Robert Mueller’s final 448-page report on Russian interference in the 2016 election—and Donald Trump’s apparent attempts to obstruct justice along the way—takes some time to read fully. On close examination, it turns out to be a deeply compelling document, full of tantalizing revelations and details.
Washington Post book critic Carlos Lozada called the Mueller Report “the best book by far on the workings of the Trump presidency.” New York Times columnist Ross Douthat said the report is “a more rigorous, capacious version” of Michael Wolff’s bestseller Fire and Fury. Its two volumes paint a picture of Donald Trump as deeply narcissistic and incompetent, alternately conned and ignored by everyone around him.
Nearly every page of the report contains fresh insights, even to those who have closely followed the ins and outs of this complex, multifaceted investigation. But assuming you didn’t spend your Easter and Passover holiday weekend plowing through it, here are some key tidbits that recent headlines have overlooked:
1. This was as much a counterintelligence investigation as a criminal one. One of the new details in the report is that the FBI “embedded” approximately 40 personnel in the Special Counsel’s Office. Their role was not to contribute to the criminal probe, but instead to pore over the collected materials and pass written summaries of key counterintelligence findings to FBI headquarters and other agencies across the country.
2. Jerome Corsi isn’t out of the woods. One of the most surprising decisions at the close of the Mueller investigation was the lack of further indictments. But conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi, at least, appears to still be very much in the sights of prosecutors. In fact, the very first mention of Corsi’s name appears in a redaction labeled “Harm to Ongoing Matter.” (We know that because we only see the “second” reference to Corsi’s name appear in a paragraph on page 54 of the first volume of the report.) Elsewhere, Corsi’s name is clearly hidden in other redactions, as context clues make clear he’s the “ongoing matter” under question.
3. Anyone demanding the unredacted version of the report is stalling. Democrats have spent the last four days hemming and hawing about impeachment, saying they need to read the unredacted report before they make a decision. That’s baloney. For the most part, the redactions aren’t that material to the underlying narrative. Mueller establishes all the damning evidence he needs to point to a pattern of obstruction in unredacted portions of Volume II of the report. (The clear exception where redactions could shed substantial new light: the six-page Appendix D, where Mueller lists the 12 still-secret ongoing cases referred to other prosecutors.) Throughout the remainder of the document, many redactions clearly deal with either Roger Stone or Jerome Corsi. The bulk of the rest appear to focus on operational details of the GRU and the Internet Research Agency.
Two of the most intriguing redactions come on page 12, where the report outlines five (or maybe six) individuals Mueller was specifically authorized to investigate. Two (or maybe three) of those are redacted. Because of the alphabetical list and way the lines fall—there’s a tiny two-letter redaction that spills over to the next line—the final redacted name is almost certainly “Donald Trump Jr.” The other is still unknown, falling somewhere in the alphabet between “Gates” and “Stone.”
4. The Trump campaign really wanted Hillary’s emails. The role of Michael Flynn aide Peter Smith has long been unclear. Smith evidently tried to mount an effort in 2016 to find Hillary Clinton’s stolen emails through the dark web, and later apparently killed himself days after the Wall Street Journal reported on those efforts in 2017. Mueller makes clear that Smith’s actions were extensive, well-funded, and part of multiple initiatives by people connected to the Trump campaign to find Hillary’s emails—all of which were then overtaken by the Russian theft and email dumps of DNC and Clinton campaign emails.
5. The Trump Tower Moscow Project was a big deal. While Donald Trump has long tried to downplay his company’s overtures to Russia, Trump fixer Cohen and associate Felix Sater actually saw the Trump Tower Moscow as potentially helpful to Trump’s campaign. In one email in November 2015, the day after the Trump Organization sent Russia its “letter of intent” to proceed with the project, a highly detailed document that outlined precisely how much money Trump would earn and when, Sater emailed Cohen, “Buddy our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer it.”
6. Mueller never understood why Paul Manafort shared polling data with Russian intelligence asset Konstantin Kilimnik. If you’re only going to read one section of the Russia-focused Volume 1, tune into pages 129 through 144. That’s where Mueller lays out the still-puzzling actions of campaign chair Paul Manafort and makes clear that Mueller might not have ever gotten to the bottom of the core question of a Trump-Russia conspiracy.
In almost every section, Mueller makes clear how legally and investigatively conservative he was.
The final report is the first time that Mueller has ever addressed the incident, which only came to light because Manafort’s lawyers are bad at technology. Mueller adds detail and breaks new ground by saying that the data-sharing “continued for some period of time,” but comes up empty on the most important questions. “The Office could not reliably determine Manafort’s purpose in sharing internal polling data with Kilimnik during the campaign period,” Mueller writes, adding also that “the Office could not assess what Kilimnik (or others he may have given it to) did with it.” Given that the polling data has always been one of the most suspicious actions during the campaign—did Russia’s Internet Research Agency use it to aid in their own targeting of American voters?—that leaves a glaring hole in the center of the conspiracy investigation.
It’s indicative of a point Mueller makes throughout the report. He remains puzzled, he writes, about the sheer volume of seemingly unnecessary lies that emanated from Trump world, and notes that his investigation was stymied by lying witnesses, deleted evidence, and the sheer complexity of investigating shadowy entities and people beyond the reach of US law enforcement. As Mueller phrased it, “While this report embodies factual and legal determinations that the Office believes to be accurate and complete to the greatest extent possible, given these identified gaps, the Office cannot rule out the possibility that the unavailable information would shed additional light on (or cast in a new light) the events described in the report.” That’s a long-winded, prosecutorial way of making clear that the report isn’t exactly a “total EXONERATION” of the idea of Russian collusion—more that they were never able to establish evidence of such beyond a reasonable doubt.
7. Donald Trump runs his White House like a Mafia boss. When Michael Cohen testified before Congress this winter, he made clear how much Donald Trump operated his family business like a mob boss: speaking in code, refusing to have written agreements, prizing loyalty. Mueller’s report is littered with examples that read more like the behavior of a Mafioso than a commander-in-chief, from pushing FBI director James Comey for “loyalty,” to chastising White House counsel Don McGahn for writing down notes, to sending private messages through intermediaries asking for continued silence, to making public attacks on those, like Cohen, who “flipped.” Just because it’s familiar behavior from Trump by now doesn’t make it any less troubling.
8. Maria Butina and the National Rifle Association aren’t mentioned at all. More conspiracy-minded Muellerologists have long zeroed in the “pee tape” and Michael Cohen’s trip to Prague—a rumor specifically debunked by Mueller in his report. But the odd case of the alleged Russian spy arrested in the midst of Mueller’s investigation has left observers wondering if a larger Russian effort, involving the National Rifle Association, was also afoot. In the end, Butina’s name doesn’t appear in Mueller’s report at all, unless it’s redacted. Neither do two other key unresolved threads, the Alfa Bank server and Trump’s data firm, Cambridge Analytica. Based on redactions it also seems unlikely—although not impossible—that any of those matters are part of the 12 still-secret investigations handed off to other prosecutors. Mueller does have one intriguing, newsy footnote on page 14, where he says “other Russian entities” may have engaged in active-measure operations against the US.
In fact, one of the conclusions drawn from the totality of Volume I is that while the GRU and Internet Research Agency efforts were clearly well funded, coordinated, and well executed, there really doesn’t seem to have been a sweeping conspiracy on the Russian side either. Many of the Russian contacts to the Trump campaign appear too haphazard to be part of an active intelligence effort. Even the suspicious June 2016 Trump Tower meeting comes across in Mueller’s report more as a bungled miscommunication than a key part of a conspiracy. If one of the takeaways of the report is that the Trump campaign was simply never organized enough to engage in a conspiracy—that they had the motive and the willingness to collude, but never got their act together to do so—it seems possible that the Russians weren’t organized on their side enough either.
9. Mueller goes to great lengths to demolish William Barr’s theory of obstruction. One of the major overlooked sections of the report is the roughly 20-page portion—akin almost to a Harvard Law Review article—at the end, where Mueller’s team makes clear how vigorously they disagree with attorney general William Barr’s controversial memo last year. At the time, Barr argued that the obstruction statute doesn’t apply to the president. It’s easy to imagine Mueller team member Michael Dreeben, perhaps the Justice Department’s best appellate lawyer, laboring long and hard over pages 159 to 181 of Volume II. The report argues that the idea that the president can’t obstruct justice “is contrary to the litigating position of the Department of Justice and is not supported by principles of statutory construction.”
10. Google was a problem for everyone. Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have received plenty of attention for the way Russia’s Internet Research Agency weaponized their platforms. But reading through the Mueller Report, it’s hard not to escape how Google caused problems for the Trump campaign in 2016. The pages are littered with examples of how the scattershot Trump team, full of neophytes, haphazardly relied on Google when they got in over their heads, and how those answers led them astray.
There’s the moment George Papadopoulos thought he was meeting privately with Putin’s niece (he wasn’t), a fact the special counsel corroborates because Papadopoulos searched for, among other phrases, “putin’s niece.” Sam Clovis, the campaign cochair, recruited Papadopoulos to the campaign after only a Google search, which showed that he’d worked with conservative think tank the Hudson Institute—a credential that alone wouldn’t have impressed most GOP campaigns. Meanwhile, both Ivanka and Michael Cohen struggled to understand who they were dealing with in the Trump Tower Moscow project. According to the special counsel, Ivanka Trump in November 2015 received an email from a woman who identified herself as “Lana E. Alexander,” which said in part, “If you ask anyone who knows Russian to google my husband Dmitry Klokov, you’ll see who he is close to and that he has done Putin’s political campaigns.” Yet when Cohen did, he somehow concluded, incorrectly, that Klokov was a weightlifter. When Putin ally and the head of Russia’s development bank Sergey Gorkov met with Jared Kushner after the election—a meeting that would cause no end of headaches for Kushner once it was publicized—Kushner’s team did little prep work beyond a Google search that determined Gorkov was a “banker,” leaving out his key role in the Kremlin hierarchy.
11. The US has an important political and policy question ahead: Is accepting known help from a foreign power something we want to prohibit in campaigns? Mueller’s team obviously wrestled with the help that Russia offered the Trump campaign, including at the June 9 Trump Tower meeting. Similarly, the Trump campaign “expecting” help from Russia—via the WikiLeaks dumps and perhaps even having Donald Trump solicit it, with his “Russia, if you’re listening” comment—doesn’t appear to be a conspiracy in the way that Mueller legally defined it, since it didn’t involve a formal agreement of cooperation. The president’s defense attorney Rudy Giuliani said as much Sunday on CNN, telling Jake Tapper “There’s nothing wrong with taking information from Russians.” He continued, “Who says it’s even illegal?”
It’s hard to imagine that would be the GOP’s interpretation if Hillary Clinton had accepted similar help from the Chinese Ministry of State Security. So maybe there should be policy changes to make it illegal—before foreign governments line up behind the 2020 candidates of their choice.
12. The Atlanta traveler might still matter. I’ve always been particularly interested in the possibility that Mueller and the US government has a cooperator from inside the Internet Research Agency itself, one of the three people who traveled to the US in 2014 as part of the original scouting for their information operations. Mueller in his IRA indictment named and charged two of the three travelers, but left out the third, despite highly detailed knowledge of the third’s travels and role. On page 4 of Volume I of the Mueller report, there’s a redaction where Mueller appears to discuss the details about that trip, citing “Harm to Ongoing Matter.” The IRA case is continuing in court, as one of the corporate entities Mueller charged has shown up to defend itself.
13. Sergey Kislyak was perhaps totally irrelevant. One of the biggest red flags in the opening stages of the reporting on Trump’s Russia ties in 2017 was how the Russian ambassador kept popping up in odd places. He met with Jared Kushner, with Jeff Sessions, and appeared (maybe!) at Trump’s foreign policy speech at the Mayflower Hotel in 2016. The ghost of Sergey Ivanovich does swirl through the final Mueller report, as the special counsel’s office sought to understand his mysterious appearances, but it appears he might not really have had a role in anything of consequence.
14. Mueller was deeply conservative in his approach. In almost every section, Mueller makes clear how legally and investigatively conservative he was. He pursued every avenue—racking up more than 2,800 subpoenas and 500 search warrants along the way—but also stopped short of charging any case where he wasn’t 100 percent certain of a crime. Far from the “Witch Hunt” that Trump spent two years attacking, Trump should be deeply grateful that Mueller isn’t his own equivalent of a Ken Starr. The report is bad enough for Donald Trump as it is. Almost any other prosecutor, especially one who likes to grandstand, would have brought far more charges against the president’s world, including, most likely, charging the president himself with obstruction. As it stands, Mueller has clearly left that question instead to Congress.
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