Robert Mueller Has Raised Big Trump-Russia Questions. Will His Report Answer Them?

Here are some of the key mysteries the special counsel has surfaced.

Pete Marovich/ZUMA

The anticipation for special counsel Robert Mueller’s final report has reached a fever pitch. When is it coming? What will it say? Will it be made public? Will President Donald Trump’s new attorney general, William Barr, suppress it? If so, will House Democrats subpoena it?

And all this hubbub is about a report that may or may not contain new and revelatory information. Lost in much of the speculation is the fact that Mueller has no obligation to produce a report that details all he has uncovered. He might merely forward to Barr a narrow and short memo explaining his prosecutorial decisions…and case closed. There is no telling whether Mueller will answer the big questions: Did anyone on the Trump campaign cooperate or communicate with Russia about its attack on the 2016 election? Why did Trump and his aides echo the Kremlin’s disinformation campaign of denial? Did the Trump camp directly signal to Moscow that it appreciated Russia’s assault on American democracy? Was anything else afoot?

Yet throughout his investigation, Mueller, through indictments and other court filings, has released significant information about interactions between Trumpland and Russians—often without supplying complete accounts. Consequently, Mueller has interjected into the public record a host of tantalizing questions about Trump-Russia collusion and related matters. And this raises another query about his final report, whatever it may be: Will Mueller answer the questions he himself has generated?

Here are some key revelations that Mueller has already produced that warrant further explanation: 

Roger Stone 

In Mueller’s indictment of Roger Stone, a longtime informal adviser of Trump, he reported a fact that drew much attention:

After the July 22, 2016 release of stolen [Democratic National Committee] emails by [WikiLeaks], a senior Trump Campaign official was directed to contact STONE about any additional releases and what other damaging information [WikiLeaks] had regarding the Clinton Campaign.

The indictment did not identify the senior Trump campaign official who was told to instruct Stone to make contact with WikiLeaks. And more importantly, Mueller has not revealed who directed this senior Trump campaign official to do so. Obviously, it would have to be someone high up in the Trump hierarchy, raising the prospect that this person might well be Trump himself. Yet Mueller has chosen to keep this individual’s identity a secret—so the public doesn’t know if Trump or someone close to him made an effort to reach out secretly to WikiLeaks when that outfit was disseminating material stolen by Russian hackers as part of a covert operation to boost Trump’s campaign. 

There’s another big mystery contained in Mueller’s Stone indictment. According to Mueller’s prosecutors, Stone lied to Congress and concealed one of his efforts to interact with WikiLeaks during the 2016 campaign. The indictment noted that around the time that the unnamed person was directing a top Trump campaign official to tell Stone to reach out to WikiLeaks, Stone used Jerome Corsi, a right-wing conspiracy peddler, to try to make contact with Julian Assange, the head of WikiLeaks. After the election, when Congress was investigating the Russian intervention, Stone told the House intelligence committee that he had no emails or text messages related to WikiLeaks and the hacks. He also informed the committee that he had only learned about WikiLeaks’ plans through an intermediary he later identified as Randy Credico, a New York radio host and comedian. But, as the indictment asserted, Stone possessed messages between himself and Corsi that show he had used Corsi to contact WikiLeaks. This prompts the obvious question: Why did Stone disclose his interactions with Credico but allegedly lie to hide those with Corsi? What was Stone covering up? 

Paul Manafort

Much of Mueller’s investigation of Trump’s felonious former campaign chair focused on Manafort’s wheeling-and-dealing in Ukraine that involved tax evasion, money laundering, and illegal lobbying in the United States for a Putin-friendly Ukrainian political party. But the Manafort case also included an examination of his relationship with Konstantin Kilimnik, Manafort’s onetime business colleague whom Mueller identified as an alleged associate of Russian intelligence. (Kilimnik was indicted for collaborating with Manafort to obstruct justice and tamper with witnesses.) And Mueller’s team discovered that Manafort was in cahoots with Kilimnik during the 2016 campaign.

In early August 2016, Manafort, according to Mueller’s investigation, took time away from his duties as Trump’s campaign manager to meet with Kilimnik at an upscale New York City cigar bar. Filings in the Manafort case strongly suggested that this meeting took place at the behest of Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch close to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s regime and a former business associate of Manafort (and whom Manafort at one point apparently owed millions of dollars). At this meeting, Manafort shared Trump campaign polling data, including private information, with Kilimnik. The New York Times reported that this data was shared with two Ukrainian oligarchs. But what did those oligarchs do with it? Did Kilimink provide this data to anyone else? Mueller’s crew has not said. 

Perhaps more importantly, during this get-together, Manafort and Kilimnik discussed a supposed peace plan for Ukraine that likely would have been beneficial for Moscow—and that could have led to the lifting of harsh sanctions that the Obama administration and the European Union had imposed on Russia following its intervention in Ukraine. This meeting smacks of collusion: Trump’s top campaign official discussing a pro-Moscow plan with an alleged Russian intelligence asset (sent to New York by an oligarch) at the same time that Putin is mounting an operation within the United States to boost Trump’s chances. Was there any explicit talk of a quid pro quo? Was Manafort signaling to Russia that the Trump crew was fine with the Kremlin’s assault on the US election? There is much more that Americans deserve to know about this episode, and Mueller’s filings to date leave them hanging. (Mueller could also clarify Kilimnik’s relationship with Russian intelligence. His filings have noted that the FBI concluded that Kilimink has ties to Russian intelligence, but can more be revealed about a foreigner who colluded with Manafort as he guided Trump’s presidential campaign?) After Manafort was sentenced Thursday to nearly four years in prison for one set of his crimes, his attorney declared that he had never colluded with any “government official from Russia.” Neither Kilimnik nor Deripaska would qualify as a Russian official. 

George Papadopoulos

This underexperienced Trump campaign foreign policy adviser pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI about his efforts to hook up the campaign with the Russian government. Mueller’s filing describing Papadopoulos’ offense reads like a spy thriller, with the young Trump consultant meeting with a mysterious professor and other Russian cutouts in pursuit of forging contacts with Moscow. It famously noted that during one meeting in April 2016, the professor told Papadopoulos that the Russians had “dirt” on Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails.” By this point, Russian hackers had broken into the Democratic Party network and also had stolen tens of thousands of emails from John Podesta, the chair of the Clinton campaign. But these penetrations were not yet known to the public. One big question is, who on the campaign, if anyone, did Papadopoulos tell about the Russians possessing the Clinton “dirt” and emails? The Mueller filing does not say. But it seems possible, if not likely, that Papadopoulos did share this information with others in the campaign. Papadopoulos has maintained that he believes he did not inform the Trump campaign that the Russians possessed “dirt” on Clinton, but also has said, “I might have, but I have no recollection of doing so. I can’t guarantee.”

As the Mueller filing indicated, Papadopoulos was routinely and eagerly reporting his interactions with the Russians to his campaign bosses. If he did pass on this information, that would mean that Trump campaign officials had advance notice that the Kremlin was running dirty tricks against Clinton. This is important, because the Trump campaign and its top advisers (including Manafort and Donald Trump Jr.) denied Russian intervention in the election after news of the Democratic Party hack broke in June 2016 and after the stolen Democratic material was dumped before the Democratic convention in July 2016. Was the Trump campaign covering for the Russians?

The statement of offense in the Papadopoulos case also noted that between mid-June and mid-August 2016, Papadopoulos pursued an “off the record” meeting between the Trump campaign, “members of Putin’s office,” and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It seems that Papadopoulos was trying to set up a back channel with Putin and the Kremlin while Russia was attacking the election—and after this assault had become a matter of public discussion in the United States. Who in the Trump campaign knew about this effort to reach out to Putin? Who was Papadopoulos in contact with on the Russian side? Is it possible that the Russians saw this move as a signal that the Trump campaign approved of its attempt to subvert the US election? Mueller’s filing leaves out many details and raises more questions about Papadopoulos’ communication with Russian emissaries than it answers.

Michael Cohen

In a sentencing memo regarding Michael Cohen’s cooperation with his investigation, Mueller noted that Trump’s former fixer, who pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations, tax and bank fraud, and lying to Congress, had been quite helpful. This filing stated that Cohen provided Mueller “with useful information concerning certain discrete Russia-related matters core to its investigation that he obtained by virtue of his regular contact with [Trump Organization] executives during the campaign.” The memo did not spell out these matters or identify the Trump Organization executives. This portion of Cohen’s cooperation might be connected to the Trump Tower project in Moscow that Trump was pursuing secretly while he was running for president. (It was a project Trump essentially lied about when he said he had no business interests in Russia.) But could these “Russia-related matters” (note the plural) include other activities? And do the referenced company executives (note the plural) include Trump Jr., Eric Trump, or Ivanka Trump? A final Mueller report could certainly provide more specifics about the Trump Tower venture and the involvement of his adult children—and tell the public about the other “Russian-related matters” involving the Trump Organization. 

Donald Trump

In many of the cases brought by Mueller, the same fundamental question hovers: Did Trump know about this? Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the United States during the transition in late 2016, in which Flynn tried to undercut sanctions that former President Barack Obama had imposed on Russia for its interventions in the election. Was Trump aware of these conversations? Did he direct Flynn to speak to the Russians? According to Mueller, Manafort colluded with an alleged Russian intelligence associate during the campaign. Did Trump know about that? In his recent public testimony to Congress, Cohen said he believed that Trump Jr. had told Trump about the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting, where top Trump aides met with a Russian emissary whom they were told would deliver them dirt on Clinton as part of a secret Kremlin effort to help the Trump campaign. Is this one of the “discrete Russia-related matters” referenced in Mueller’s sentencing memo for Cohen? Did Mueller discover whether Trump Jr. did tell his dad about this meeting? Cohen also testified that Stone told Trump in advance about the WikiLeaks dump of Democratic emails stolen by Russian hackers. Could this mean Trump is the person who, according to Mueller’s indictment of Stone, “directed” a senior Trump campaign official to contact Stone about other damaging information WikiLeaks might have on Clinton? (In written responses to questions from Mueller, Trump reportedly has stated that he did not know about the Trump Tower meeting in advance and never communicated with Stone about WikiLeaks. Does Mueller have evidence showing the president lied to his investigation?)

And then there is this nugget: In Mueller’s indictment of 12 Russian military intelligence officers for hacking and leaking Democratic emails, he noted that “on or about July 27, 2016, the Conspirators attempted after hours to spearphish for the first time email accounts at a domain hosted by a third-party provider and used by Clinton’s personal office. At or around the same time, they also targeted seventy-six email addresses at the domain for the Clinton Campaign.” Earlier that day, Trump had exclaimed at a rally, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing.” Nowadays, Trump claims he was merely joking. But this is another question Mueller’s investigation has prompted: Was it anything but a coincidence that hours after Trump made this request, Russian hackers for the first time attacked Clinton’s personal office and also went after email addresses at the Clinton campaign?

***

After almost two years on the job, there is much that Mueller can tell the American public that it doesn’t yet know. His mission, though, has been to investigate crimes and prosecute cases, not assemble a final and comprehensive report that reveals all he has unearthed related to the Trump-Russia scandal. But it only seems fair that Mueller at least answer those questions that his own investigation has yielded. 

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