Donald Trump, Russia’s
candidate for President /2
Reading the Mueller Report – Part II: A tissue of lies and obstruction of justice
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.
Part I of “Donald Trump, Russia’s Candidate for President,” examined Robert Mueller’s description of Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential election up to the first release of stolen Democratic e-mails in July 2016. Part II picks up the story…
The Second Release
The July publication of Democratic documents was followed three months later on October 7, 2016 by an even more stunning and strategic release of stolen documents taken from the electronic accounts of the Chairman of the Clinton Campaign, John Podesta.
In one section of the Mueller Report, there is a description that directly indicates that candidate Donald Trump had clear foreknowledge of the second WikiLeaks release. It involves direct testimony by Rick Gates to the Office of the Special Counsel. He is the one-time lobbyist who was an assistant to the now convicted Paul Manafort, but Rick Gates fully co-operated with the government after pleading guilty to “false statements” and to “conspiracy against the United States.” He is the source for a description appearing in one of the Report’s highly redacted pages:
“According to Gates, by the late summer of 2016, the Trump Campaign was planning a press strategy, a communications campaign, and messaging based on the possible release of Clinton emails by WikiLeaks [REDACTED] while Trump and Gates were driving to LaGuardia Airport. [REDACTED] shortly after the call candidate Trump told Gates that more releases of damaging information would be coming” (Mueller, Vol. I, P. 54) [Bold added].
That is exactly what happened, and the redacted name making “the call” in the above description is almost certainly that of Roger Stone, political trickster and former business partner of Paul Manafort.
In one section of the Mueller Report, there is a description that directly indicates that candidate Donald Trump had clear foreknowledge of the second WikiLeaks release.
Well before the October release, Roger Stone, now facing trial for lying to Congress, was having communications with fellow Trump supporters, the conspiracy theorists Ted Malloch and Jerome Corsi. They were all talking about Julian Assange of WikiLeaks. Again, in a highly redacted few pages, the Mueller Report describes the ambience:
“Malloch stated to investigators that beginning in or about August 2016, he and Corsi had multiple FaceTime discussions about WikiLeaks [REDACTED] had made a connection to Assange and that the hacked emails of John Podesta would be released prior to Election Day and would be helpful to the Trump Campaign. In one conversation in or around August or September 2016, Corsi told Malloch that the release of the Podesta emails was coming, after which “we” were going to be in the driver’s seat” (Mueller, Vol. I, P. 56).
Then, as promised, the bombshell of released data came in October, less than one hour after the Access Hollywood sex tape became public.
Ironically, just a few days before Julian Assange had just given a Skype press conference in Berlin denying any intent to harm Hillary Clinton – but that assertion turned out to be disingenuous.
Again, the Mueller Report paints the picture:
“On October 7, 2016, four days after the Assange press conference [REDACTED] the Washington Post published an Access Hollywood video that captured comments by candidate Trump some years earlier and that was expected to adversely affect the Campaign. Less than an hour after the video’s publication, WikiLeaks released the first set of emails stolen by the GRU from the account of Clinton Campaign chairman John Podesta” (Mueller, Vol. I, P. 58).
The Podesta emails are an important part of this story because the GRU first gained access to these documents six months before when “on March 15, 2016 the GRU began targeting Google email accounts used by Clinton Campaign employees” and then “the GRU spearphishing operation enabled it to gain access to numerous email accounts of Clinton Campaign employees and volunteers, including campaign chairman John Podesta” (Mueller, Vol. I, P. 37). “Spearphishing” refers to the deceptive targeting with malware of sites, such as Google accounts, to obtain personal information like email addresses.
‘Then, as promised, the bombshell of released data came in October, less than one hour after the Access Hollywood sex tape became public.’
The GRU had hung on to the Podesta email material for half a year, waiting to see it used at the right moment. Wikileaks had clearly possessed the emails since August, because Malloch, Corsi, and Stone knew then that such a release was coming as an “October surprise.” And at the same time, Trump – according to Gates – received a call telling him what was happening ahead of time.
Paul Manafort and the Trump Tower meeting
We should remember that Roger Stone, while he officially left the Trump Campaign in 2015, was the man most responsible for getting Donald Trump to hire Paul Manafort to be manager of the Republican convention and then of the campaign. Manafort held that position until he was compelled to resign, on August 19, 2016, in part because of scandal connected with his lobbying for the ex-leader of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Russian politician close to Vladimir Putin. The Mueller Report found that Manafort maintained communication with Russian contacts “during the campaign period through Konstantin Kilimnik, a longtime Manafort employee who previously ran Manafort’s office in Kiev and who the FBI assesses to have ties to Russian intelligence” (Mueller, Vol. I, P. 129).
Furthermore, Manafort instructed Rick Gates, his deputy on the Campaign and a long-time employee, to provide Kilimnik with updates on the Trump Campaign – including internal polling data (Mueller Vol. I, P. 129). “Manafort expected Kilimnik to share that information with others,” and “Gates periodically sent such polling data to Kilimnik during the campaign” (Muller, Vol. I, P. 129). Furthermore, “Gates also reported that Manafort instructed him in April 2016 or early May 2016 to send Kilimnik Campaign internal polling data and other updates so that Kilimnik, in turn, could share it with Ukrainian oligarchs” (Mueller, Vol. I, P. 136). At the same time, “Gates suspected that Kilimnik was a ‘spy,’ a view he shared with Manafort” (Mueller, Vol I, P. 134).
On August 2, 2016, Manafort and Gates met with Kilimnik “at the Grand Havana Club in New York City” (Mueller, Vol. I, P. 138). Gates arrived a little late to the dinner, and when the three men left they left the club separately. The Report records that “Manafort briefed Kilimnik on the state of the Trump Campaign and Manafort’s plan to win the election. That briefing encompassed the Campaign’s messaging and its internal polling data. According to Gates, it also included discussion of ‘battleground’ states, which Manafort identified as Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Minnesota” (Mueller, Vol. 1, P. 140). Oligarchs would not be interested in data about battleground states, but the GRU certainly was, because this information would allow for precise targeting of the audience on social media sites. These details speak of highly organized collusion, but Mueller’s investigators did not follow these leads any further.
‘Wikileaks had clearly possessed the emails since August, because Malloch, Corsi, and Stone knew then that such a release was coming as an “October surprise.’
Earlier in the summer, Manafort had attended the Trump Tower meeting on June 9, 2016. Also present were: Donald J. Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, Natalia Veselnitskaya (lawyer, Russian lobbyist against the Magnitsky Act), Rob Goldstone (PR person who represented Emin Agalarov), Anatoli Samochornov (translator), Ike Kaveladze (VP of U.S. Crocus group) and Rinat Akmetshin, a Russian-American described by the New York Times as “having a history of working for close allies of Vladimir V. Putin” (see “Lobbyist at Trump Campaign Meeting Has a Web of Russian Connections,” New York Times, Aug. 21, 2017).
The meeting originated with an email to Donald Trump Jr. from Rob Goldstone, relaying a message from his client, Emin Agalarov:
“The Crown prosecutor of Russia met with his [Emin’s] father Aras this morning and in their meeting offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father. This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump – helped along by Aras and Emin” (Mueller, Vol. I, P. 113).
Trump Jr. emailed back: “I love it especially later in the summer. Could we do a call first thing next week when I get back?” (Mueller, Vol. I, P. 113)
As it turned out, according to participants, the Russsian lawyer Veselnitskaya wanted Trump, if elected, to undo the Magnitsky Act, and the information she offered on Hillary Clinton was not all that useful politically.
Nonetheless, regardless of the political value of the information offered, Donald Trump Jr. and the others were in violation of the U.S. law governing “Contributions and donations by foreign nationals” (U.S. Code 30121) which makes it unlawful for a foreign national to make a
“… contribution or donation of money or other thing of value, or to make an express or implied promise to make a contribution or donation, in connection with a Federal, State, or local election…”
Donald Trump Jr. declined to be voluntarily interviewed by the Office, and somewhat strangely the Mueller team did not subpoena him.
Yet the Office of the Special Counsel did consider “whether this evidence would establish a conspiracy to violate the foreign contributions ban.” The argument against prosecution of Donald Trump Jr. is worth putting in the record because the investigators clearly thought that negative information about Clinton constituted a possible “thing of value” that should have been reported and not hidden:
“There are reasonable arguments that the offered information would constitute a thing of value within the meaning of these provisions, but the Office determined that the government would not be likely to obtain and sustain a conviction…” (Mueller, Vol. I, P. 186)
The reasons for prosecutorial caution: there would be difficulty proving knowing intent to break the law, and showing that the information offered was valuable enough to constitute a criminal violation.
‘Donald Trump Jr. declined to be voluntarily interviewed by the Office, and somewhat strangely the Mueller team did not subpoena him.’
Interestingly, before Manafort attended the meeting, he had warned Team Trump ahead of time to be “careful” about the gathering, cautioning that it might not yield useful information (Mueller, Vol. I, P. 115). Manafort knew that such meetings often meant spelling out a demand for something else that might be delivered later. He was already dealing in polling information himself, with “Ukrainian oligarchs,” so he knew what the process was like.
Once again, the Trump Tower meeting was part of the dance that went on between the Trump campaign and the Russians in 2016, in which both sides assumed a common interest and established a tacit quid pro quo.
The oddest figure in the Moscow-Trump ballet is George Papadopoulos, a young, self-promoting policy wonk with not much under his belt except for sheer moxie. He is the man, in fact, who more than any other was responsible for “Crossfire Hurricane,” an FBI undercover investigation of Russian interference opened on July 31, 2016 that was centered on links between Donald Trump and the Russians.
In March 2016 Papadopoulos had been named as foreign policy advisor to the Trump campaign while he was working at a sketchy think tank in London. Shortly after his appointment, he was in contact with a Maltese academic with Moscow ties, a man called Joseph Mifsud. Here is what the Mueller Report says about their interaction:
“In late April 2016, Papadopoulos was told by London-based professor Joseph Mifsud, immediately after Mifsud’s return from a trip to Moscow, that the Russian government had obtained dirt on candidate Clinton in the form of thousands of emails. One week later, on May 6, 2016, Papadopoulos suggested to a representative of a foreign government that the Trump campaign had received indications from the Russian government that it could assist the Campaign through the anonymous release of information that would be damaging to Candidate Clinton” (Mueller, Vol. I, P. 81).
The “representative of a foreign government” is never named in the Mueller Report, but he was Alexander Downer, Australian High Commissioner in London at that time. Papadopoulos could never stop his gossiping and self-promotion, and the Mueller Report indicates that he also told the then Greek Foreign Minister about “Russia’s obtaining Clinton-related emails” (Mueller, Vol. I, P. 93).
‘… the Trump Tower meeting was part of the dance that went on between the Trump campaign and the Russians in 2016, in which both sides assumed a common interest and established a tacit quid pro quo.’
Alexander Downer was alarmed by what he heard and reported the conversation to the Australian intelligence service, and they in turn sent the information to their counterparts in Washington. Dutch and British intelligence has also told the U.S. about suspicious links between the Russians and Trump. According to journalist Luke Harding writing in The Guardian (“British spies were first to spot Trump team’s links with Russia,” April 13, 2017), British intelligence “first became aware in late 2015 of suspicious ‘interactions’ between figures connected to Trump and known or suspected Russian agents.” The inflow of consistent information, and especially the Australian’s account, led to the FBI establishing its counter-intelligence investigation of the Trump campaign itself – “Crossfire Hurricane” – on July 31, 2016.
When Papadopoulos was questioned by the FBI about the details of what actually happened, he lied and he was easily caught in his lies. That led to a plea of guilty to the crime of “having made false statements to the FBI” (Mueller, Vol. I P. 194) for which he got the extraordinarily light sentence, on September 7, 2018, of 14 days imprisonment and a small fine, along with 200 hours of community service.
In the Report (Mueller Vol. I, P. 93), investigators take at face value absolutely incredible statements. Papadopoulos, and campaign officials he interacted with, all claimed that “they could not recall” that he shared the information with anyone else on Team Trump. The man who hired Papadopoulos, Sam Clovis, “stated that he did not recall anyone, including Papadopoulos, having given him non-public information that a foreign government might be in possession of material damaging Hillary Clinton” (Mueller Vol. I, P. 93). Another senior advisor, Stephen Miller, “did not remember hearing anything from Papadopoulos or Clovis about Russia having emails of or dirt on candidate Clinton” (Mueller, Vol. I, P. 93).
So, chatterbox Papadopoulos only told the Greek Minister, but not anyone on the Trump Team about the Russians and the information they supposedly possessed?
And advisors had no recall and no memory of such sharing, but the Australians knew the story?
‘In the Report… investigators take at face value absolutely incredible statements. Papadopoulos, and campaign officials he interacted with, all claimed that ‘they could not recall’ that he shared the information with anyone else on Team Trump.’
These claims are simply not credible and should have prompted energetic investigation. Yet the investigators accepted what they were told, concluding simply: “No documentary evidence, and nothing in the email accounts or other communications facilities reviewed by the Office, shows that Papadopoulos shared this information with the Campaign” (Mueller, Vol. I, P. 94).
The Mueller mystery
Donald Trump lives in a tissue of lies and it is second nature with him. The Toronto Star’s Washington chief, Daniel Dale, counts the falsehoods and mis-statements of the U.S. President and as of June 7, 2019, Dale has logged 5 276 false statements since the inauguration (see “Counting Trump’s Lies: Daniel Dale’s relentless quest to fact-check the President,” Day 6, CBC Radio, June 7, 2019).
The second part of the Mueller Report deals with Trump’s repeated obstruction of justice, and here the lying involves direct issues of criminality. For example, the Executive Summary To Volume II begins with the Trump Campaign’s responses to reports about Russia’s support for Trump:
“After WikiLeaks released politically damaging Democratic Party emails that were reported to have been hacked by Russia, Trump publicly expressed scepticism that Russia was responsible for the hacks at the same time that he and other Campaign officials privately sought information [REDACTED] about any further planned WikiLeaks releases. Trump also denied having any business in or connections to Russia, even though as late as June 2016 the Trump Organization had been pursuing a licensing deal for a skyscraper to be built in Russia called Trump Tower Moscow” (Mueller, Vol II, P. 3).
Here the Mueller Report makes Trump’s dishonesty quite clear. In a section describing Trump’s efforts to create a false impression of the Trump Tower meeting, the investigation is unequivocal:
“By June 2017, the President became aware of emails setting up the June 9, 2016 meeting between senior campaign officials and Russians who offered derogatory information on Hillary Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” On multiple occasions in late June and early July 2017, the President directed aides not to publicly disclose the emails, and then he dictated a statement about the meeting to be issued by Donald Trump Jr. describing the meeting as about adoption” (Mueller, Vol. II, P. 98).
Regarding the Trump Tower deal, Trump wanted Cohen to stick to the arranged message and lie about business negotiations, by saying they ended in January 2016, rather than revealing that they extended right through the first half of 2016 in the middle of campaign politics. After all, Trump had repeatedly said things like “I mean, I have nothing to do with Russia. I don’t have any jobs in Russia. I’m all over the world but we’re not involved in Russia” (“CBS4 Exclusive: Trump Denies Ties To Russia,” July 27, 2016). Cohen did what was expected of him, but later confessed to lying, and immediately Trump’s attitude shifted:
“While preparing for his congressional testimony, Cohen had extensive discussions with the President’s personal counsel, who, according to Cohen, said that Cohen should “stay on message” and not contradict the President. After the FBI searched Cohen’s home and office in April 2018, the President asserted that Cohen would not flip, contacted him directly to tell him to stay strong, and privately passed messages of support to him. Cohen also discussed pardons with the President’s personal counsel and believed that if he stayed on message he would be taken care of. But after Cohen began cooperating with the government in the summer of 2018, the President publicly criticized him, calling him a rat, and suggested that his family members had committed crimes” (Mueller, Vol. II, P. 6).
Calling someone who cooperates with the government a “rat” is a prime example of witness tampering, as well as witness intimidation, which in this case was accompanied by veiled threats against Cohen’s immediate family.
‘… Trump wanted Cohen to stick to the arranged message and lie about business negotiations, by saying they ended in January 2016, rather than revealing that they extended right through the first half of 2016 in the middle of campaign politics.’
Vol II of the Mueller Report documents ten such cases of Trump committing acts of obstruction, but Mueller and his team were committed to the premise that a sitting President cannot be indicted. Still, the investigators made it clear that these actions took place in plain sight:
“…many of the President’s acts directed at witnesses, including discouragement of cooperation with the government and suggestions of possible future pardons, took place in full public view. That circumstance is unusual, but no principle of law excludes public acts from the reach of the obstruction laws. If the likely effect of public acts is to influence witnesses or alter their testimony, the harm to the justice system’s integrity is the same” (Mueller, Vol. II, P. 7).
But Mueller had decided not to indict – a very disturbing decision when one looks at the extreme detail of wrongdoing found in Volume II.
The solution for Robert Mueller, and at least some of his team, was to put the onus of judgement on the Congress itself:
“With respect to whether the President can be found to have obstructed justice by exercising his powers under Article II of the Constitution [the description of executive power], we concluded that Congress has the authority to prohibit a President’s corrupt use of his authority in order to protect the integrity of the administration of justice” (Mueller, Vol. II, P. 8) [Bold added].
The message is very clear: the legal remedy for this kind of systemic corruption is impeachment. Mueller was strongly pointing his finger at Section 4 of Article 2 of the Constitution:
“The President, Vice-President, and all civil officers of the United States shall be removed from office on impeachment for and conviction of treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanours.”
Robert Mueller has produced one of the most important documents of American history – and one of the most paradoxical. He strongly points to impeachment, but holds back in his actual report. What is the source of the enormous, tortuous restraint permeating the Mueller Report?
‘Vol II of the Mueller Report documents ten such cases of Trump committing acts of obstruction, but Mueller and his team were committed to the premise that a sitting President cannot be indicted.’
There is an answer to the Mueller Mystery and it can be found in the most recent book by the muckraker Michael Wolff, Siege: Trump Under Fire (Henry Holt, New York, 2019). Wolff combines gossip with unusual access to very informed sources, and he was told by a member of Mueller’s team what actually happened inside the investigation. For nearly a year, the team debated whether to indict Trump and what an actual indictment would look like. Mueller and a number of his aides were worried about Donald Trump simply shutting down the whole investigation.
Robert Mueller took the decision not to indict the President partly in order to protect the investigation and finish the report. In this goal he succeeded, but at a very high price.
Wolff reports that during this internal discussion among very talented lawyers there was actually the preparation of a “draft” of an indictment against Donald J. Trump. And here is what it looked like:
“There were three counts in UNITED STATES OF AMERICA – against – DONALD J. TRUMP, Defendant. The first count, under Title 18, United States code, Section 1505, charged the president with corruptly – or by threats of force or threatening communication – influencing, obstructing, or impeding a pending proceeding before a department or agency of the United States. The second count, under section 1512, charged the president with tampering with a witness, victim or informant. The third count, under section 1513, charged the president with retaliating against a witness, victim or informant” (Wolff, P. 64).
This draft indictment, strictly for internal discussion, shows exactly what crimes the investigators thought Trump had committed, and allows us to interpret their nod to Congress on P. 8 of Volume II much more clearly.
Aside from any constitutional barriers to indicting a sitting President, there was another preoccupation troubling Mueller, which makes his personal ambivalence one that seems to be shared by his fellow citizens.
What terrible damage to the United States might be done by actually trying Donald J. Trump for these crimes outlined in the Mueller Report? The consequences could be incalculable.
‘Robert Mueller took the decision not to indict the President partly in order to protect the investigation and finish the report. In this goal he succeeded, but at a very high price.’
This problem, now, is also one that deeply troubles the Democratic leadership. The Texas Congresswoman, Veronica Escobar, puts the issue before her party in crystal clear terms: “We have a criminal in the White House who must be held accountable, and if Congress does not hold him accountable, I see that as an absolute abdication of our oath of office” (see, “We Have A Criminal in the White House: Behind The Scenes of the House Democratic Debate Over an Impeachment Inquiry,” Abigail Tracy, Vanity Fair, June 25, 2019). To indict or not to indict, now becomes to impeach or not to impeach.
Trump has already done great damage to the prestige and the alliances of the United States. He has also exacerbated the political and cultural divisions within his own country.
Roger Stone will come to trial in November, and the indictment filed against him on January 24, 2019 for obstruction, false statements, and witness tampering, when it is fleshed out in court, will take the details of the Mueller Report and project them once more before the American public in vivid colours. Regular citizens will not have combed through Mueller’s text, but Stone’s trial will dramatize the story yet again.
To read the Mueller Report is to see a deeply troubling picture, one that will haunt the United States until some political solution is found to the destructive effects of the Trump Presidency. Robert Mueller has been compared to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The same might be said of Robert Mueller’s country.
Feature image: Robert S. Mueller, Federal Bureau of Investigation [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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.