On Thursday, Attorney General William Barr released a partially redacted version of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian election interference and potential obstruction of justice by President Donald Trump. In both Barr’s letter summarizing the report and a press conference earlier in the day on Thursday, Barr emphasized that Mueller had found “no collusion” between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government—but the report itself sure seemed to include evidence of a lot of collusion-adjacent activities by those in Trump’s orbit.
Where that seemed perhaps clearest was in the work of former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who was part of the campaign from March to August of 2016 and has already confessed to finance and corruption crimes that have resulted in him being sentenced to serve more than seven years in federal prison.
According to details in the Mueller report, Manafort may have additionally colluded with a Russian government intelligence agent while working on the Trump campaign. Here are key points from the report that pertain to Manafort, some of which we already knew and some of which we didn’t, and what they mean:
• As we knew, Manafort worked closely with Konstantin Kilimnik, who the FBI has assessed to be “tied to Russian intelligence.” One detail we learned: According to a former co-worker at an international nonprofit they both worked for, “Kilimnik was fired from his post because his links to Russian intelligence were too strong.” Manafort’s deputy, Rick Gates, also suspected Kilimnik of being a “spy.”
• As had been previously reported, Kilimnik worked closely with Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch to whom Manafort owed a large sum of money, due to a previous conflict over a consulting job. According to analysts, Deripaska has deep and direct ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
• The report notes that Manafort instructed Gates to “provide Kilimnik with updates on the Trump campaign—including internal polling data.” According to Mueller, “Manafort expected Kilimnik to share that information with others in Ukraine and with Deripaska. Gates periodically sent such polling data to Kilimnik during the campaign.” We knew that some polling data had been shared, but we did not know the extent of it and what exactly was shared.
• During the period he was working for the campaign, Manafort met with Kilimnik to discuss what the Manafort described as a “backdoor” peace plan that would allow Russia to take permanent and legally recognized control of Eastern Ukraine. After Trump won the presidency, Kilimnik told Manafort that all the plan needed was a “very minor ‘wink’ (or slight push) from [Donald Trump].”
In sum, this is all pretty shady. Why isn’t it shady enough to be criminal and why did it result in a finding that Barr has repeatedly summarized as “no collusion”? Mueller says that his team wasn’t able to prove that the campaign, beyond Manafort—who was the chairman of said campaign—was involved. Mueller also notes, though, that Manafort lied to his office repeatedly and that Mueller’s team did not have access to messages from multiple encrypted apps. As the report puts it: “And while Manafort denied that he spoke to members of the Trump campaign or the new Administration about the peace plan, he lied to [Mueller’s] Office and the grand jury about the peace and his meetings with Kilimnik, and his unreliability on this subject was among the reasons that the district judge found that he breached his cooperation agreement.” Basically, we only know that Trump and his campaign did not work with the Russians on this “backdoor” plan to give Russia Eastern Ukraine if you take Manafort’s word for it, which—as evidenced by the above quote from the report—the special counsel does not.
And what about that polling data? Could it have been passed along and ultimately used by the Russian troll farm that Mueller charged with a conspiracy to interfere in the U.S. election, due to their efforts to target voters on social media? “The Office could not reliably determine Manafort’s purpose in sharing internal polling data with Kilimnik during the campaign period,” Mueller writes. “Because of questions about Manafort’s credibility and our limited ability to gather evidence on what happened to the polling data after it was sent to Kilimnik, the office could not assess what Kilimnik (or others he may have given it to) did with it.” Ultimately, Mueller couldn’t find evidence that there was a connection “between Manafort’s sharing polling data and Russia’s interference in the election” through the Russian troll farm.
The report also details how Trump’s campaign chairman had his deputy share “internal polling data prepared for the Trump Campaign by pollster Tony Fabrizio” via WhatsApp and those communications were deleted “on a daily basis.” When Manafort briefed Kilimnik on that data, he also discussed “ ‘battleground’ states, which Manafort identified as Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota.” And both Manafort and Gates assumed that data would be shared with a close Putin ally in Deripaska. What happened next to the data is a mystery. Mueller could not prove one way or the other whether it was used in Russia’s attack against the 2016 election—but Mueller did note that his team had a “limited ability” to gather such evidence.
These Deripaska connections still matter today: In January, the Treasury Department eased sanctions on three companies linked to the oligarch, despite votes against it from both houses of Congress. Meanwhile, earlier this month, Deripaska sued the United States over the remaining sanctions. It will be up to Trump’s DOJ, and William Barr, to mount a defense against that suit.
Again, this really doesn’t sound all that much like “no collusion.” It sounds more like “maybe collusion, but we really couldn’t prove what happened once the top Trump campaign official gave internal polling data to a suspected Russian agent and likely top Putin ally, because of our ‘limited ability’ to gather such evidence inside of Russia.”
This is all from just one small section of a nearly 200-page volume of a report, which included other possible—albeit nondefinitive—evidence of potential collusion. For example, a partially redacted portion of the report, surrounding Trump campaign affiliate Roger Stone’s alleged work to coordinate with WikiLeaks on the release of stolen Hillary Clinton emails, shows how candidate Trump was eager to exploit the material and early on said that more would be coming. “[S]hortly after [an unidentified] call candidate Trump told Gates that more releases of damaging information would be coming,” the report said. Because of the redactions, it’s unclear to what extent the evidence gathered by Mueller indicated foreknowledge by Trump. But it certainly does not put him in the clear.
Ultimately, that doesn’t sound like an exoneration at all. It sounds like Mueller’s work on collusion has only produced more questions.