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A Mouse Gives Birth To A Mountain: What The Mueller Report Tells Us

Our guest author today is Eric Chenoweth, co-director of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe and principal author of the Albert Shanker Institute’s Democracy Web, an extra-curricular resource for teachers. He also edited the journal Uncaptive Minds from 1988 to 1998.

In the manner of Russian propaganda, where everything is true if it supports the leader, Donald Trump has asserted simultaneously that the report of Special Counsel Robert Mueller completely exonerated him (“No collusion, no obstruction, game over”) and that the Special Counsel’s investigation was completely illegitimate (a “Russia hoax,” a “witch hunt” and an “attempted coup”). Vladimir Putin has joined Trump in the propaganda denials, declaring that the Mueller investigation, which previously was a reflection of “Russia hysteria,” was now “objective” and cleared not only the U.S. president but also the Russian government of conspiring together to influence the 2016 presidential election. “A mountain gave birth to a mouse,” Putin quipped.

Robert Mueller’s Report on Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election, of course, is hardly a mouse. It is a 448-page mountain of evidence refuting both Putin’s and Trump’s denials. Indeed, the intense focus of politicians and pundits on whether the president obstructed Mueller’s investigation has distracted from the essential findings of the report: first, that the Russian government attacked American democracy and successfully deployed a sophisticated intelligence operation to get the U.S. president it wanted; and second, that the Trump campaign openly and furtively welcomed and used Russia’s help. In the process, Trump promised to improve relations with Russia if he were elected. When one reads the report carefully, even in redacted form, it is hard not to agree with what a Kremlin official e-mailed to a confederate immediately after Hillary Clinton’s concession: “Putin has won.”

The report is worth careful review. Russia’s attack on American democracy is ongoing and, as we see from Trump’s denials, there is a U.S. president who is intent on covering it up. If we do not examine the central findings of the Mueller Report, we won’t be able to do what is necessary to defend American or Western democracy. That includes ensuring that our elections are free and fair, without foreign interference, and helping voters recognize propaganda, misinformation and foreign sources of influence. It also means helping the general public recognize what happened, the extent of Russia’s intervention in the election, and what it will take to prevent Putin, not to mention other foreign powers, from achieving their goals. 

Russia’s “Interference Activities” to Elect Donald Trump

The Mueller Report is not a full examination of Russia’s active measures campaign during the 2016 election. It is instead a disciplined and limited presentation on the findings of a criminal conspiracy investigation of the U.S. president and his campaign. In carrying out its investigation, however, the Special Counsel’s Office first examined its predicate basis, namely the Russian conspiracy. In doing so, the Special Counsel confirmed what U.S. intelligence agencies had previously concluded: that the Russian government intervened in the 2016 presidential election “in sweeping and systematic fashion” to help elect Donald Trump president. 

The report makes clear that these “interference activities” were not just intelligence hijinks. Nor were they “what the Russians have always done and always will do,” as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed. Rather, the report describes a multi-faceted intelligence operation carried out on a qualitatively and quantitatively different level and with greater specific purpose than any previous efforts to influence an American election.

The two main elements of the interference activities are well known but described in greater detail by the Mueller Report: (1) a sustained and targeted social media disinformation campaign aimed at American voters carried out by a private intelligence “cut out” called the Internet Research Agency (IRA); and (2) a cyber operation executed by a unit of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency. The GRU hacked into U.S. electoral targets and most significantly weaponized for propaganda purposes a vast trove of e-mails and documents it stole from the Democratic Party and Clinton campaign staff. These two operations worked together both to damage Clinton’s candidacy and to support Trump.

The Special Counsel’s report reminds us that the IRA’s and GRU’s “interference activities” were serious crimes against the United States that acted to undermine our democracy. Two indictments for conspiracy and other crimes were brought against 12 GRU officials, 13 Russian IRA employees, and three affiliated Russian organizations. The detailed narrative also shows clearly that Russia’s “interference activities” had a real and distorting impact on the 2016 election. While not rendering an opinion itself, the report’s findings give greater credence to the conclusions of experts who have carefully studied the matter and determined that Russia’s influence operation likely tipped the scales in a very close election.There is reason at least for Putin to think that these efforts were decisive.

A Web of Conspiracy and Compromise

The Special Counsel’s report did not find conclusive grounds to bring additional criminal charges against Trump or persons connected to the Trump campaign for conspiring or coordinating with the Russian government’s election interference — its principal legal task. At the same time, the report’s voluminous factual findings are a contextual roadmap of potential, attempted, and, in one likely case, actual collusion (more below).

The number of links and contacts between the Russian government and the Trump campaign is truly impressive (they count in the hundreds). One can get lost in the details of the fifteen separate cases presented in this chapter of the report. Suffice to say that — contrary to the repeated denials of everyone involved — nearly every top aide and foreign policy adviser in Trump’s campaign was involved in specific meetings with Russian government representatives or foreign assets. While some are incidental, most are not. Also contrary to Trump’s recent claim, no offers of assistance were rebuffed. Indeed, in most cases, from Trump’s closest confidants down to the “coffee boy” George Papadapalous, there were clear signals to the Russian government that the campaign wanted to cooperate in Russian efforts to aid in Donald Trump’s election. 

The open solicitation of Russian hacking by Trump and the constant use of Wikileaks dumps by Trump and the campaign, despite their known origin, also signaled the intent to cooperate. The Mueller Report did not establish a specific quid pro quo, but it offers substantial evidence of a concordance of interests between the two parties. As it states in its summary,

[T]he Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and the [Trump] Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts…

The Special Counsel’s Office also did not establish sufficient evidence of “tacit or express” cooperation — the legal threshold it established for conspiracy. Nevertheless, the Trump campaign had multiple interactions with Russians and Russian assets, many involving offers of an exchange of benefits. All fit a basic pattern. The meetings and contacts were largely hidden from the public; they were denied or lied about repeatedly after the election; most cases betrayed a willingness of the campaign to cooperate with a Russian conspiracy to help elect Trump; and, when under scrutiny by the Special Counsel, most of the protagonists misled investigators, lied, suborned perjury and otherwise “materially impeded” the investigation. All the protagonists were thus subject to being compromised by Russia. Thus, the investigation was hardly a “hoax.” The counter-intelligence implications were large and required careful scrutiny. 

At minimum, the investigation revealed the Russian government’s successful efforts to compromise a U.S. presidential election and potentially influence an administration’s policies. Further, the report details numerous potential cases of collusion for which evidence of motive, means, opportunity and consciousness of guilt are established. What is also clear: A great deal remains unknown that requires further investigation.

One case in particular deserves greater attention than it has received. It is the type of “Trump-Russia” connection that has been looked for since the beginning of the investigation.

The Curious Case of Paul Manafort: A Counter-Intelligence Perspective

In March 2016, immediately upon entering the Trump campaign as campaign manager, Paul Manafort ordered his deputy, Rick Gates, to provide regular internal campaign polling data to Manafort’s former “right-hand” man in Ukraine. That man was Konstantin Kilimnik. Through Gates, Manafort instructed Kilimnik to pass the information on to one of Putin’s most trusted oligarchs, Manafort’s former client Oleg Deripaska, as well as three shady Ukrainian oligarchs who had sponsored Manafort’s work in Ukraine and also had extensive Russian ties. In May and early August 2016, Manafort, now named the Trump campaign chairman, met Kilimnik directly to give detailed briefings on the polling data and how it related to the campaign’s strategy of winning the Electoral College. Gates fulfilled Manafort’s orders faithfully despite thinking, like the FBI, that Kilimnik was a “spy.” He continued to provide Kilimnik data even after Manafort left the campaign in a scandal over the discovery of $18 million in under-the-table payments from Ukraine.

The report presents Manafort’s and Gates’s description of their own motives as purely corrupt: an intent to “monetize” their restored influence in the U.S. By itself, this made the chairman of a presidential campaign subject to a high level of co-optation by foreign private interests and a foreign government. Given Manafort’s unending practice of lying, however, the Special Counsel’s Office suspected there was more to the story. Lacking access to foreign witnesses and evidence, investigators could not determine what Kilimnik (or others) did with the information Manafort provided to them. The report states only: 

[T]he Office could not reliably determine Manafort’s purpose in sharing polling data with Kilimnik during the campaign.

In a report of cautious under-statement, this sentence is perhaps the most under-stated. Manafort provides no credible reason for why he would give regular access to detailed internal polling data to foreigners who had nothing to do with the campaign. The long relationship between Kilimnik and Manafort might perhaps explain a single briefing, but the more obvious purpose for multiple secret briefings and the regular feeding of internal polling data would be if the foreigners were somehow linked to assisting the campaign. Detailed internal polling data and briefings pinpointing a campaign’s focus is extraordinarily valuable to any effort at swaying voter opinion and behavior. It is what the Russian government, akin to a Super PAC, was seeking to do.

Manafort’s immediate past history is relevant. In the previous ten years, Manafort had served Russian and pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarchs and played a key role as a political consultant in securing one of Russia’s most important goals, namely helping return Ukraine to pro-Russian leadership under President Viktor Yanukovich and his Party of Regions in the 2008 and 2010 elections. In all of those ten years Manafort had relied on a person who boasted of his military intelligence ties for communications with Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs and politicians (the report details more the reasons to believe Kilimnik was an agent of Russian intelligence). Manafort’s behavior might still be explained as mercenary: he would do anything for money or the prospect of money without a care to the damage caused the countries he worked in. But it cannot be a full analysis. Manafort — after 10 years of entanglement in the world of Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs, mafias and intelligence agencies — was subject to cooperation, blackmail or use by the Russian government and pro-Russian Ukrainian oligarchs while serving as the head of the Trump campaign and afterwards. The question must be asked whether Manafort, offering to work for the campaign for free, promised Trump the possibility — and ability — to utilize his Russian and pro-Russian Ukrainian assets on Trump’s behalf. 

There is no answer in the Mueller Report, nor is there any counter-intelligence assessment, on these and other questions. What is clear, in this case and others, is that a Russian intelligence operation was fully intertwined with a U.S. presidential campaign. It is imperative for Congress and law enforcement agencies to investigate further and to take action to prevent such foreign entanglement and influence in future presidential campaigns.

The More Curious Case of Dmitri Simes

Another section of the Mueller Report, devoted to “Dmitri Simes and the Center for the National Interest,” explains even more the imperative for further investigation. It tells us more as to the purposes of Russia’s “interference activities.”

Dmitri Simes is an American citizen who emigrated from the Soviet Union in the early ‘70s. His mother was a noted defense lawyer for Russian dissidents who was forced to emigrate in 1977. But the two did not have principled interests in common. Prior to coming to the U.S., Simes was the head of the Communist Party youth structure at the leading international affairs institute in Moscow. In the U.S., Simes quickly attached himself as an adviser to the realpolitik former President Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, the main proponents of détente with the Soviet Union. Later, starting in 1994, he became director of the Nixon Center. In 2011, after a dispute with the Nixon family, he renamed the organization as the Center for the National Interest (CNI).

As with Manafort, one can have multiple interpretations of Simes’s behavior, motives and allegiances over the years and he has many defenders in Washington, D.C. The most generous interpretation, as with Manafort, is an ally’s description that “he’s the ultimate realist; he works only for himself.”** 

If so, however, his self-interest pointed him in only one direction. Since his arrival in the U.S., he has consistently promoted “normal relations” with the Soviet Union and Russia. As with Trump, no domestic repression or foreign aggression alters Simes’s advocacy of great-power diplomacy with Russia.

The self-interest goes further. The Mueller Report quotes the CNI as boasting "unparalleled access to Russian officials and politicians among Washington think tanks.” Indeed, it is CNI’s business model. Simes maintained relations at the highest levels of the Russian government, organized top-level exchanges, and frequently facilitated meetings between Russian and U.S. officials. Not surprisingly, Simes was one of a few in the foreign policy establishment who supported Trump’s call to improve relations with Russia at a time when Russia’s foreign aggression had reached new levels and was beginning to threaten the very foundations of the post-war liberal order. He became an informal adviser to the Trump campaign. CNI’s publication, The National Interest, hosted Trump’s first major foreign policy speech in April 2016. Simes and a board member, former Ambassador Richard Burt, helped shape the speech’s realist themes and the launch of Trump’s America First doctrine. Simes, Burt and other CNI associates continued to write foreign policy memos and advise the campaign on foreign policy, especially in relation to Russia. In one memo, for example, Simes explained to the neophyte Jared Kushner that people “tend to exaggerate Putin's flaws.”

Like Trump and Putin, Simes claims “exoneration” in the Mueller Report. True, the investigation established no evidence of facilitation by Simes or CNI of actual cooperation between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. Still, this lengthy section on Simes is in the “Russian Government Links and Contacts with the Trump Campaign” chapter for good reason. In addition to Simes’s and CNI’s intertwined interests with Russia’s top leaders, CNI Board member Richard Burt worked as a long-time lobbyist for several Russian interests, including as a director of Letter One, based in Belgium. L1 is a foreign investment firm joining together the assets of five Russian oligarchs. One, former Alpha Bank head Peter Aven, was among those assigned by Putin to establish relations with the Trump administration for pursuit of a new relationship. Burt acted as Aven’s lobbyist to facilitate contacts with the Trump transition team (even while he was being considered to become the U.S. Ambassador to Russia).

CNI also assisted in arranging meetings with U.S. officials for Maria Butina, the recently convicted influence agent who infiltrated the National Rifle Association and other conservative circles, as well as her Russian sponsor, Alexander Torshin, a former Central Bank head with close ties to both Putin and the Russian mafia. Not mentioned in the report is that Butina’s profile in the U.S. was raised significantly in June 2015 when, as a fresh American University graduate student, her unpolished article predicting a future Republican administration would establish “new relations” between Russia and the U.S. was published in The National Interest. It appeared just before, at a press conference, Butina solicited Trump’s first public promise of a future positive relationship with Russia if he became president.

After Butina’s arrest in July 2018, Simes returned to Moscow and in September began co-hosting the main foreign policy show on Russia’s Channel 1, called “The Great Game.” His co-host, Vyacheslav Nikonov, is a well-known nationalist supporter of Putin who frequently boasts about Russia’s having won the 2016 election for Trump. On the show, Simes regularly explains to Russian viewers how Trump wants better relations with Russia but has been constrained by an anti-Russia foreign policy establishment and the Mueller investigation.

What Putin Won

Intelligence activities are usually opaque or hidden. Many remain cloaked in mystery and subject to multiple interpretation even decades (or centuries) later. The Russian attack on the 2016 presidential election is no different. Despite the Mueller Report, we may never learn the full scope of Russia’s active measures operations. Still, we must consider the central purpose of all Russian intelligence operations. It is to further and strengthen Russian geopolitics. And there is no secret to Putin’s central geopolitical purpose, which is laid out in speech after speech, action after action. It is to restore, strengthen and expand Russia’s great power status and influence. Putin pursues this purpose to the detriment of his country’s economic future and at the expense of human rights, democracy, the rule of law, and the international rules-based order. To achieve his aims, he represses dissent, murders opponents, invades countries, seizes territories, commits war crimes to prop up allied leaders in other countries, carries out chemical weapons attacks in foreign countries, seeks to weaken the global power and reach of the U.S., and divide its principal alliance, NATO.

Putin has stated the reasons he supported Donald Trump for the U.S. presidency as serving those geopolitical purposes: Trump promised to end U.S. “hegemonic policy” and restore “normal relations” with Russia. Today, President Trump, if not fully his administration, demonstrates in his public messaging and in his many meetings and telephone calls with Putin that he is invested both in helping Putin achieve his central purpose and in helping Putin deny Russia’s intelligence operations in the U.S. to disrupt American democracy. After the Mueller Report was released, Trump spent an hour-and-a-half not discussing Russia’s intervention and instead discussing U.S.-Russia cooperation in all parts of the world — from Venezuela to North Korea to Ukraine — as if Putin were a leader of the old Soviet Union.

There was another time in recent history when an American president was invested in establishing “peaceful relations” with a hostile foreign power in order to distract from public investigation. In the midst of the Watergate hearings, President Richard Nixon tried to convince the American public that the world’s very future depended on establishing détente with the Soviet Union in order to balance global interests. In this view, human rights concerns, although acknowledged, should not get in the way of managing relations with a superpower. The president's defenders, most notably Henry Kissinger, argued that the president’s political opponents were risking global peace by stoking scandal against him for their own personal benefit. On top of which, it should be remembered, the president’s defenders argued that despite the Nixon Administration’s pursuit of détente, it had stronger policies against the Soviet Union and its expansionism than any prior one.

Back then, Democratic lawmakers Henry “Scoop” Jackson and Charles Vanik proved prescient in re-establishing Congressional authority in foreign affairs. The Jackson-Vanik Amendment, at the time a controversial intrusion on the foreign affairs prerogatives of the executive branch, removed most-favored trade status on Soviet bloc countries based on their lack of observance of human rights and especially their unwillingness to allow Jewish emigration, something Soviet leaders feared would undermine the internal basis of their power. The Jackson-Vanik Amendment established an actual tough policy on Soviet Bloc countries and arguably proved a more effective policy than détente.

Congress has again begun to re-assert its authority, preventing the Trump administration from lifting sanctions on Russia and forcing new ones to be added. Democratic — and Republican — lawmakers should take stock from a previous historical lesson and continue to insist on Congress’s proper role in stemming Russian aggression, both in the U.S. and elsewhere. First, it must continue to take steps to prevent Trump from fulfilling his foreign policy promises to Putin (regardless of what those promises were based upon). And second, it must take proactive steps to protect American democracy from further foreign electoral interference and prevent American election campaigns from colluding in them. Our nation’s future depends upon it.

*****

See “The Alarming Story That Won’t Go Away” by Eric Chenoweth, The American InterestJune 4, 2018. The most comprehensive study and analysis is Kathleen Hall Jamieson’s Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President—What We Don’t, Can’t, and Do Know (Oxford University Press, New York: 2018). A synopsis of the findings and argument is found in a review in The New Yorker by Jane Mayer, September 24, 2018

** “Jared Kushner Sought Advice from a Pro-Kremlin Russian,” by Natasha Bertrand, Politico, April 30, 2019.

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