Among the multitudinous questions that anyone who’s been following the Russia-Trump story might seek to see answered in a full(er) Mueller report if and when it’s released, some are legal: Why didn’t the special counsel think the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between Trump campaign officials and representatives of the Russian government amounted to a crime? Some are political: Did attorney general William Barr, who criticized Mueller’s investigation before he was appointed, frame Mueller’s findings in a way that was misleadingly flattering to the president? And some are just, like, shouting-at-the-sky anger-frustration questions, like the one I have, which is: Why in the dang heck did the special counsel’s office just go out of its way to accuse former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort of discussing Russia policy in 2016 with someone who had ongoing ties to Russian intelligence … if it was also about to conclude that no one in the campaign “conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities”?
Here’s what I’m talking about:
• In March 2018, the special counsel’s office made a filing in its case against a lawyer named Alex van der Zwaan, who pleaded guilty to lying to investigators about something related to Paul Manafort’s pre-Trump work in Ukraine with another Trump adviser named Rick Gates. In that filing, the special counsel noted that a fourth individual involved in Manafort’s business “has ties to a Russian intelligence service and had such ties in 2016.” He’s called Person A here, but other reports identified him as Konstantin Kilimnik.
• In July 2018, Mueller formally accused Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, of hacking and distributing Democratic Party emails in 2016.
• Then, in November 2018, the special counsel’s office asked a federal judge to formally rule that Manafort had lied to authorities about (among other things) meeting with Kilimnik in New York City in August 2016. In a January 2019 filing, Manafort’s defense team disclosed that the special counsel had asserted that, at that August 2016 meeting, Manafort and Kilimnik discussed Trump campaign polling information as well as a potential resolution of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, over which the U.S. had imposed economic sanctions on Russia. In a February 2019 hearing, here’s what special counsel prosecutor Andrew Weissmann said about the issue: “This goes, I think, very much to the heart of what the special counsel’s office is investigating. And in 2016 there is an in-person meeting with someone who the government has certainly proffered to this court in the past, is understood by the FBI, assessed to be—have a relationship with Russian intelligence.”
So, it’s on the record that the special counsel believes that Paul Manafort met, while he was Trump’s campaign chairman, with an individual who had ongoing ties to the Russian intelligence agency that interfered in the 2016 election. We know that their meeting touched on a topic with direct relevance to U.S. sanctions against Russia. We know that sanctions were one of the big reasons that the Russian government was interested in the 2016 U.S. election to begin with. How, then, does Mueller square the existence of this meeting with a conclusion that no one on the Trump campaign coordinated with the Russian government in its 2016 election interference? And if Mueller believes that no such coordination took place, then what was the point of pursuing a finding of fact that seems to suggest otherwise in federal court a month ago?
It is urgent that the full Mueller report be released if only to prevent my brain from self-combusting while trying to figure this out!
Support our journalism
Help us continue covering the news and issues important to you—and get ad-free podcasts and bonus segments, members-only content, and other great benefits.Join Slate Plus