro­fes­sion­ally hid­den by for­eign in­tel­li­gence pro­fes­sion­als.

“We are look­ing for a clean, le­gal an­swer – and it is some­thing that is rare in these kind of cases,” he said. “What we have seen so far is al­ready ugly, de­spi­ca­ble, un­pa­tri­otic and un­eth­i­cal. How­ever, by blus­ter, lies and at­tack­ing the sys­tem [Trump] has con­vinced a large mi­nor­ity of peo­ple that any­thing short of an ar­rest means that he is to­tally in­no­cent and noth­ing hap­pened.”

The con­tin­ued use of the word “col­lu­sion” is dis­tress­ing to for­mer fed­eral pros­e­cu­tor An­drew C. McCarthy, now a colum­nist for the Na­tional Re­view.

Con­nec­tions be­tween Trump’s world and the Krem­lin may be un­sa­vory and disturbing, he said. “But when you are do­ing a crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion, the only col­lu­sion that counts is a con­spir­acy to vi­o­late the laws of the United States.” McCarthy said. “If you don’t have that, you don’t have any­thing.”

Soon af­ter he de­clared his can­di­dacy for pres­i­dent in June 2015, Trump re­peat­edly praised Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin as a strong leader. Trump said eco­nomic sanc­tions against Rus­sia would prob­a­bly be un­nec­es­sary if he were elected. And he echoed Rus­sian talk­ing points, crit­i­ciz­ing NATO and the Euro­pean Union. In July 2016, he said the peo­ple of Crimea – a re­gion an­nexed by Rus­sia from Ukraine in 2014, spark­ing in­ter­na­tional con­dem­na­tion – pre­ferred Rus­sia.

At the same time, there were in­ter­ac­tions be­hind the scenes be­tween Trump advisers and Rus­sians that Moscow may have per­ceived as sub­tle mes­sages that the Repub­li­can can­di­date would wel­come Krem­lin as­sis­tance.

Mueller’s in­ves­ti­ga­tors have turned up re­peated episodes in which Trump’s advisers – both on the fringe of his or­bit and in his in­ner cir­cle – dis­cussed the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign with Rus­sian na­tion­als and, at times, ap­peared eager for help from Rus­sia.

In all, Rus­sian ci­ti­zens in­ter­acted with at least 14 Trump as­so­ciates dur­ing the cam­paign and pres­i­den­tial tran­si­tion, pub­lic records and in­ter­views show.

One of the first to be ap­proached was a low-level Trump for­eign-pol­icy ad­viser, George Pa­padopou­los, who was told by a Lon­don-based pro­fes­sor in April 2016 that the Rus­sians held dam­ag­ing in­for­ma­tion about Clin­ton in the form of thou­sands of emails, ac­cord­ing to court fil­ings.

The pro­fes­sor then con­nected Pa­padopou­los to a Rus­sian think-tank direc­tor, and Pa­padopou­los worked for months in an ul­ti­mately un­suc­cess­ful ef­fort to use his new con­nec­tions to se­cure Trump or cam­paign aides meet­ings with Putin or Rus­sians of­fi­cials.

Court doc­u­ments show that Pa­padopou­los kept his cam­paign su­per­vi­sors briefed along the way. “Make the trip if it is fea­si­ble,” cam­paign co-chair­man Sam Clo­vis told Pa­padopou­los in Au­gust 2016, as the young aide ad­vo­cated meet­ing with Rus­sian of­fi­cials in Lon­don or Moscow. Clo­vis’s lawyer has said he was just be­ing po­lite.

Mean­while, Manafort, the man at the top of the cam­paign, was hav­ing on­go­ing in­ter­ac­tions with a long­time Rus­sian as­so­ciate, the spe­cial coun­sel’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion re­vealed. Manafort, who had deep con­nec­tions in Ukraine and Rus­sia be­cause of a decade spent as a po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tant in Kiev, com­mu­ni­cated with the Rus­sian through­out the six months he worked for Trump. The Rus­sian was a Manafort em­ployee who Mueller’s pros­e­cu­tors have said had ties to Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence, ac­cord­ing to court pa­pers.

In July 2016, Manafort in­structed the em­ployee, Kon­stantin Kil­imnik, to of­fer pri­vate cam­paign brief­ings to a Rus­sian busi­ness mogul to whom Manafort owed mil­lions of dol­lars. The busi­ness­man, Oleg Deri­paska, who is close to Putin, has said he never re­ceived Trump cam­paign brief­ings.

By Au­gust 2016, court doc­u­ments show, Manafort had shared cam­paign polling data with Kil­imnik, for rea­sons not yet pub­licly un­der­stood. Manafort was con­victed of eight counts of bank and tax fraud in a trial in Vir­ginia in Au­gust and in Septem­ber pleaded guilty to other charges in Washington: con­spir­ing against the United States and ob­struc­tion of jus­tice. The 69-year-old was sen­tenced this month to a to­tal of 7ø years in prison.

Mean­while, Trump’s per­sonal at­tor­ney Michael Co­hen was ag­gres­sively seek­ing the con­sum­ma­tion of a long-held Trump dream of build­ing a Trump Tower in Moscow. Co­hen pur­sued the idea well into the 2016 cam­paign, and, at one point, spoke di­rectly to a Krem­lin aide to ask for govern­ment as­sis­tance in ad­vanc­ing the lu­cra­tive pro­ject, pros­e­cu­tors re­vealed in Novem­ber.

Co­hen and Trump busi­ness as­so­ciate Felix Sater per­ceived the pro­ject as a way to boost Trump’s pres­i­den­tial am­bi­tions by demon­strat­ing his close ties to a world leader, their com­mu­ni­ca­tions show.

“I will get Putin on the pro­gram and we will get Don­ald elected,” Sater wrote to Co­hen in Novem­ber 2015, ac­cord­ing to an email turned over to con­gres­sional and Mueller in­ves­ti­ga­tors. “Buddy our boy can be­come pres­i­dent of the USA and we can en­gi­neer it.”

Af­ter Trump was elected in Novem­ber 2016, his aides be­gan back-chan­nel meet­ings with Rus­sian emis­saries, the Washington Post has pre­vi­ously re­ported.

Kush­ner met the fol­low­ing month in New York with the chair­man of a Rus­sian bank who Kush­ner was told could help re­store ties be­tween the two coun­tries. He also dis­cussed with Rus­sia’s am­bas­sador in Washington the pos­si­bil­ity of set­ting up a se­cret and se­cure com­mu­ni­ca­tions chan­nel be­tween Trump’s tran­si­tion team and the Krem­lin.

Washington Post

Pres­i­dent Trump talks to re­porters and mem­bers of the me­dia Fri­day as he walks to Ma­rine One to de­part from the South Lawn at the White House for a trip to Mar-a-Lago, Fla.

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