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