Donald Trump, Russia’s
candidate for President
Reading the Mueller Report – Part I: Precise targeting of audiences on social media sites
By Patrick Barnard
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of WestmountMag.ca, its publishers or editors.
NB. This article is based on the Washington Post edition, with redactions, of The Mueller Report, Scribner, New York, 2019. The page numbers for citations are the original page numbers in the Mueller text itself.
One of the characteristics that Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump share is a calculated insolence: both men enjoy revealing their own unpleasant deeds to the public with cynical frankness.
The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was murdered more than a decade ago, called Putin’s version of this apparent plain talking “a matter-of-factness worse than felony” (See Putin’s Russia, Anna Politkovskaya, Harvill Press, London 2004, P. 282).
Putin’s approach is ironic and less direct than Trump’s, but the effrontery is the same. Both men simultaneously appear to tell all with a kind of mock honesty, and at the same time demean their audience, by indicating that they think their listeners will swallow almost any message simply because it is publicly put on a plate before them. At the Helsinki summit, in July 2018, when Putin answered a journalist’s question by saying that “yes” he had indeed helped elect Donald Trump, he took pleasure from drawing those who heard him in the conference hall, and beyond, into his own web.
A year later, in Osaka, on June 28, 2019, Trump was asked from the journalists’ scrum whether he had told Russia not to interfere in U.S. elections. He smiled to the Russian leader sitting vis-à-vis, wagged his finger like a school nanny and jokingly told Putin not to interfere. Both men laughed, and then Trump went on to deride journalists as “fake news” congratulating Russia for not having such a breed. Putin smiled back, saying oh yes, he did have some of “them.”
Now the 116th Congress, in whom, as Article 1 of the U. S. Constitution says, all “legislative powers herein shall be vested” will hear from Special Counsel Robert Mueller. On July 24 he will appear before two committees of the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives where he is expected to stick as closely as possible to the text of his report, since he thinks it is important – in his words – “that the Office’s written work speak for itself” (Mueller press conference, May 29, 2019).
Follow the money, as the saying goes, and one conclusion becomes unavoidable: Donald J. Trump was indeed Russia’s preferred candidate for President of the United States.
The Mueller Report contains two major findings: 1. The Russian state, at the highest level, carried out a planned cyber attack on the United States during the Presidential election of 2016. And 2. Donald Trump and his associates committed numerous, repeated acts of obstruction about which the Report has an understated but damning conclusion: “if we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgement” (Mueller Vol II, P. 182).
In short, the message is: we, the investigators, are unable to clear Donald Trump of the charge of obstructing justice, but since we think that we cannot indict a sitting President, the challenge now lies before Congress.
The Mueller Report, with appendices, comes to 447 pages. It is also repetitious and legalistic, and the extreme caution of the text comes partly from the decision among the investigative team not to indict.
The truth is that the American public, most journalists, and most legislators have not read the whole document. When Attorney General William Barr produced a sanitized summary of the Mueller Report, there was a sense of disappointment because the investigation did not contain any stunning surprises. Nonetheless, the full political implications of the report will continue to unfold and a detailed examination of the text reveals a new, dangerous evolution of geopolitics.
Follow the money, as the saying goes, and one conclusion becomes unavoidable: Donald J. Trump was indeed Russia’s preferred candidate for President of the United States.
The devil is truly in the detail and the real force of the Mueller Report becomes clear against the larger background of Internet technology and huge flows of laundered money.
Cyber warfare and Russian offshore money
There are two realities that provide the context to the Mueller findings.
First, we are already in the middle of an “Age of cyber warfare” – that is the title of a recent article about the research of Columbia University’s Jason Healey, a leading authority on cyber attacks, and a scholar at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs (see, Columbia Magazine, summer 2019).
‘Year after year a huge amount of Russian money is placed in these [offshore] havens, frequently in real estate where laundered funds can hide most easily.’
Healey is critical of the current militarizing of the Internet because he strongly believes in putting a priority on Internet defence for the United States. He is a former intelligence officer with the U.S. Airforce and sees a great challenge for his country that comes precisely from the temptation to use the new technology as an offensive weapon, while neglecting self-protection. He sees the Trump election in 2016 against this deeper background:
Most people are surprised to learn that we possess the most powerful offensive cyber capabilities and online espionage tools in the world and that we employ them quite aggressively. In fact, the first cyber attack to cause serious material damage was perpetrated by the United States and Israel. In the early 2000s, they developed a sophisticated computer worm called Stuxnet that infiltrated the Iranian nuclear facility at Natanz and instructed its centrifuges to spin out of control, destroying perhaps a thousand of them (Columbia Magazine, P. 38).
More recently, according to Healey, what Russia did to the United States during the 2016 Presidential election has taken cyber aggression to a new political level:
Between 2014 and 2016, Russia’s intelligence agency, the FSB, supported criminals who hacked into some five hundred million Yahoo e-mail accounts; the hackers were allowed to keep credit card numbers they amassed in exchange for handing over the private data of journalists and politicians. Russia’s interference in the 2016 US presidential election was revolutionary, in that it combined a hacking operation – into the Democratic party’s e-mails – with a very Soviet-style disinformation and propaganda campaign (Columbia Magazine, P. 38).
The FSB (the Federal Security Service), named by Healey, is the powerful Russian domestic spy agency and its hacking operation during the U.S. election connects with specifically Russian structures of power and money. As Anna Politkovskaya long ago wrote in her prophetic book, Putin’s Russia, independent evidence suggests “more than 6,000 members of the KGB/FSB followed Putin to power and now occupy the highest offices in the land” and under him Russians have embarked on “a new stage of Russian capitalism with obvious neo-Soviet features” (Putin’s Russia, P. 96 and P.112).
Anders Aslund is a highly conservative Swedish economist now based in Washington. His own ideological biases are quite different from Politkovskaya’s, but he has a personal knowledge of contemporary Russia that echoes her view. In his 2019 study of Putin’s regime, Russia’s Crony Capitalism (Yale University Press, 2019), Aslund describes the country today as resting on four “circles” of power.
‘More recently, according to Healey, what Russia did to the United States during the 2016 Presidential election has taken cyber aggression to a new political level…’
The first circle consists of Putin’s old friends from the St. Petersburg KGB who have seized control of the FSB and other parts of the bureaucracy (Aslund, P. 6).
A “second circle,” says Aslund, is made up of the influential state enterprises, especially in the energy sector.
And the third network consists of business oligarchs, also long-time St. Petersburg cronies of Putin, who thrive amid Russia’s immense inequality of wealth.
Every year billions of dollars leave Russia to offshore destinations, and many of those billions belong to Vladimir Putin.
There is a fourth nexus of power connected to this tide of anonymous money leaving Russia and one that is all-important, Anders says, for understanding the peculiar U.S/ Russia dynamic:
The fourth circle is less noticed. It consists of the Western offshore havens, mainly in the United States and the United Kingdom, where companies with anonymous owners are allowed to thrive. Strangely, this circle is the least known and discussed because of the great secrecy that prevails in the Anglo-American offshore (Aslund, P. 6).
Year after year a huge amount of Russian money is placed in these havens, frequently in real estate where laundered funds can hide most easily.
Think London. Think New York. Think Florida.
The Trump organization in the United States has been an important part of this cash flow. Just to take one example, it is estimated that out of 2044 units in Donald Trump’s buildings in Sunny Beach Isles, Florida, a substantial amount, perhaps one third, have been bought by Russian-born residents through anonymous companies (Aslund P. 163).
Nor have the Trump people been quiet in the past about their courting of Russian money. In a 2008 New York City business conference, “Bridging U.S. and Emerging Markets Real Estate,” Donald Trump Jr. announced: “In terms of high-end product influx into the United States, Russians make up a pretty disproportionate section of a lot of our assets. Say, in Dubai, and certainly with our project in SoHo [a 391-unit hotel condominium in Manhattan then known as Trump Soho], and anywhere in New York. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia” (see “How Russian Money Helped Save Trump’s Business,” Michael Hirsh, Foreign Policy, Dec. 21, 2018).
‘… it is estimated that out of 2044 units in Donald Trump’s buildings in Sunny Beach Isles, Florida, a substantial amount, perhaps one third, have been bought by Russian-born residents through anonymous companies…’
U.S. sanctions have hurt the Russian economy, particularly those stemming from the U.S. law known as the Magnitsky Act. That 2012 legislation places severe penalties against Russians involved in the death of the Russian accountant Sergei Magnitsky, and in 2016 these sanctions became global, allowing for the seizure of the assets of human rights abusers and the prohibition of their entry to the United States. In retaliation, Russia curtailed the right of Americans to adopt Russian babies – hence the sanction issue is sometimes euphemistically referred to as “discussing adoption.”
Putin apparently hated Hillary Clinton, but in Donald Trump, the Russian leader definitely saw someone with whom sanctions could be discussed and perhaps there even could be the establishment of a new bi-lateral relationship. The “offshore haven” of the United States is crucial to the “circles of power” that Putin rules politically, and he is also an integral part of the offshore hoarding, so support of Trump was an important card to for him to play.
It has been reported that in the summer of 2016 a former head of the FSB and a key aide of Putin’s, Sergei Ivanov, had a bureaucratic argument with Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, who was over-seeing the Russian hacking efforts against the Americans in Moscow. It seems Ivanov (a fluent English speaker) was unhappy that Vladimir Putin was still very much in agreement with the anti-Clinton cyber efforts, just as the hacking was becoming publicly discussed by American media during the election summer. Ivanov wanted caution; Peskov wanted the cyber war to keep going. Then Ivanov, after his open rivalry with Peskov, was almost immediately fired as Putin’s head of staff, and Anders Aslund reports that it “would be strange if his sacking were not connected with this conflict over interference in the U.S. election campaign in the Kremlin” (Aslund 67). It seems that Putin and Peskov were obviously in favour of pushing ahead with the cyber attacks.
Then, in the autumn, Donald J. Trump was, against all expectation, elected President of the United States on November 8, 2016.
In that week, the very same Dmitry Peskov appeared, by an eerie coincidence, in New York City, attending a chess competition.
In the section of the Mueller Report discussing post-election Russian contacts with the incoming Trump administration, there is a pointed mention of “Dmitry Peskov, the Russian Federation’s press secretary, who was also attending the World Chess Championship” (Mueller, Vol. 1, 149).
‘The ‘offshore haven’ of the United States is crucial to the ‘circles of power’ that Putin rules politically, and he is also an integral part of the offshore hoarding, so support of Trump was an important card to for him to play.’
Immediately following that portion of the report there is a section redacted in black ink to protect an “investigative technique.” And then there is another redaction placed right in the middle of indications that someone – probably an unidentified Russian also in New York with Peskov – had written in the early morning of Nov. 9, 2016 to Kirill Dmitriev, “who heads Russia’s sovereign wealth fund and is closely connected to Putin” (Mueller Vol. I, P. 147)***.
The message said very simply: “Putin has won” (Mueller, vol. I, 149).
Volume One: Russian Interference
Volume I of the Mueller Report contains at the outset a fascinating description of the Russian espionage operation. The Russian government “perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency” and the Trump “Campaign expected it would benefit.” But despite the “numerous links between the Russian government and the Trump Campaign,” the investigation found no evidence, it says, that the Trump team “conspired or coordinated with the Russian government” (Mueller, Vol. I, Pp. 1-2).
How is this conclusion possible? The two parties to this mutually beneficial attempt to influence the election strongly converged – yet never really joined?
One of the answers to this paradox comes from Michael Cohen, Trump’s ex-lawyer who decided to co-operate with prosecutors and is now serving time in prison subsequent to his guilty plea.
Cohen decided to testify because he fears for his family and knows that the people he has dealt with, both in Russia and the United States, are very dangerous. He has chosen to side with the United States government to protect himself. It is a decision that he feels will be the wisest one for him, if all works out as he imagines, since he assumes – perhaps wrongly – that eventually Trump himself will be trapped in his own misdeeds.
In Cohen’s testimony to congressional legislators, he told the politicians that Trump the businessman always “talks in code.” He indicates what he wants done, but deliberately leaves as little explicit evidence as possible about the actual order he has given. Underworld bosses work this way, and former FBI chief James Comey has said that Trump most reminds him of a mafia don.
Vladimir Putin is famous for operating in exactly the same fashion, leaving it to subordinates to interpret his wishes, and to carry them out at a distance from his person.
‘In Cohen’s testimony to congressional legislators, he told the politicians that Trump the businessman always ‘talks in code.’ … Underworld bosses work this way, and former FBI chief James Comey has said that Trump most reminds him of a mafia don.’
In 2016, the Russians and the Trump team performed a mating dance in which they courted each other with nods, and winks, with intermediaries, and through the exchange of precise information, such as Republican Party polling data. They did not need to co-ordinate, because they already were in sync.
Michael Cohen knows all about this. He was very deeply involved in trying to complete the Trump Tower-Moscow project all the way into the summer of 2016. Those negotiations for a multi-million dollar skyscraper did not stop in January 2016, as Cohen falsely testified to two committees of Congress, but continued all the way into June of the election year.
In January of that year Cohen sent an email to Dmitry Peskov “repeating his request to speak with Sergei Ivanov” (Muller Vol. 1, 74).
Yes, these are the same two men who are close to Putin – Peskov and Ivanov. However, the Russians still did not know in the first half of 2016 what chances Trump would have to become the Republican candidate, even though they had already set in place a major intelligence operation against Hillary Clinton and the Democrats. It was only in May that Trump became the presumptive Republican candidate, and the tempo of Russian interference increased when that became clear. The Russians may not have been so keen on the skyscraper, but they clearly loved Trump.
Amazingly, though, the Russian cyber campaign really began fully two years earlier, between 2013 and 2014.
During that same time frame the Trump family was seriously involved in trying to succeed with the Trump-Moscow real estate project:
The Trump Organization and the Crocus Group, a Russian real estate conglomerate owned and controlled by Aras Agalarov, began discussing a Russia-based real estate project shortly after the conclusion of the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow [the pageant was owned by Trump, but the event was paid for by Agalarov]. Donald J. Trump Jr. served as the primary negotiator on behalf of the Trump Organization; Emin Agalarov (son of Aras Agalarov) and Irakli “Ike” Kaveladze represented the Crocus Group during negotiations, with the occasional assistance of Robert Goldstone (Mueller, Vol. I, P.67).
Agalarov is a billionaire real estate developer who runs the Crocus Group in Moscow; Kaveladze is a Russian-American VP of Crocus. Goldstone is a PR agent who has represented Agalarov’s singer son, Emin.
‘The IRA, known as ‘the troll factory,’ had offices in Moscow, hired employees, sent individuals clandestinely to the United States, created false social media accounts, committed identity theft, disseminated false propaganda.’
Two and a half years after the Moscow discussions, on June 9, 2016, Trump Jr., Goldstone and Kaveladze would all attend the infamous “Trump Tower” meeting in New York to discuss a promised offer of information, supposedly from the Russian government, to “incriminate” Hillary Clinton. Kaveladze is also part of the Russian money story. At the turn of the millennium, he came to the attention of the U.S. General Accounting Office which reported that he had set up 2,000 Delaware corporations without knowing who their owners were in order to move more than $1.4 billion dollars through U.S. bank accounts (see “Laundering of Money Seen as ‘Easy’,” by Raymond Bonner, New York Times, Nov. 29, 2000).
In 2014-2015, the “Trump Tower” meeting was still far away in an unknown future.
But at that exact time, in 2014, the Russian intelligence operation against the Democrats began, two years in advance of the American election.
According to the Mueller Report, 2014 was when “the first form of Russian election influence came principally from the Internet Research Agency, LLC (IRA), a Russian organization funded by Yevgeny Viktorovich Prigozhin” (Mueller, I, P. 14). Prigozhin sports the nickname “Putin’s chef” but he also runs a business firm called Wagner, one of the largest private mercenary groups in Russia that has sent troops to Syria and the Ukraine. Although not part of Putin’s inner circle, he is a figure to whom sensitive work is frequently sub-contracted (see “‘Putin’s Chef’ Has His Fingers In Many Pies, Critics Say,” NPR, Greg Myre, Jan. 30, 2019).
The IRA, known as “the troll factory,” had offices in Moscow, hired employees, sent individuals clandestinely to the United States, created false social media accounts, committed identity theft, and disseminated false propaganda. When describing the IRA, the Mueller Report is very highly redacted with only single sentences visible: “As early as the spring of 2014, the IRA began to hide its funding and activities,” and the “IRA’s U.S. operations are part of a larger set of interlocking operations known as ‘Project Lakhta’”(Mueller, Vol. I, P. 16). In the words of the subsequent court indictment of Project Lakhta’s accountant, “The Conspiracy sought to conduct what it called internally ‘information warfare against the United States of America’ through fictitious personas on social media platforms and other internet-based media” (see Eastern District of Virginia, Criminal Complaint, United States of America vs. Elena Aleksevna Khusyaynova, Sept. 28, 2018).
Through 2014-2015, operatives entered the U.S. and a section of IRA known as “the Translator” created false accounts on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Tumblir and Instagram. A host of “purported conservative groups” were created
“ …(with names such as “Being Patriotic,” “Stop All Immigrants,” “Secured Borders,” and “Tea Party News”), purported Black social justice groups (“Black Matters,” “Blacktivist,” and “Don’t Shoot Us”), LGBTQ groups (“LBGT United”), and religious groups (“United Muslims of America”) (Mueller, Vol. I, Pp. 24-25).
Beginning in early 2016, the focus of the IRA became Hillary Clinton. An internal email instruction cited by Mueller instructed the IRA Facebook specialist to remember, “it is imperative to intensify criticizing Hillary Clinton” (Mueller, Vol. I, P. 24).
‘Through 2014-2015 operatives entered the U.S. and a section of IRA known as ‘the Translator’ created false accounts on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, Tumblir and Instagram. A host of ‘purported conservative groups’ were created…’
Throughout 2016, “IRA accounts published an increasing number of materials supporting the Trump Campaign and opposing the Clinton Campaign” (Mueller, Vol. I, P. 25). This information is also included in the eventual indictment of IRA personnel for violations of the Federal Election Campaign Act and the Foreign Agent Registration Act, for identity theft, destruction of evidence, wire fraud, and bank fraud (see, Mueller, Case 1-18-cr-00032-DLF pp. 1-37, indictment filed Feb 16, 2018).
These IRA efforts, however, were only the first phase of a two-pronged assault.
The IRA was first, but then came the real heavies. The second major prong of the “information warfare” was carried out by two special units of the Russian Federation’s Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff – the GRU – the intelligence service of the Russian armed services.
First, Cyber Unit 26165 of the GRU in Moscow “began stealing DCCC [Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee] data shortly after it gained access to the network. On April 14, 2016 (approximately three days after the initial intrusion) GRU officers downloaded rar.exe [customized malware to intrude in files and then extract data] onto the DCCC’s document server” (Mueller, Vol. I, P. 40). Then the GRU began planning the releases of stolen documents “as early as April 19, 2016, when Unit 26165 registered the domain dc.leaks.com through a service that anonymized the registrant. Unit 26165 paid for the registration using a pool of bitcoin that it had mined” (Mueller Vol I, P. 41).
The Mueller Report gives its readers a concise summary of the operation:
Starting in April 2016, the GRU hacked into the computer networks of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and the Democratic National Committee (DNC). The GRU targeted hundreds of email accounts used by Clinton Campaign employees, advisors, and volunteers. In total, the GRU stole hundreds of thousands of documents from compromised email accounts and networks. The GRU later released stolen Clinton Campaign and DNC documents through online personas, “DCLeaks” and “Guccifer 2.0,” and later through the organization WikiLeaks. The release of the documents was designed and timed to interfere with the 2016 presidential election and undermine the Clinton Campaign (Mueller Vol. I, P.36).
The intrusion into Democratic computer files was so massive that it was discovered and became public knowledge: “On June 14, 2016, the DNC and its cyber-response team announced the breach of the DNC [Democratic National Committee] network and suspected theft of DNC documents. In the statements, the cyber-response team alleged that Russian state-sponsored actors (which they referred to as ‘Fancy Bear’) were responsible for the breach” (Mueller, Vol I, P.42). The response team was right and their discovery became public news.
‘The IRA was first, but then came the real heavies. The second major prong of the ‘information warfare’ was carried out by two special units of the Russian Federation’s Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff – the GRU – the intelligence service of the Russian armed services.’
Many such types of interference occurred, but the two major releases of Democratic documents, in particular, show the targeted precision of Russian intelligence efforts.
The first release
The first public release took place three days before the Democratic National Convention on July 25, 2016, and used Gucifer 2.0 to channel data to WikiLeaks. The Mueller team described what happened:
On July 14, 2016, GRU officers used a Guccifer 2.0 account to send WikiLeaks an email bearing the subject “big archive” and the message “a new attempt.” The email contained an encrypted attachment with the link “wk dnc link1.txt.gpg.” Using the Guccifer 2.0 Twitter account, GRU officers sent WikiLeaks an encrypted file and instructions how to open it. On July 18, 2016, WikiLeaks confirmed in a direct message to the Guccifer 2.0 account that it had “the ‘1 GB or so archive’ and would make a release of the stolen documents ‘this week’”. On July 22, 2016, WikiLeaks released over 20,000 emails and other documents stolen from the DNC computer networks. The Democratic National Convention began three days later (Mueller Report, Vol I, P. 46).
On July 27, 2016, while the Democratic Convention was proceeding, Donald Trump held a press conference in Miami where a journalist asked him about Russian interference. Trump’s response is infamous:
“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing [Hillary Clinton’s presumed batch of emails stored on a private server]. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press”.
A little later that day, the Mueller Report tells us, “Within approximately five hours of Trump’s statement, GRU officers targeted for the first time Clinton’s personal office. After candidate Trump’s remarks, Unit 26165 created and sent malicious links targeting 15 email accounts at the domain” (Mueller, Vol. I, 49). So the incitement came from the candidate in Miami, and the GRU immediately set to work in Moscow.
Trump’s own words in Miami were a clear invitation to a sympathetic Russia to intervene in the U. S. election, and the remark more than suggests an awareness that Russia was feeding data to WikiLeaks. But in his written responses two years later to questions from Robert Mueller, Trump declared the following:
“I have no recollection of having been told during the campaign that Vladimir Putin or the Russian government “supported” my candidacy or “opposed” the candidacy of Hillary Clinton… I have no recollection of being told during the campaign that any foreign government or foreign leader had provided, wished to provide, or offered to provide tangible support to my campaign” (Mueller, Appendix C, 11).
Clearly, in 2016 Russian intelligence managed the leaks carefully – through created domains, then to Wikileaks, then to the public. It is also obvious that the GRU operatives did listen to Trump’s public statement and co-ordinated their hacking with his pronouncement.
‘Trump’s own words in Miami were a clear invitation to a sympathetic Russia to intervene in the U. S. election, and the remark more than suggests an awareness that Russia was feeding data to WikiLeaks.’
But how much did Trump know? That is the key political and legal question.
Reading Mueller one sees a strong circumstantial case that Team Trump knew what the Russians were doing, but the Mueller investigators make it clear that “collusion is not a specific offense or theory of liability found in the U.S. Code; nor is it a term of art in federal criminal law” (Mueller, Vol. I, P. 180). Instead they applied the existing, and stricter, conspiracy statute, and under its provisions did not find that the “contacts” between Team Trump and the Russians amounted to a “conspiracy to commit a federal offense arising from the Russia contacts” (Mueller, Vol. I, P. 181).
End of part 1
***Dmitriev was educated at Stamford and Harvard; the fund he runs is only one of several owned by the Russian government. In 2016 he said he “had been tasked by Putin to develop and execute a reconciliation plan between the United States and Russia” (Mueller, Vol.1, P.157).
Patrick Barnard is a board member of the Green Coalition, a non-partisan environmental group in Montreal. He is also the editor of the video blog The Pimento report/Le Piment and a free-lance journalist. He has worked in the past for CBC Radio, Radio Netherlands, and Dawson College where he taught English Literature. He is also one of 20 environmentalists and transit experts who signed an open letter in Montreal asking an end to the REM.