Two things are true about the indictments unsealed by special counsel Bob Mueller Monday:
- They don’t provide a “smoking gun” proving collusion between Donald Trump’s operation and Russia.
- They make it almost impossible to believe that there wasn’t collusion between Trump’s operation and Russia.
Here is what we now know: The Trump campaign was filled with operatives connected in shady ways to the Russian government. It included individuals who knew that the Russians had obtained Clinton-related emails and who lied about that knowledge to federal investigators. Top campaign officials (and Trump family members) dropped everything to meet with Russian operatives when they believed there was useful opposition research on offer. Trump publicly asked Russia to hack into Clinton’s computers to find and release her missing emails.
We also know the Russians really did hack into John Podesta’s and the DNC’s email accounts and found and released emails that damaged Clinton. They really did conduct social media operations designed help Trump. Both their targets and their timing were extremely sophisticated for a foreign government that has traditionally shown itself to have a poor understanding of American politics. After winning the White House, Trump attacked the CIA and fired the director of the FBI in an effort to discredit or end their investigations into Russia’s role in the election.
At this point, it would be a truly remarkable coincidence if two entities that had so many ties to each other, that had so much information about what the other was doing, and that were working so hard toward the same goal never found a way to coordinate.
Trump, for his part, denies the allegations. On Monday morning, he tweeted:
But consider what we have learned, and how much disbelief we’re being asked to suspend in accepting that it’s all innocent:
1) Russia hacked Democratic emails. US intelligence agencies have confirmed that emails from the Democratic National Committee and from Clinton campaign chair John Podesta were stolen by Russian hackers. The emails were ultimately released in a smartly sequenced way to maximize damage to Hillary Clinton.
2) At least one Trump adviser knew of the theft in advance, and lied about it. Shortly after the emails were hacked, George Papadopoulos, one of Trump’s five listed foreign policy advisers, was told of their existence by a Russian professor whom he knew to have deep contacts in the Russian government. Papadopoulos subsequently lied to investigators about the timing of the revelation. This is from the indictment (emphasis mine):
3) Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager, was a paid operative of a Russia-linked political party in Ukraine. According to Mueller’s indictment, Paul Manafort, who would go on to lead Trump’s campaign, was a longtime paid operative of a Ukrainian political party with deep ties to the Kremlin. Manafort hid both the extent of his payments and the extent of his work on behalf of this party; ultimately, more than $75 million flowed through offshore accounts related to the work, and at least $18 million was laundered by Manafort.
Among other things, this placed Manafort — and his deputy, Richard Gates — in a highly compromised position, as they had both taken huge amounts of illegal money from a foreign government and lied about it to the US government. Manafort would go on to run Trump’s campaign and bring Gates into the operation too.
The Trump administration has subsequently tried to distance itself from Manafort — in March, then-press secretary Sean Spicer said Manafort “played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time” — but the reality is Manafort joined Trump’s campaign in March 2016 and ran it from June to August (he was ultimately fired when news of his Ukraine payments began leaking out) and was widely understood to be a linchpin of the operation. In August, Newt Gingrich, a close Trump adviser, told Fox News, “Nobody should underestimate how much Paul Manafort did to really help get this [Trump] campaign to where it is right now.”
4) In June 2016, Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort met with a Russian operative who promised them dirt on Clinton. The email Trump Jr. received was crystal clear. It came from Rob Goldstone and alleged that a Russian prosecutor had “offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful.” Trump Jr. wrote back, “if it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.”
Trump Jr. then set up a meeting, and on an email thread titled “Russia – Clinton – private and confidential,” he invited Kushner and Manafort. The meeting took place on June 9. As Andrew Prokop wrote, “it’s hard to read these emails and not conclude that the top echelons of the Trump campaign were well aware of the Russian government’s support for Trump and willing to collaborate in the effort.”
At it happens, “later in the summer” is exactly when the hacked emails would ultimately be released.
5) In July 2016, Trump publicly asked the Russian government to find and release other emails Clinton deleted. Separately from the hacked emails of the DNC and Podesta, another Clinton email scandal related to 33,000 messages her team had judged unrelated to her work as secretary of state and deleted. In late July, Trump said during a press conference, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.” He said this after Papadopoulos was informed by the Russians that they possessed Clinton-related emails.
6) Russians released emails to help Trump, planted fake news and social media bots to help Trump, and tried to hack election systems in 21 states. What’s most striking about the Russian operations on Trump’s behalf is how sophisticated they were about American politics. As the Democratic National Convention began, for instance, Russia released hacked DNC emails meant to stoke conflict among Bernie Sanders’s supporters. The Podesta emails were dribbled out in the campaign’s final weeks and were laundered through WikiLeaks, which made them irresistible to the media. The social media efforts were far-reaching and surprisingly savvy for a foreign government. Both the timing of the operations and the specific points of attack chosen reflected the Trump campaign’s needs and obsessions.
7) After being elected president, Donald Trump fired the director of the FBI to end his investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election. President Trump has certainly acted like someone with much to fear from the various investigations into Russia’s role in the election. After taking office, he lashed out at the CIA, which had concluded that Russia had interfered in the 2016 election on his behalf — “these are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” the Trump administration said.
Trump subsequently fired FBI Director James Comey, whose agency was investigating Russia’s role in 2016. Trump told NBC’s Lester Holt he did it because “this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.” It later emerged that Kushner and Vice President Mike Pence, both of whom can usually be counted on to push Trump toward more normal behavior, supported firing Comey.
A list like this can get much longer — I haven’t mentioned Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s habit of forgetting meetings with Russian officials, for instance, or the notably pro-Russian policy positions Trump adopted during the campaign — but the bottom line is: We do not yet have hard evidence of actual collusion between the Trump operation and Russia. But given what we do know, it would truly be remarkable if all this happened and yet the two sides never explicitly worked together.
Mueller’s investigation, meanwhile, is far from over. The question now is what Manafort, Gates, and Papadopoulos know, and whether Mueller’s indictments are enough to get them to talk.
Papadopoulos, for one, is believed to be cooperating with Mueller.