In just over one year, special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of the Trump campaign and Russia has generated five guilty pleas, 20 indictments, and more than 100 charges. None of these have anything to do with Mueller’s chief focus: the Russian government’s alleged meddling in the 2016 election and the Trump campaign’s suspected involvement. While it’s certainly possible that Mueller will make new indictments that go to the core of his case, what’s been revealed so far does not make a compelling brief for collusion.
The most high-level Trump campaign official to be indicted is Paul Manafort, as well as his former business partner and Trump campaign deputy Rick Gates. The charges, as a Virginia judge observed last month, “manifestly don’t have anything to do with the campaign or with Russian collusion.” Instead, Manafort and Gates are accused of financial crimes beginning in 2008, when they worked as political operatives for a Russia-leaning party in Ukraine (and for which Manafort was previously investigated, but not indicted).
There is widespread supposition that Manafort’s dealings in Ukraine make him a prime candidate for collusion with Moscow. But that stems from the mistaken belief that Manafort promoted Kremlin interests during his time in Kiev. The opposite appears to be the case. The New York Times recounts that Manafort “pressed [then–Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor] Yanukovych to sign an agreement with the European Union that would link the country closer to the West—and lobbied for the Americans to support Ukraine’s membership.” If that picture is accurate, then Manafort’s activities in Ukraine during the period for which he has been indicted were diametrically opposed to the Kremlin’s agenda.
Manafort’s employment of Konstantin Kilimnik, who was indicted last week on obstruction charges in Manafort’s case, is seen as another Kremlin link. Kilimnik studied as a linguist at a Soviet-era military school and went on to become Manafort’s translator and fixer in Ukraine. According to Mueller, Kilimnik has “ties to Russian intelligence” that were active during the 2016 campaign. The evidence to support that assertion is sealed. For his part, Kilimnik denies being a Russian agent. Ukrainian authorities investigated him in August 2016 but did not bring charges. According to The Atlantic, “insinuations” that Kilimnik worked for Russian intelligence then “were never backed by more than a smattering of circumstantial evidence.”
While Manafort’s alleged offenses (aside from the new obstruction charges) occurred well before the 2016 campaign, those of former national security adviser Michael Flynn came after. Flynn admitted to making “false statements and omissions” about his conversations with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the transition in December 2016. According to his charge sheet, Flynn falsely told agents that he did not request that Russia respond to new US sanctions “in a reciprocal manner” because the incoming Trump team “did not want Russia to escalate the situation.” Flynn also hid from FBI agents that, days before that call, he first asked Kislyak to veto a UN Security Council measure condemning Israeli settlement building, which the outgoing Obama administration had decided to let pass (Russia ultimately rebuffed Flynn and supported the measure).