This Wednesday, July 24, beginning at 8:30 am ET, Special Counsel Robert Mueller will testify—reluctantly—before two committees of the House of Representatives. I believe it is extremely important that as many people as possible watch his testimony and listen to his responses to questions.
I am deeply saddened for our country that The Mueller Report, its findings, and the man himself have become such partisan issues. According to every reputable intelligence source we have, it is indisputable that the Russians interfered with our 2016 elections.
This is cyberwarfare–and more–and it is as serious an attack as any that could have occurred. Its intentions were to disrupt our democracy and make us distrust our government and its institutions. I believe the Russians were successful beyond Vladimir Putin’s wildest dreams.
An easily digestible exploration of The Mueller Report is available in a multi-issue podcast from Lawfare, a national security blog produced in cooperation with the Brookings Institution.
Lawfare calls The Mueller Report “one of the most important and consequential documents of our time,” but adds: “most people aren’t reading it.” That’s why they’ve put together the podcast, which they hope will be widely shared.
I have just listened to the first episode, “Active Measures,” and it is a fascinating examination of the report, with added interviews and just a sufficient amount of drama to hold the listener’s interest. I strongly recommend it to you all.
I will not spend much time now mentioning my dismay that Republican officials—elected and unelected—and the Republican party, which has long been deeply concerned about national security, have sought to distort the findings, malign Mueller—a lifelong Republican with an impeccable career of service—and repeat President Trump’s oft-stated meme that this is “fake news” and there was no collusion, no obstruction of justice.
The fact that Attorney General Bill Barr misrepresented the findings at the outset, thereby planting seeds of doubt in the minds of many, is another huge disappointment. But at least we will finally hear what Mueller himself has concluded—in his own words.
My intention had been to read every one of the 448 pages of The Mueller Report. However, like most Americans and—more importantly and regrettably—most members of Congress, I didn’t get around to it.
But my husband did—every page, every reference—and though he’s not an attorney, he’s a careful reader and a thoughtful and skeptical individual. So I am grateful to him for providing me with his findings and insights.
I hope you’ll find the information that follows a helpful “primer” for viewing Mueller’s testimony. And if you don’t watch or listen, I hope you’ll think very carefully about the implications of the findings for our democracy.
VOLUME 1: THE RUSSIAN ATTACK.
The primary question: Were there willing accomplices, and if so, is that provable?
What follows is background information to give context to those of you who may not have followed these developments as closely as we have.
The “Internet Research Agency”
The Russian attempts to “mess with” our democracy began with the work of the Russian-based “Internet Research Agency” (IRA) in 2014.
At that point, the intent was to gain a toehold in the US, learn about what Americans were thinking and where our divisions lay, and begin gaining online followers through social media–specifically Facebook and Twitter, with seemingly innocuous efforts appealing to cat lovers and the like.
In 2015, even before Hillary Clinton declared her candidacy, the efforts began to discredit her with phony stories, including with regard to her role as Secretary of State, delivered through bots whose origins, unknown to observers, were in Russia.
It wasn’t until 2016, when Donald Trump declared his candidacy and demonstrated strong sympathy for Russia, that the IRA’s campaign focused its considerable Internet presence of fake sites on building him up and continuing to tear Clinton down.
Based on their reconnaissance, the IRA sought to sow dissension in the US by, for example, creating fake pro-Muslim and anti-Muslim groups and staging competing rallies, in the hope of fomenting violence.
(And as we are clearly seeing today, they had rich raw material to work with: they didn’t have to create dissensions–they simply had to exacerbate already existing ones.)
When Facebook began taking down the fake sites in 2017, they had reached hundreds of millions of people and amassed hundreds of thousands of followers.
Triggers for the 2017 FBI Investigation
A series of events and media reports led to the FBI’s 2017 investigation of the Republican Party’s presidential campaign because they generated speculation about a possible conspiracy to undermine Hillary Clinton’s candidacy to become President of the United States. They included:
*US, European Union, and Canadian sanctions against Russia for its military annexation of Crimea and an attempt to move eastern Ukraine closer to the Russian Federation.
*Multiple contacts with Russia by individuals close to then-candidate Trump.
*The deteriorating relationship between the US and Russia.
*Putin’s animus toward former Secretary of State Clinton, including his belief that she sought to undermine the Russian regime.
*Trump’s past financial history [which he often denied] with Russian financial people to maintain credit for the Trump Organization (theory: that this would make him vulnerable to blackmail)
*Wikileaks’ pseudo-journalistic public exposure of the Democratic National Committee’s internal communications.
*The FBI’s receipt of information of Russian involvement in US politics sufficiently serious to generate a counter-intelligence investigation into what role—if any—the Trump campaign played with Russia’s interference into the 2016 election.
Then, after the election, then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the investigation due to his own contacts with members of the Russian government.
President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, expressing anger that Comey refused to publicly say that Trump was not a subject of the investigation.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Robert Mueller as Special Counsel, an outside party who would carry on the investigation.
After the 2-1/2 year investigation, Mueller reported he could not find a conspiracy between the Russian government and the Trump campaign.
He noted, however, that people lied or claimed executive privilege to avoid questioning, making it difficult to get all the relevant facts.
Our questions: If Trump, et al, had nothing to hide (‘no collusion!”), why did they feel the need to lie repeatedly, attempt to interfere with the Special Counsel, and refuse to cooperate (while claiming that they were cooperating)?
And why are they still trying to prevent Congress from performing its Constitutionally guaranteed oversight function?
A major stumbling block was the refusal of the President to sit down for a face-to-face deposition with the Special Counsel. The President was allowed a “take-home exam,” making a comprehensive testimony with follow-up questions impossible.
As noted above, it now seems evident that by 2016, Putin thought that Trump could be nominated for US President. Putin saw Trump as sympathetic to Russia’s interests and able to blunt US interference with Russia’s plans for Eastern Europe. (Why Trump was, and continues to be, so sympathetic has been the subject of much speculation.)
In contrast, Putin viewed Clinton as a major disrupter who probably wouldn’t accede to Russia’s desire to have the US lift sanctions levied because of Crimea. The Russians began their campaign of disruption by hacking into the DNC computers and establishing a vast presence of Internet trolls planting phony stories about Clinton and the Democrats.
It may be that certain persons who were investigated for possible unlawful Russian contact were, in fact, either willing or unwitting conduits of Russian messaging (eg, Flynn, Stone, Manafort, Papadapoulos, Assange), but this information has not been proven.
It does seem that most of the activity and efforts to communicate flowed from Russia to the US.
It is difficult to say how successful Russia was in tipping the election in Trump’s favor. Polls were within the margin of error for Clinton. Without Russian involvement, Trump may have lost any advantage he received from Comey’s last-minute reopening of the investigation into Clinton’s emails (an investigation that was again closed before the election, but in the words of Trump’s campaign aide Kellyanne Conway, “The damage is done.”)
Mueller’s reference to the difficulty in nailing down information due to lying and claims of executive privilege is significant.
There were also unanswered avenues for inquiry, such as Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner’s meeting with Russian ambassador Kislyak and Sergei Gorkov (VEB Bank, a major Russian-owned bank). Were these diplomatic or business—or diplomatic for business?
VOLUME TWO: INTERFERENCE WITH RUSSIA INVESTIGATION
Mueller did, indeed, specify areas involving the President that could be within the legal framework of “obstructive act,” ”nexus [connection] to a pending or contemplated official proceeding,” and “intent.”
If the House of Representatives decides to open an impeachment inquiry, some or all of the following will probably become the basis for that action.
*Pressuring FBI Director Comey to end the probe of Michael Flynn.
*Firing Comey, deemed obstruction because Trump understood that the continuing investigation would give rise to personal and political concerns, ie, Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen pursuing the Trump Tower deal until June 16, 2016, after Trump had stated that he’d had no business with Russia after he’d been sworn in.
*Attempting to fire Special Counsel Mueller for alleged conflicts. Trump asked White House Counsel Don McGahn to fire Mueller through Rosenstein. McGahn, fearing a Saturday night massacre akin to Watergate, refused.
*Seeking to curtail the Special Counsel investigation. The President asked Corey Lewandowski to call upon Jeff Sessions to end the investigation to prevent scrutiny of the president. Lewandowski didn’t do it.
*Seeking to keep emails about the June 9, 2016 Trump Tower meeting from the public. (Since he didn’t attempt to keep the emails from the Special Counsel, this point didn’t fit all the criteria for obstruction)
*Asking Sessions repeatedly to “unrecuse” himself so that he could shield the President from the investigation.
*Ordering McGahn to deny that the President tried to fire the Special Counsel. McGahn refused.
*Acting toward Manafort in a manner suggesting he was dangling a pardon to keep Manafort from cooperating with the Special Counsel.
*Reacting to Michael Cohen in a way that would discourage Cohen from cooperating with the government.
*Expressing skepticism publicly about Russian involvement with the emails while he and his staff were actually trying to get more information about Wikileaks’ releases.
(The Special Counsel was operating under “longstanding” Department of Justice [DOJ] policy that prevents charging a sitting President with a federal crime.)
“BECAUSE WE DETERMINED NOT TO MAKE A TRADITIONAL PROSECUTORIAL JUDGMENT, WE DID NOT DRAW ULTIMATE CONCLUSIONS ABOUT THE PRESIDENT’S CONDUCT. THE EVIDENCE WE OBTAINED ABOUT THE PRESIDENT’S ACTIONS AND INTENT PRESENTS DIFFICULT ISSUES THAT WOULD NEED TO BE RESOLVED IF WE WERE MAKING A TRADITIONAL PROSECUTORIAL JUDGMENT.
AT THE SAME TIME, IF WE HAD CONFIDENCE AFTER A THOROUGH INVESTIGATION OF THE FACTS THAT THE PRESIDENT CLEARLY DID NOT COMMIT OBSTRUCTION OF JUSTICE, WE WOULD SO STATE.
BASED ON THE FACTS AND THE APPLICABLE LEGAL STANDARDS, WE ARE UNABLE TO REACH THAT JUDGMENT. ACCORDINGLY, WHILE THIS REPORT DOES NOT CONCLUDE THAT THE PRESIDENT COMMITTED A CRIME, IT ALSO DOES NOT EXONERATE HIM.”
On May 6, more than 400 former federal prosecutors who had served under both Democratic and Republican administrations made a public statement saying the following:
“Each of us believes that the conduct of President Trump described in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report would, in the case of any other person not covered by the Office of Legal Counsel policy against indicting a sitting president, result in multiple felony changes for obstruction of justice. “
You can read the entire statement here.
A few additional thoughts:
The President was saved from putting himself into even greater jeopardy by aides (McGahn, Lewandowski, and probably Hope Hicks) who advised him against certain actions and/or did not follow through on his requests that they implement illegal acts.
We think—as do others—that separating the two parts of the report weakened the Special Counsel’s effort. The items of obstruction were proof to us that the President felt that the investigation could lead to something so damaging that it was worth the effort to interfere and discredit and/or fire Mueller.
These actions strongly suggest that he either knew or at least recognized that Putin was doing plenty to tilt the election in his favor.
As far as we know, the impetus for the Russian contacts came from Russian sources. However, by soft-pedaling Russia’s activities—most recently laughing with Putin about the findings at their last meeting—he certainly seems complicit in Russia’s efforts.
At best, he appears to be responsible for serious dereliction of duty in denying the implications of Russia’s cyberattack, refusing to denounce Putin, and failing to marshal all efforts to prevent a repeat in 2020.
One final, related note:
Richard Clarke, a White House counterterrorism advisor to four presidents, who tried to warn the Bush administration about the imminence of an attack just before 9/11, has written a new book about cyber threats. He points out that there are more than 4000 counties in the US running their own elections. They need help. But, he said in an NPR interview:
:...Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican majority leader, is standing in the way of a bill that has passed the House to give hundreds of millions of dollars’ assistance to the counties and to the states so that we can improve their cybersecurity. Right now, it’s impossible to have all of these counties and all these state governments even know when they’re under attack. Many of them say they’ve never been attacked. Well, they have no capability of knowing.”
Why is McConnell refusing to allow this bill to come to a vote in the Senate?
The public and the media must press McConnell to give us an answer.
Where are the patriots? Who is protecting us from foreign cyberattacks and other interventions in our elections? How will we know if the results of the 2020 election are valid? And what would the lack of certainty mean for our democracy?