The Mueller report did not find evidence that contacts between Trump campaign advisers and staff and Russians during the 2016 election campaign constitute “collusion” or “conspiracy” with a Russian effort to elect Donald Trump.
Nevertheless, Mueller’s report is bound to prolong the U.S. political obsession with the Trump-Russia collusion narrative, because it keeps alive the idea that Trump campaign contacts with Russians were a threat to US national security.
That view will encourage Democrats in Congress and the corporate media figures still committed to the Trump-Russia narrative to push the issue for many months to come. That means that Congress and the media will be diverted from the real domestic threats to democracy that stem both from the Trump administration’s anti-democratic policies and from the dysfunctional US political system.
The continued focus on the collusion narrative also plays into the hands of the national security state and powerful arms contractors, which have stoked the new Cold War with Russia. For senior officials in the national security state, the threat to American interests in 2016 was not only Russian “meddling” in the election but also Trump’s perceived interest in improving relations with Moscow, which would mean relaxing sanctions. They viewed Trump as a threat after he declared in his first major foreign policy address as candidate on April 26, 2016, “We desire to live peacefully and in friendship with Russia and China” and said, “This horrible cycle of hostility must end and ideally will end soon.”
Just before stepping down as CIA director in January 2017, John O. Brennan issued an extraordinary warning to Trump in an interview with Fox News not to stray from the established hardline policy toward Russia. “I think Mr. Trump has to understand,” Brennan declared, “that absolving Russia of various actions that it’s taken in the past number of years is a road, that he, I think, needs to be very, very careful about moving down.”
The national security bureaucracy has an overriding interest in keeping heavy pressure on Russia and the Putin government and on mobilizing public support and resources for a more aggressive policy toward Russia, including a military buildup for potential war and more emphasis on offensive-use cyber war capabilities.
Mueller, a former FBI director who was deeply involved in justifying the Bush administration’s aggressive war in Iraq, clearly shares the same political perspective and interests. Although the report makes no direct judgment about the motive behind the contacts with Russians, it is based on the implicit assumption that contacts between a presidential campaign and Russian officials or intermediaries are contrary to the national interest. That idea is extended even further, moreover, to include contacts with anyone who had ever been a Russian official or was alleged to be “linked” in some way to the Russians – an idea that has been adopted in media coverage of the Mueller investigation.
The Trump Tower Meeting and the Moscow Trump Tower Negotiations
Mueller’s accounts of two episodes that have been the subject of intensive media and Congressional suggestions of collusion – the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between campaign officials and Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya and Trump’s negotiations with a Russian real estate company on a Trump Tower in Moscow – show clearly that they were nothing of the sort.
The Trump Tower meeting has been depicted as clear evidence of the Trump campaign responding with alacrity to an offer of dirt on Hillary Clinton by a lawyer linked to the Kremlin. But Mueller’s account makes it clear that it was merely about an offer of the kind of opposition research material that is commonly used in campaigns – and far less sensational than what was gathered in the now-discredited Steele Dossier.
Although publicist Rob Goldstone had told the Trump campaign that Veselnitskaya was offering information that represented the Russian government’s assistance to Trump’s campaign, she was actually a former Russian prosecutor who had been an independent lawyer since 2001. Her client was the son of Russian businessman Peter Katsyv, whose company was a defendant in a civil forfeiture action in the United States related to the Magnitsky act.
Veselnitskaya had no connection to the Clinton emails. She was merely offering a document alleging that two U.S.-based businessmen, Dirk and Daniel Ziff, had engaged in tax evasion and money laundering in Russia and had used some of their ill-gotten gains to contribute to the Democratic National Committee (DNC). But when Donald Trump, Jr. asked if any of the illegally obtained money could be traced to Clinton, she admitted that it was doubtful, and the Trump campaign figures lost interest.
The Mueller account of Trump’s negotiations over a possible Trump Tower in Moscow in 2015-16 included the previously published story about Russian-American real estate developer and racketeer Felix Sater that had generated sensational headlines. Sater was representing the Russian company with which Trump signed a nonbinding Letter of Intent in late October 2015 to build a Moscow Trump Tower.
A few days after the signing Sater boasted in an email to Michael Cohen, executive vice president of the Trump Organization, “I will get Putin on the program, and we will get Donald Trump elected.” And later in the day, he referred to getting Putin to endorse Trump’s negotiating prowess in a press conference.
That boast generated stories suggesting possible collusion. But far from being a Putin agent, Sater been an informant for the FBI ever since he signed a 1998 cooperation agreement to avoid punishment on a racketeering charge to which he pleaded guilty. According to a 2011 Justice Department court filing, he had “provided the United States intelligence community with highly sensitive information concerning various terrorists and rogue states.”
Sater told The Intercept that his talk of getting Putin on board and getting Trump elected was simply “marketing”. And he added, “If I knew of even the slightest instance of anybody in the United States colluding with Russia, I’d be in the offices of the FBI in about three minutes.”
Mueller’s report shows that Cohen didn’t take Sater’s boast seriously. In fact, Cohen concluded that Sater didn’t have the clout to get Russian government approval for a deal and began to make his own contacts for that purpose. There were continuing exchanges in subsequent months about a visit to Moscow to view possible sites, but one week after Trump’s June 7 primary victories clinched the nomination, Cohen informed Sater that neither he nor Trump would be visiting, effectively ending the consideration of a deal with Sater.
Papadopoulos and Mifsud
Mueller’s account shows that the 28-year old George Papadopoulos – pressed into service as foreign policy adviser despite his lack of experience – had sought out Josef Mifsud, the director of the “London Academy of Diplomacy,” because he hoped he could help reach a Moscow contact with whom he could discuss a possible trip to Moscow by the campaign personnel to discuss future U.S.-Russian relations. Papadopoulos did have a series of conversations via Skype and email with Ivan Timofeev, who was in touch with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs about a potential meeting, but it never took place.
In a meeting on April 26, 2016, however, Mifsud told Papadopoulos that he had been told in Moscow that the Russians had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of thousands of her emails. Mifsud denied that claim to the FBI, but Papadopoulos confirmed it in his FBI interview, and Australia’s top diplomat in London, Alexander Downer, reported to the Australian government that Papadopoulos had told him the same thing.
The Mueller report does not recount Papadopoulos’s reaction to that sudden revelation. But he recalls in his own book, Deep State Target, that Mifsud provided no further explanation, causing him to wonder what that could mean and whether Mifsud was a credible source on such a serious matter – especially since Mifsud had misled him by introducing a young Russian woman to him as Putin’s niece.
Papadopoulos says he recognized that he could have nothing to do with any such subject and immediately changed the subject. Mueller’s report confirms his apparent resolve to do nothing about the remark. It found no evidence that he had passed on Mifsud’s remark or that it was discussed internally by the campaign staff. If Mifsud was testing the Trump campaign’s interest in a Russian hack, he found none.
The Manafort-Kilimnik Connection
No aspect of the Trump-Russia issue has generated more heat than the fact that former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort provided polling results in 2016 to Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian-born associate in Manafort’s previous work in Ukraine, which also supports the Trump-Russia narrative. Manafort told Kilimnik to pass on the information to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska to whom Manafort owed as much as $25 million related to a failed investment fund.
Mueller found no basis for collusion in the episode, but many will exploit the report’s sensational claim, which was included in a Mueller court filing, that Kilimnik is a Russian agent. The court document in question says, “The FBI … has assessed that Kilimnik has ties to Russian intelligence.” But as US District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson noted in a February 13, 2019, hearing, “I have not been provided with the evidence that I would need to decide” on the truth of the accusation.
Citing such an undocumented “assessment” as evidence is a highly political decision. It represents nothing more than the judgment of a single FBI official: Peter Strzok, who had been head of the Bureau’s counterespionage section until the Mueller investigation brought him in to be its primary Russian expert in May 2017. Strzok had both a personal career interest in promoting the Russian subversion scare and a strong animus toward Trump – as revealed by his now-famous phone sms text message exchanges with Lisa Page. He was a key player in the small group of senior FBI officials who discussed a plan in April 2017 to investigate Trump as a witting or unwitting tool of Russian policy.
The charge that Kilimnik had “ties to Russian intelligence” is so vague as to be virtually meaningless. And as press accounts have confirmed, it was based on nothing more than a “smattering of circumstantial evidence”, based on little more than the fact that he had attended a military language school in the dying days of the Soviet Union.
That fact has been the basis for suspicions on the part of some that he could have gone on to be a KGB operative. The Mueller report cites one former colleague in the International Republican Institute as claiming he was fired because of suspicions of being Russian intelligence, but another former co-worker contradicted that claim. And the US Embassy in Kiev did not regard Kilimnik as having had any such hostile intelligence ties and used Kilimnik as a valid source for information on Ukrainian oligarchs.
Did the Russians Really Threaten US Democracy?
The Mueller report is based on the generally agreed premise that Russian political efforts to influence the 2016 election through the Internet Research Agency “troll farm” obviously represented electoral interference that is unprecedented in U.S.-Russian relations. But that position ignores the fact of American interference in Russia’s pivotal presidential election in 1996. A team of American specialists on election strategy with close ties to President Bill Clinton was dispatched to Moscow to assist the U.S.-backed candidate, Boris Yeltsin, by providing political advice and technical assistance to his campaign. It is well established that the US assistance, which remained covert, was crucial to Yeltsin’s victory over the Communist Party candidate.
The report reaffirms the generally accepted view that the Internet Research Agency (IRA), the private St. Petersburg company owned by a businessman close to Putin, had a deep impact on pubic opinion through large-scale social media campaigns using false American personae. It repeats an estimate from Facebook that posts from IRA “trolls” may have reached as many as 126 million Americans – a figure The New York Times trumpeted as evidence of a Russian political coup in influencing the 2016 election by comparing it with the number of people who voted (139 million).
But that claim is a grotesque exaggeration of the IRA’s actual influence on the election. The original source of that Facebook statistic, Facebook General Counsel Colin Stretch, explained in his testimony that the figure was a calculation of how many people could potentially have gotten at least one IRA post in their Facebook feed over more than two years. Stretch further testified that the average Facebook user in the United States is served roughly 220 stories in News Feed each day. Facebook calculated that over the two-year period from 2015 to 2017, the Facebook posts from the IRA represented “about four-thousandths of one percent” of the content in News Feed, or approximately 1 out of 23,000 pieces of content” for those who did get some IRA feeds.
In fact, the troll farm’s influence was minute and its output was very crude and unsophisticated compared with that of the campaign of highly targeted social media ads carried out by the Trump campaign’s digital operation, “Project Alamo”. That unprecedented social media campaign was able to target individuals with ads based on information about their values and interest gleaned from a vast array of data sources. And Trump’s staff used the targeting to ensure that voting for Clinton among young liberal white voters and Blacks would be reduced.
That massive, data-driven campaign was complemented, moreover, by a huge new right-wing media system, led by Breitbart, that drove media coverage and mobilized tens of millions of pro-Trump voters with hyper-partisan stories – often “fake news” – that helped consolidate Trump’s base.
Thus, Facebook users who were getting IRA content in their newsfeeds were overwhelmingly influenced by “Project Alamo” and the Breitbart-led media system – not by the Russian troll farm.
Mueller treats the WikiLeaks publication of the purloined DNC emails as an assault on the Democratic system – as though it were a continuation of Soviet Cold War “active measures.” But it is a false parallel, because the revelation of the Democratic Party leadership’s covert interventions to deny Bernie Sanders’s candidacy a fair chance to win some early primaries were not only true but sorely needed to force reform of the Democratic Party’s leadership.
The Mueller report doesn’t show the Trump campaign collusion the public had been led by media coverage to expect. But it is a siren song for a continued focus on the supposed threat to US democracy from Russian “meddling”. It is aimed at maintaining public support for a focus on the threat from Russia, which diverts the attention of the media and Congress from real threats to democracy from Trump’s domestic agenda, including its attack on voting rights. And it feeds into the growing power of militarist interests in maintaining high tensions with Russia and scoring record military budgets.
Gareth Porter, an investigative historian and journalist specializing in US national security policy, received the UK-based Gellhorn Prize for journalism for 2011 for articles on the U.S. war in Afghanistan. His new book is Manufactured Crisis: the Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Reprinted from TruthOut with the author’s permission.