In the heady days of late July 2016, Donald Trump was ready for Russian help.
That much is clear from the Mueller report, which recounts how Trump repeatedly told Michael Flynn to find Hillary Clinton’s deleted emails after publicly asking Russia to “find” them.
That episode fits a broader pattern. Throughout the 2016 campaign, Trump underlings and hangers-on — both in Russia and the United States — tried to leverage Trump’s chaotic presidential campaign for their mutual advantage.
As Mueller characterized it, the Trump campaign saw a “benefit” in the Russian interference operation, and the Russian government saw its own “benefit” in a Trump victory. But potential cooperation between the two sides did not meet the standard of a criminal conspiracy that would necessarily survive a trial by jury.
The report is rife with shady incidents in which the Trump campaign appeared to fall just short of criminal conspiracy.
Capitalizing on the hack
One of the most heavily redacted sections of the report recounts the Trump campaign’s reaction to Wikileaks’s hacking and release of emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta’s email account.
By June 2016, the majority of the Russian hack had already taken place, and leading U.S. newspapers had reported that Russian military intelligence was suspected of running the cyber offensive.
“The Trump Campaign showed interest in WikiLeaks’s releases of hacked materials throughout the summer and fall of 2016,” the report reads. Later, Mueller writes that, according to Rick 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.”
The first batch of documents, hacked from the DNC’s internal network, was released on July 22.
Various top Trump campaign officials welcomed the document dump. Manafort “expressed excitement about the release,” Gates said, while on July 27 Trump himself called on Russia to find Clinton’s deleted 30,000 emails.
Within five hours of that statement, the report says, Russian military intelligence hackers tried to break into Clinton’s computer network.
One redacted paragraph recounts an episode where Trump and Gates were driving to LaGuardia Airport. Trump apparently received a phone call from a person whose name is redacted, then “told Gates that more releases of damaging information would be coming.”
Also on July 27, Trump deputized Flynn to “find the deleted Clinton emails.” The future national security advisor then “contacted multiple people in an effort to obtain the emails,” including Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) staffer Barbara Ledeen and banker Peter Smith.
That effort saw Smith raise thousands of dollars to attempt to buy emails from unknown individuals, while Erik Prince ended up financing an effort to verify whether a cache of emails that the Grassley staffer had obtained from the “dark web” was real. It was not.
Six days after Trump’s July 27 burst of Wikileaks-related activity, his campaign manager Paul Manafort met in New York City with Gates and alleged Russian spy Konstantin Kilimnik in a somewhat infamous August 2 cigar room summit.
At that meeting, Manafort gave Kilimnik more polling data and briefed him on the workings of the campaign. Kilimnik shared the information with their former Ukrainian clients and with Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska.
Mueller writes that he was unable to determine what happened to the information, in part in part because of Manafort’s botched cooperation agreement and in part by a practice Gates had of deleting every Whatsapp message he sent to Kilimnik the same day he sent it.
“Because of questions about Manafort ‘s credibility and our limited ability to gather evidence on what happened to the polling data after it was sent to Kilimnik, the Office could not assess what Kilimnik (or others he may have given it to) did with it,” Mueller writes.
The special counsel adds that “the Office did not identify evidence of a connection between Manafort ‘s sharing polling data and Russia’s interference in the election, which had already been reported by U.S. media outlets at the time of the August 2 meeting.”
Hangers-on promoted their own Russia ties
It can be difficult to tell where the staggering conflicts of interest end and where co-opting by the Russian campaign begins.
But apart from the high-level encounters between the Russian government and American political campaign, lower-level members of the Trump campaign also sought to use their Russian ties to boost their own standing.
International coffee boy George Papadopoulos boasted of his meeting with Maltese professor Josef Mifsud and a woman he believed was Putin’s niece, where he learned of “dirt” on Clinton gathered by Russian intelligence.
“I just finished a very productive lunch with a good friend of mine,” Papadopoulos wrote in a March 2016 email to Trump’s foreign policy team. “They said the leadership, including Putin, is ready to meet with us and Mr Trump should there be interest.”
The report says that the message came when Sam Clovis – the Trump staffer who hired Papadopoulos – “perceived a shift in the Campaign’s approach toward Russia” away from NATO. The approach they turned towards was redacted for grand jury reasons.
Clovis, however, demurred, telling Papadopoulos “no commitments until we see how this plays out.”
Carter Page, a Trump foreign policy adviser with an interest in Gazprom, “also repeatedly touted his high-level contacts in Russia and his ability to forge connections between candidate Trump and senior Russian governmental officials,” the report reads. Page had more success, with Trump publicly praising him during the campaign.
Page was fired from the campaign, but apparently stayed in touch with its top operatives during a December 2016 trip to Moscow where he met with Russia’s deputy prime minister.
Mueller cites a December 2016 message written by Kilimnik to Manafort, apparently obtained through a method that was redacted due to “investigative technique.”
“Carter Page is in Moscow today,” Kilimnik wrote, adding that “DT” – Donald Trump – had “authorized” Page to talk to Russia.
Kilimnik described the conversations as covering “a range of issues of mutual interest.”