On Sunday, US Attorney General William Barr wrote to lawmakers stating that an investigation conducted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who had submitted his investigation report Friday, has not found that President Donald Trump’s campaign had conspired with Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election.
A look at the events leading to the investigation, how much of its findings are now known and what they mean, and what could happen from here.
Mueller report: How is Russia supposed to have influenced a US presidential election?
Ahead of the election in 2016, reports emerged that Russian military intelligence officers, working for an agency known as GRU, hacked into the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the Gmail account of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager. Later, WikiLeaks released thousands of emails that Russian operatives had allegedly hacked from the DNC. This led to intelligence agencies probing Russian interference.
According to an indictment cited by The New York Times, operatives at Russian private firm Internet Research Agency, which allegedly has Kremlin ties, posed as Americans on Facebook and Twitter to mock Clinton and promote Trump. US intelligence agencies concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered these influence campaigns even before Trump announced his run. Putin is seen as anti-Clinton, and is said to have been later drawn to Trump’s Russia-friendly stances.
Mueller report: Why were President Trump’s stances seen as Russia-friendly?
Trump has repeatedly praised Putin, feeding into speculation about his relationship with Russia.
In July 2016, the FBI opened a probe into connections between Trump associates and Russia. It probed one of Trump’s campaign advisers, George Papadopoulos — who, the FBI later said, knew in advance about Russia’s plans — as well as Trump associates Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn and Carter Page.
Flynn became national security adviser in January 2017. After Trump’s victory, Flynn discussed with the Russian ambassador the sanctions that President Barack Obama had imposed on Russia over its alleged election interference, according to The NYT, which added that Flynn lied about the conversations to White House officials as well as federal investigators. He was eventually dismissed and criminal charges were pressed.
In March 2017, FBI director James B Comey testified before a House committee that the FBI was probing possible links between the Trump campaign and the alleged Russian effort. In May, agitated with the FBI’s decision to go ahead with the probe, Trump fired Comey.
Days later, the Justice Department appointed Mueller as Special Counsel.
What aspects did Mueller probe?
Mueller’s appointment followed demands by Democratic lawmakers after Trump had dismissed Comey. Mueller’s brief included investigating the extent of Russian interference, including possible involvement of Trump’s associates and Trump himself, and whether Trump had obstructed justice by firing Comey.
Trump was frequently dismissive of the investigation, at times describing it as a “witch hunt”. A month after Mueller’s appointment, The NYT reported that Trump told his White House counsel, Don McGahn, to fire Mueller, but McGahn refused. In a later report, The NYT said that McGahn had talked extensively to Mueller’s team. Later that year, McGahn stepped down.
Mueller report: How did the investigation progress?
Mueller’s investigation indicted many in Trump’s inner circle. Manafort and another senior campaign official, Rick Gates, were indicted on charges of financial crimes related to their work as consultants for a pro-Russian leader of Ukraine. The NYT, citing court papers, reported that Papadopoulos had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian intermediaries during the campaign. Later, Flynn also pleaded guilty to lying about his contacts with the Russians and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.
Referring to court papers in 2018, The NYT said Mueller charged 13 Russians and three Russian companies with mounting the fraudulent social media campaign. A second indictment named the Russian military intelligence officers who had hacked and leaked Democratic emails during the campaign.
Mueller report: Did the probe not lead on to issues beyond the alleged Russian interference?
Yes, Mueller’s team unearthed possible corruption relating to Trump in other matters. In Manhattan, prosecutors raided the residences and office of Trump’s longtime lawyer, Michael Cohen, in connection with a probe into potential violations of campaign finance laws. This eventually threw the spotling on Trump’s alleged sexual encounters. In August 2018, Cohen pleaded guilty to paying off two women in 2016 to silence them about such encounters with Trump. While the President himself has denied the affairs, Cohen testified that Trump had directed him to arrange the payments.
On matters relating to Russia, Cohen pleaded guilty to the charge that he had lied to Congress about how long Trump had pursued a real-estate project in Russia during 2016. According to Cohen, Trump had continued to negotiate, deep into the presidential campaign in 2016, over a proposed Trump Tower Moscow.
In February 2019, appearing before a House committee, Cohen made various other allegations against Trump. Displaying a cheque signed by Trump, Cohen said it was to reimburse him for hush money payments. In another allegation, he said Trump had tweaked the value of his assets to get loans or reduce taxes. He also claimed Trump had hinted that he should lie to Congress.
So, what’s in the Mueller report?
According to a count by The NYT, Mueller charged 34 people with 199 counts leading to the submission of his report. With full details about its contents not made public, the news website Vox assessed what to make of the summary written by Attorney General Barr.
Mueller’s report did conclude that the Ruusians tried to interfere in the campaign. However, it said (as quoted by Barr): “The investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” That means Mueller at least could not prove Russian government officials worked with the Trump campaign, Vox explained.
On the charge of obstruction of justice, the report was quoted as saying: “While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.” Vox notes how Barr and Deputy Attorney General R J Rosenstein interpreted this: “In cataloguing the President’s actions, much of which took place in public view, the report identifies no actions that, in our judgment, constitute obstructive conduct, had a nexus to a pending or contemplated proceeding, and were done with corrupt intent.”
Does that mean the matter is closed?
As Barr noted, Mueller has “referred several matters to other offices for further action”. Among these, Vox said, are an investigation into Manafort’s lobbying associates, while National Public Radio cited matters such as the potential financial fraud as testified by Cohen, besides the alleged tinkering of the value of Trump’s assets.
With members of Congress from both camps demanding the full report, and with Barr indicating he would release more details, further revelations could emerge in connection with the alleged Russian effort, including the troll campaign and the hacking.
Bloomberg said “there is likely to be an epic political fight over whether anything from the inquiry directly or indirectly implicates… Trump in wrongdoing that may merit his impeachment, as some Democrats say, or whether it clears him”.