Mueller report: ‘Beyond implausible’ Trump team was unaware of Russian election interference, says legal expert

Victoria Gagliardo-Silver

With the release of the Mueller investigation on Thursday, albeit in lightly redacted form, there are now as many questions as there are answers.

And while the investigation did not find evidence the Trump campaign colluded with Russia, it uncovered “multiple links between Trump campaign officials and individuals tied to the Russian government”.

The Independent spoke to legal expert and writer Colin Kalmbacher, who had much to say about Mr Mueller’s findings.

The report highlighted that multiple members of the Trump campaign received some form of communication from Russian officials.

Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, George Papadopoulos, Michael Flynn, Michael Cohen, Roger Stone, Alex van der Zwaan, Konstantin Kilimnik, and 25 Russian nationals were indicted by the Special Counsel.

On that, Mr Kalmbacher said that: “It’s beyond implausible the Trump Administration was unaware of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and any sleight-of-hand responses from administration officials that downplay such knowledge are not only off-base but, because they’re so ridiculous, also read as suspect.”

President Donald Trump, Jared Kushner, Donald Trump Jr, and other campaign officials have touted the claim of “no collusion” as the Special Counsel was “unable” to come to the conclusion that the group “willfully” violated the law in the case of the Trump Tower meeting, or intentionally colluded with Russia, but could not prove overall that justice was not obstructed.

Mr Kalmbacher said that "it is imperative to differentiate between: (1) Russian government actors; and (2) non-governmental actors. Mr Mueller’s redacted report – and years’ worth of public knowledge – have established that highly placed Trump 2016 campaign officials made contact with Russian nationals not directly affiliated with the Russian Federation.”

“In other words, obviously the Trump campaign had contacts with Russians but there’s nothing immoral, illegal or otherwise untoward about that. Only the most irresponsible and reckless – and almost certainly incorrect – reporting has suggested that Trump campaign apparatchiks actually had conspiratorial meetings with Russian Federation agents keyed toward cheating Donald Trump across the finish line by way of razor-thin margins in the Midwestern United States.”

“As far as the latter is concerned, if I were summing up the extent of the Trump campaign’s efforts with Russian Federation agents, I’d have to emphasise the Mueller report's bottom-line finding that 'the investigation did not establish such coordination.'"

As for the charges laid against Manafort in Virginia? They weren't linked to collusion at all.

Mr Kalmbacher said: “I covered the Manafort trial in Virginia in person. This was all fairly run-of-the-mill gilded upper crust tax evasion and bank fraud. In other words: the story of American wealth. It would have been nice if the Manafort prosecution led to an American Spring focused on uprooting the methods by which the wealthy and well-connected game our system: but that’s not where things were headed.

Manafort, the president's former campaign manager, was in March sentenced to nearly four years in prison on tax and bank fraud.

"You could prosecute most people who make over six figures for the same kind of stuff Manafort was convicted of in Virginia – but our system is actually set up to facilitate white collar crime – and none of that had anything directly to do with politics; he was interested in finding ways to launder his money earned in Ukraine, sure. But even these white collar crimes were fairly pedestrian stuff: lying on his taxes, hiding income, inflating assets. Is this the kind of thing society really thinks people should be caged for?”

The section on Trump Campaign and the Dissemination of Hacked Materials begins with: “The Trump Campaign showed interested in WikiLeaks’s releases of hacked materials throughout the summer of 2016,” and is mostly redacted from that point.

The report states “On July 22, 2016, WikiLeaks posted thousands of internal DNC documents revealing information about the Clinton Campaign. Within days, there was public reporting that US Intelligence agencies had “high confidence” that the Russian government was behind the theft of emails and documents from the DNC.”

Was Mr Mueller aware that the Trump campaign knew the emails were going to be released before they were? Mr Kalmbacher believes so.

He replied, “Well, yes. But that’s hardly surprising – and not the least bit incriminating – because Wikileaks themselves teased the existence of the leaks before they were released.”

Continuing, he added: “This is one of the more hare-brained episodes in the entire Russiagate drama. The idea that a hatchet man like Roger Stone had access to some secret pool of knowledge or that he was buddying around with Julian Assange in a bid to keep Hillary Clinton out of the White House. It’s absolutely ridiculous. There’s no need for grand designs or cloak-and-dagger espionage. We’re not dealing with a Graham Greene character here. Anyone on either side of the equation should think twice about romancing Roger Stone. He’s not a scheming mastermind or a windswept hero. The Trump campaign knew about potentially harmful Clinton-related releases because Roger Stone was capable of using a Twitter account.”

The report notes that "Beginning in June 2016, [redacted] forecast to senior Campaign officials that WikiLeaks would release information damaging to candidate Clinton. WikiLeakss first release came in July 2016.’"

"What an interesting coincidence," said Mr Kalmbacher. "Except that it’s not interesting whatsoever.”

Wikileaks publically teased the forthcoming release of Clinton-centric data in May of 2016. May comes before June. The real story here – and the revealing piece of information – is why it took Roger Stone at least two weeks to alert his superiors about this impending release. That’s hardly expert timing or even great ability to read for comprehension. But, of course, it’s not Roger Stone’s timing or reading comprehension that’s important here. The key point: the narrative of Stone’s scheming nefariousness is almost completely fictitious.”

As for the legal implications of the report? “Most of the report on this subject is redacted. So, there are, presumably legal implications and I’d imagine the lines dedicated to those implications outline some of the still-working parts in the ongoing Stone prosecution.”

Mr Kalmbacher continued: “More directly: don’t be so stupid as to lie about non-crimes. Other than that, no. There’s nothing illegal about relying on Wikileaks for campaign dirt. Wikileaks is a publishing company. They provide information – they do journalism – that powerful people do not like."

Mr Mueller has decided to not prosecute those involved with the Trump tower meeting (Donald J Trump Jr, Manafort, and Jared Kushner) despite Mr Trump Jr setting up the meeting due to the offer of “some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father” as there was no proof that they “willfully” violated the law. But which campaign law is this based on, and what exactly about their behaviour didn't violate it?

“This is based on 11 CFR 110.20. I’ve actually written about why Mr Mueller wouldn’t charge Trump Jr. over this meeting before. Turns out my prediction was half right. Mr Mueller, like most lawyers, has a habit of arguing with himself. In essence he decided not to prosecute Trump Jr. for two reasons: (1) it would be hard to classify opposition research as “a thing of value” and this would have been the first time in US history that such an effort would have been made; and (2) because of a tick (feature or bug?) in campaign finance law, ignorance of the law actually is an excuse and here, Mr Mueller determined that Trump Jr. was not familiar with the intricacies of campaign finance law. Who really is, though? Campaign Legal Center – that’s about it.

"Mr Mueller is a conservative Republican whose interests and loyalties are pretty clear – he wasn’t there to rock the boat or make precedent. So, it’s no surprise that he didn’t go after the 45th president’s oldest son.”

Finally, why did none of this add up to collusion?

Collusion was almost always never going to be proved or shown simply because it’s not the legal term of art applicable here.”

He continued: “Collusion only exists in antitrust law in the US. I can’t recall exactly when or how it transposed itself into our cultural lexicon but it’s basically been used as a smokescreen.

"Mueller obviously can’t prove something that’s entirely inapplicable. But, again, prosecutors can easily prove conspiracy if they want to. They can easily prove campaign finance crimes if they want to. They can easily go after regulatory infractions a la Manafort if they want to.”

“The decision not to charge here was a conscious one not to create controversy because the case, if charged, would have, simply, ruined people’s lives. And, it seems, Mueller didn’t deem that damage equivalent to the potential crimes he probably saw."