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).
The FBI was able to charge Flynn because it had concrete evidence that his statements to them were false: wiretaps of his conversations with Kislyak. But these calls offer nothing on collusion. As The Washington Post reported, FBI agents who “reviewed” the calls with Kislyak had “not found any evidence of wrongdoing or illicit ties to the Russian government.”
Like Flynn, George Papadopoulos has also pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI after the election. Although he is the lowest-level member of the Trump campaign to be charged, his case has emerged front and center. In the months since Papadopoulos’s October indictment, we have been told that the FBI launched an investigation, code named “ Crossfire Hurricane,” because of him. We also recently learned that the FBI enlisted an informant, Cambridge Professor Stefan Halper, to make contact with Papadopoulos and two other campaign officials, Carter Page and Sam Clovis, in a bid to pry loose information on potential campaign ties to Russia.
In charging Papadopoulos, Mueller’s team raised the prospect that Papadopoulos was told about stolen Democratic e-mails before the theft of DNC e-mails was publicly known. According to the Statement of Offense, Maltese professor Joseph Mifsud informed Papadopoulos that “the Russians” had obtained “thousands of emails” containing “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. The two spoke in April 2016, before the first DNC e-mails were released. Papadopoulos volunteered to agents his information on Mifsud’s offer; he pleaded guilty to misrepresenting the timing of when he spoke to Mifsud. All of this would be more explosive if, as the Mueller team suggested, Mifsud actually “had substantial connections to Russian government officials,” and recently “met with some of those officials in Moscow.”
And yet there were ample reasons to question whether Papadopoulos was a plausible conduit for Trump-Kremlin collusion. He was an unpaid volunteer known for embellishing credentials; who not only didn’t land a job in the Trump administration post-election but couldn’t even get his travel expenses reimbursed during the campaign.
It is also quite possible that Mifsud was referring to the 30,000 State Department e-mails deleted from Hillary Clinton’s private server, by that point a well-publicized controversy. Papadopoulos’s wife, Simona Mangiante, now says that Papadopoulos believes that to be the case. She also says that Papadopoulos has no knowledge of collusion and pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI only because Mueller threatened to charge him for having been an unregistered foreign agent of Israel.
If Papadopoulos offers Mueller nothing on collusion, the other main staple of collusion allegations—the infamous June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower—is an unlikely alternative. The music publicist who set up the meeting, Rob Goldstone, e-mailed Donald Trump Jr. with an offer of “official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia,”—not, it should be noted, stolen e-mails. But because Goldstone also wrote of “very high level and sensitive information,” as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” his message has been quoted endlessly as Exhibit A for a Trump-Russia plot.
There were already reasons to question whether an e-mail sent by a kooky publicist is plausible groundwork for such a high-level conspiracy. The recently released transcripts of Goldstone’s congressional testimony give us more. Goldstone explains that he set up the meeting on behalf of Emin Agalarov, a Russian pop singer who employed Goldstone as a publicist, and whose father, Aras Agalarov, is a billionaire who partnered with Trump on the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow.
Goldstone recounts that Emin gave him “limited information”—and that was a problem. Emin had told him that a “well-connected Russian attorney,” Natalia Veselnitskaya, had met with his father and “told him that they had some interesting information that could potentially be damaging regarding funding by Russians to the Democrats and to its candidate, Hillary Clinton.” Goldstone’s follow-up attempts to get “more information” from Emin yielded nothing more. So Goldstone drew upon his professional tools. As he told the Senate Judiciary Committee: “I had puffed it and used some keywords that I thought would attract Don Jr.’s attention.” In his field, he explained, “publicist puff is how they get meetings.”
By his telling, Goldstone was not being a Kremlin intermediary; he was being a good publicist. His Russian pop-star client had passed on vague information based on what his father had told him about what a Russian lawyer said. His “publicist puff” secured the meeting. All parties contend that the meeting ended quickly after the assembled Trump representatives struggled to understand what Veselnitskaya was talking about, which included none of the advertised incriminating information. Veselnitskaya says she tried to discuss repealing the Magnitsky Act sanctions on Russia, which is not hard to believe given that Veselnitskaya and her client, Prevazon Holdings, have fought those sanctions for years.
Donald Trump Jr. is often faulted for accepting Goldstone’s overture to begin with, since it floated damaging information from a foreign power. He is also faulted for initially providing a misleading statement about the meeting to the media. But lying to reporters is not an indictable offense, and neither is showing a willingness to obtain foreign dirt. During the 2016 contest, the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign accepted help from Ukraine and paid for the salacious and outlandish Steele “dossier” from across the pond.
This brings us to the last major indictment, and the first one to include Russian nationals: 13 Russians and three companies accused of running a US-aimed social media campaign out of the St. Petersburg–based Internet Research Agency (IRA). By now the details are well known: About $100,000 was spent on Facebook ads, more than half of that after the November 2016 vote. The bulk of the remaining $46,000 in ads ran during the primaries. The majority of the ads did not even reference the election and got little traction.
Yet prominent media and political voices have portrayed the ads as a major component of a “sophisticated” Russian interference campaign akin to Pearl Harbor and 9/11. On his current book tour, former national-intelligence director James Clapper has declared that, taken together, the Russian ads and stolen Democratic e-mails handed Trump the presidency.
Now that we can see all of the ads for ourselves, it is difficult to argue with Facebook executive Rob Goldman, who said that “swaying the election was *NOT* the main goal.” The main goal, in fact, appears to be exactly what Facebook initially found, according to The Washington Post, before the social-media giant came under pressure from congressional Democrats: “A review by the company found that most of the groups behind the problematic pages had clear financial motives, which suggested that they weren’t working for a foreign government.”
Mueller’s indictment reinforces Facebook’s initial conclusion. The defendants “used the accounts to receive money from real US persons in exchange for posting promotions and advertisements” on their social-media pages, for a fee of “between 25 and 50 U.S. dollars per post.” And not only does Mueller say that the troll farm had no ties to the Trump campaign, he doesn’t even allege that it worked with the Russian government. The IRA’s owner, Yevgeny Prigozhin, is said to be close to Putin. But even if the ads came right from the Kremlin, does anyone think that the bizarre offerings—from Buff Bernie to pro-Beyoncé and anti-Beyoncé to the juvenile attacks on Hillary Clinton—impacted the US voters who saw them?
One of the indicted firms is challenging the case in court, accusing Mueller of inventing “a make-believe crime” in order to “justify his own existence” and “indict a Russian—any Russian.” Whether the troll farm’s indictment is make-believe or not, Mueller has yet to indict anyone—let alone any Russian—for Russiagate’s underlying crime: the theft of Democratic Party e-mails. And more than a year after they accused the Russian government of carrying it out, intelligence officials have yet to produce a shred of proof.
The January 2017 intelligence report begat an endless cycle of innuendo and unverified claims, inculcating the public with fears of a massive Russian interference operation and suspicions of the Trump campaign’s complicity. The evidence to date casts doubt on the merits of this national preoccupation, and with it, the judgment of the intelligence, political, and media figures who have elevated it to such prominence.