Special prosecutor Robert S. Mueller III’s two-volume “Report on the Investigation Into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election” is not an easy read—not unlike those manuals that come boxed with “easy to assemble” multipart children’s toys on Christmas Eve. Nonetheless, considering the exceedingly damaging effects Russiagate has had on America at home and abroad for nearly three years, the report will long be studied for what it reveals and does not reveal, what it includes and does not include.
Because of my own special interest in Russia, I read carefully the first volume, which focuses on that country’s purported role in the scandal. I came away with as many questions about the report as about the role of Moscow and that of candidate and then President Donald Trump. To note a few:
§ Mueller begins, on Page 1, with this assertion: “The Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion.” Maybe so, but Mueller, who is not averse to editorializing and contextualizing elsewhere in the report, gives readers no historical background or context for this large generalization. In particular, was the interference—or “meddling,” as media accounts characterize it—more or less “sweeping and systematic” than was Washington’s military intervention in the Russian civil war in 1918 or its very intrusive campaign to reelect Russian President Boris Yeltsin in 1996—or, on the other side of the ledger, the role of the Soviet-backed American Communist Party in US politics in the 20th century? That is, what warranted a special investigation of this episode in a century of mutual American-Russian interference in the other’s politics? Put somewhat differently: Readers might wonder if, had Hillary Clinton won the 2016 election, there even would have been a Russiagate and Mueller investigation.
§ It has occasionally been suggested that Russiagate was originated by high-level US officials who disliked candidate Trump’s pledge to “cooperate with Russia.” This suspicion remains unproven, but throughout, Mueller repeatedly attributes to Trump campaign members and Russians who interacted in 2016, potentially in sinister or even criminal ways, a desire for “improved U.S.-Russian relations,” for “bringing the end of the new Cold War,” for a “new beginning with Russia.” Even Russian President Vladimir Putin is reported to have wanted “reconciliation between the United States and Russia.” (See, for example, pp. 5, 98, 105, 124, 157.) The result is, of course, to discredit America’s once-mainstream advocacy of détente. Mueller even brands American pro-détente views—as Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, and Reagan held in the 20th century—as “pro-Russia foreign policy positions” (p. 102). Does this mean that Americans who hold pro-détente views today, as I and quite a few others do, are to be investigated for their “contacts” with Russians in pursuit of better relations? Mueller seems to say nothing to offset this implication, which has already adversely affected a few Americans mentioned and not mentioned in his report.
§ As reflected in the text and footnotes, Mueller relies heavily on reports by US intelligence agencies, but without treating the recorded misdeeds of those agencies, particularly the CIA under John Brennan, in promoting the Russiagate saga. He also relies heavily on contemporary media accounts of Russiagate as it unfolded, but without taking into account their journalistic malpractices, as abundantly documented by Matt Taibbi, who equates the malpractice with news reports leading up to the US invasion of Iraq.
§ Nor does Mueller consider alternative scenarios and explanations, as any good historical or judicial investigation must do. For example, he accepts uncritically the Clinton/Democratic National Committee allegation that Russian agents hacked and disseminated their emails in 2016. Again, maybe so, but why did he not do his own forensic examination or even mention the alternative finding by VIPS that they were stolen and leaked by an insider? Why did he not question Julian Assange, who claimed to know how and through whom the emails reached WikiLeaks? And how to explain Mueller’s minimal interest in the shadowy professor Joseph Mifsud, who helped entrap George Papadopoulos in London? Mueller reports that Mifsud “had connections to Russia” (p. 5), although a simple Google search suggests that Mifsud was indeed an “agent” but not a Russian one, as widely alleged in media accounts.
§ Though he may do so in the second volume of the report, Mueller oddly does not focus in the first volume on the Steele dossier, where it surely belongs as a foundational Russiagate document and whose anti-Trump “information” is now widely acknowledged to have been “salacious and unverified.” At one point, however, Mueller delivers a telling report: “Trump would not pay for opposition research” (p. 61). Can this be anything other than a damning, if oblique, judgment on the Clinton campaign, which is known to have paid for the Steele dossier?
§ Toward the end of the first volume (pp. 144, 146), Mueller produces a truly stunning revelation, though he seems unaware of it. After the 2016 US presidential election, the Kremlin “appeared not to have preexisting contacts…with senior officials around the President-Elect.” Even more, “Putin spoke of the difficulty faced by the Russian government in getting in touch with the incoming Trump Administration…. Putin indicated that he did not know with whom formally to speak and generally did not know the people around the President-Elect.”
So much for all the shameful Russiagate allegations of Trump-Putin collusion, conspiracy, even treason. Surely it means the United States needs another, different investigation, one into the actual origins and meaning of this fraudulent, corrosive, exceedingly dangerous, and still unending American political scandal.
This commentary is based on Stephen F. Cohen’s most recent weekly discussion with the host of The John Batchelor Show. Now in their sixth year, previous installments are at TheNation.com.