I read the Mueller report because I want to get as close to the truth as possible; I think it’s my civic duty as a voter to do so. I am writing this report, as a layperson with no legal or government training, because I think it’s also your civic duty to get as close to the truth as possible. When I read an important or particularly enjoyable book, I write a report, hoping to convince others to read it as well. This time around, while I hope some of my readers will face down that 448-page report themselves, I don’t believe most American voters will. For that large segment who will not read firsthand, I will do my best to give you enough of the report to be “somewhat informed.”
Let me be perfectly clear about my intentions here. I DO NOT intend to:
Provide an authoritative summary of Mueller’s report (I’m just not qualified to do that.)
Tell you whether I think the President conspired with the Russians or obstructed justice
Try to influence your political beliefs
What I hope to accomplish is to give you a “flavor” of the report as well as a simple and clear overview of what it includes and how it is organized. I will try my very best to report these things objectively, aimed at informing rather than persuading. In some places, I even intend to have a little fun (because I know of no better playground for fun than pages filled with words). At the very end of the final article I will present some personal observations and interpretations, but I will warn you when that’s coming so you can stop reading at that point if you wish to.
This is my take on a very public – and critically important - document, and I’ll surely serve it up after my own fashion. I will offer some “literary” observations and will report, here and there, my emotional response to some items. If you want to take exception with anything I write here, that’s fine. Just be sure you’ve read all 448 pages of the Mueller Report before you tangle with me. Now let’s get started.
What’s Included and How it’s Organized
As you’ve surely heard, Mueller’s report comes in two volumes with appendices at the end. Each volume begins with an introduction followed by an executive summary, as one would expect. The writing style throughout is simple, clear and straightforward; I did not find it difficult to read. No, it is not written in “legalese,” although I momentarily struggled with a few terms and encountered one section that listed legal decision after legal decision, referring to statutes that were “Greek” to me.
Volume One is about the Russian attempt to influence our 2016 presidential election. It’s divided into:
Active measures social media campaign (“active measures” is a legal term, I learned)
Hacking and dumping operations
Russian government links to and contacts with the Trump campaign. This final section is the longest and subdivided as follows:
Campaign Period: September 2015 to November 8, 2016
Trump Tower Moscow project
Dimitri Simes and the Center for the National Interest
Trump Tower Meeting June 9, 2016
Republican National Convention
Post-convention contacts with Kislyak
Post-Election and Transition-Period Contacts
Immediately after the election
Kirill Dmitriev’s transition-era outreach
Kislyak with Kushner and Flynn in Trump Tower
Petr Aven’s outreach
Carter Page and Dvorkovich
Michael Flynn contacts
Prosecution and Declination Decisions related to the above, including sections on Jeff Sessions, Michael Cohen, and WikiLeaks
Before I give you a quick overview of Volume Two, let me just say that the first volume is a real page-turner. Filled with intrigue and mystery, it reads like a regular old who-dunnit. From time to time I had to remind myself that this was real – with extremely serious consequences. True, it is heavily redacted, but the reader finds more than enough to get the heart racing. More later on the Russian engagement story; let’s get the layout of Volume Two.
Volume Two is a careful analysis of actions by President Trump that might or might not be construed legally as obstruction of justice. This section is long and, to me, tedious, most likely because I have heard almost every single bit of this on the news, over and over, ad nauseum, for months. I suspect you would have the same reaction. That said, Mueller offers the “factual results of obstruction investigation” for 11 specific actions taken by President Trump. He begins with the “evidentiary principles” that were used and ends with a mind-numbing review of all possible “legal defenses to the application of obstruction of justice statutes to the president.” (I’m not going to put you through all that. I know it’s important, but that is the one area of pure “legalese” in this document.) Finally the Report offers the critical, single-paragraph conclusion that is so important I will be sharing it with you, verbatim.
The next four articles in the series, Here is your Mueller Report Part IIA, B, C, D, will cover Volume Two. I believe the material to be critical for voters and tax-payers to understand (although I am surely not going to presume to explain it all), and I believe, as challenging as this volume is, it is just as important to our democracy as the shocking activities logged in the first volume. Now let’s have a glimpse of the final section, which contains material I feared I would never see, but there it is, in black and white!
Letter establishing the office of the Special Counsel (ho-hum)
Glossary of all referenced persons (about 200, including Lester Holt), entities and organizations (about 42), acronyms (24, including “FBI” and “NATO”)
President’s written answers to questions: And there they are, the Special Counsel’s written questions to the President, and the President’s written answers, in full, followed by his familiar signature with a felt-tip pen. Amen!
I will cover the appendices in Part III. But let’s begin at the beginning: Volume One
The Gripping, Terrifying Story of Russian Influence
Yes, I realize that “gripping” and “terrifying” are subjective terms, but this is my account. I hope and trust you are here for more than a dry summary. So let me begin with the Russians whose behavior was, to me, absolutely appalling. What I had heard on the news didn’t come close to this unfettered review of repeated, enthusiastic, aggressive efforts by Russian nationals to control our presidential election. Here are a few notes I scrawled to myself as I read Volume One:
Almost makes you want to look under your bed at night to see if there are any Russians lurking. Hard to imagine where they are now, with another important election looming.
Hair raising stuff! Even the footnotes are fascinating!
Fascinating details fill in all kinds of blanks you didn’t even know existed.
Amazing how the Russians used every conceivable connection, exploited every relationship! Feels like a maze of underground tunnels, with nasty rodents running beneath a lovely green lawn.
You can’t make this stuff up!
What? Papadopoulos first worked for Ben Carson’s campaign? Who knew? (Who cares?)
What? Carter Page was the deputy branch manager for Merrill Lynch Moscow 2004-2007? Huh. I guess I never thought about what these guys did before working for Trump.
Cannot overstate the exuberance and enthusiasm of the Russians!
Good Lord! They offered expensive caviar, even land in Crimea!
Ah! Now we know who actually hacked the Clinton campaign server and the DNC and DCCC: Russian military intelligence! My God! How many Americans realize that? This is not hypothetical!
Let’s spend some serious time now on Russian efforts to influence our presidential election: What did they actually do? To whom did they appeal? What did they offer? How did they behave? As I noted above: you can’t make this stuff up! The interference, I am willing to say, was massive, consistent and prolonged. Someone directly related to Putin’s successful campaign actually exchanged messages with Michael Cohen to offer advice to the Trump campaign. Email conversation about Russian involvement, evidence shows, was robust in the Trump campaign.
I was struck over and over again with the bald-faced, openly stated intentions of the Russians to influence the election. They made it clear, without cover-up, that Donald Trump was their candidate and they’d do everything possible to help him win. Some of them even seemed to fantasize about the great public relations coup they might be pulling off. They inundated the Trump campaign with invitations to meetings in the US and in Russia, with promises of “dirt” on Hilary Clinton. They even offered a steady stream of unsolicited advice to the Trump campaign, including advice on how to talk about the Russian invasion of Crimea. It was my impression, after reading Volume One, that the Russians absolutely bombarded the Trump campaign. And Trump wasn’t the only one they courted. At least one other Republican candidate, possibly two, were supposedly invited to Russia.
And it didn’t end with the election. Kirill Dmetriev, a Russian national who is head of Russia’s Sovereign Wealth Fund and reports directly to Putin, said, when told Clinton had conceded, ‘Putin has won!’” According to the Report, he persisted with pleas to numerous Americans to arrange meetings with key people to improve relations between the two countries. He expressed a wish to set up a phone call with the new president and keep it “very confidential.” He even provided the Trump team a two-page outline to prepare for the call. Russians who had recently been deported by President Obama, as well as Russian businesses under U.S. sanction, continued to reach out and meddle in the transition.
Of course you’ve heard all about that infamous “Trump Tower meeting” on June 9, 2016, but did you know the Russians who set it up continued to message the Trump transition team after the election, trying to set up further meetings? The Report indicates that, “beginning immediately after the election, individuals connected to the Russian government started contacting officials of the Trump campaign and transition team through multiple channels.” They tried to work through both political and business channels, apparently.
Russian efforts to reach and influence Trump remained unflagging. Ambassador Kislyak suggested a secure line in the transition team offices so “Russian generals” could brief the transition team! When this appeared impossible, Jared Kushner suggested such a secure line in the Russian Embassy, which was also a no-go. As late as December 2018, Konstantin Kilimnik, still pursuing the restoration of Yanukovych to Ukraine, suggested such a success would require only a “minor wink” or a “slight push” from Donald Trump. This was nearly two years after he was inaugurated as President! (And remember: If you think I’m making this stuff up, read the Report for yourself. I was stunned!)
We’ve all heard about how Russia used Facebook to influence the election, but the extent of Russian use of social media – not just Facebook posts - might make one feel extremely naïve and vulnerable, especially with another presidential election just next year. One Russian individual used Facebook’s messaging feature to contact George Papadopoulos, promising to share “a disruptive technology.” And Papadopoulos actually connected with some Russians using LinkedIn! But consider how far the Russians took their Facebook efforts:
They would create a fake “American” persona and build a Facebook page for that “person,” controlled from Russia.
Americans who sympathized with that “person’s” messaging began to “like” the page and follow it.
Eventually the Russians would schedule a real pro-Trump or anti-Clinton rally somewhere in the U.S. and promote it on this Facebook page.
They’d carefully watch traffic to the page and identify some potentially loyal followers.
Then, when interest in the rally was evident, the Russian individual would message a loyal American follower and “explain” that he/she couldn’t make the rally due to a conflicting pro-Trump (or anti-Clinton) event somewhere else in the U.S. Would this kind Facebook follower be good enough to take it from here – be at the rally, organize things, exert leadership there, etc.?
Do you find that chilling? I certainly do.
And What of the Americans?
The obvious question, I suppose, is how the Trump team responded. By my read of Volume One, there is absolutely no question members of the campaign welcomed contact from Russians and even actively sought meetings. Some were clearly just trying to seem important, to demonstrate their value to the campaign by developing their own international gravitas. When Erik Prince (brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVoss) met with Dmetriev in the Seychelle Islands, just after a Russian carrier was sent to Libya, he told the Russian that “the U.S. could not accept any Russian involvement in Libya because it would make the situation there much worse.” Questioned about this later by Mueller’s team, Prince said he “was making these remarks to Dmetriev not in an official capacity for the transition but based on his experience as a former naval officer.” [Pardon me - I chuckled just a bit. Everybody wants to be important.]
My read of Volume One indicates that Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort were key and willing players with the Russians, although Donald Trump wasn’t 100% innocent. I did have to ask myself a few times: How close can you come to collusion without actually colluding? (Of course we now know “collusion” is not a crime; “conspiracy” is.) We now read that negotiations on the Trump Tower Moscow continued until mid-2016, not on the timeline we were originally told. And the Mueller report lays out the potential value of the Moscow Tower project to Donald Trump and his business over many years in the future. I was driven to my calculator to determine what one percent of $1 Billion really is, or what two percent of $250 Million would amount to. In addition, I’d always wondered whether Donald Trump had ever actually said that running for president would help his business. Now I’ve read the Mueller Report, and I know that he did. One Russian would-be-player even offered Donald Trump land in Crimea!
Carter Page was, I believe, the fellow the Russians called “a useful idiot.” At one point Page proudly spoke at the New Economic School (NES) in Moscow. He actually said, “Washington and other western capitals have impeded potential progress through… their often hypocritical focus on ideas such as democratization, inequality, corruption and regime change.” Following those remarks, according to the Mueller Report, the Russian Deputy Prime Minister spoke “and stated that the sanctions the U.S. had imposed on Russia had hurt the NES.” He then shook Page’s hand and “made statements to Page about working together in the future.” Page was dropped from the campaign shortly after.
Trump gave his first foreign policy speech in April 2016 at an event hosted by the publication of CNI, the Center for National Interest, a U.S. – based think tank with connections to Russia. CNI had offered to help Jeff Sessions build a foreign policy team for the campaign that included “a new beginning with Russia.” The Russian-born CEO of CNI viewed in advance the outline of Trump’s speech, as originally conceived by Stephen Miller, and offered substantive changes.
Paul Manafort is, of course, in prison, serving time for his work in all of this and, I believe, for activity well before the Trump campaign (such as working to effect a pro-Russian regime change in Ukraine). In 2010 he received a jar of black caviar from Ukraine’s leader, Yanukovych; it was valued at $30,000 to $40,000. [Seriously? Can caviar be worth that much?]
Interestingly, Manafort worked for the Trump campaign for only five months, for no pay, and had no other income during that period. According to the Report, he did, indeed, send polling data to the Russians during the campaign. As campaign manager, he discussed with Kilimnik the possible creation in Ukraine of “an autonomous republic in its more industrialized region of Donbras, and having Yanukovych, the ousted Ukrainian president, elected to head that republic…” creating “a back door means for Russia to control eastern Ukraine… for the plan to work, both U.S. and Russian support were necessary.”
Interesting also is testimony by Manafort’s assistant, Rick Gates, that Manafort intended to remain outside the future Trump administration and “monetize his relationship with it.” He apparently began to attempt this future monetization on Day One of the campaign.
And then we have Jared Kushner, son-in-law to the President. At Kislyak’s request, Kushner met with the head of a Russian-government-owned bank that was under US sanction due to the invasion of Crimea. Gorkov (of the bank) brought Kushner a bag of Belarus soil, as Belarus is where Kushner’s family is from. (Kushner’s business happened to be in debt at that time and under fire for borrowing from foreign lenders.) After this meeting, Gorkov’s assistant peppered Kushner’s assistant to have another meeting. (This stuff is not earth-shattering, but it demonstrates to me the eagerness and determination of the Russians and how casually the Trump campaign left the door open. But soon I will share with you what the Mueller team thought all this amounted to.)
When media attention to cyber-hacking got intense in December 2016, the Russians did seem to back off a bit. And what was the Trump position? The day after President Obama imposed sanctions on Russia for meddling in the election, the Trump transition team was together at Mar-a-Lago. Trump asked K.T. McFarland whether “Russia did it.” She answered “yes, and the president-elect expressed doubts that it was the Russians.”
Who knows what he knew? In the end, the Mueller team charged “two sets of Russian nationals… but determined that the contacts between campaign officials and Russia-linked individuals either did not involve the commission of a federal crime, or… our evidence was not sufficient to obtain and sustain a criminal conviction.” They did charge some individuals “connected to the campaign with making false statements or otherwise obstructing this investigation or parallel congressional investigations.”
Thirteen Russian individuals and three Russian entities were ultimately charged for these offenses:
Conspiracy to defraud the United States
Conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud
Aggravated identity theft
Let us also remember that the Mueller team did charge certain Russians with hacking into the servers of Clinton, the DNC, and the DCCC, and these were not penny-ante Russian whack-jobs. They were “Russian military intelligence officers from the GRU”! The charge was “conspiracy to hack into the computers of US persons and entities responsible for the administration of the 2016 election.”! The purpose of the hacking, the Report states, was to “steal documents and stage releases of the stolen documents to interfere in the election.” The GRU “used the Guccifer 2.0 persona to disseminate documents through WikiLeaks… over 20,000 emails and other documents.”
And then, folks, we get to the point where redactions take over, and I can’t tell you anything further on this: about three full, consecutive pages of redactions. At the time the Mueller Report was filed, however, it was stated that all the above defendants remained at large.
Now, why were so few Americans charged? The explanation given was that “they didn’t know they were speaking to Russian nationals engaged in criminal conspiracy.” One American actually was charged with selling bank account numbers to Russians, although he wasn’t “aware of the identity” of the persons to whom he sold them! [I don’t believe he held an important position in the campaign.] He served six months in prison and was ordered to do 100 hours of community service.
That begs the question: Then why were Manafort and Gates charged when so many other campaign persons clearly communicated with the Russians and were not charged? [Pardon me if I have focused so much on Russian-driven messaging that I’ve failed to point out that roughly 80% of those communications (my personal estimate, based on my reading) received responses from Trump campaign workers from the highest levels down to support levels.] The answer I found in relation to the charges of Manafort and Gates was “based on their activities on behalf of Ukraine.”
Some Americans have posited that the infamous Trump Tower meeting with Russians might have violated campaign-finance laws. The Report cites “difficulties proving that campaign officials or individuals… willfully violated the law.” However, some were charged with “making false statements and obstructing justice.” But let’s pause here to better understand these campaign-finance laws, because the information is laid out at this point in the Report.
Foreign donations that are not legal include:
“money or other thing of value”
“an express or implied promise to make… any gift, subscription, loan, advance or deposit of money or anything of value”
“disbursement for an electioneering communication [excluding] news stories and non-partisan get-out-the-vote activities”
“an expenditure expressly advocating the election or defeat of a clearly identified candidate and made independently of the campaign… targeted at the relevant electorate.”
By the way, if you want to quantify the “dirt” on Hillary Clinton that was offered to see where it falls in terms of the above, it would have to be worth more than $2000; to charge a felony, it would have to be worth more than $2500. The material offered, we are told, was “non-specific… of uncertain worth or reliability” to the recipient.
Mueller reports that the behavior of Trump campaign officials at that meeting, in light of all the above, “would not meet the Justice Manual standard that ‘the admissible evidence will probably be sufficient to obtain and sustain a conviction.’” However, “an offer purportedly from a Russian government official to provide ‘official documents and information’ to the Trump campaign for the purposes of influencing the presidential election” appears to have been accepted by Donald Trump, Jr. “Kushner and Manafort were aware of that purpose and attended… [Mueller’s team] did not obtain admissible evidence… beyond a reasonable doubt that these individuals acted ‘willfully’ (with general knowledge of the illegality of their conduct)…[resulting in] difficulty in proving… the value of the promised information.”
Mueller follows this with a detailed explanation of each salient point, but I’m going to spare you that. [May I have leave to say, however, from a purely personal, interpretive perspective: What the hell were these rookies doing?!] Mr. Mueller states it a little more elegantly, invoking “the high burden to establish a culpable mental state… and the difficulty in establishing the required valuation.” And then – three more pages of redactions, all labeled “harm to ongoing matter”!
Hang on; we’re almost at the end of Volume One. Mueller now takes great pains to explain how “false statements,” “perjury” and “obstruction of justice” are legally defined. With emphasis on that word “pains” above, I am going to spare you the definitions, knowing that Volume Two is all about obstruction of justice, a term which will be carefully defined at the outset. Suffice it to say, Mueller carefully applies those painstaking definitions to various individuals and proceeds to enumerate each lie and how it impeded the investigation. (We’re talking here mostly of Papadopoulos, Flynn, Cohen and a Russian named Mifsud. Sessions was deemed not willfully untruthful.) He goes on to explain the admissions of guilt and the plea agreements that resulted. And then we are at the end of this fascinating, frightening tale, and Volume One concludes. [See Here is your Mueller Report Part IIA for the next portion of the Report.]