The Longstanding Trump-Russia Unknowns That Mueller Finally Answered

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Reporting over the past two years surfaced dozens of mysterious interactions between the Trump campaign’s alleged involvement with Russian government officials and businessmen. The Mueller report, at long last, provided some answers. 

Here are some of the key unknowns in the Trump-Russia story that the special counsel’s probe helped clear up.

Ineptitude or corruption? The tale of Jared Kushner

White House son-in-law Jared Kushner drew scrutiny for his contacts with Russian government officials and business leaders during the 2016 election.

The New Jersey real estate scion called and met with then-Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, and also met with VEB Bank official Sergey Gorkov. Also entering Kushner’s rolodex during the campaign: George Nader, a Middle Eastern fixer who acted as a go-between to Russian Direct Investment Fund chief Kirill Dmitriev.  

For Kushner, the election came as the family business was trying to unload 666 Fifth Avenue, a financially troubled Manhattan skyscraper that caught the eye of various foreign investment vehicles.

So what was going on? Was Kushner involved in some sinister quid-pro-quo leveraging U.S. national security in exchange for the mixed-use potential of 666 Fifth Avenue? Or was he simply taking meetings with any operative who’d call him up, Russian or otherwise?

The Mueller report suggests the latter, sharing a few ridiculous incidents surrounding the real estate developer’s contacts with Russian officials.  

When a Russian embassy official emailed the campaign to congratulate Trump in November 2016, Kushner was asked to verify its authenticity, but couldn’t recall the ambassador’s name. Instead of looking it up, Kushner emailed an outside contact — D.C. think-tanker Dmitri Simes — to find out before proceeding.

At the meeting, Kushner made his now-infamous pitch to use the Russian embassy’s secure room for a briefing by Russian generals on the situation in Syria.

“Kislyak quickly rejected that idea,” the report reads.

After the meeting, Kislyak set up a date for Kushner and Sergey Gorkov, the VEB banker.

The two sides’ accounts differ on what occurred at the meeting; Kushner says the discussion revolved around diplomatic issues, while VEB framed it in the context of potential investments, possibly including 666 Fifth Avenue.

Mueller says that the investigation “did not resolve the apparent conflict” in the two accounts, but concludes the section on a different note. A Gorkov assistant tried to schedule another meeting with Kushner, but it never happened. Not because Kushner refused but, rather, because an assistant “did not tell Kushner about the meeting request.”

Why did the GOP briefly retreat from hawkishness?

One enduring uncertainty in the Trump-Russia probe revolved around a change in the Republican Party platform made at the 2016 convention in Cleveland.

Trump campaign advisor J.D. Gordon watered down a proposed amendment to the party’s platform that would have advocated supplying Ukraine with lethal weaponry to a proposal that advocated providing Kyiv with “appropriate” assistance.

The shift away from standard GOP hawkishness on foreign affairs surprised many, with the delegate behind the amendment insisting that the shift was ordered by the Trump campaign.

Mueller found that Gordon likely acted on his own.

“Gordon’s phone records reveal a call to Sessions’s office in Washington that afternoon, but do not include calls directly to a number associated with Trump,” the report reads. Those around Gordon are cited expressing doubt that Trump ordered the shift.

Other sections of the report suggest that internal disorganization within the Trump campaign led to the change in platform, with different officials unaware of who was responsible for making these alterations.

Who was really pushing the Trump Tower Moscow project?

Since reports first emerged that Trump tried to build a Trump Tower Moscow while running for president, two things have remained unclear. How closely involved were Trump and his family members? And how far did the project get on the Russian side?

The Mueller report answers both questions.

On the first, the report mentions a February 2014 visit Ivanka Trump took to Moscow for the project. A fashion blogger friend of hers apparently served as a conduit for a Kremlin official to extend an invitation for Trump to come to Russia to move forward with the development.

At another point, a Russian woman named Lana Erchova emailed Ivanka Trump on behalf of her husband, utility executive and ex-government official Dmitry Klokov, with a proposal to assist with the project. Ivanka forwarded the message to Michael Cohen, who stayed in touch with Klokov and Erchova. Their efforts ultimately went nowhere, as Cohen believed he was speaking with an olympic weightlifter who shared Klokov’s name.

Trump himself told Cohen that he was ready to travel to Russia during the campaign “if it would assist the project significantly,” the report, which details what Trump stood to gain financially from the project, says.

Cohen’s ineptitude repeatedly hamstrung the development. In one episode, after an argument with onetime Trump associate Felix Sater, Cohen told Sater that he would set up a meeting with Russian government officials “myself.”

Cohen then emailed the office of Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov, but a typo prevented the message from going through. He used a email address instead of the correct address.

Mueller writes that officials from Peskov’s office worked with Cohen and Sater, but that the project died after the two aborted a June 2016 trip to Saint Petersburg.

Why was Manafort so friendly with this alleged Russian spy?

Arguably one of the biggest unknowns in the Trump-Russia story is that of campaign manager Paul Manafort and his business associate Konstantin Kilimnik. What information did Manafort give Kilimnik? And why did he do it?

The report reveals that Manafort not only gave Kilimnik months of internal campaign polling data, but also regularly briefed the alleged Russian intelligence operative throughout his tenure on the campaign.

The report does not allege that Manafort was aware of Kilimnik’s alleged espionage connections, though it does say that Gates told Manafort and others he believed that Kilimnik was a “spy.”

Mueller writes that he was unable to determine why Manafort gave Kilimnik the information or what happened to it after Kilimnik received it. Manafort claimed that he passed it along as a way to prove his value to oligarch Oleg Deripaska, a former client to whom he remains in debt.

“Manafort noted that if Trump won, Deripaska would want to use Manafort to advance whatever interests Deripaska had in the United States and elsewhere,” the report reads.

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