What we learned & didn't learn from Robert Mueller's report: Key takeaways

Robert Mueller. Photo: Reuters
Most of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s 448-page report became public Thursday when Attorney General William Barr released a version to Congress and the public. The document sheds new light on Mueller’s exhaustive investigation into whether Donald Trump or his campaign colluded with Russia in the 2016 election and whether the president obstructed justice.

Here’s how the partially redacted report did -- and didn’t -- answer key questions about Mueller’s 22-month investigation:

Did Trump conspire in Russia’s efforts to help him?

Mueller found sweeping Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, including numerous contacts with Trump campaign officials and an extensive social media campaign, but couldn’t establish that any American conspired in those efforts.

Did Trump obstruct justice?

Mueller found at least 10 instances of possible obstruction of justice.

“Our investigation found multiple acts by the president that were capable of exerting undue influence over law enforcement investigations, including the Russia-interference and obstruction investigations,” according to the report. “The president engaged in a series of targeted efforts to control the investigation.”

The special counsel declined to make a “traditional” decision on whether crimes were committed, but wrote that his report “does not exonerate” Trump. And he pointedly noted that “Congress has authority to prohibit a president’s corrupt use of his authority in order to protect the integrity of the administration of justice.”

While Mueller declined to make his own call on obstruction, Barr has said that he and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein decided there wasn’t sufficient evidence that Trump committed obstruction of justice. Barr said there was evidence of “non-corrupt motives” for Trump’s actions.

What about the firing of Comey?

Former FBI Director James Comey said Trump fired him after asking him to go easy on his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Comey’s firing eventually led to Rosenstein appointing Mueller as special counsel.

The Mueller report cites Comey’s firing and its aftermath as one of the episodes of possible obstruction. But Mueller said, “The evidence does not establish that the termination of Comey was designed to cover up a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia.”

Why didn’t Mueller interview Trump?

Mueller sought to interview the president for much of his almost two-year probe, but the White House successfully resisted. The president’s lawyers sought to make the case that a face-to-face interview wasn’t necessary because they submitted thousands of documents and let other White House officials sit down with the special counsel’s investigators.

Trump submitted written answers, but repeatedly said he couldn’t recall events. Mueller called the answers inadequate but said he didn’t want to wage a drawn-out legal battle to compel Trump’s testimony.

Why didn’t Mueller charge Donald Trump Jr?

Mueller considered a campaign-finance prosecution over the June 9, 2016, meeting at Trump Tower among Donald Trump Jr; Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law; and campaign chairman Paul Manafort with Russians promising dirt on Democrat Hillary Clinton.

The report said prosecutors decided not to press charges because they didn’t have “admissible evidence” likely to prove that the Trump officials acted “willfully,” or that the information promised by the Russians exceeded the value threshold for a criminal violation.

Trump’s eldest son set up the Trump Tower meeting and also exchanged several private Twitter messages with WikiLeaks weeks before the group published hacked emails from the Clinton campaign.

What about Manafort giving polling data to a Russian?

While serving as Trump’s campaign chairman, Manafort shared the campaign’s polling data and its Midwest strategy with Konstantin Kilimnik, a longtime associate who the FBI assessed has ties to Russian intelligence, according to the report.

They met in New York on Aug. 2, 2016, at Kilimnik’s request, with Kilimnik delivering “a peace plan for Ukraine that Manafort acknowledged to the special counsel’s office was a ‘backdoor’ way for Russia to control part of eastern Ukraine,” according to Mueller’s report. They believed the proposal’s success depended on support from Trump, if he were elected.

According to Manafort deputy Rick Gates, the two men also discussed so-called battleground states including Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Minnesota.

Did Putin order the election interference?

Trump’s praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin has long led Democrats to question whether they conspired on the election. U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Russia’s election interference campaign was approved at the highest levels in Moscow. Putin said on April 9 that the assertion is “utter nonsense aimed solely at a domestic audience” in the U.S.

The redacted report didn’t say whether Putin personally ordered the operations. Mueller indicted two dozen Russians who are accused of hacking Democrats and social-media meddling during the campaign, some of it aimed at sowing discord to undermine American democracy.

What about Trump’s quest for a Moscow tower?

Trump had long aspired to build a Trump Tower in Moscow, which could have netted him millions. The Mueller report said the special counsel investigated whether such business contacts “led to or involved coordination of election assistance.”

Mueller said the Trump Organization had been exploring a licensing deal for a property in Moscow from at least as early as 2013 -- after Trump held the Miss Universe pageant in Russia -- until at least June 2016. At various times Trump Jr, daughter Ivanka Trump and former Trump lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen were involved.

Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress when he said Trump’s company stopped pursuing the project before the start of the 2016 presidential primaries. In fact, the talks continued until well into Trump’s presidential campaign.

That led Mueller to explore whether Trump may have obstructed justice through his statements about the Moscow tower and by attacking Cohen after he agreed to plead guilty.

Why did the GOP change its party platform on Ukraine?

A lingering mystery is who was behind a reported change made in the Republican Party’s platform. Language about arming Ukraine in its resistance to Russia was softened as delegates gathered for the 2016 convention -- managed by Manafort -- that nominated Trump.

“The investigation did not establish that one campaign official’s efforts to dilute a portion of the Republican Party platform on providing assistance to Ukraine were undertaken at the behest of candidate Trump or Russia,” Mueller wrote.

J.D. Gordon, a senior campaign adviser, was the official who watered down the platform to delete the word “lethal” from the assistance to be provided to Ukraine, Mueller said.

“The original sponsor of the ‘lethal’ assistance amendment stated that Gordon told her (the sponsor) that he was on the phone with candidate Trump in connection with his request to dilute the language,” Mueller wrote, but Gordon denied making that statement.

Gordon said it was possible he mentioned having previously spoken to Trump about the issue, and said he sought the change “because he believed the proposed language was inconsistent with Trump’s position on Ukraine.”

Will anybody else be going to prison?

Mueller won’t be issuing new indictments, but the report blacks out a dozen cases that have been referred to other prosecutors. Other unrelated investigations continue, including a federal probe in the Southern District of New York into hush money that Cohen, the former Trump lawyer fixer, said Trump directed him to make before the election.

The prosecution of long-time associate Roger Stone also is still ahead. Stone has pleaded not guilty to charges of lying to Congress, witness-tampering and obstruction of justice.

Will Congress or the public ever see the full Mueller report?

This question could end up before the Supreme Court in a fight between House Democrats and the Justice Department over Barr’s redactions, as well as underlying evidence collected by Mueller.

Barr color-coded the report he released to indicate whether passages were left out because they involved classified information, grand jury testimony, continuing investigations or damage to the reputation of “peripheral” figures not including public officials like Trump.

Barr said Thursday he would provide key committees with a version of the report redacting only grand jury information. The House Judiciary Committee has already authorized a subpoena for the full report.

Did Mueller confirm the information in the Steele Dossier?

The redacted report includes several mentions of the so-called Steele Dossier, referring to it as “unverified.”

Trump and his allies have long said the dossier -- some of it salacious -- that was compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele and paid for by Democrats was the “real collusion” because it included information from Russia that Trump has dismissed as a hoax. Some Republicans, including Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, want Barr to name a new special counsel to investigate the origins of the Russia probe, including the role the dossier played. Barr himself has said he plans to look into how the investigation began.

Did Mueller explain why the Russia probe was first opened?

Mueller’s report said that in late July 2016, soon after WikiLeaks first released stolen Democratic documents, “a foreign government contacted the FBI about a May 2016 encounter with Trump Campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos.”

Papadopoulos had suggested the campaign had received indications from the Russian government that it could assist Trump “through the anonymous release of information damaging to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton,” the report said.

That prompted the FBI to open its investigation into whether the Trump campaign was coordinating with the Russian government on July 31, 2016.

Business Standard is now on Telegram.
For insightful reports and views on business, markets, politics and other issues, subscribe to our official Telegram channel