Today is the big day. While we already had one mini-freakout over “The Mueller Report” a couple weeks ago, that was not actually it. That was Trump’s Attorney General’s four page summary of the hundreds of pages written by Mueller. Today, William Barr kicked off the festivities with a press conference that was definitely not designed to set the narrative before the release of Robert Mueller’s report, and there is no point in repeating what Barr said because he has a history of cover-ups with Iran-Contra, and he has already proven that he is still not to be trusted as a Trump Administration official. While redactions hide key classified information, there are still plenty of wildly important revelations, and here are the thirty biggest from this report totaling 448 pages.
Note: anything you see in quotes here are Mueller’s words.
This is a key thing to keep in mind: what we’re talking about here is the legal bar of collusion and obstruction (collusion is not a legal term, conspiracy is what Mueller used). Just because Mueller concludes that there was not sufficient evidence to establish a crime does not mean there was not evidence of a crime. This is not a black and white story and anyone looking at it this way either misunderstands the nature of an investigation like this or willfully misunderstands it (latter phrase is looking at you, Glenn Greenwald and Michael Tracey).
“Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the [Trump] Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
Note the qualifier at the end: election interference activities. Not generic coordination. This whole sentence looks a whole lot less exonerating in the Mueller Report than the fragment beginning with “the investigation did not establish…” did in the Barr Report.
Again, this is about meeting a very high bar for a very opaque offense. You cannot read the rest of the report in good faith without understanding the legal guidelines Mueller used in his investigation, and he said that “we understood coordination to require an agreement—tacit or express—between the Trump Campaign and the Russian government on election interference. That requires more than the two parties taking actions that were informed by or responsive to the other’s actions or interests.”
So there’s your answer as to why Mueller did not find any evidence of collusion between the Russians and the Trump camp. Whatever happened did not meet that quid pro quo definition.
This sentence is why it’s so important to look at this report only through shades of gray. One of the first things Mueller wrote in his “Russian Hacking Operations” section was that the Trump camp welcomed this help. The question here is what actions rose to the criminal level in our fundamentally broken justice system, and Mueller concluded that none did despite establishing the Trump camp’s intent right up front.
Again, we see this de jure/de facto issue raise its head again, as Mueller establishes that the Trump camp both welcomed Russia’s help and had a series of shady contacts at extremely convenient times, but nonetheless, “the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
Sorry folks, this passage is pretty unequivocal: “While the investigation identified numerous links between individuals with ties to the Russian government and individuals associated with the Trump Campaign, the evidence was not sufficient to support criminal charges. Among other things, the evidence was not sufficient to charge any Campaign official as an unregistered foreign agent of the Russian government or other Russian principal. And our evidence about the June 9, 2016 meeting [ed note: this is the famed Trump Tower meeting] and Wikileaks’s releases of hacked materials was not sufficient to charge that any member of the Trump Campaign conspired with representatives of the Russian government to interfere in the 2016 election.”
For those of you saying that Michael Flynn and the litany of other Trump officials who lied to Mueller is no big deal, Mueller is saying that it was in fact, a big deal and it had a measurable impact on his ability to investigate what went on.
A false image of Mueller as an omnipotent demigod emerged during this hysteria, and Mueller has an entire passage detailing how he was unable to obtain vital information due to DOJ processes, defendants pleading the Fifth, people deleting evidence, legal privilege, and the fact that “numerous witnesses and subjects lived abroad, and documents were held outside the United States.”
For those of you holding on to hope that criminal charges may still come from this, Mueller tossed you a lifeline with this sentence: “given these identified gaps, the Office cannot rule out the possibility that the unavailable information would shed additional light on (or cast in a new light) the events described in the report.”
This is followed up by massive redactions due to what is likely an ongoing case against Wikileaks and/or Julian Assange, but it’s hard to see how a section that could begin with that sentence and have this much redacted gets any better for Team Trump under the thick layer of black.
Mueller opens the “Russian Government Links To And Contacts With The Trump Campaign” section by stating that while the special counsel did identify multiple contacts between the Trump camp and the Russian government, these contacts did not arise to the criminal level of quid pro quo coordination laid out previously in the report by Mueller (14 investigations are still ongoing though).
I could be reading too much into this section, but I found that sentence at the end of a paragraph detailing the financial terms of Trump’s Moscow Tower deal to be a bit odd, especially since the very next passage Mueller inserts to end this section details Felix Sater’s e-mails to Michael Cohen about electing Trump president, and the next section begins with “Sater and Cohen believed the project required approval (whether express or implicit) from the Russian national government.”
This could just be Mueller establishing the facts of the situation, but he certainly demonstrated that Trump had a pretty good deal in place to build Trump Tower Moscow, and his associates believed they needed the Russian government’s help to do so, so…
While the George Papadopoulos portion of this ordeal ultimately bore no fruit, that doesn’t mean that nothing came of it. In a meeting with both Jeff Sessions and Donald Trump where Papadopoulos pitched a potential meeting between Trump and Putin, both Papadopoulos and J.D. Gordon confirmed that Trump was more than receptive to the plan, and Papadopoulos told the special counsel that “he understood the Campaign to be supportive of his efforts to arrange such a meeting.”
Normally, a presidential candidate meeting with a head of state is no big deal, but a presidential candidate who is trying to build a massively profitable tower in the head of state’s country (needing said head of state’s permission) raises a few red flags.
I feel like it should be a bigger deal that one of the first foreign policy advisers hired by the Trump campaign was a known Russian asset since 2008. It’s important to note the last sentence about not establishing “coordination,” but again, remember that has a specific legal term, and the entire previous paragraph about Page working on behalf of Kremlin interests is quite damning in of itself, especially when combined with Mueller’s last sentence in the Carter Page July 2016 trip to Moscow section:
“The Office was unable to obtain additional evidence or testimony about who Page may have met or communicated with in Moscow; thus, Page’s activities in Russia—as described in his emails with the Campaign—were not fully explained.”
“At some point in the meeting, Kushner sent an iMessage to Manafort stating ‘waste of time,’ followed immediately by two separate emails to assistants at Kushner Companies with requests that they call him with an excuse to leave. Samochornov recalled that Kushner departed the meeting before it concluded; Veselnitskaya recalled the same when interviewed by the press in July 2017.”
So the takeaway from the Trump Tower meeting doesn’t necessarily seem to be that it was some big nefarious plot, just that Trump Jr.’s “I love it!” email demonstrated an extreme lack of care as to who the Trump camp were dealing with so long as they got what they wanted out of it.
Mueller cites “the evidence” as the basis for that claim, again demonstrating that while Jeff Sessions lying about these contacts with Kislyak make it look like he’s guilty of something, no evidence can establish it. Sometimes liars lie, or maybe liars get away with a cover-up. We don’t know, all we know is that the evidence Mueller collected does not seem to indicate that Sessions and other Trump officials’ contacts with Sergei Kislyak at the Republican National Convention were worthy of lying about, nor were they connected to changing the Republican platform towards Ukraine as something more Russia-friendly.
Perhaps the most damning thing we know about this whole saga is Manafort handing off highly sensitive internal polling data to what Mueller said the FBI believes to be a known Kremlin asset (and whom both Manafort and Rick Gates both told the special counsel they suspected to be a “spy”). Konstantin Kilimnik was Manafort’s right-hand man in Ukraine, and he was trained by Russian military intelligence. A judge even said that handing off this data constituted a connection to the Russian government, and the fact that Mueller could not establish why Manafort would do something like this (when the obvious seems to be the only explanation) is a good summary of the disappointment that is the Mueller Report.
Lastly, because again, some of this is immensely frustrating, it’s hard to square the bounty of evidence that Mueller himself presents (Manafort working for free, etc…) with his uncertain determination in light of wild sentences like this: “Gates also reported that Manafort instructed him in April 2016 or early May 2016 to send Kilimnik Campaign internal polling data and other updates, so that Kilimnik, in turn, could share it with Ukranian oligarchs.”
WHY DO UKRAINIAN OLIGARCHS NEED TO KNOW THE INTERNAL POLLING DATA (and “other updates”) OF THE UNITED STATES REPUBLICAN PRESIDENTIAL NOMINEE?!?
“As soon as news broke that Trump had been elected President, Russian government officials and prominent Russian businessmen began trying to make inroads into the new Administration. They appeared not to have preexisting contacts and struggled to connect with senior officials around the President-Elect.”
While that Manafort section was immensely frustrating, this is pretty cut and dry. Had the Kremlin had robust contacts with the Trump camp, it would not have been difficult to reach them after winning the presidency, and e-mails from Jared Kushner obtained by Mueller prove that Kushner could not even remember Kislyak’s name during the transition.
“The conflicting accounts provided by [Steve] Bannon and Prince could not be independently clarified by reviewing their communications, because neither one was able to produce any of the messages they exchanged in the time period surrounding the Seychelles meeting. Prince’s phone contained no text messages prior to March 2017, though provider records indicate that he and Bannon exchanged dozens of messages. Prince denied deleting any messages but claimed he did not know why there were no messages on his device before March 2017. Bannon’s devices similarly contained no messages in the relevant time period, and Bannon also stated he did not know why messages did not appear on his device.”
Firstly, Mueller concluded that Sergei Kislyak reached out to Trump National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn after the Obama administration imposed sanctions on Russia in response to its election interference. In a meeting with Flynn and another adviser, K.T. McFarland, Trump mused that he could use the Russian sanctions as leverage. According to McFarland, Flynn told her that he believed his phone call with Kislyak “had made a difference.” This recasts this saga in a less sinister light, but still demonstrates how the Trump Administration set out to placate Russia to a certain degree from the very start.
“In sum, the investigation established multiple links between Trump Campaign officials and individuals tied to the Russian government. Those links included Russian offers of assistance to the Campaign. In some instances, the Campaign was receptive to the offer, while in other instances the Campaign officials shied away. Ultimately, the investigation did not establish that the Campaign coordinated or conspired with the Russian government in its election-interference activities.”
This is in reference to the famed Trump Tower meeting.
“First, the Office did not obtain admissible evidence likely to meet the government’s burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that these individuals acted ‘willfully,’ i.e., with general knowledge of the illegality of their conduct.”
“Although the investigation established that Sessions interacted with Kislyak on the occasions described above and that Kislyak mentioned the presidential campaign on at least one occasion, the evidence is not sufficient to prove that Sessions gave knowingly false answers to Russia-related questions in light of the wording and context of those questions.”
The lesson we learned here: when faced with a Congressional inquiry, just so long as you lean hard on the phrase “I do not recall,” you wrap yourself in a cocoon of plausible deniability when it comes to perjury charges.
“With respect to whether the President can be found to have obstructed justice by exercising his powers under Article II of the Constitution, we concluded that Congress has authority to prohibit a President’s corrupt use of his authority in order to protect the integrity of the administration of justice.”
This is far from an exoneration, and if there was no serious evidence supporting Trump’s potential obstruction of justice, there would be nothing to refer to Congress.
This seems like a bit of a cop-out on the part of Mueller. He’s an investigator, and while he reportedly did not view his mandate as prosecutorial, he ultimately was put in place to come to some sort of a conclusion about Trump. Punting the question to Congress is either a letdown on the part of Mueller, or an acknowledgement that the evidence is so robust that he must defer to the constitution, and only Congress can make a ruling on what happened.
“During the course of our discussions, the President did agree to answer written questions on certain Russia-related topics, and he provided us with answers. He did not similarly agree to provide written answers to questions on obstruction topics or questions on events during the transition.”
“We then turn to the key events that we investigated: the President’s conduct concerning the FBI investigation of Michael Flynn; the President’s reaction to public confirmation of the FBI’s Russia investigation; events leading up to and surrounding the termination of FBI Director Comey; efforts to terminate the Special Counsel; efforts to curtail the scope of the Special Counsel’s investigation; efforts to prevent disclosure of information about the June 9, 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Russians and senior campaign officials; efforts to have the Attorney General unrecuse; and conduct towards McGahn, Cohen, and other witnesses.”
We already know basically everything in the obstruction of justice section that constitutes half of this 400+ page report. Every entry before this one is from the collusion half of the report. It speaks to how extraordinary this whole ordeal is that we can read a key passage from the most secretive special counsel perhaps in U.S. history, shrug our shoulders and go “yeah, we know. That’s our president!”
No biggie, just Robert Mueller saying some folks told him that Trump was enthusiasticaly aware of upcoming leaks on a former Secretary of State via a laundromat for the intelligence agencies of a foreign adversary. There’s some heavy redacting in this passage (likely stemming from Roger Stone’s ongoing case, and he was their main Wikileaks point man), and after a redaction, Mueller writes “Cohen recalled that Trump responded, ‘oh good, alright.’” The next heavily redacted paragraph looks oh so much worse for Trump.
Yes, that preposterous section of exoneration in Comey’s dismissal letter was written by Trump. Per Mueller:
“As reflected in the notes, the President told Miller that the letter should start, ‘While I greatly appreciate you informing me that I am not under investigation concering what I have often stated is a fabricated story on a Trump-Russia relationship—pertaining to the 2016 presidential election, please be informed that I, and I believe the American public—including Ds and Rs—have lost faith in you as Director of the FBI.’”
Everything is so stupid.
“In light of the President’s counsel’s previous statements that the investigations ‘might get cleaned up with some presidential pardons’ and that a pardon would be possible if the President ‘come[s] to the conclusion that you have been treated unfairly,’ the evidence supports the inference that the President intended Manafort to believe that he could receive a pardon, which would make cooperation with the government as a means of obtaining a lesser sentence unnecessary.”
There are two questions at hand here: “collusion” and obstruction. Collusion is not a specific legal term, and Robert Mueller painstakingly established the legal bar he needed to reach to qualify that term, and it is indisputable from Mueller’s conclusions that the actions of the Trump camp did not meet that bar. Much of the evidence obtained by Mueller is in fact exculpatory, as it is clear from reading this report that the Russians were far more aggressive in reaching out to the Trump Campaign than vice versa. Don Jr.’s “I love it!” e-mail is a good summation of how they viewed things: so long as it benefited them, they didn’t care where they got their information from. Additionally, it’s clear from Manafort’s section as well as the Trump Tower Moscow section that money was by far the main and perhaps only real motivation on the Trump side. The shadowy “collusion” angle was being pushed by the Kremlin, and any assistance they received from the Trump camp is likely because they were too stupid, corrupt or indifferent to care about anything that didn’t directly affect them. Supposedly major events like the Trump Tower meeting, the Mayflower Hotel meeting and the RNC meeting with Kislyak turned out to be big ‘ol nothingburgers according to Robert Mueller’s evidence.
But on the other hand, obstruction of justice has a wealth of information that I did not go over here because if you have been paying attention to this saga from the moment Michael Flynn was fired, you have already read about all of Trump’s efforts to impede the investigation. Mueller noted that Article II of the constitution gives the president broad powers and anything done in public makes it more difficult to claim was done with some nefarious intent. In many ways, the buffoonery of the Trump Administration acted as something of a legal insulation, and Mueller even went as far to say that Trump Jr. could not have possibly known he was potentially breaking the law because that is knowledge that is far too advanced for his tiny pea-brain. Ultimately, the question of how to deal with obstruction of justice was kinda sorta formally referred to Congress, and the Democrats responded by rejecting the notion that they have a constitutional requirement to conduct oversight on the executive branch. If you’re holding out hope that the Democrats will impeach Trump, you should study up on the fecklessness and the cowardice of the Democratic Party of the last 40 years.
Ultimately, in a 448 page report, the last sentence is really all you need to know to understand the entire thing: “Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the president committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”
If only we had a Congress willing to pursue what Robert Mueller handed over to them.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.