The report of Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller, as summarized by Attorney General Bill Barr, significantly qualifies the U.S. intelligence community’s January 2017 finding about Russian involvement in the 2016 presidential election.
The unclassified findings of the CIA, FBI, and National Security Agency set the stage for the special prosecutor’s investigation by asserting that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at affecting the U.S. presidential election.
The subsequent public statements of the former directors of those agencies encouraged the implication. Former CIA director John Brennan charged Trump’s post-election behavior was tantamout to treason.
Former director of National Intelligence James Clapper said it “hard to believe” Trump didn’t know about his campaign’s contacts with Russian state actors.
Former NSA and CIA director Michael Hayden described the famous meeting of Trump officials and Russian operatives at Trump Tower as a“classic”intelligence operation.
The CIA-FBI-NSA report did not address the conspiracy issue but it went farther than any intelligence finding about a U.S. president in suggesting compromising behavior. Even before Trump took office, the three leading U.S. intelligence agencies stated that “Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.” They assessed that “Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him.”
All three agencies agreed with this judgment. CIA and FBI expressed “high confidence” in this judgment; NSA had a “moderate confidence.”
Two Strongest Cases
Two cases brought by Mueller offered the strongest evidence of a possible conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russian state actors: the Feb. 2018 indictment of 13 Russians working for the Internet Research Associates, and the January 2019 charges against political trickster Roger Stone.
The IRA case laid out how Russian social media operatives sought to influence the election with pro-Trump and and anti-Clinton messaging. The case against Stone detailed his backchannel communications with Wikileaks founder Julian Assange who released email from the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign.
The January 2017 finding did not address whether candidate Trump had cooperated or collaborated in the Russian efforts but its language–“aspired to help”–certainly left the implication that collusion was possible, if not probable. The former spy chiefs took that implication and ran to the cable news bank with it.
Mueller’s report, as summarized by Barr, indicates the former spy chiefs overestimated Trump’s culpability. Barr’s summary of Mueller’s findings does not contradict the NSA-CIA-FBI findings but it does but it does qualify them in two significant ways.
According to Barr, Mueller concluded that Trump and his entourage did not collaborate with Putin and his operatives, that Russian aspirations to help Trump were not reciprocated by the Trump campaign.
The Attorney General has not released the full report, so we don’t know what is being withheld. Given Barr’s record in concealing information in the name of executive power, it may be a lot. (See my piece on “Bill Barr’s CIA Resume.”) So conclusive judgments may be premature.
What is certain is that Mueller decided neither the IRA nor Roger Stone case was strong enough to bring charges of conspiracy.
No Social Media Conspiracy
From Barr’s letter to Congress.
The Special Counsel’s investigation determined that there were two main Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election. The first involved attempts by a Russian organization, the Internet Research Agency (IRA), to conduct disinformation and social media operations in the United States designed to sow social discord, eventually with the aim of interfering with the election. As noted above, the Special Counsel did not find that any U.S. person or Trump campaign official or associate conspired knowingly or coordinated with the IRA in its efforts, although the Special Counsel brought criminal charges against a number of Russian nationals and entities in connection with these activities.
No DNC Hacking Conspiracy
Mueller’s report, as described by Barr, repeated U.S. government allegations that the Russians “government actors” used Wikileaks to disseminate emails from persons affiliated with the Clinton campaign and Democratic Party organizations. (Wikileaks founder Julian Assange denies the charge.)
In any case, Mueller concluded that Trump and his entourage did not criminally conspire or coordinate with the Russians in such hacking activities.
From Barr’s letter:
The second element involved the Russian government’s efforts to conduct computer hacking operations designed to gather and disseminate information to influence the election. The Special Counsel found that Russian government actors successfully hacked into computers and obtained emails from persons affiliated with the Clinton campaign and Democratic Party organizations, and publicly disseminated those materials through various intermediaries, including WikiLeaks. Based on these activities, the Special Counsel brought criminal charges against a number of Russian military officers for conspiring to hack into computers in the United States for purposes of influencing the election. But as noted above, the Special Counsel did not find that the Trump campaign, or anyone associated with it, conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in these efforts, despite multiple offers from Russian-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign.
In short, Mueller’s finding is that Russian military intelligence, the GRU, sought to influence the election and offered to help the Trump campaign but the campaign did not respond in any way that rose to the level of criminality.
That judgement modifies the U.S. intelligence communities’ findings by refuting the implication that the Trump campaign had reciprocated the Russian overtures.