For more than two years, leading US political and media voices promoted a narrative that Donald Trump conspired with or was compromised by the Kremlin, and that Special Counsel Robert Mueller would prove it. In the process, they overlooked countervailing evidence and diverted anti-Trump energies into fervent speculation and prolonged anticipation. So long as Mueller was on the case, it was possible to believe that “The Walls Are Closing In” on the traitor/puppet/asset in the White House.
The long-awaited completion of Mueller’s probe, and the release of his redacted report, reveals this narrative—and the expectations it fueled—to be unfounded. No American was indicted for conspiring with Russia to influence the 2016 election. Mueller’s report does lay out extensive evidence that Trump sought to impede the investigation, but it declines to issue a verdict on obstruction. It presents no evidence that the Trump campaign conspired with an alleged effort by the Russian government to defeat Hillary Clinton, and instead renders this conclusion: “Ultimately, the investigation did not establish that the [Trump] Campaign coordinated or conspired with the Russian government in its election-interference activities.” As a result, Mueller’s report provides the opposite of what Russiagate promoters led their audiences to expect: Rather than detailing a sinister collusion plot with Russia, it presents what amounts to an extended indictment of the conspiracy theory itself.
1. Russiagate Without Russia
The most fundamental element of a conspiracy is contact between the two parties doing the conspiring. Hence, on the eve of the report’s release, The New York Times noted that among the “outstanding questions” that Mueller would answer were the nature of “contacts between Kremlin intermediaries and the Trump campaign.”
Mueller’s report does answer that question: There were effectively no “Kremlin intermediaries.” The report contains no evidence that anyone from the Trump campaign spoke to a Kremlin representative during the election, aside from conversations with the Russian ambassador and a press-office assistant, both of whom were ruled out as having participated in a conspiracy (more on them later).
It should be no surprise, then, to learn from Mueller that, when “Russian government officials and prominent Russian businessmen began trying to make inroads into the new administration” after Trump’s election victory, they did not know whom to call. These powerful Russians, Mueller noted, “appeared not to have preexisting contacts and struggled to connect with senior officials around the President-Elect.” If top Russians did not have “preexisting contacts and struggled to connect with” the people that they supposedly conspired with, perhaps that is because they did not actually conspire.
To borrow a phrase from Nation contributing editor Stephen F. Cohen, when it comes to the core question of contacts between Trump and the Russian government, we are left with a “Russiagate without Russia.” Instead we have a series of interactions where Trump associates speak with Russian nationals, people with ties to Russian nationals, or people who claim to have ties to the Russian government. But none of these “links,” “ties,” or associations ever entail a member of the Trump campaign interacting with a Kremlin intermediary. Russiagate promoters have nonetheless fueled a dogged media effort to track every known instance in which someone in Trump’s orbit interacted with “the Russians,” or someone who can be linked to them. There is nothing illegal or inherently suspect about speaking to a Russian national—but there is something xenophobic about implying as much.
2. Russiagate’s Predicate Led Nowhere
The most glaring absence of a Kremlin intermediary comes in the case that ostensibly prompted the entire Trump-Russia investigation. During an April 2016 meeting in Rome, a London-based professor named Joseph Mifsud reportedly informed Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos that “the Russians” had obtained “thousands of emails” containing “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. That information made its way to the FBI, which used it as a predicate to open the “Crossfire Hurricane” probe on July 31, 2016. Papadopoulos was later indicted for lying to FBI agents about the timing of his contacts with Mifsud. The case stoked speculation that Papadopoulos acted as an intermediary between Trump and Russia.
But Papadopoulos played no such role. And while the Mueller report says that Papadopoulos “understood Mifsud to have substantial connections to high-level Russian government officials,” it never asserts that Mifsud actually had those connections. Since Mifsud’s suspected Russian connections were the purported predicate for the FBI’s initial Trump-Russia investigation, that is a conspicuous non-call. Another is the revelation from Mueller that Mifsud made false statements to FBI investigators when they interviewed him in February 2017—but yet, unlike Papadopoulos, Mifsud was not indicted. Thus, even the interaction that sparked the Russia-collusion probe did not reveal collusion.
3. Sergey Kislyak Had “Brief and Non-Substantive” Interactions With the Trump Camp
Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak’s conversations with Trump campaign officials and associates during and after the 2016 election were the focus of intense controversy and speculation, leading to the recusal of Jeff Sessions, then attorney general, and to the indictment of National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
After an exhaustive review, Mueller concluded that Kislyak’s interactions with Trump campaign officials at public events “were brief, public, and non-substantive.” As for Kislyak’s much–ballyhooed meeting which Sessions in September 2016, Mueller saw no reason to dispute that it “included any more than a passing mention of the presidential campaign.” When Kislyak spoke with other Trump aides after the August 2016 Republican National Convention, Mueller “did not identify evidence in those interactions of coordination between the Campaign and the Russian government.”
The same goes for Kislyak’s post-election conversations with Flynn. Mueller indicted Flynn for making “false statements and omissions” in an interview with the FBI about his contacts with Kislyak during the transition in December 2016. The prevailing supposition was that Flynn lied in order to hide from the FBI an election-related payoff or “quid pro quo” with the Kremlin. The report punctures that thesis by reaffirming the facts in Flynn’s indictment: What Flynn hid from agents was that he had “called Kislyak to request Russian restraint” in response to sanctions imposed by the outgoing Obama administration, and that Kislyak had agreed. Mueller ruled out the possibility that Flynn could have implicated Trump in anything criminal by noting the absence of evidence that Flynn “otherwise possessed information damaging to the President that would give the President a personal incentive to end the FBI’s inquiry into Flynn’s conduct.”
4. Trump Tower Moscow Had No Help From Moscow…
The November 2018 indictment of Trump’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, was widely seen as damning, possibly impeachment-worthy, for Trump. Cohen admitted to giving false written answers to Congress in a bid to downplay Trump’s personal knowledge of his company’s failed effort to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. To proponents of the collusion theory, Cohen’s admitted lies were proof that “Trump is compromised by Russia,” “full stop.”
But the Mueller report does not show any such compromise, and, in fact, shows there to be no Trump-Kremlin relationship. Cohen, the report notes, “requested [Kremlin] assistance in moving the project forward, both in securing land to build the project and with financing.” The request was evidently rejected. Elena Poliakova, the personal assistant to Kremlin Press Secretary Dmitry Peskov, spoke with Cohen by phone after he e-mailed her office for help. After their 20-minute call, the report says, “Cohen could not recall any direct follow-up from Poliakova or from any other representative of the Russian government, nor did the [Special Counsel’s] Office identify any evidence of direct follow-up.”
5. …and Trump Didn’t Ask Cohen to Lie About It
The Mueller report not only dispels the notion that Trump had secret dealings with the Kremlin over Trump Tower Moscow; it also rejects a related impeachment-level “bombshell.” In January, BuzzFeed News reported that Mueller had evidence that Trump “directed” Cohen to lie to Congress about the Moscow project. But according to Mueller, “the evidence available to us does not establish that the President directed or aided Cohen’s false testimony,” and that Cohen himself testified “that he and the President did not explicitly discuss whether Cohen’s testimony about the Trump Tower Moscow project would be or was false.” In a de-facto retraction, BuzzFeed updated its story with an acknowledgment of Mueller’s conclusion.
6. The Trump Tower Meeting Really Was Just a “Waste of Time”
The June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower was widely dubbed the “Smoking Gun.” An e-mail chain showed that Donald Trump Jr. welcomed an offer to accept compromising information about Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” But the pitch did not come from the meeting’s Russian participants, but instead from Rob Goldstone, a British music publicist acting on their behalf. Goldstone said that he invented “publicist puff” to secure the meeting, because in reality, as he told NPR, “I had no idea what I was talking about.”
Mueller noted that Trump Jr.’s response “showed that the Campaign anticipated receiving information from Russia that could assist candidate Trump’s electoral prospects, but the Russian lawyer’s presentation did not provide such information [emphasis mine].” The report further recounts that during the meeting Jared Kushner texted then-Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort that it was a “waste of time,” and requested that his assistants “call him to give him an excuse to leave.” Accordingly, when “Veselnitskaya made additional efforts to follow up on the meeting,” after the election, “the Trump Transition Team did not engage.”
7. Manafort Did Not Share Polling Data to Meddle in the US Election
In January, Mueller accused Manafort of lying to investigators about several matters, including sharing Trump polling data and discussing a Ukraine peace plan with a Ukrainian-Russian colleague, Konstantin Kilimnik, during the 2016 campaign. According to Mueller, the FBI “assesses” that Kilimnik has unspecified “ties to Russian intelligence.” To collusion proponents, the revelation was dubbed “the closest we’ve seen yet to real, live, actual collusion” and even the “Russian collusion smoking gun.”
Mueller, of course, reached a different conclusion: He “did not identify evidence of a connection between Manafort’s sharing polling data and Russia’s interference in the election,” and, moreover, “did not establish that Manafort otherwise coordinated with the Russian government on its election-interference efforts.” Mueller noted that he “could not reliably determine Manafort’s purpose in sharing” the polling data, but also acknowledged (and bolstered) the explanation of his star witness, Rick Gates, that Manafort was motivated by proving his financial value to former and future clients.
Mueller also gave us new reasons to doubt the assertions that Kilimnik himself is a Russian intelligence asset or spy. First, Mueller did not join media pundits in asserting such about Kilimnik. Second, to support his vague contention that Kilimnik has, according to the FBI, “ties to Russian intelligence,” Mueller offered up a list of “pieces of the Office’s Evidence” that contains no direct evidence. For his part, Kilimnik has repeatedly stated that he has no such ties, and recently told The Washington Post that Mueller never attempted to interview him.
8. The Steele Dossier Was Fiction
The Steele dossier—a collection of Democratic National Committee-funded opposition research alleging a high-level Trump-Russia criminal relationship—played a critical role in the Russiagate saga. The FBI relied on it for leads and evidentiary material in its investigation of the Trump campaign ties to Russia, and prominent politicians, pundits, and media outlets promoted it as credible.
The Mueller report, The New York Times noted last week, has “underscored what had grown clearer for months… some of the most sensational claims in the dossier appeared to be false, and others were impossible to prove.” Steele reported that low-level Trump aide Carter Page was offered a 19 percent stake in the state-owned Russian oil company Rosneft if he could get Trump to lift Western sanctions. In October 2016 the FBI, citing the Steele dossier, told the FISA court that it “believes that [Russia’s] efforts are being coordinated with Page and perhaps other individuals associated with” the Trump campaign. The Mueller report, however, could “not establish that Page coordinated with the Russian government in its efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election.”
The Steele dossier claimed that Michael Cohen visited Prague to meet Russian agents in the summer of 2016. In April 2018, McClatchy reported to much fanfare that Mueller’s team “has evidence” that placed Cohen in Prague during the period in question. Cohen later denied the claim under oath, and Mueller agreed, noting that Cohen “never traveled to Prague.”
After reports emerged in August 2016 that the Trump campaign had rejected an amendment to the Republican National Committee platform that called for arming Ukraine, Steele claimed that it was the result of a quid pro quo. The Mueller report “did not establish that” the rejection of the Ukraine amendment was “undertaken at the behest of candidate Trump or Russia.”
9. The Trump Campaign Had No Secret Channel to WikiLeaks
In January, veteran Republican operative and conspiracy theorist Roger Stone caused a stir when he was indicted for lying to Congress about his efforts to make contact with WikiLeaks. But Mueller’s indictment actually showed that Stone had no communications with WikiLeaks before the election and no privileged information about its releases. Most significantly, it revealed that Trump officials were trying to learn about the WikiLeaks releases through Stone—a fact that underscored that the Trump campaign neither worked with WikiLeaks nor had advance knowledge of its e-mail dumps.
Mueller’s final report does nothing to alter that picture. Its sections on Stone are heavily redacted, owing to Stone’s pending trial. But they do make clear that Mueller conducted an extensive search to establish a tie between WikiLeaks, the Trump campaign, and Stone—and came up empty. New reporting from The Washington Post underscores just how far their farcical efforts went. The Mueller team devoted time and energy to determine whether far-right conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi, best known for promoting the false claim that Barack Obama was born outside the United States, served as a link between Stone and WikiLeaks. Mueller’s prosecutors “spent weeks coaxing, cajoling and admonishing the conspiracy theorist, as they pressed him to stick to facts and not reconstruct stories,” the Post reports. “At times, they had debated the nature of memory itself.” It is unsurprising that this led Mueller’s prosecutors to ultimately declare, according to Corsi’s attorney, “We can’t use any of this.”
10. There Was No Cover-Up
The Mueller report does not just dispel the conspiracy theories that have engulfed political and media circles for two years; it puts to rest the most popular, recent one: that Attorney General William Barr engaged in a cover-up. According to the dominant narrative, Barr was somehow concealing Mueller’s damning evidence, while Mueller, even more improbably, stayed silent.
One could argue that Barr’s summary downplays the obstruction findings, though it accurately relays that Mueller’s report does “not exonerate” Trump. It was Mueller’s decision to leave the verdict on obstruction to Barr and make clear that if Congress disagrees, it has the power to indict Trump on its own. Mueller’s office assisted with Barr’s redactions, which proved to be, as Barr had pledged, extremely limited. Despite containing numerous embarrassing details about Trump, no executive privilege was invoked to censor the report’s contents.
In the end, Mueller’s report shows that the Trump-Russia collusion narrative embraced and evangelized by the US political and media establishments to be a work of fiction. The American public was presented with a far different picture from what was expected, because leading pundits, outlets, and politicians ignored the countervailing facts and promoted maximalist interpretations of others. Anonymous officials also leaked explosive yet uncorroborated claims, leaving behind many stories that were subsequently discredited, retracted, or remain unconfirmed to this day.
It is too early to assess the damage that influential Russiagate promoters have done to their own reputations; to public confidence in our democratic system and media; and to the prospects of defeating Trump, who always stood to benefit if the all-consuming conspiracy theory ultimately collapsed. The scale of the wreckage, confirmed by Mueller’s report, may prove to be the ultimate Russiagate scandal.