Over the course of the Russia investigation, the procession of key associates “flipping” on Donald Trump has raised expectations that special counsel Robert Mueller would turn up proof of collusion. In just a few weeks, a flurry of activity by Mueller has brought these cases to their final act, and the prevailing media reaction leaves the impression that they lived up to the hype. Mueller’s latest court filings include “potentially devastating new information about Trump’s ties to Moscow,” writes James Risen of The Intercept. This makes it “reasonable to conclude that Mueller does, indeed, believe he can prove that there was collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government,” Adam Davidson reckons in The New Yorker.
But Mueller has not issued any charges, provided any evidence, or made any collusion allegations. If there does exist a case, Mueller hasn’t revealed it yet. For all of the excitement, what has been disclosed in the cases of Michael Cohen, Paul Manafort, and Michael Flynn does not bring us any closer to the long-sought Trump-Russia conspiracy.
The sentencing of Cohen to three years in prison has made the most waves. All but two months of Cohen’s prison term are for corruption crimes unrelated to the Russia probe: tax fraud on his personal income, and campaign-finance violations on Trump’s behalf. Federal prosecutors in New York appear to be building a strong case that Trump helped coordinate illegal hush payments to two women in order to benefit his 2016 campaign. Andrew McCarthy, a former US attorney who frequently backs Trump, says that the president “is very likely to be indicted.” With American Media Inc., the publisher of the National Enquirer, also reaching a cooperation deal, prosecutors have locked up additional witnesses to implicate Trump in the scheme.
Compare that to what Mueller has extracted from Cohen in the Russia probe. Mueller’s filing on Cohen details a 2015 contact with an Olympic weightlifter who promised “political synergy,” with the Russian government, but whose overture Cohen ultimately “did not follow up on.” We also learn of a 2015 discussion inside the Trump Organization for a proposed Trump-Putin meeting that “ultimately did not take place.”
The only Russia-related criminal activity comes in Cohen’s lies to Congress about the effort to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, a failure that never got beyond a letter of intent. This is why Mueller portrays the development as entirely prospective, and in the conditional tense. The tower, he states:
was a lucrative business opportunity that sought, and likely required, the assistance of the Russian government. If the project was completed, the Company could have received hundreds of millions of dollars from Russian sources in licensing fees and other revenues.
The only Kremlin “assistance” that we know of comes in a January 2016 phone call between Cohen and a Kremlin assistant. According to Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov, his aide informed Cohen that the “Presidential Administration doesn’t build houses, and if [the Trump Organization] want[s] to invest in Russia that we will be happy to see them at St Petersburg Economic Forum,” an annual gathering held months later.
What is also noteworthy about Cohen’s perjury conviction is the congressional testimony that Mueller does not allege to be false. Mueller does not claim that Cohen lied to Congress when he told them in September 2017: “I never saw anything—not a hint of anything—that demonstrated [Trump’s] involvement in Russian interference in our election or any form of Russian collusion.” Nor is Cohen accused of lying in claiming that he has never even visited Prague. That undercuts a core assertion of the Steele dossier, a set of largely unverified intelligence reports from former British spy Christopher Steele.
That Cohen was indicted for lying about a failed deal, but not for testifying that he never witnessed “any form of Russian collusion,” should raise doubts that he has given Mueller anything on collusion. Mueller’s statement that Cohen gave “useful information concerning certain discrete Russia-related matters core” to the Russia probe does not change that. The ambiguous wording could be interpreted either way—that information is deemed “useful” does not tell us whether it is incriminating, exonerating, or neither.
Mueller’s Manafort filing identifies the former Trump campaign manager’s alleged “crimes and lies” since agreeing to a plea deal in September. The document is heavily redacted, so a full picture is incomplete. Everything that Mueller does make public is devoid of collusion, in keeping with Manafort’s case to date. None of Manafort’s charges—those he was convicted of in his first trial, and those he pled guilty to in order to avoid a second trial—concern the Trump campaign or collusion with Russia. Manafort’s legal woes instead pertain to bank and tax fraud, as well as unregistered foreign lobbying, stemming from his political work in Ukraine, and to subsequent obstruction charges after Mueller’s initial indictment.
The only mention of a Russian in Mueller’s new filing comes in the accusation that Manafort lied about his contacts with business associate Konstantin Kilimnik. Mueller has previously asserted, without publicly offering evidence or specificity, that Kilimnik has “ties to Russian intelligence” that were “active” during the 2016 campaign. But to date, Mueller has only identified Kilimnik as material to cases related to Manafort’s Ukraine lobbying work, and accused him of witness tampering in those cases.
It is has been suggested that Manafort and Kilimnik’s dealings in Ukraine could somehow link them to a plot with the Kremlin. That theory is undermined by a glaring irony: When it comes to his work in Ukraine, Manafort, as former Fusion GPS researcher Graham Stack writes, was convicted for “doing the opposite of colluding with Russia.” In Ukraine, Manafort pushed a pro-Western agenda. I have noted this overlooked aspect of Manafort’s record in The Nation, and Mueller has provided substantial corroboration. Internal documents released by Mueller make clear that Manafort tried to steer his client, then–Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, to align with the European Union and away from Russia, or, in Manafort’s own words, promote “the key geopolitical messaging of how ‘Europe and the U.S. should not risk losing Ukraine to Russia.’”
As with Mueller’s filing on Manafort, the sentencing memo in Flynn’s case redacts key details. Mueller hails Flynn’s “substantial assistance” in a criminal investigation unrelated to the Russia probe, quite likely lobbying activities related to Turkey. When it comes to Russia, Mueller only specifically mentions Flynn’s provision of “firsthand information” about the transition period in late 2016 and early 2017. Not only does that period come after the campaign, the story of Flynn’s offenses is well known. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents about his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak. Flynn misled investigators by denying details of his efforts to convince Kislyak to not respond harshly to US sanctions and to vote against a UN Security Council measure critical of Israel.
In a new filing, Flynn’s attorneys suggest that overzealous FBI investigators entrapped him by encouraging him to speak to them without a lawyer and failing to warn him about making misstatements. Regardless, nothing incriminating has emerged from the recorded calls he was questioned about. As The Washington Post reported at the time, FBI agents who “reviewed” the Kislyak wiretaps had “not found any evidence of wrongdoing or illicit ties to the Russian government.” Had Flynn engaged in any type of “quid pro quo” or even treason with the Russian government, as has widely been suspected, Mueller surely would have indicted him for it, rather than charging him with a process crime and recommending no time behind bars.
Flynn, Cohen, and Manafort are among the 14 Trump associates tallied up by The Washington Post who “interacted” with Russian nationals “over the course of Donald Trump’s 18-month campaign for the presidency.” To the former US ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, the contacts are “extremely unusual.” But as the Post itself acknowledges, Mueller “has not yet shown that any of the dozens of interactions between people in Trump’s orbit and Russians resulted in any specific coordination between his presidential campaign and Russia.”
It is perhaps unusual then that merely having contact with a Russian passport holder is deemed suspect. A stark illustration of that xenophobic mentality has come with the newly resolved prosecution of Russian pro-gun activist and graduate student Maria Butina.
Since her arrest in July, Butina has been portrayed as a Russian spy, and possibly even a covert Kremlin link to Trump, the Republican Party, and the NRA. It turns out that none of this is the case. After spending most of the past five months in solitary confinement, Butina agreed to plead guilty to one count of conspiring to act as an unregistered foreign agent. As her plea document details, she openly tried to make political connections to members of the GOP and NRA at public events and private dinners in the hopes of establishing backdoor channels of communication. She did so at the behest of Alexander Torshin, who until recently served as deputy of the Central Bank of Russia. Butina was also aware that Torshin “sometimes acted in consultation with” his Central Bank superiors and officials at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. That is the extent of her Russian government ties.
Retracting an earlier claim, prosecutors now acknowledge that Butina had a genuine “interest in a graduate school education” in the United States. They have also abandoned contentions that she worked with Russian intelligence agencies, and that she was only using her boyfriend, Paul Erickson, to meet other influential Americans. Most critically, prosecutors have withdrawn a claim that led to misogynist media portrayals of Butina as a Russian “honeypot” who offered “sex for power.” The falsehood was based on their misinterpretation of Butina’s joking text messages—humor that the judge in the case said was obvious within “five minutes” of scrutiny.
Prosecutors, The New York Times reports, now “[face] questions about their initial portrayal of Ms. Butina as something like a character out of ‘Red Sparrow,’ the spy thriller about a Russian femme fatale.” The plea deal, the Times adds, “was likely to provide her defenders with new fodder to argue that her activities look sinister only to those who see the world through the outdated lens of the Cold War.” Comparing the actual facts in the Trump-Russia investigation to how they are being recklessly portrayed, it seems Butina’s is not the only case where a Cold War lens is warping our view.