The public release of the special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Thursday finally brought into the open key findings from the two-year investigation into Russian interference in the US election. The special counsel team found no criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Moscow but disclosed damning revelations about Donald Trump’s repeated attempts to interfere with the Russia investigation and possible obstruction of justice.
But the 448-page report includes substantial redactions – on the subject of Russian hacking, nearly two-thirds of the section is blacked out. Those redactions, as well as Mueller’s decision to punt on the question of whether Trump committed a crime, raise a series of fresh questions about the conduct of Trump and his aides.
Relationship between the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks
Investigators established that WikiLeaks, the website founded by Julian Assange, was the forum for publishing thousands of Democratic party emails that had been hacked by the Russians.
The indictment of the longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone also drew a link between the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks, suggesting Stone had advance knowledge that WikiLeaks disclosures were forthcoming and reported back to a high-ranking Trump campaign official.
The Mueller report states that the Trump campaign “showed interest in WikiLeaks’s releases of hacked materials throughout the summer and fall of 2016”, noting that Trump claimed to know about the forthcoming release of emails. It is then heavily redacted, citing potential harm to an ongoing matter.
A subsection in the report titled “Contacts with the Campaign about WikiLeaks” names several Trump associates – the campaign chairman Paul Manafort, the deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates and the president’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen – but is largely blacked out.
Notably, the redactions cover the release of emails hacked from the account of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, which were published by WikiLeaks less than an hour after the Washington Post unearthed a 2005 Access Hollywood tape in which Trump bragged about groping and kissing women without their consent.
The redactions leave the public without a full view of what exactly transpired between the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks, the extent of their communications and whether there was coordination around the dissemination of emails. It also remains unclear how the hacked emails were transferred to WikiLeaks by the Russians.
Mueller was unable to fully investigate Carter Page or George Papadopoulos
Two former Trump campaign foreign policy aides have been central to the investigation due to their contacts with the Russians.
George Papadopoulos was offered “dirt” on Hillary Clinton by a foreign agent and sought (unsuccessfully) to arrange meetings between Trump and Vladimir Putin; and Carter Page was believed to be acting as a foreign agent, prompting the FBI to seek a court-approved warrant to surveil him.
Trump’s team has downplayed the role both men played in the 2016 campaign, but the Mueller report says some mysteries remain about their activities.
The report states that the special counsel was “not fully able to explore” the nature of Papadopoulos’ contact with Sergei Millian, a US citizen and native of Belarus. (Millian refused to cooperate with investigators.)
The special counsel said Millian claimed to have “insider knowledge and direct access to the top hierarchy in Russian politics”.
Investigators separately scrutinized a trip Page took to Moscow in July of 2016, where he delivered two speeches criticizing US policy toward Russia. Page met with several friends and associates, according to the report, and informed Trump campaign officials of “strong support” for the then candidate Trump within the Russian government.
What follows are redactions and an admission by the special counsel that aspects of Page’s travel to Russia are still unknown:
“The Office was unable to obtain additional evidence or testimony about who Page may have met or communicated with in Moscow; thus, Page’s activities in Russia – as described in his emails with the Campaign – were not fully explained.”
Trump repeatedly sought to interfere with the Russia investigation – so was it a crime?
Arguably the most confounding aspect of the report, to many observers, is that Mueller did not make a determination on whether Trump obstructed justice.
The special counsel investigated 11 episodes of possible obstruction that spanned Trump’s actions as president and his campaign’s efforts to obscure its contacts with the Russians during the 2016 campaign.
But Mueller left it to Congress to determine whether Trump’s conduct was criminal.
Jessica Levinson, a law professor at Loyola Law School, said Mueller’s decision to punt stemmed from three factors: the understanding within the justice department that a sitting president cannot be indicted; Mueller’s inability to interview Trump in person and confirm that the president did, in fact, have “corrupt intent”; and the “leeway” granted to presidents on hiring and firing personnel.
“He threw this into Congress’s lap,” Levinson said. “I read the structure and substance of the report as a subtle wink and a nod to Congress to say, ‘Here’s some useful information for you … now you can do something with this if you’d like.’”
The report also made clear that the summary provided by the attorney general, William Barr, sought to minimize concerns over Trump’s conduct. Levinson said she was “surprised by the depth and breadth of the evidence that’s laid out” pointing to obstruction.