Let’s travel back to the distant, foggy past to think about what the Russia-Trump story was all about in 2016 and early 2017. Before James Comey got fired, before Robert Mueller was even a twinkle in Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s bewitching hazel-green eyes. Before the obstruction question, before offshoots like the Michael Cohen campaign finance case and Trump Tower Moscow and the inaugural fund. At that point, the public knew two things: one, that Russia had likely orchestrated a hacking and propaganda campaign against Hillary Clinton, and two, that Donald Trump’s advisers had made squirrelly efforts, both during the Republican National Convention and the presidential transition period, to advance Russia-friendly positions regarding economic sanctions and the war in Ukraine.
And, to badly paraphrase David Mamet, if there’s a quid and there’s a quo, there is probably a pro. Had Trump been trying to do favors for Russia’s ruling oligarch-gangsters to reward them for sabotaging his opponent? And did they sabotage his opponent because they knew he’d in turn make it easier to launder money into the U.S. by eliminating sanctions against them?
That possibility became the central mystery of Mueller’s investigation into “collusion”: In Rosenstein’s words, the special counsel was tasked with investigating “links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump.” And when Attorney General William Barr released his March letter summarizing Mueller’s conclusions, he quoted the special counsel as having written that “the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” But Barr didn’t explain how that conclusion had been arrived at, and given that Mueller’s report is defined by a law as a summary of “prosecution and declination” decisions, the most long-gestating question it might be able to resolve when it’s (partially) released on Thursday is why the special counsel decided that a number of publicly known links between Russia and the Trump campaign did not constitute a chargeable conspiracy. Those include:
• The June 9, 2016, meeting at Trump Tower in New York City between Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner, and several Russian government–connected individuals who brought up the subject of Magnitsky Act sanctions.
• The Trump campaign’s elimination of a line in the Republican National Convention platform that called for the U.S. to provide weapons to anti-Russian forces in Ukraine.
• Then–Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s Aug. 2, 2016, meeting in New York City with Konstantin Kilimnik, an individual who the special counsel’s office says is believed to have “a relationship with Russian intelligence,” at which Manafort gave Kilimnik campaign polling data and discussed a potential resolution to the war in Ukraine. (Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine conflict was another reason the U.S. imposed sanctions against Russia.)
• Incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn’s Dec. 29, 2016, phone call with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak—which Flynn later lied about to federal investigators in an apparent attempt to keep them from finding out that he and Kislyak had discussed sanctions.
On June 14, 2016, just after the Trump Tower meeting, the Washington Post revealed that Russian government hackers were believed to have illegally accessed the Democratic National Committee’s servers . Which is to say that Trump and his advisers knew from mid-June 2016 onward that Russia was 1) seeking sanctions-related policy changes and 2) possibly attempting to sabotage Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The Trump crew nonetheless continued to communicate with Russia-connected individuals about sanctions, and you could conceivably argue that those conversations amounted to implicit participation in Russia’s illegal election-sabotage plan.
Thanks to Barr’s letter, though, we know that either 1) Mueller decided that no such conspiracy could be proven in court or that 2) Barr used carefully hedged language to make it seem like that’s what Mueller concluded. And, to the extent that any single document could possibly resolve our modern information war or allow us even the smallest moment of satisfaction and closure, the (partial) version of Mueller’s report that’s being released Thursday will ideally explain which of those things happened, and what Mueller himself actually thinks about Russiagate’s original animating question.