While special counsel Robert Mueller was unable to establish a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russian government, his redacted report paints a picture of a campaign deeply co-opted by a multi-pronged Russian influence campaign.
The report details how over several months in the summer of 2016, different Russian intelligence operatives were able to alternately use the operation as an instrument for its own ends, receive inside information on the inner workings of the Trump campaign, and meet with its top officials.
Mueller documents numerous covert and overt attempts by people and organizations associated with the Russian government and Russian intelligence to influence the campaign.
In some cases, campaign officials did not know that they were interacting with Russian spies and were being used an instrument of the influence operation. At other times, Mueller says that campaign officials knew who they were dealing with and were “receptive to the offer” of assistance.
It was a central part of Mueller’s investigation. The special counsel writes that he recognized from the start that the probe “could identify foreign intelligence and counterintelligence information relevant to the FBI’s broader national security mission,” and that he met with the FBI’s counterintelligence office “regularly” for most of the investigation.
Mueller begins his narrative with a key element of the Russian operation: the Internet Research Agency, the group responsible for social media-based disinformation efforts in the 2016 election.
The group was a part of active measures,” operations designed to “influence foreign affairs” conducted by Russian security services.
While fulfilling its task of flooding American social media feeds with disinformation aimed at ramping up polarization, the IRA also sought to establish direct contact with the Trump campaign.
That effort focused on efforts to “coordinate pro-Trump IRA-organized rallies” in the U.S., all done “while claiming to be U.S. political activists working on behalf of a conservative grassroots organization.” The report says that the Trump campaign provided “signs and other materials” for rallies organized by the IRA. Crucially, the Trump campaign did not know who it was interacting with in this instance: it became an unwitting instrument in the active measures campaign.
Mueller catalogues another example, nearly contemporaneous with the IRA compromise, in which an alleged Russian intelligence operative managed to penetrate the campaign itself.
Within a month of the June 2016 IRA interaction, Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort was meeting with (and giving internal information to) Konstantin Kilimnik, a Manafort associate who the FBI accuses of being a spy.
The report says that Manafort “briefed Kilimnik on the state of the Trump Campaign,” which included providing specific polling data relevant to “battleground states.”
At the same time, Kilimnik allegedly offered something of value to Manafort in an August 2016 meeting in New York City.
That involved a ‘Ukraine peace plan’ that Kilimnik proposed, under which the pair’s former client – deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych – would be given a statelet to rule in the country’s East, while the U.S. began to remove sanctions on Russia.
The alleged Russian spy told Manafort in an email cited by Mueller that if he were “designated as the U.S. representative and started the process, Yanukovych would ensure his reception in Russia ‘at the very top level.'”
Kilimnik’s close relationship with Manafort – to the point where he was able to receive briefings on the campaign – comes as a relatively clear example of Russian intelligence allegedly making it to the highest levels of the Trump campaign.
What’s more is that Rick Gates – a close Manafort associate – suspected and warned those around him, including Manafort, that Kilimnik was a “spy.”
One month after Manafort, Kilimnik, and Gates met in New York City, Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak was speaking with early Trump supporter Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL) at his D.C. office.
During that meeting – in September 2016 – Kislyak invited Sessions to a meal at his residence, while the future attorney general demurred.
After the meeting, a Sessions aide told him not to go, calling him an “old school KGB guy.”
The allegations around Kislyak build up to his now-infamous interactions with onetime National Security Adviser Michael Flynn regarding whether the then-incoming Trump administration would rescind sanctions.
The report cites an FBI interview with former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates as saying that “officials were concerned that Flynn had lied to his colleagues – who in turn had unwittingly misled the American public – creating a compromise situation for Flynn because the Department of Justice assessed that the Russian government could prove Flynn lied.”
As a footnote in the report suggests, citing Yates and other top law enforcement personnel, the situation around Flynn’s interactions with the Russian ambassador in the early days of the Trump administration “really freaked out” top DOJ officials.