In the first volume of his report to the attorney general about Donald Trump’s “links” to Russia, special counsel Robert Mueller wrote that the evidence his team had gathered “did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” Not surprisingly, Trump interpreted this conclusion as a “complete and total exoneration,” while Attorney General William Barr described it as a conclusion that “no collusion” took place in 2016.
That’s not quite what the Mueller report says, though. For one, it notes that it does not address the issue of “collusion” because the word collusion doesn’t have a specific legal meaning. For another, it says that some of the witnesses investigators spoke to provided “information that was false or incomplete,” “deleted relevant communications,” or “communicated during the relevant period using applications that feature encryption”—limitations that the special counsel says may have prevented its office from gathering information that “would shed additional light on (or cast in a new light) the events described in the report.” And finally, the report does conclude, even if it stops short of recommending criminal conspiracy charges, that the Trump campaign was “receptive” to some offers of Russian assistance and “expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.” According to Mueller, Russia in turn “perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency.”
Which, as Nebraska Republican Sen. Ben Sasse and Delaware Democratic Sen. Chris Coons pointed out in their questions to Barr during Wednesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, is not necessarily a great state of affairs.
Sasse is the kind of Republican who tends to get exasperated at Trump for constantly doing things that are reckless and destructive. But he also represents MAGA-friendly red-state constituents, so his remarks weren’t phrased in a confrontational gotcha format. They nonetheless laid out concisely why it’s concerning that Trump et al.’s attitude toward Russian influence has not, as of yet, been disincentivized.
Sasse made his point via a question about Paul Manafort. Manafort served as Trump’s campaign chairman on an ostensibly “volunteer” basis, but, per Mueller’s report, sought to exploit the high-profile position financially. One of the ways he appears to have done so, according to Mueller, was by offering Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska—a close ally of Vladimir Putin’s who had previously employed Manafort for consulting work—access to the campaign. As Sasse put it:
Paul Manafort is hired by Deripaska for things related to the Ukraine. … He is on the payroll of a Russian oligarch that has interests completely disaligned with the American people. He is on his payroll. Is it permissible for [an American campaign official] to be paid by someone who is basically an enemy of the United States?
Manafort was charged with a number of crimes that Mueller uncovered, but none were directly related to 2016 activities involving Deripaska. The special counsel also chose not to prosecute ex–National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, who, like Manafort, had recent financial ties to Russia and demonstrated a willingness to advance Russian interests while working for Trump. Ostensibly, Mueller made this decision because neither Manafort nor Flynn were in touch with the specific Russian operatives who carried out cyberattacks against Democrats; likewise, neither individual appears to have been caught giving a tangible indication that their interest in Russia-friendly policies was a reward for Russia’s sabotage of Clinton.
As Sasse pointed out, though, this would suggest that it would be OK with the Department of Justice for a foreign country like Russia or China to cultivate influence by systematically putting as many American campaign operatives as possible on retainer in the hopes that they’d end up, like Manafort, as influential “volunteers” on U.S. campaigns:
Could they come in and build a database of all campaign operatives in the U.S.? And just decide to hire all of them and say, why don’t you volunteer for this campaign and you volunteer for that campaign? Could we have campaign chairmen and women running around the U.S. paid for by foreign entities, choosing to volunteer on campaigns, going forward? Is that legal?
If the Chinese government decides to start hacking into 2020 campaigns, I would hope there is clarity from the Department of Justice about whether or not Democratic presidential campaigns and whether the Trump re-election campaign are allowed to say, “we are interested in this hacked material.”
Barr didn’t have much of a response for Sasse, calling the subject “a slippery area” and saying that whether any of the hypothetical behavior Sasse described would be criminal “depends on the specific circumstances.”
The issue was framed even more pithily by Delaware’s Coons, who targeted Barr with a question based on the June 9, 2016, Trump Tower meeting attended by three top Trump advisers and several Russians. The Russians had high-level government and intelligence connections and had conveyed through an intermediary that they were interested in providing the Trump campaign incriminating material about Clinton in the context of “Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” No one on the Trump campaign was charged for the incident; Mueller’s report concludes that prosecuting them for accepting illegal foreign campaign support would have been difficult because of ambiguity over whether they “had general knowledge that their conduct was unlawful” and whether incriminating information legally constitutes “a thing of value” as the relevant statute requires. Coons’ question put Barr on the spot as to whether this is supposed to mean the meeting was A-OK.
COONS: Going forward, what if a foreign adversary—let’s now say North Korea—offers a presidential candidate dirt on a competitor in 2020? Do you agree with me the campaign should immediately contact the FBI?
BARR: [Long pause] If a foreign government?
COONS: If a foreign intelligence service, a representative of a foreign government—
BARR: Yes. Yes.
COONS: —says, “We have dirt on your opponent,” should they say “I love it, let’s meet,” or should they contact the FBI?
BARR: If a foreign intelligence service does, yes.
So, Barr’s answer appears to be that campaigns should worry about being approached by well-connected foreigners who want to trade incriminating information for changes to money-laundering laws only if those foreigners are wearing, let’s say, T-shirts and novelty baseball caps that say WE ARE FOREIGN SPIES. It’s an interesting position for the U.S.’s top law enforcement officer to take, but that’s where we are now.