Guide to the Mueller Report’s Findings on “Collusion”

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s final report focuses only on whether crimes were committed. It addresses two Russian conspiracies to interfere in the 2016 election—one involving a social media influence campaign and the other involving the hacking and dissemination of stolen emails. The Report then addresses whether Trump Campaign associates knowingly entered an agreement with the Russian government to assist those conspiracies.

As many experts have noted, what’s missing from the Mueller Report is the Special Counsel’s counterintelligence findings. We don’t know what the Special Counsel’s Office or the FBI have assessed, for example, with respect to whether Trump associates engaged in reciprocal efforts with Russian agents without entering a criminal agreement to do so, whether Americans have been witting or unwitting Russian assets, and what leverage or influence Moscow may have over particular individuals.

As a shorthand, we may use the term “collusion” to refer to these kinds of activities, which would be implicated in a counterintelligence analysis—though, as Asha Rangappa and I have written, the more analytically precise issues to consider are whether Trump Campaign associates “coordinated with, cooperated with, encouraged, or gave support” to the Russia/WikiLeaks election interference activities. Those are important questions regardless of whether such activities amounted to crimes, regardless of whether individuals’ actions and intentions can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, regardless of whether Americans acted as unwitting Kremlin assets in support of Russian operations, and regardless of whether individuals and organizations can be prosecuted without endangering First Amendment interests.

Although the Mueller Report does not squarely address these questions of “collusion” that fall outside the scope of potential criminal liability, it can be mined for substantive information that provides some meaningful answers.

What follows is a detailed guide to the Mueller Report’s evidence on collusion. The analysis discusses affirmative evidence and countervailing evidence in the Report, references the Special Counsel’s court filings and reliable news reports that help shed additional light on information in the Report, and identifies significant loose ends that the investigation was unable to answer.

I. Summary of Major Findings

The redacted Mueller Report documents a series of activities that show strong evidence of collusion. Or, more precisely, it provides significant evidence that Trump Campaign associates coordinated with, cooperated with, encouraged, or gave support to the Russia/WikiLeaks election interference activities. The Report documents the following actions (each of which is analyzed in detail in Part II):

1. Trump was receptive to a Campaign national security adviser’s (George Papadopoulos) pursuit of a back channel to Putin.

2. Kremlin operatives provided the Campaign a preview of the Russian plan to distribute stolen emails.

3. The Trump Campaign chairman and deputy chairman (Paul Manafort and Rick Gates) knowingly shared internal polling data and information on battleground states with a Russian spy; and the Campaign chairman worked with the Russian spy on a pro-Russia “peace” plan for Ukraine.

4. The Trump Campaign chairman periodically shared internal polling data with the Russian spy with the expectation it would be shared with Putin-linked oligarch, Oleg Deripaska.

5. Trump Campaign chairman Manafort expected Trump’s winning the presidency would mean Deripaska would want to use Manafort to advance Deripaska’s interests in the United States and elsewhere.

6. Trump Tower meeting: (1) On receiving an email offering derogatory information on Clinton coming from a Russian government official, Donald Trump Jr. “appears to have accepted that offer;” (2) members of the Campaign discussed the Trump Tower meeting beforehand; (3) Donald Trump Jr. told the Russians during the meeting that Trump could revisit the issue of the Magnitsky Act if elected.

7. A Trump Campaign official told the Special Counsel he “felt obliged to object” to a GOP Platform change on Ukraine because it contradicted Trump’s wishes; however, the investigation did not establish that Gordon was directed by Trump.

8. Russian military hackers may have followed Trump’s July 27, 2016 public statement “Russia if you’re listening …” within hours by targeting Clinton’s personal office for the first time.

9. Trump requested campaign affiliates to get Clinton’s emails, which resulted in an individual apparently acting in coordination with the Campaign claiming to have successfully contacted Russian hackers.

10. The Trump Campaign—and Trump personally—appeared to have advanced knowledge of future WikiLeaks releases.

11. The Trump Campaign coordinated campaign-related public communications based on future WikiLeaks releases.

12. Michael Cohen, on behalf of the Trump Organization, brokered a secret deal for a Trump Tower Moscow project directly involving Putin’s inner circle, at least until June 2016.

13. During the presidential transition, Jared Kushner and Eric Prince engaged in secret back channel communications with Russian agents. (1) Kushner suggested to the Russian Ambassador that they use a secure communication line from within the Russian Embassy to speak with Russian Generals; and (2) Prince and Kushner’s friend Rick Gerson conducted secret back channel meetings with a Putin agent to develop a plan for U.S.-Russian relations.

14. During the presidential transition, in coordination with other members of the Transition Team, Michael Flynn spoke with the Russian Ambassador to prevent a tit for tat Russian response to the Obama administration’s imposition of sanctions for election interference; the Russians agreed not to retaliate saying they wanted a good relationship with the incoming administration.

During the course of 2016, Trump Campaign associates failed to report any of the Russian/WikiLeaks overtures to federal law enforcement, publicly denied any contacts with Russians/WikiLeaks, and actively encouraged the public to doubt that Russia was behind the hacking and distribution of stolen emails.

One qualification before proceeding to the analysis in Part II: a significant amount of relevant information was unavailable to Mueller due to four factors. First, as the Report states, “several individuals affiliated with the Trump Campaign lied to the Office,” and “those lies materially impaired the investigation of Russian election interference.” Second, President Trump’s interference in the investigation also appears to have stymied the investigation. A key example is Paul Manafort’s failure to cooperate with the Special Counsel because he was apparently led to believe that President Trump would pardon him. Third, some individuals used encrypted communications or deleted their communications. Fourth, some of the individuals who “cooperated” with the investigation (e.g., Steve Bannon) appear to have been deceptive or not fully forthcoming in their dealings with the Special Counsel. Several individuals failed to recall the content of important conversations with Trump or other Campaign associates. The Report states, “Even when individuals testified or agreed to be interviewed, they sometimes provided information that was false or incomplete.”

Finally, some tips for reading the Mueller Report. It is important to keep in mind that the Report’s analysis is about whether or not to prosecute someone for a crime. Furthermore, statements that the investigation “did not establish” something occurred are not the same as saying there was “no evidence” that it occurred. The Report has clear ways of saying when the investigation found no evidence. It conveys the absence of any evidence when, for example, it states the investigation “did not identify evidence” or “did not uncover evidence” that something occurred. Even then, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. When there is “evidence of absence,” the Special Counsel was willing to say the investigation “established” effectively that something did not occur. For example, the Report states that the investigation “established” that interactions between the Russian Ambassador and Campaign officials at certain locations were “brief, public, and non-substantive.” That finding excludes the possibility that something more nefarious occurred in those particular interactions. A keen eye on these kinds of distinctions is important when reading the Report itself.

II. Analysis of Major Findings

1. Trump was receptive to a Campaign national security adviser’s (George Papadopoulos) pursuit of a back channel to Putin

2. Kremlin operatives provided the Campaign a preview of the Russian plan to distribute stolen emails

What the Mueller Report says:

At a March 31, 2016 meeting of the campaign’s foreign policy advisory group, one of the advisers George Papadopoulos “brought up a potential meeting with Russian Officials,” and told the group that he learned from his contacts in London that Putin wanted to meet Trump. At the meeting, Trump was “interested in and receptive to” the idea of setting up a meeting with Putin.

In late April 2016, a Russian operative did not simply reveal to Papadopoulos that they had derogatory information on Clinton in the form of thousands of emails. The Kremlin operative previewed their plan for “anonymous release” of the information to help the Trump campaign.

Supplemental information/analysis:

A very significant question is what reception the Russians got from the Trump Campaign after making these revelations. The Mueller Report is silent on the Campaign’s/Papadopoulos’ response to the Russians informing them of the plan to disseminate the derogatory information. There is at least no indication that the Campaign said or did anything to dissuade the Russians. Instead, following the late April 2016 meeting, the Campaign supported Papadopoulos’s efforts to organize a back channel meeting with Russian officials and Campaign officials. The meeting would be highly secret. Papadopoulos’ hand-written notes state that Trump Campaign members “would attend without the official backing of the Campaign (‘no official letter/no message from Trump’).” That meeting, however, never ultimately took place.

Caveat:

Loose ends: The investigation could not establish whether Papadopoulos informed the Campaign about the Russian government’s having derogatory information on Clinton in the form of emails. That’s one feature of the Report’s being constrained by the burdens of proof in a criminal context. It is highly likely that Papadopoulos did inform the Campaign. The young national security advisor appears to have continually kept Campaign officials informed of his communications with the Russians, was eager to show value in his connections to the Russians, and informed others outside of the Campaign (an Australian diplomat on May 6, 2016; Greece’s Foreign Minister in late May 2016) that the Russian government had told the Campaign about the derogatory information it had on Clinton.

Supplemental information/analysis:

The New York Times reported in May 2018 that John Mashburn, the campaign’s policy director, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that he recalled that he and other campaign officials received an email from Papadopoulos in the first half of 2016 saying the Russians had derogatory information on Clinton, but congressional investigators did not find any such message.

For additional background: See video and transcript of Feb. 2018 interview in which Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) explained to Chris Hayes that the House Intelligence Committee’s Democratic memo, written in response to Rep. Devin Nunes’ (R-Calif.) majority memo, should be understood to mean the Russians previewed their plan to Papadopoulos. The Australian diplomat also told a reporter that Papadopoulos “mentioned the Russians might use material that they have on Hillary Clinton in the lead-up to the election, which may be damaging.”

 

3. The Trump Campaign chairman and deputy chairman (Paul Manafort and Rick Gates) knowingly shared internal polling data and information on battleground states with a Russian spy; and the Campaign chairman worked with the Russian spy on a pro-Russia “peace” plan for Ukraine.

4. Trump Campaign chairman periodically shared internal polling data with the Russian spy and with the expectation it would be shared with Putin-linked oligarch, Oleg Deripaska.

5. Trump Campaign chairman expected Trump’s winning presidency would mean Deripaska would want to use Manafort to advance Deripaska’s interests in the United States and elsewhere.

What the Mueller Report says:

Trump Campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Rick Gates shared internal campaign polling data periodically with a Russian spy, Konstantin Kilimnik. “In accordance with Manafort’s instruction, [Gates] periodically sent Kilimnik polling data via WhatsApp; Gates then deleted the communications on a daily basis.” “Manafort expected Kilimnik to share that information with … Deripaska,” a Russian oligarch closely aligned with Vladimir Putin. “Manafort noted that if Trump won, Deripaska would want to use Manafort to advance whatever interests Deripaska had in the United States and elsewhere.”

Supplemental information/analysis:

The Report’s wording – “whatever interests Deripaska had” — is notable given a well-known interview by Deripaska in which he said, “I don’t separate myself from the state. I have no other interests.”

What the Mueller Report says:

Manafort began working for Deripaska in 2005. The memo between the two men described the benefits Manafort’s work in the mid-to-late 2000s would confer on “the Putin government.” The work was “to install friendly political officials in countries” in post-Soviet republics.

Supplemental information/analysis:

The Associated Press published a detailed investigative report based on documents the media organization obtained detailing Manafort’s arrangement with Deripaska in the mid-to-late 2000’s. The Associated Press published excerpts from the original documents that are lengthier than some of those in the Mueller Report. For example, Manafort wrote to Deripaska, “We are now of the belief that this model can greatly benefit the Putin Government if employed at the correct levels with the appropriate commitment to success.” These initiatives, Manafort also wrote, “will be offering a great service that can re-focus, both internally and externally, the policies of the Putin government.”

What the Mueller Report says:

At an Aug. 2, 2016 meeting, Manafort provided Kilimnik a briefing that included “the Campaign’s messaging and its internal polling data,” and the discussion of battleground states which Manafort identified as “Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota.”

Supplemental information/analysis:

The reference to Michigan is notable. After Manafort officially left the Campaign, he remained in communication with Trump, Bannon, Kushner, and Gates (p. 141). In the final days of the campaign, Manafort offered Trump “pointers on how to handle the Clinton email news and urging him to make a play in Michigan,” according to Politico Magazine.

What the Mueller Report says:

The Aug. 2, 2016 meeting also included the start of what would be a series of discussions between Manafort and Kilimnik about a so-called peace plan for Ukraine, which Manafort admitted to prosecutors was “a ‘backdoor’ means for Russia to control eastern Ukraine.”

Supplemental information/analysis and analysis:

A senior prosecutor in the Special Counsel’s Office told a federal judge that the Aug. 2 meeting and what happened at the meeting goes “very much to the heart of what the Special Counsel’s Office is investigating.”

Caveats:

First, although Kilimnik and Manafort shared the view that Trump’s support for the Ukraine “peace” plan would help it succeed, “[t]he investigation did not uncover evidence of Manafort’s passing along information about Ukrainian peace plans to the candidate or anyone else in the Campaign or the Administration.” That said, the Report then notes that the Special Counsel could not gain access to all of Manafort’s electronic communications, and that Manafort lied to the Special Counsel Office about the peace plan and his meetings with Kilimnik. Also, the Report states that Kilimnik continued “efforts to promote the peace plan to the Executive Branch (e.g., U.S. Department of State) into the summer of 2018.”

Second, the Special Counsel’s Office “did not identify evidence of a connection between Manafort’s sharing polling data and Russia’s interference in the election, which had already been reported by U.S. media outlets at the time of the August 2 meeting.”

Loose ends: The report states that the Special Counsel’s Office “could not reliably determine” Manafort’s purpose in sharing the internal polling data with Kilimnik (p. 30).

Missing intelligence analysis:

The Mueller Report apparently omits any intelligence analysis and significant intelligence products such as signals intercepts, the kind of information that would also likely not be admissible at trial. What might those intelligence products add to the description of events? Consider this report by CNN in 2017:

“CNN has learned that investigators became more suspicious when they turned up intercepted communications that US intelligence agencies collected among suspected Russian operatives discussing their efforts to work with Manafort, who served as campaign chairman for three months, to coordinate information that could damage Hillary Clinton’s election prospects, the US officials say. The suspected operatives relayed what they claimed were conversations with Manafort, encouraging help from the Russians.”

 

6. Trump Tower meeting: (1) On receiving an email offering derogatory information on Clinton coming from a Russian government official, Donald Trump Jr. “appears to have accepted that offer;” (2) members of the Campaign discussed the Trump Tower meeting beforehand; (3) Donald Trump Jr. told the Russians during the meeting that Trump could revisit the issue of the Magnitsky Act if elected.

What the Mueller Report says:

The Report notes that Rob Goldstone “passed along an offer purportedly from a Russian government official and that “Trump Jr. appears to have accepted that offer and to have arranged a meeting to receive those materials.” On June 9, 2016, “senior representatives of the Trump Campaign met in Trump Tower with a Russian attorney expecting to receive derogatory information about Hillary Clinton from the Russian government…. Members of the Campaign discussed the meeting before it occurred, and Michael Cohen recalled that Trump Jr. may have told candidate Trump about an upcoming meeting to receive adverse information about Clinton, without linking the meeting to Russia.” At the June 9 meeting, the Russian delegation raised the issue of overturning the Magnitsky Act, a statute that imposes financial sanctions on Russian officials. In response, Trump Jr. “suggested that the issue could be revisited when and if candidate Trump was elected.” The Mueller Report notes significant discrepancies in what the Russian lawyer told Congress about the purpose of the meeting and the body of other information available to the Special Counsel’s office (p. 119; see also fn. 676).

Caveat:

The Report provides no evidence that more significant information was exchanged during the meeting.

Supplemental information/analysis:

Removal of the Magnitsky Act has been a long-term, important goal for Putin.

The Report’s statement that senior representatives of the Trump Campaign went to the meeting “expecting to receive derogatory information about Hillary Clinton from the Russian government” (see also p. 185) is consistent with Rep. Devine Nunes’ memo, which refers to Trump Jr., Manafort and Kushner by name (see Finding #12). As I have previously discussed, that finding contradicts Kushner’s written statement to Congress.

Missing intelligence analysis:

The Mueller Report does not include an analysis whether the Russian lawyer was working on behalf of Russian intelligence, or if the exchanges with the Trump Campaign before and during the Trump Tower meeting were part of a Russian intelligence operation.

One of the individuals accompanying the Russian lawyer was Rinat Akhmetshin, reportedly a former Soviet intelligence officer who “apparently has ties to Russian intelligence,” and “allegedly specializes in ‘active measures campaigns’” such as subversive political operations involving disinformation and propaganda. (See Sen. Charles E. Grassley letter to Sec. John Kelley, Apr. 4, 2017.) In testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher “acknowledged that [Veselnitskaya and Akhmetshin] were probably spies,” based on his own interactions with them.

Why did the Russians not offer more at the meeting? Former intelligence officials have assessed that the publicly reported facts (which are now included in the Mueller Report) are characteristic of Russian intelligence tradecraft, that the Russians would want to dangle the prospect of more valuable information and would observe whether the campaign reported them to federal authorities or instead welcomed the offer and wanted more. (Another former intelligence official assessed that the meeting was a Russian intelligence operation not designed to collude, but rather designed to sow political turmoil upon its discovery.)

Finally, the Report notably references the fact that Goldstone led the effort to bring Putin to the Miss Universe contest in 2013 on Trump’s invitation (p. 111). That might suggest Goldstone has the capacity to provide these connections, which would be another reason for the Campaign to take the initial email very seriously. According to Irakly “Ike” Kaveladze’s and Goldstone’s Senate Judiciary testimony, the attempt to meet Putin in 2013 never happened due to a last-minute change in Putin’s schedule. Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov instead extended an offer for Trump to meet Putin at the Sochi Olympics.

 

7. A Trump Campaign official told the Special Counsel he “felt obliged to object” to a GOP Platform change on Ukraine because it contradicted Trump’s wishes; however, the investigation did not establish that Gordon was directed by Trump

What the Mueller Report says:

At the Republican National Convention, a Campaign official J.D. Gordon intervened in the GOP Platform negotiations to counteract an amendment calling for arming Ukraine to defend itself against Russian incursions. The Special Counsel’s investigation “did not establish that [Gordon’s] efforts to dilute a portion of the Republican Party platform on providing assistance to Ukraine were undertaken at the behest of candidate Trump.”

John Mashburn, the Campaign’s policy director, directed Campaign staff at the Convention, including J.D. Gordon, “only to challenge platform planks if they directly contradicted Trump ‘s wishes.” The only change to the platform sought by the Trump Campaign was on the Ukraine measure (p. 127). Gordon “felt obliged to object to the proposed platform change and seek its dilution” based on Trump’s stated views at an earlier meeting of the foreign policy advisory group.

Gordon said that he informed Mashburn and Rick Dearborn, a senior foreign policy advisor, and neither objected to his intervention on the platform draft. Dearborn acknowledged to the Special Counsel that he did not object. Mashburn said that he told Gordon the Campaign should not intervene. “Sam Clovis, the Campaign’s national co-chair and chief policy advisor, stated he was surprised by the change and did not believe it was in line with Trump’s stance.”

Supplemental information/analysis:

The Mueller Report confirms several news reports, and what Gordon finally told reporters after having made contradictory statements to the press. Notably, Gordon told Natasha Bertrand that the Campaign’s action on the party platform was due to Manafort and Trump’s “overarching thought of better relations with Russia [which] was certainly their strategic position.” In a July 31, 2016 interview on Meet the Press, Manafort categorically denied that he or the campaign played any role:

CHUCK TODD: Where did it comes from then? Because everybody on the platform committee had said it came from the Trump campaign. If not you, who?

MANAFORT: It absolutely did not come from the Trump campaign. And I don’t know who everybody is, but I guarantee you it was nobody that was on the platform committee

CHUCK TODD: So nobody from the Trump campaign wanted that change in the platform?

MANAFORT: No one, zero.

On July 14, Carter Page emailed several campaign staff including Gordon, congratulating them. “As for the Ukraine amendment, excellent work.”

 

8. Russian military hackers may have followed Trump’s public statement “Russia if you’re listening …” within hours by targeting Clinton’s personal office for the first time

9. Trump requested campaign affiliates to get Clinton’s emails, which resulted in an individual apparently acting in coordination with the Campaign claiming to have successfully contacted Russian hackers

Supplemental information/analysis:

It raised alarm across party lines when candidate Trump said, on July 27, 2016, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” As one example, William Inboden, who served on the National Security Council during the George W. Bush administration, said Trump’s comments were “tantamount to treason.” Many interpreted the candidate’s words to invite not just the distribution of emails that had already been stolen, but rather the hacking of computer systems to obtain Clinton’s government emails.

What the Mueller Report says:

The Mueller Report adds three important new elements.

(1) The Mueller Report draws a possible connection between Trump’s public statement (“Russia, if you’re listening…”) to the Russian military unit’s hacking Clinton’s computer systems. “Within approximately five hours of Trump’s statement, GRU officers targeted for the first time Clinton’s personal office,” the Report states.

(2) The Mueller Report reveals, for the first time, that Trump personally asked campaign affiliates to find the missing Clinton emails, an initiative that then involved an individual saying he contacted Russian hackers. Michael Flynn recalls that Trump “made this request repeatedly.”

(3) Coordination with Peter Smith operation.

Following Trump’s request, Flynn contacted two people—Barbara Ledeen (a staffer to Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA)) and Peter Smith. Ledeen provided updates to Flynn throughout the summer of 2016. In an email to Smith, Ledeen wrote, “The person I described to you would be happy to talk with you either in person or over the phone. The person can get the emails which 1. Were classified and 2. Were purloined by our enemies.” Ledeen also wrote that she thought the Clinton email server was, “in all likelihood” already breached and that the Chinese, Russian and Iranian intelligence servers could reassemble the email content. Smith rejected Ledeen’s proposal, but proceeded with his initiative for which he “raised tens of thousands of dollars.” He told others involved in that effort including the funders “that he was in contact with hackers with ‘ties and affiliations to Russia’ who had access to the emails, and that his efforts were coordinated with the Trump Campaign.” Smith also claimed to have knowledge of WikiLeaks’ internal decision-making in his email communications with others apprised of his efforts.

Caveats:

First, although the Mueller Report states that Flynn reached out to Ledeen and Smith (p. 62), the Report states that the Special Counsel’s Office “did not identify evidence that any of the listed individuals [Trump Campaign officials including Flynn] initiated or directed Smith’s efforts.” It may be that Smith had initiated his efforts which he then coordinated with Flynn.

Second, the Mueller Report suggests that Ledeen’s and Smith’s efforts were ineffective and that Smith may have never actually been in contact with Russian hackers. The report states: “The investigation did not establish that Smith was in contact with Russian hackers or that Smith, Ledeen, or other individuals in touch with the Trump Campaign ultimately obtained the deleted Clinton emails.” It appears that Ledeen/Smith thought they may have obtained Clinton’s emails, but they determined the emails were not authentic, and Smith may have mistakenly thought he was in contact with Russian hackers or misrepresented that he was. Nonetheless, his cohorts appear to have thought they were supporting Smith’s efforts to obtain Clinton’s emails from Russian hackers, and were told by Smith that he had made contact with the Russian hackers and had knowledge of WikiLeaks’ internal decision-making concerning the release of Clinton emails.

Supplemental information/analysis:

On connections with Trump Campaign: Smith communicated with a former British intelligence official, Matt Tait, in seeking Tait’s assistance on the project. In June 2017, Tait wrote in detail about his interactions with Smith’s group. Based on a combination of factors, Tait’s assessment was that “the group was formed with the blessing of the Trump campaign.”

On connections to Russian hackers: The Wall Street Journal obtained a copy of an email in Smith’s group. Dated Oct. 11, 2016 with the subject line “Wire Instructions—Clinton Email Reconnaissance Initiative,” the message stated, “This $100k total with the $50k received from you will allow us to fund the Washington Scholarship Fund for the Russian students for the promised $150K.”

For further reading: The leading investigative reporting on the Flynn-Smith effort, including the names of some of Flynn’s funders, was published by the Wall Street Journal in two stories (June 29, 2017 and Oct. 7, 2018).

Caveat:

In his written responses, President Trump told the Special Counsel’s Office that he made the “Russia, if you’re listening” statement “in jest and sarcastically, as was apparent to any objective observer.” However, the Mueller Report notes that after making the statement, Trump asked campaign affiliates to obtain the emails (p. 62).

Supplemental information/analysis and analysis:

There is evidence in the public record that discredits Trump’s statement that he was being sarcastic. See transcript of Katy Tur’s interview with candidate Trump soon after his public statement.

 

10. The Trump Campaign—and Trump personally—appeared to have advanced knowledge of future WikiLeaks releases.

11. The Trump Campaign coordinated campaign-related public communications based on future WikiLeaks releases

Other Mueller documents:

Many details of Trump Campaign affiliates’ involvement with Wikileaks is contained in other Special Counsel documents including: the Indictment of 12 alleged Russian intelligence officers, the Indictment of Roger Stone, and the draft Statement of Offence for Jerome Corsi. Based on these prior documents of the Special Counsel’s Office, we know that Mueller had strong evidence that:

(1) Trump was in frequent communication with Roger Stone at relevant times.

The draft Statement of Offense for Corsi states that Corsi “understood [Stone] to be in regular contact with senior members of the Trump Campaign, including with then-candidate Donald J. Trump” when Stone “asked Corsi to get in touch with [Wikileaks] about materials it possessed relevant to the presidential campaign.” The July 2018 indictment of Russian military intelligence officers also states that Stone was “in regular contact with senior members of the presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump” when he communicated privately with the Russian intelligence front Guccifer 2.0.

(2) Stone was informed through intermediaries in advance of WikiLeaks’ document releases and was advised to have the Campaign coordinate its messaging to take advantage of forthcoming releases of Podesta emails and forthcoming releases raising questions about Clinton’s health.

Supplemental information/analysis:

In a Just Security article, Bob Bauer and I closely tracked how the Trump Campaign repeatedly used its public communications to raise issues of Clinton’s health following the advice Stone received from Corsi about Wikileaks’ plans, and prior to Wikileaks’ eventual release of documents pointing to Clinton’s purported health concerns.

What the Mueller Report says:

Russia’s military intelligence used Wikileaks as an arm of its election interference operation. The Russians initiated contact with Wikileaks through the front organization DCLeaks on June 12, 2016.

(1) Trump appeared to have foreknowledge of future Wikileaks releases.

Shortly after getting off a call, “Trump told Gates that more releases of damaging information would be coming.”

It is highly likely that the Mueller Report refers to an incident in which Cohen heard Trump in a call with Roger Stone on speakerphone in which Stone informed candidate Trump in advance of Wikileaks’ release of the stolen emails, and Trump responded with words of encouragement. In his written congressional testimony, Cohen stated:

Mr. Trump knew from Roger Stone in advance about the WikiLeaks drop of emails.

In July 2016, days before the Democratic convention, I was in Mr. Trump’s office when his secretary announced that Roger Stone was on the phone. Mr. Trump put Mr. Stone on the speakerphone. Mr. Stone told Mr. Trump that he had just gotten off the phone with Julian Assange and that Mr. Assange told Mr. Stone that, within a couple of days, there would be a massive dump of emails that would damage Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

Mr. Trump responded by stating to the effect of “wouldn’t that be great.”

The Mueller Report appears to include the same episode—but the text is largely redacted on the ground that it involves an ongoing matter (likely the Stone prosecution):

A footnote accompanying this passage in the Report states that Cohen “provided information that the Office has generally assessed to be reliable.”

(2) Other members of the Campaign may have had foreknowledge of the release of future Wikileaks documents, but redactions due to an ongoing matter (likely the Stone prosecution) prevent a full understanding. The report states, for example, that “Manafort also wanted [REDACTED] to be kept apprised of any developments with WikiLeaks and separately told Gates to keep in touch [REDACTED] about future WikiLeaks releases.” In conversations around August or September, Corsi told an associate “that the release of the Podesta emails was coming, after which ‘we’ were going to be in the driver’s seat” (p. 56).

(3) The Trump Campaign planned press and communication messages around future Wikileaks releases. The Report states:

(4) According to Corsi’s testimony, when the Campaign was aware that the Access Hollywood tapes were going to be released, he urged participants on a conference call “to reach Assange immediately.” According to the Report, “Corsi stated that he was convinced that his efforts had caused WikiLeaks to release the emails when they did.” Corsi told the Special Counsel’s Office that he also sent out public tweets to get Assange to release the emails that day, but the Office found no record of such tweets. After reciting Corsi’s account, the Report then casts significant doubt on Corsi’s rendition of the facts of that day:

Supplemental information/analysis:

It is difficult to know which parts of Corsi’s statements, if any, the Special Counsel’s Office considered credible. One possibility is that Corsi was involved in getting WikiLeaks to release the Podesta emails that day, and falsely described a conference call and public tweets to hide how that occurred. In Oct. 2018, NBC News reported that “Mueller’s investigators have reviewed messages to members of the Trump team in which Stone and Corsi seem to take credit for the release of Democratic emails.”

(5) Starting in late Sept. 2016, Donald Trump Jr. communicated with Wikileaks. In these exchanges, Trump Jr. apparently acted on the organization’s request to publicly promote a specific link to their stolen documents. WikiLeaks expressed appreciation for candidate Trump’s promoting the group on the campaign trail. “[G]reat to see you and your dad talking about our publications” (pp. 59-60).

Supplemental information/analysis:

Wikileaks’ message of appreciation for Trump’s references to the group came two days after Trump publicly said, “WikiLeaks, I love WikiLeaks.” The day of the WikiLeaks message, Trump said, “This WikiLeaks stuff is unbelievable. … It tells you the inner heart, you gotta read it.” The following day he said, “It’s been amazing what’s coming out on WikiLeaks.” A few days later, he tweeted, “We’ve all wondered how Hillary avoided prosecution for her email scheme. Wikileaks may have found the answer. Obama!”

In Nov. 2017, The Atlantic obtained Donald Trump Jr’s direct message communications with Wikileaks. For a full version of the messages, see here.

 

12. Michael Cohen, on behalf of the Trump Organization, brokered a secret deal for a Trump Tower Moscow project directly involving Putin’s inner circle, at least until June 2016

What the Mueller Report says:

Starting during the Republican primaries and at least until June 2016, Trump’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen carried out secret negotiations for a long-sought after goal: building a Trump Tower in Moscow. The secret deal was led by Cohen and Russian-born businessman Felix Sater, who “served as an informal agent of the Trump Organization in Moscow previously.” Sater told Cohen the deal needed senior government approval, and said he had a meeting tentatively set with “Putin and top deputy” in mid-October. The day after the Trump Organization transmitted the Letter of Intent signed by Trump, Sater emailed Cohen (on Nov, 3, 2015) with a message directly linking the Moscow Trump Tower proposal to support for Trump’s election. “Buddy our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get all of Putins[sic] team to buy in on this. … Michael, Putin gets on stage with Donald for a ribbon cutting for Trump Moscow, and Donald owns the republican nomination. And possibly beats Hillary and our boy is in.”

Caveat:

Rather than a purely secretive endeavor during the course of the campaign, Sater’s email apparently envisioned the Trump Moscow Tower deal having a public profile—the idea being that the event with Putin would be a public relations boost for Trump.

What the Mueller Report says:

The Report also discusses a proposal by Dmitry Klokov, a former Russian official working in the energy sector and who offered his assistance in securing Putin’s support for the Moscow Project. Klokov’s communications with Cohen connected the Moscow Tower project to the campaign. Klokov said he could “offer the Campaign ‘political synergy’ and ‘synergy on a government level.’” Klokov’s initial approach was through an email by his then-wife Lana Erchova to Ivanka Trump. In July 2018, the Special Counsel’s Office received an unsolicited email purporting to be from Erchova. The email referenced Erchova’s setting up the contact with Ivanka Trump on behalf of her ex-husband. The Report goes on to state: “The email claimed that the officials wanted to offer candidate Trump ‘land in Crimea among other things and unofficial meeting with Putin.’ In order to vet the email’s claims, the Office responded requesting more details. The Office did not receive any reply.”

Cohen said he ultimately did not pursue the matter with Klokov, “because he was already working on the Moscow Project with Sater, who Cohen understood to have his own connections to the Russian government.”

Cohen requested assistance from the Russian government on the Moscow Project in a phone call with the assistant to Dmitry Peskov, the press secretary for the president of Russia. The phone call occurred two days after Cohen emailed Peskov using the specific email address for Putin’s senior official (Pr_peskova@prpress.gov.ru). Cohen briefed Trump on the call soon afterwards (p. 136). The day after call, Sater texted Cohen saying, “Call me when you have a few minutes to chat … It’s about Putin they called today.” On May 5, 2016, Sater wrote to Cohen, “Peskov would like to invite you as his guest to the St. Petersburg Forum which is Russia’s Davos it’s June 16-19… He said anything you want to discuss including dates and subjects are on the table to discuss.” Cohen replied, “Works for me.”

At different points, Cohen and Trump contemplated travelling to Russia. Cohen stated that “Trump indicated a willingness to travel if it would assist the [Moscow Tower] project significantly.” Cohen requested Trump’s passport from his assistant for arranging the travel. Cohen also said that “Trump wanted to be updated on any developments with Trump Tower Moscow and on several occasions brought the project up with Cohen.”

At risk of legal penalty (and later pleading guilty), Cohen lied to Congress about the Moscow Tower deal including stating that he did not recall any Russian government response or contact following his email to Peskov.

Missing intelligence analysis:

The Mueller Report does not analyze, among other matters, the Russian government’s interests and objectives in the Moscow Trump Tower project. What might that additional intelligence information say? Buzzfeed News obtained Sater’s communications with Cohen and broke the story of the Moscow Trump Tower project. Buzzfeed reported, “FBI agents investigating Russia’s interference in the election learned that Cohen was in frequent contact with foreign individuals about Trump Moscow — and that some of these individuals had knowledge of or played a role in 2016 election meddling, according to two FBI agents.”

According to Sater and Cohen’s correspondence, Sater started arranging a trip for Cohen to meet with high-level government officials and bankers in Russia about the Trump Tower project. Buzzfeed reported that Sater’s longtime associate, a former member of the Russian military intelligence, helped coordinate the trip in Russia and making arrangements for a visa. Cohen spoke with this man directly on at least one occasion in preparing for the trip. Was the man still connected to Russian military intelligence? Sater reportedly later testified to Congress, “No such thing as a former Russian spy.”

Before Cohen’s guilty plea, Peskov denied his office did anything to respond to Cohen’s email.

Finally, with regard to an intelligence analysis, it is worth noting that Putin has reportedly engaged in efforts to use secret financial deals for pro-Russian politicians in western democracies in France (Marine Le Pen – presidential race), Italy (Matteo Salvini – European election campaign), and the United Kingdom (Arron Banks – Brexit referendum).

Supplemental information/analysis:

Absent from the Mueller Report is another secret project that Cohen and Sater reportedly pursued, and which may have overlapped in time with the Moscow Project–a back channel pro-Russian “peace” plan. The Special Counsel’s Office interviewed the Ukrainian official involved in the planning with Cohen and Sater.

13. During the presidential transition, Jared Kushner and Eric Prince engaged in secret back channel communications with Russian agents. (1) Kushner suggested to the Russian Ambassador that they use a secure communication line from within the Russian Embassy to speak with Russian Generals; and (2) Prince and Kushner’s friend Rick Gerson conducted secret back channel meetings with a Putin agent to develop a plan for U.S.-Russian relations.

What the Mueller Report says:

In a 30-minute meeting at Trump Tower on Nov, 30, 2016, “Kushner asked [Russian Ambassador] Kislyak if they could communicate using secure facilities at the Russian Embassy. Kislyak quickly rejected that idea.”

Missing intelligence analysis/Supplemental information:

The Mueller Report references only Kushner’s interview (April 11, 2018) as a citation. It does not reference other intelligence information that might have corroborated these facts, nor intelligence analysis of the Russian reaction. The Washington Post, which broke the story (on May 26, 2017), reported that U.S. intelligence agencies obtained intercepts of Kislyak discussing with officials in Moscow the fact that Kushner had made this proposal. After the Post’s report, Kushner acknowledged he made the proposal in his written statement to Congress (July 24, 2017), though he downplayed its significance.

What the Mueller Report says:

Acting as an apparent surrogate for the Trump Transition, Eric Prince held an undisclosed back channel meeting with a Russian agent in the Seychelles (on Jan. 11, 2017) to discuss future US-Russian relations with the incoming administration. The meeting was with Kirill Dmitriev who reported directly to Putin and frequently referred to Putin as his “boss.” The meeting was arranged and also attended by George Nader.

Jared Kushner’s friend Rick Gerson also met and communicated multiple times with Dmitriev. “Dmitriev told Gerson that he had been tasked by Putin to develop and execute a reconciliation plan between the United States and Russia.”

On Jan. 18, 2017, Gerson provided Kushner a two-page proposal for US-Russian relations that Dmitriev developed based on his discussions with Gerson. Dmitriev told Nader the proposal was “a view from our side that I discussed in my meeting on the islands and with you and with our friends.” Kushner gave copies of the proposal to Steve Bannon and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (p. 147).

On Jan. 26, Dmitriev wrote to Nader that he had just seen his “boss”—an apparent reference to Putin—who had “emphasized that this is a great priority for us and that we need to build this communication channel to avoid bureaucracy.”

Bannon told the Special Counsel that he had no knowledge of the Seychelles meeting. Substantial evidence suggests Prince discussed the meeting directly with Bannon. George Nader, who set up the Seychelles meeting, wrote to Dmitriev in advance, “This guy [Prince] is designated by Steve [Bannon] to meet you!” In the Seychelles, “Prince added that he would inform Bannon about his meeting with Dmitriev.” After returning to the United States, Prince said he briefed Bannon about the meeting at Bannon’s home.

Supplemental information/analysis:

At the risk of perjury (or a felony false statement), Prince appears to have lied to the House Intelligence Committee about his meetings with the Russian agent in Seychelles, including the purpose and substance of the meeting, whether the meeting was preplanned, and whether he was acting as a surrogate for the Trump Transition team.

 

14. During the presidential transition, in coordination with other members of the Transition Team, Michael Flynn spoke with the Russian Ambassador to prevent a tit for tat Russian response to the Obama administration’s imposition of sanctions for election interference; the Russians agreed not to retaliate saying they wanted a good relationship with the incoming administration

What the Mueller Report says:

These facts were already part of Mueller’s court filings in Michael Flynn’s plea. The Report identifies some of the other Trump Transition officials by name.

Supplemental information/analysis:

The Report notes, without comment on their veracity, that both KT McFarland and Flynn told the Special Counsel’s Office that they did not specifically recollect telling President-Elect Trump about the substance of Flynn’s calls with the Russian Ambassador, despite each of them briefing Trump about developments on the Russian sanctions (pp. 25-26).

Absent from the Mueller Report is the White House’s plans to unilaterally lift Russian sanctions, an effort that got underway very soon after Trump entered office (based on a whistle blower report to Congress, and an on-the-record interview with former U.S. official Dan Fried).

* * *

 

Photo credit: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

 

About the Author(s)

Ryan Goodman

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, former Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-2016). Follow him on Twitter (@rgoodlaw).