Report

Five Questions Mueller Couldn’t Answer About the Russian Connection

The special counsel doesn’t have all the answers.

An illustration shows a Game of Thrones-style graphic from U.S. President Donald Trump’s Twitter page in Washington, D.C., on April 18. (Mandel Ngan/AFP)
An illustration shows a Game of Thrones-style graphic from U.S. President Donald Trump’s Twitter page in Washington, D.C., on April 18. (Mandel Ngan/AFP)

The first volume of special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian meddling represents the most definitive account to date of the Kremlin’s campaign to vault Donald Trump into the Oval Office, but there are questions crucial to that investigation that even Mueller and his team of veteran investigators couldn’t answer.

While much of Washington is focusing on Mueller’s legal analysis about whether the U.S. president obstructed justice, his report, which was released on Thursday, makes clear that key questions remain about exactly how the Russian influence operation functioned and how it interacted with the Trump campaign during the 2016 election.

Did the Trump campaign direct WikiLeaks to release emails on Oct. 7?

On the afternoon of Oct. 7, 2016, a month before Election Day, the Washington Post published an exclusive story that many observers believed would spell the end of Trump’s presidential candidacy. In an audio recording from the set of Access Hollywood, Trump bragged of grabbing women’s genitals and getting away with it.

The story dominated media coverage, generating a flood of headlines—until WikiLeaks dropped a huge cache of emails hacked from the personal account of John Podesta, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman.

The release of those emails likely represented the greatest boost provided to the Trump campaign by WikiLeaks, and given that Trump campaign officials were in touch with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in the run-up to the release, questions have swirled about whether the Trump team coordinated the release of those emails to distract from the Access Hollywood story.

Unfortunately, Mueller was unable to answer that question.

In a heavily redacted passage of the report, the special counsel describes the Trump campaign’s interest in WikiLeaks’ releases during the summer of 2016 and his inability to answer a crucial question:

The redacted name in question above is likely Roger Stone, who was in touch with Assange in 2016 and presciently tweeted about his upcoming releases. The redaction is justified as posing possible “harm to ongoing matter,” which likely refers to the ongoing prosecution of Stone on charges of lying to investigators.

Stone has denied coordinating the timing of the release, but, as Mueller makes clear, his investigators were unable to reach a satisfying conclusion on whether the timing of Assange’s intervention in the campaign represented his own political genius or stemmed from the Trump campaign’s PR smarts.

What happened to the polling data supplied by Manafort?

On Aug. 2, 2016, then-Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort met his longtime business associate Konstantin Kilimnik for dinner at New York’s Grand Havana Room. The two men discussed old business, a plan for establishing peace in Ukraine to the benefit of the Kremlin, and the Trump campaign’s plan for winning the election:

 

That discussion built on a long-standing relationship. Throughout the campaign, Manafort had been passing polling data and reports to Kilimnik through his deputy, Rick Gates. But the polling data wasn’t just for Kilimnik’s consumption. Manafort used Kilimnik as a go-between with the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, for whom Manafort had done extensive work but with whom he was embroiled in an internecine business dispute.

By supplying polling data to Kilimnik, Manafort was shuttling highly sensitive material on the Trump campaign’s view of the race to a man with known connections to Russian intelligence—just as the Kremlin was mounting a covert operation to meddle in the 2016 election.

Did Kilimnik pass that information on to Russian intelligence? Mueller doesn’t know: “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 did not assess what Kilimnik (or others he may have given it to) did with it.”

What was Carter Page up to in Moscow?

In July 2016, Trump foreign-policy advisor Carter Page traveled to Moscow in what has become a highly scrutinized trip. While there, Page delivered a couple of speeches and took meetings, but the exact nature of his visit remains a mystery to Mueller.

Mueller’s report provides a measure of exoneration for Page, in that it concludes he did not serve as an intermediary between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin for the purposes of coordinating Russian meddling.

Because of his outspoken pro-Kremlin views and links to Russian intelligence, Page emerged as a central figure in the Russia investigation.

But in a heavily redacted passage of his report, Mueller also writes that exactly what Page was up to in Moscow that July remains a mystery:

What did Gorkov and Kushner really talk about?

On Dec. 13, 2016, a month after Trump’s surprise election victory, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, took a meeting with a Russian banker named Sergei Gorkov. At the time, Gorkov was the head of Vnesheconombank, a Russian state bank used as a slush fund by the Kremlin for its pet projects.

The meeting raised questions about why Kushner was taking a meeting with a Russian banker at a time when his family real estate company was seeking financing for its disastrous real estate project at 666 Fifth Ave. in New York City.

Kushner insisted the meeting was strictly diplomatic. Gorkov said otherwise, saying the two men had discussed business.

It’s an enduring dispute Mueller was unable to settle:

What did Bannon and Prince say to one another about the latter’s Seychelles sojourn?

Shortly before Trump’s 2017 inauguration, Blackwater founder Erik Prince traveled to the Seychelles to take a meeting with Kirill Dmitriev, the head of a Russian investment fund and a Kremlin-connected player. Prince, who was close to the Trump campaign, and Dmitriev discussed a plan to improve relations between Moscow and Washington, and Prince returned to Washington bearing a document with a set of policy proposals favored by the Kremlin.

Investigators identified the meeting in the Seychelles as a key potential go-between for the Trump team and the Kremlin. And Prince said that after returning from the Seychelles, he briefed Stephen Bannon, Trump’s senior advisor at the time, on his meeting with Dmitriev.

But Bannon denied having been briefed on what was an attempt by the Kremlin to pass its policy proposals for a rapprochement to the Trump team through a back channel.

Because the messages exchanged by Prince and Bannon mysteriously disappeared from the phones belonging to the two men, Mueller was unable to resolve that dispute:

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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