The Vox guide to Robert Mueller’s Trump-Russia investigation
The Mueller report is now out, giving the public the first real glimpse of the details of the special counsel’s findings on Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether President Donald Trump tried to obstruct justice in the course of that investigation.
Special counsel Robert Mueller was appointed in May 2017, and in the nearly two years that he oversaw the investigation, his team issued more than 2,800 subpoenas, executed nearly 500 search warrants, and interviewed approximately 500 witnesses, according to what Attorney General William Barr told Congress in March.
Which is a lot. The Mueller report spans approximately 450 pages, and while portions of the document are redacted, there’s a good chance it will contain references to a number of individuals and organizations that haven’t been in the Trump orbit — or the news — for some time, or whose involvement in this sprawling investigation has faded from memory.
Of course, we’re still pouring through the report like everyone else. But here’s some of the names are popping up — and why they might matter. It’s definitely not an exhaustive list, and Trump is not included, just because we assume you’ve got that covered.
Trump’s former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty in December 2017 to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak while Flynn was part of Trump’s transition team.
Flynn has been cooperating with prosecutors since his guilty plea more than a year ago, and Mueller has seemed pretty pleased with his help, calling his cooperation “valuable” and recommending he serve no prison time in court documents. Flynn has assisted on three separate investigations: Mueller’s inquiry into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, another criminal probe, and a completely redacted mystery investigation.
Much of that information about Flynn’s cooperation came from a sentencing memo from Mueller’s team in December in which huge portions of text were redacted. Again, Barr says that Mueller didn’t establish coordination or conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia, an area where Flynn appears to have offered his help. We’ll be watching to see whether the full extent of Flynn’s cooperation is revealed in the report.
Manafort was Trump’s campaign chair from March to August 2016. Before that, he was a longtime Republican operative who then pivoted to doing lucrative lobbying work abroad, including work in Ukraine for pro-Russia candidate Viktor Yanukovych.
Mueller indicted Manafort in October 2017 for crimes related to his lobbying work in Ukraine. The special counsel piled on more charges in February 2018 for tax and bank fraud. Then even more charges, in June 2018, this time for obstruction of justice related to witness tampering.
Manafort went to trial in Virginia on those financial charges in August 2018 and was partially convicted. He then struck a plea deal in September with Mueller’s team on the outstanding case against him, pleading guilty to a reduced set of charges and avoiding a second trial in exchange for his cooperation.
But any hopes that his cooperation would yield crucial evidence against Trump or key figures in his orbit crumbled when, just a few months later, Mueller’s team accused Manafort of lying to investigators and breaching the terms of the cooperation deal. He’s now serving a combined sentence of a little more than seven years in federal prison. (He also faces additional charges in New York.)
Manafort was a central figure in Mueller’s probe, though he was never indicted on crimes related to Russian interference. The question that’s always loomed over Manafort was whether Mueller needed his cooperation to make any case on Russian collusion, and whether that was thwarted when Manafort refused to be truthful.
Now the question is whether the report will offer any more clues on that front.
Rick Gates was a longtime business associate of Paul Manafort’s. Like Manafort, he also worked on the Trump campaign, though he stuck around even after Manafort was fired in August 2016. Gates also helped run the Trump inaugural committee.
Gates, along with Manafort, was charged with illegal lobbying activities over the work they did in Ukraine, and later with bank and tax fraud charges. Gates eventually flipped and pleaded guilty to reduced charges in February 2018. As part of his plea deal, he cooperated with Mueller’s probe, including testifying against Manafort at his Virginia trial in August.
Gates has also been cooperating with other criminal investigations beyond the immediate Mueller probe. (These seem to be spinoff cases involving unregistered foreign lobbying activities and a probe into Trump’s inauguration committee.)
But the full extent of Gates’s cooperation with Mueller is still opaque. Gates provided information about Manafort, including his contacts with Konstantin Kilimnik — another business associate of theirs with alleged ties to Russian intelligence — during the 2016 presidential campaign.
Konstantin Kilimnik is one of the most curious characters in the Mueller investigation. He was a longtime associate of Manafort’s, serving as his conduit to lobbying clients in Eastern Europe. But he’s also believed to have ties to Russian intelligence.
Kilimnik was charged, alongside Manafort, with obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice in June 2018, for their attempts to pressure two former business associates to change their testimony against Manafort about his lobbying activities abroad.
But Manafort also had contact with Kilimnik during the 2016 campaign, and allegedly shared campaign polling data with him. Mueller’s team has said Manafort lied to prosecutors about sharing such data, one of the reasons Manafort’s plea deal fell apart in November 2018. (The judge agreed with Mueller on this.)
Kilimnik’s role in all of this — why Manafort would have shared polling data with him, and what exactly Kilimnik’s ties are to Russian intelligence — are still unclear. This long seemed like a potential area where collusion may have happened, although, again, Mueller ultimately did not find coordination between members of Trump’s campaign and Russia, at least according to Barr’s summary of the Mueller report.
The full (albeit redacted) report might help fill in some of these gaps — or not. And if it doesn’t, one big question that will remain is what might have happened if Manafort had decided to fully cooperate with the investigation.
In July 2018, Mueller indicted 12 Russian intelligence officers tied to Russia’s Main Directorate of the General Staff, known as the GRU, for their role in hacking the Democratic National Committee (DNC), the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), and Hillary Clinton campaign staff (specifically campaign chair John Podesta) during the 2016 campaign and for disseminating that information publicly.
As Barr noted in his summary, Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference was split into two parts: 1) whether (and how) Russia attempted to influence the 2016 presidential election, and 2) whether any Trump associates helped them to do this. When it comes to the first question — whether Russia interfered in the 2016 election — the answer is unequivocally yes. Barr’s memo reiterates this, as did Mueller’s initial July 2018 indictment of the GRU officers.
But, as Barr noted, “the Special Counsel did not find that the Trump campaign, or anyone associated with it, conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in these efforts, despite multiple offers from Russian-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign.”
What exactly Barr is referring to when he describes those multiple offers, if made public, could help give a fuller picture of Russia’s campaign to interrupt the 2016 elections.
The Internet Research Agency (IRA) and its employees — a.k.a. the Russian internet trolls
These are the other Russians indicted in Mueller’s probe — specifically, the people who worked at “troll farm” that used social media to sow political discord online.
In February 2018, Mueller’s team indicted St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency (IRA) and two shell companies tied to it; the IRA’s financier, Yevgeny Prigozhin; and 13 Russian citizens who purportedly worked for the IRA.
Prosecutors described the activities of the IRA as “information warfare” against the United States, with the goal of spreading distrust toward candidates — including by supporting Trump and disparaging Clinton. They spread divisive propaganda, posed as US activists, and posted politically charged content on social media and in online ads.
Again, though, Mueller didn’t charge any Americans in the trolls’ propaganda campaign — although one California man, Richard Pinedo, was charged with identity fraud and pleaded guilty to selling bank account numbers to foreign entities, apparently including some Russian troll farm employees.
Papadopoulos was a Trump campaign aide who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI in October 2017.
Papadopoulos tried to foster contacts with people who had ties to the Russian government, reporting back to the campaign about them, including offering to try to set up a meeting between Trump and Putin. One of those contacts tipped off Papadopoulos in April 2016 that the Kremlin had dirt on Clinton, including emails.
Papadopoulos’s antics are what prompted the FBI to open an investigation into the Trump campaign and its ties to Russia in the first place.
Mueller said in court documents that Papadopoulos didn’t exactly break the case wide open — “the defendant did not provide ‘substantial assistance,’” as he wrote in a court filing in August 2018.
Mueller’s team recommended a prison sentence up to six months; Papadopoulos was eventually sentenced to 14 days in prison, along with 200 hours of community service and a $9,500 fine.
Stone, a longtime political operative and Trump associate, was indicted in January by Mueller’s team — a case that’s still pending, despite the formal conclusion of the special counsel’s investigation.
Stone departed Trump’s campaign in August 2015, though he reportedly stayed in contact with the campaign. And during the summer of 2016, Stone made public statements that suggested he might have some advance knowledge about coming email dumps that would be damaging for Clinton.
Ultimately, Stone wasn’t charged for any of his activities during the 2016 campaign. The charges were mostly just for lying about trying to get in touch with WikiLeaks and attempting to obstruct the investigation — specifically trying to try to get an associate, Randy Credico, to lie and claim that Credico was Stone’s source for all things involving WikiLeaks.
But a lot of loose threads remain with Stone. Prosecutors have never explained why Stone tried to cover up these communications. The indictment against Stone also references an unnamed “senior Trump campaign” official’s attempt to get in touch with Stone, to find out about WikiLeaks dumps.
How this fits into the larger question of Russian interference in 2016 is still unclear. Stone’s case is being handled by the same judge overseeing the Russian GRU case because Mueller designated it a “related case.” But, again, Stone’s charges are for lying and witness tampering. Will the report explain fully his relationship with WikiLeaks? Or is this another case where there just wasn’t enough evidence to prove anything beyond what Stone has already been charged with?
The other players who could make an appearance in the Mueller report (or not)
Trump’s former campaign chair and adviser is definitely still hanging around, but the question is whether he’ll make a cameo in the Mueller report. Bannon has made some public comments about the Mueller investigation — including allegedly describing Donald Trump Jr.’s meeting with a Russian lawyer in Trump Tower in June 2016 as “treasonous” — and he was interviewed and also reportedly subpoenaed in the Mueller case.
Bannon was also in contact with Roger Stone about WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange’s plan to release damaging information about Clinton during the 2016 election.
Corsi is a conspiracy theorist and pundit whom Stone communicated with about WikiLeaks’ plans to release damaging information about Clinton, specifically the Podesta emails.
Mueller’s team was apparently interested in whether Corsi might have had some insider knowledge about Assange’s plans and questioned him multiple times. It also seemed as if Corsi might face charges in the probe, after Corsi leaked a draft plea agreement, given to him by Mueller’s team, which indicated he would be charged for lying to investigators about his contacts with Stone and Wikileaks.
Again, that plea agreement was just a draft of a potential deal to be worked out between prosecutors and Corsi. But then … nothing happened. Corsi was never indicted in the probe.
Mueller is supposed to explain why he did and didn’t prosecute people in his report — what happened with Corsi, and why Mueller ultimately declined to bring charges against him, is one of the stranger storylines in this case.
Kushner, of course, is the president’s son-in-law, former top campaign official, and current White House senior adviser.
And his name popped up multiple times during the Mueller investigation. He attended the Trump Tower meeting in June 2016, along with Manafort and Donald Trump Jr., on the promise of getting campaign “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.
Kushner also reportedly spoke to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Flynn about setting up a secret back channel for communications with Moscow (reportedly about Syria) before Trump took office. He also met with a Russian banker with ties to Putin in December, possibly in an attempt to establish a back channel between Trump and Putin during the transition. That was a meeting that, along with a bunch of others, Kushner originally failed to disclose.
Ultimately, though, Kushner was never charged with anything. But that doesn’t mean his name won’t show up in the report.
Donald Trump Jr.
If the name didn’t already give it away, Don Jr. is the president’s son. He’s also the one who in June 2016 eagerly agreed to a meeting with a Russian lawyer and four other people with Russian ties who were promising to hand over dirt on Hillary Clinton — dirt he was explicitly told was the product of a Russian government effort to help elect his father. (Manafort and Kushner also attended the meeting.)
The New York Times had been investigating the meeting a year later, and on July 8, 2017, Don Jr. issued a statement that attendees at the meeting primarily discussed adoptions. (That initial false statement about adoptions was reportedly dictated by the president himself, an issue Mueller focused on in his obstruction investigation.)
The Times continued to follow the story, and later revealed the meeting was primarily about getting damaging info on Clinton. Finally, Don Jr. tweeted out his emails that backed up the Times’s reporting, which indicated that the Trump Tower meeting was about getting dirt on Clinton.
So what the heck happened with the Trump Tower meeting and the aftermath? It appears that Mueller found that this or other alleged contacts between Trump associates and Russian officials did not rise to the level of criminality, or at least did not meet the definition of “coordination” as the special counsel defined it. But the question is certainly going to be why.
Carter Page is a former Trump campaign aide who was also very pro-Russia. He traveled to Moscow to give a speech during the campaign in July 2016 in which he criticized US policy toward Russia.
Russian intelligence had tried to recruit Page as early as 2013, the New York Times reported in 2017, based on court documents. That’s long before he joined the Trump campaign, but his activities during the campaign — including his Russian contacts and that speech in Moscow — brought him under scrutiny by the FBI.
Page was also mentioned in the infamous Steele dossier, which alleged that Page had met with Russian operatives in July 2016. Those claims in the Steele dossier have never been proven. The FBI used the allegations in the dossier as part — but not the only justification — of an application for a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant to surveil Page.
This didn’t start the Russia investigation (that was with Papadopoulos), but opponents of the Mueller investigation, including the president, have long pointed to this FISA warrant on Page as an example of FBI overreach.
Key figures in the obstruction probe
Corallo worked as a spokesperson for Trump’s outside legal team until July 2017. He quit, reportedly concerned about the events leading up to the initial statement about the Trump Tower meeting in June 2016 that said it was mostly about Russian adoptions.
To back up, when the New York Times was investigating the Trump Tower meeting in July 2017, it reached out for responses to questions about that event. On July 8, 2017, President Trump was aboard Air Force One and discussing with his team how to respond. Trump dictated that statement for Don Jr. — but again, it focused on Russian adoptions, rather than the real purpose of the meeting, which was dirt on Clinton.
The next day, White House communications director Hope Hicks and Trump got on a conference call with Corallo. Corallo claims he informed Trump and Hicks that the false statement would backfire because documents showing the true purpose of the meeting would leak. Hicks dismissed this, saying the documents wouldn’t ever get out. (Though they did just a few days later.)
Corallo reportedly told colleagues at the time that he was alarmed by Hicks’s statements. He reportedly recounted this to investigators, and Mueller was potentially investigating the drafting of this statement as part of the obstruction of justice inquiry against the president.
The former White House communications director and close Trump associate who was on that aforementioned conference call. She is the one who told Corallo that Don Jr.’s initial false statement that the Trump Tower meeting would never get out — leading Corallo to worry that she was attempting to mislead the public. Hicks, who left the White House in February 2018, has denied that she made any such statements.
McGahn is the former White House counsel who reportedly sat for 30 hours of interviews with the special counsel. He appeared in a lot of reports about Trump’s attempts to derail the investigation — including one incident in March 2017 where Trump reportedly told McGahn to try to keep then-Attorney Jeff Sessions from recusing himself from overseeing the Russia probe (which didn’t work), and another incident in which Trump reportedly directed McGahn to give the order to fire Mueller (which also didn’t happen; McGahn apparently threatened to quit himself, and the president ultimately backed off).
Trump’s legal team is reportedly worried about what McGahn told Mueller and his investigators during those 30 hours and how much of it will show up in the Mueller report. We’re curious, too.