the national interest

Trump Beat the Rap, but Mueller Uncovered a Historic Scandal

Presidents Trump and Putin. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

Perhaps the most haunting passage in the special counsel’s report on Russian election interference is a fragment of a sentence, most of which is hidden behind black redaction lines. Some figure, whose name is hidden, writes to Kirill Dmitriev, a Russian regime crony, “Putin has won.”

The Mueller report is the story of a crime that succeeded and a cover-up that quite possibly did too.

Trump has repeatedly claimed, and his attorney general has repeated, that the Mueller report proved (as William Barr put it Thursday morning) “there was in fact no collusion.” Mueller’s report shows this claim of exoneration is at best highly misleading and at worst outright false.

The standard of proof used by Mueller is “establish,” which essentially means “to prove.” Mueller established both that Russia set out to help Trump’s campaign, in part by breaking American laws, and that the campaign expected to benefit from those actions, criminal and otherwise. The report states that it failed to establish “coordination,” which it defines as “more than the two parties taking actions that were informed by or responsive to the other’s actions or interests.”

And it emphasizes repeatedly that it brought charges only when prosecutors could meet that forbidding standard of proof:

As the report explains, “a statement that the investigation did not establish particular facts does not mean there was no evidence of those facts.” The failure to establish these crimes does not mean investigators proved the negative or even that they found no evidence for them.

Now, it would be unfair to Trump and his campaign to conclude that every charge that has been reported in the media or floated by Christopher Steele’s sources should be presumed true. Some avenues of the scandal appear to have been decisively foreclosed. The report flatly states that Michael Cohen did not visit Prague — one of the key disputed leads in Steele’s dossier. It produces no hints whatsoever that a server in Alfa-Bank was used to transmit campaign data between Moscow and Trump Tower. And it certainly puts to rest any possibility that Trump and Putin maintained any kind of close, regular contact throughout the campaign (though such a scenario has not received serious consideration anyway).

The report details a great deal of gross, corrupt behavior. Most important, Trump was secretly negotiating a building deal in Moscow that “stood to earn substantial sums over the lifetime of the project, without assuming significant liabilities or financing commitments.” That is to say, it was the kind of no-lose deal Putin habitually hands out to his overseas partners as a way of laundering bribes through the guise of legitimate business transactions. Legally, it’s an innocent business deal that just happens to generously offer guaranteed profits for Putin’s partner.

The report describes how Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch closely tied to the regime, used Paul Manafort “to install friendly political officials in countries where Deripaska had business interests.” It shows that Manafort was indebted to Deripaska when he took on the job of managing Trump’s campaign and that Manafort passed extensive polling data on to his former employee, Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian agent. Alas, Mueller “could not reliably determine Manafort’s purpose” in handing the data over to Kilimnik. Maybe he was giving Russians information to help target their social-media attacks, or maybe he just wanted to show what a big shot he had become.

In summer 2016, Trump appeared before television cameras and asked Russia to steal Hillary Clinton’s State Department emails (“Russia, if you’re listening …”). Trump’s defenders have tried to pass off this request as a joke, but this was always far-fetched — although Trump enjoys belittling his adversaries, he’s no ironist — and Mueller has proved the request was deadly earnest. Not only, as a previous indictment showed, did Russian hackers immediately follow up on Trump’s ask, but Trump directed Michael Flynn to get the emails.

“Trump made this request repeatedly,” notes Mueller. Flynn assigned the task to Republican operatives Barbara Ledeen and Peter W. Smith. Like every other member of the Trump campaign, neither of these figures had any compunction about teaming up with hostile states in order to gain an edge over Clinton. This second avenue of attempted collusion petered out because Mueller “did not establish” — there’s that phrase again — “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.”

A third avenue of collusion ran through WikiLeaks. This section of Mueller’s report is heavily redacted, but it makes clear that Trump’s interest in WikiLeaks was just as intense as his repeated public displays of interest would indicate. “By the late summer of 2016, the Trump Campaign was planning a press strategy, a communications campaign, and messaging based on the possible release of Clinton emails by WikiLeaks,” Mueller reports. One intriguing redacted passage offers that Trump took a phone call and “shortly after the call candidate Trump told [cooperating witness Rick] Gates that more releases of damaging information would be coming.”

The report describes four major avenues of potential collusion. Flynn’s attempt to secure the stolen emails failed. The famous Trump Tower meeting did not yield the dirt its participants sought. That leaves two more unresolved channels: Manafort, who passed polling data on to Kilimnik for reasons unknown, and Stone, who dealt with WikiLeaks and is largely blacked out of the report due to an upcoming trial.

What Stone and Manafort have in common, in addition to a long history as partners, is that they both refused to cooperate with Mueller. And here the evidence is overwhelming that Trump not only attempted to obstruct the probe but succeeded.

Trump set a tone of noncooperation that filtered down. He refused to sit for an interview, offering only written responses. Investigators complained that over 30 of these responses claimed he did not recall and other answers were “incomplete or imprecise.” Mueller’s lawyers told Trump the nonresponses “demonstrate the inadequacy of the written format.” Trump refused to offer anything more.

Trump, the report states, expressed shock that his lawyer, Don McGahn, took notes of their conversations. “I never had a lawyer who took notes,” Trump said, pointing to Roy Cohn, the former mob lawyer and aide to Joe McCarthy, as a “great” lawyer who never took notes. It is difficult to think of a reason for a lawyer not to take notes other than his client is engaged in crimes.

Several cooperating witnesses describe Trump dangling the possibility of a pardon to keep his lieutenants quiet. Cohen “discussed pardons with the President’s personal counsel and believed that if he stayed on message he would be taken care of” and was called a “rat” when he flipped. Manafort told his associate Gates “that he had talked to the President’s personal counsel and they were ‘going to take care of us.’” And Trump “privately asked advisors to pass messages to Flynn conveying that the President still cared about him and encouraging him to stay strong.”

It is famously difficult to prosecute the leaders of tight-knit criminal syndicates, which is why known mob bosses can walk the streets as celebrities for years or decades. This is the case even though there are specific laws designed to target the Mafia. Now imagine a mob boss who commands the loyalty of a national party and can hand out get-out-of-jail-free cards to his underlings when they get pinched, and you’re beginning to see the difficulty of establishing the kinds of criminal-conspiracy charges Mueller was after.

Trump’s defenders have muddled the distinction between the standard of proof required to convict a defendant in court — the standard Mueller was operating under — and the standard of proof in the court of public opinion. When you’re charged with a murder, you might beat the rap if the key witnesses recant or mysteriously die right before the trial. You would then be legally entitled to walk free, but your fellow citizens are not required to accept your boasts of exoneration. And they are certainly not required to disavow news reports that described you as a murderer.

Trump beat the rap. But Mueller’s report shows in excruciating detail the moral culpability that oozed out of the candidate and covered everybody beneath him. Pending the outcome of a couple of outstanding trials, the Russia investigation is no longer a question of law. It is a question of corruption, of ethics, of politics.

Trump Beat the Rap, but Mueller Uncovered a Historic Scandal