‘The Biggest Piece Mueller Left Out’
“The money trail is the most important part of the unanswered questions," says former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul.
Michael McFaul served as U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014 and was a key architect of former President Barack Obama’s Russia strategy. McFaul later had strained relations with the Kremlin and was banned from traveling to Russia; he also played a cameo role in U.S. President Donald Trump’s notoriously compliant Helsinki summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin last year, when Putin floated the idea of allowing his investigators question McFaul in exchange for U.S. access to Russian military intelligence officials from the GRU indicted by special counsel Robert Mueller’s team for interference in the 2016 U.S. election. On Thursday, the day the long-awaited, redacted Mueller report was released, McFaul, a scholar at Stanford University, shared his reactions with Foreign Policy.
Foreign Policy: What’s your overall response to what you’ve read and heard about the Mueller report?
Michael McFaul: I have a couple of reactions. I’ve been skimming, so I haven’t read every word closely yet. One, on the part I’m most interested in, Volume I [which deals with Russia and collusion], I’m impressed by the level of detail and comprehensiveness that Mueller and his team have provided us on what the Russians did.
On the principal two operations—the IRA [Russia’s Internet Research Agency] and the GRU operation against the DNC [Democratic National Committee] and [Hillary Clinton campaign chairman] John Podesta—I think that should be celebrated by everyone both for what he [Mueller] did but also what our intelligence community is capable of doing.
My second reaction is this is only a partial investigation of what happened in 2016. The full investigation of everything that the Russians did, and more importantly what we as a government did or did not do, was not part of Mueller’s mandates. So I have questions about many other things that he didn’t cover. And the biggest piece Mueller left out, of course, is now what do we do as a country to prevent this in the future? Two or three years ago, some of us were arguing that we needed a bipartisan commission, not unlike what we had after 9/11, to look at everything that happened—including the Obama administration, by the way, and the social media companies, and the media itself—and this not that.
FP: Can you be more specific about what you think the special counsel didn’t cover?
MM: One is when they look at IRA, they’re looking at a very specific operation by one entity in Russia, but they’re not looking at general behavior by Russian actors on social media platforms that also have an impact. How do you somehow discern that one entity was important in meddling and the other one was not. … The other piece was Russia media itself. RT, Sputnik … what impact did they have? We don’t have any assessment of that. I’d like to know more about that. Third, they do this in an indirect way in talking about the meetings but I was hoping we would learn more about the Russian strategy for engagement with all these people, and was it an attempt to influence the outcome of the elections? … To me that’s one more piece of Putin’s playbook, and it’s not just about conspiracy with the Russians.
And then the money part feels incomplete. There were all kinds of hypotheses about Russian money [laundering] floated about last couple of years, and I don’t feel that somebody’s tied a bow under that. … I expected there would be more discussion of that. The money trail is the most important part of the unanswered questions. Were these just innocent transactions, or were these done by Russian proxies to gain influence?
FP: Referring to Russian investment in Trump Organization businesses and buildings?
MM: Yeah. But not only. And then one other thing—and this is not Mueller’s fault—it’s just the policy part. What were the Russians doing in those 21 states—and why did they choose not to be disruptive on election day, even though they had capacity to do so?
FP: What does this report do to change U.S.-Russia relations, or not?
MM: Putin will look to this to be end of a moment and an opportunity to try to reengage directly with President Trump to try to achieve some of the Russian foreign-policy objectives they were optimistic about, with this now over. I think they’re wrong: I don’t think it’s over. There’s a lot more drama to come. But their frustration has always been that, one, the deep state, and two, the Mueller investigation, has constrained President Trump from doing the right things in their view. The harder part for me to answer, because in some ways I know Putin better than I know Trump, is what will happen on the American side.
And I think you have this paradox that will not change as a result of the Mueller investigation, in that the Trump administration has a pretty confrontational policy toward Russia, with a lot of continuity with the Obama administration, and even in some places they’ve gone further, but the president himself has not agreed with that policy. The question I have is, will he try now to be more bold in cutting against the grain of his team? We’ve seen in the past that the president as he gains confidence in his own foreign-policy decision-making and diplomacy has gone against the grain. … Does this now liberate him to do that here?
FP: How would that be reflected in policy changes? Is Trump going to let you be brought in for questioning?
MM: Well, I hope they don’t revisit that policy [laughs]. … It’s something I have to worry about when I travel, Russian abuse of Interpol.
FP: More seriously, on broader policy issues, what does it mean?
MM: Without question, the top of the Russian government agenda will be sanctions relief and … new strategies for U.S.-Russia relations. I would add another independent event, the election in Ukraine. If you get a new president there, if Mr. [Volodymyr] Zelensky wins on the weekend and he starts some kind of new interaction with the Russians on Donbass, I could see a combination of a “resolution” on Donbass that would then lead to sanctions relief. That’s at the top of my list of areas to watch in terms of new Russian activity.
FP: Getting back to the report, was there anything that surprised you about new details of Russian activities?
MM: No, I don’t think so. Remember, those two indictments had a lot of details. Some little things, a few names. For instance, I found personally interesting what’s in there about Petr Aven from Alfa [the head of Russia’s Alfa Bank and a confidant of Putin’s], and that he took some kind of sign or signal from President Putin to reach out. … The other piece, I don’t quite know how to say this, there’s something about the report that disturbs me, like the first line, which says, to paraphrase, that this was a comprehensive and well-done attack by the Russians…
FP: I think the Mueller team used the words “sweeping and systematic.”
MM: Right. Here’s the paradox for me, both about the report itself but also about how we’re reacting to it. Again, because they didn’t have the mandate to talk about policy, it reads more like a legal document and not one that addresses that first sentence. … It reads very matter of fact. I get the same feeling of the reaction of the American people and our society. Maybe it’s because we’ve learned about this in bits and pieces for two years, but this was an incredible operation that the Russians ran against us. Impactful. Effective. Lots of money was dedicated to it. And they still have all those capacities moving forward, and yet our reaction is, “Meh, what’s the big deal, let’s get on with things.” We should never compare this to 1941 or 2001, but this is not just incremental change in the way that Soviets used to try to influence our elections.
This is something qualitatively different. I don’t think people are reacting to it. And I worry about that, because I don’t feel people will do the necessary prescriptive things right, because it’ll get tangled into partisan stuff. And then we’ll be vulnerable not only to what Putin wants to do but other actors, foreign and domestic, who might take a lesson from his playbook and try to run these operations in 2020.
FP: And we don’t know how many other IRA-type operations are out there?
MM: Correct. To suggest that they’re the only Russian actors on Twitter, I’m skeptical of that.
Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh