Mueller has issued his report, but a key issue remains: is Trump an asset of the Kremlin?by Calder Walton / March 29, 2019 / Leave a comment
The Russians did it; Trump did not conspire with them; he may have obstructed justice.
These are the conclusions of special counsel Robert Mueller’s two-year long Russia probe investigation, according to Trump’s attorney general, William Barr. At this point, the actual Mueller report has not been disclosed. After five days, the Department of Justice finally disclosed that the report is more than 300 pages long.
Without the report, as opposed to Barr’s four-page summary of it, there is a major part of the Trump-Russia saga that remains a mystery: the results of a US counter-intelligence investigation launched into whether Trump is a Kremlin asset, working under its influence. This scenario could fall short of a criminal conspiracy but still pose a dire US national security threat.
Not collusion—but support?
It is good news for Americans that Trump did not conspire with the Kremlin to win his 2016 election. However, by focusing on “collusion,” there is a serious risk of distracting attention from arguably the greatest scandal in US history, first reported by US intelligence, and now confirmed by Mueller and Barr: Russia carried out a sophisticated cyber-attack on the 2016 US election aiming to get its favoured candidate, Donald Trump, elected.
Russian intelligence hacked into the Democratic National Convention, released private emails from it to discredit Hilary Clinton, and employed a troll army to spread disinformation on social media and influence US voters against her. Amid all this, Trump publicly welcomed Russia’s hacking of Clinton’s emails.
He went on to win the election by a meagre 80,000 votes. A recent academic study concluded that he probably would not be US president without Russian help.
The question now is how much was push, and how much pull. Mueller has found Trump’s team did not conspire with Russia—or rather, Mueller did not find sufficient evidence to charge such a criminal conspiracy.
That is not necessarily the same as there not being any evidence of the Trump campaign conspiring with the Kremlin. There may be strong evidence of them doing so, which nevertheless falls short of the high standards of proof required by criminal law: beyond reasonable doubt. If there is any doubt at all about its nature, source, or admissibility, Mueller would be obliged to advise not to charge.
The American and international public deserve to know whether this is the case: we must be allowed to read Mueller’s report to decide for ourselves whether evidence came close to criminal standards for Trump conspiring with Russia, or whether it was, as they say in DC, a “nothing burger.”
The missing answers
There is certainly considerable evidence revealing Trump-Russia links and lies. Barr’s short summary notes that Russia made “multiple offers from Russian-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign.” In fact, the Trump campaign had a staggering 102 contacts with Russia-linked operatives, in at least 28 meetings, none of which was reported to the appropriate US authorities; on the contrary, Trump campaign officials falsely issued blanket denials about their contacts with Russia.
Russia has a long history of meddling in US presidential elections, and the Trump campaign’s extraordinary Russian outreach activities are thrown into sharp relief by considering what previous US politicians did when the Kremlin secretly approached them. In 1968, the Kremlin secretly offered to help and financially subsidize Hubert Humphrey’s Democratic election campaign, then running against the Republican staunch anti-Communist, Richard Nixon. When the Russian ambassador approached Humphrey with the Kremlin’s clandestine offer of help, he “knew at once what was going on” and politely declined their offer. By contrast, none of those at the 2016 Trump Tower turned down Russia’s offer of help. They welcomed it.
A gaping hole in Barr’s summary of the Mueller report relates to the results of an FBI counter-intelligence investigation into whether Trump is a Russian asset. A now infamous dossier compiled on Trump by a former MI6 officer, Christopher Steele, which was disclosed in January 2017, claimed that the Kremlin has compromising material (Kompromat) on Trump, which it can use to pressure him. It would be highly surprising if Mueller’s report does not address this issue.
It is not difficult to imagine a scenario where someone is under the influence of a hostile foreign power, being pressured by it, but this does not rise to the level of a conspiracy—which in criminal law is an agreement between two or more persons to commit a crime. There is a fundamental difference between prosecutable charges and intelligence assessments about threats to national security.
One former head of MI6 has suggested in this magazine that Trump’s behaviour towards Russia may be explained by loans he received from Russian oligarchs, who bailed him out after the 2008 financial crisis, when US banks refused. This would not be a conspiracy, but an opportunity for blackmail.
History is full of examples when someone or something poses a threat to national security but evidence does not rise to the level of chargeable acts. For example, the notorious KGB agent inside MI6, Kim Philby, knew full well that if he did not confess to being a Soviet spy, British intelligence would not have sufficient evidence to prosecute him. He was right: they never did so. However, as the world discovered when Philby defected to Moscow in 1963, he was guilty as sin.
High crimes and misdemeanors
Despite Mueller’s findings, Trump has still not condemned Russia’s 2016 election cyber-attack. In a bizarre press conference in Helsinki in July 2018, Trump—after winking at Putin—sided with the former KGB officer who denied Russia’s cyber-attack on the US election over the assessment of his own intelligence community that Russia did so. In fact, Trump has been more publicly critical about US intelligence than he has Putin. It is highly likely that Russia will again mount a cyber-attack on the 2020 election in the same way it did in 2016.
Over the coming weeks, Democrats will do right to maintain pressure on Barr’s Department of Justice to release the Mueller Report as fully as possible, with narrow redactions for intelligence sources and methods. When it is released or leaked—as surely it will be—people should read it not with standards of criminal offences in mind, but rather the more malleable requirements for deciding whether an incumbent in the White House is worthy of that office: “high crimes and misdemeanors,” the requirements for Congress to impeach a US president.