A Normal Person’s Guide to the Mueller Investigation and Report A Primer to Everything
Phillip Bump The Washington Post April 18 2019 On Thursday, the Justice Department released a redacted version of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s summary of his team’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and possible coordination with President Trump’s campaign. That’s a version of a sentence that I’ve written probably 200 times in the past two years but which many Americans have likely come across far less frequently. The Mueller investigation, as it’s known in shorthand, has been the center of the political universe for months, but, because most Americans are wise enough to only visit that universe as tourists, the extent of its overlap with broader culture is certainly more limited. With that in mind, we decided to step back and offer an overview of Thursday’s release, that covers the basic whos, whats, whens and whys. What follows is not “The Mueller Report for Idiots.” It is, instead, a framework for understanding a complex document and a complicated situation.
Who’s involved It’s important at the outset to establish the cast of characters. It’s worth skimming this section just to have a sense of who everyone is, but you should consider it more of a glossary for use in the rest of the document. People who worked directly with Trump’s campaign are highlighted. The investigators Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III . Mueller served as FBI director under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He retired in 2013. In May 2017, he was asked by Rod J. Rosenstein (see below) to serve as special counsel to investigate possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. Attorney General William P. Barr . Barr has been the head of the Justice Department since his confirmation in February. In that role, he has authority over Mueller’s investigation. Former attorney general Jeff B. Sessions . Sessions served as Trump’s original attorney general until he was dismissed in November. In March 2017, he recused himself from involvement in investigations into the Trump campaign and possible overlap with Russia because of his work with the campaign during 2016. Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein . Rosenstein was appointed by Trump and confirmed to the Justice Department’s No. 2 job in April 2017. After Sessions’s recusal, Rosenstein became the department’s senior official on the Russia investigation. Former FBI director James B. Comey . Comey took over the FBI after Mueller’s retirement. He served until his dismissal in May 2017 by Trump.
Those being investigated President Trump Donald Trump Jr . Trump’s eldest son. He worked closely with the Trump campaign and runs the Trump Organization. Jared Kushner . Trump’s son-in-law, the husband of Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump. Kushner was a real estate developer before joining Trump’s campaign effort and, after his victory, joining the administration. Paul Manafort . Manafort was a longtime political consultant and lobbyist in Washington before being tapped in late March 2016 to help Trump’s campaign. He eventually ran the effort, serving as Trump’s campaign chairman until he was fired in August 2016 after details about his work for a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine came to light. Rick Gates . Gates worked with Manafort at his lobbying firm before both joined the Trump campaign. Gates eventually served as deputy campaign chairman, before then helping Trump’s inauguration committee after Trump’s victory. Michael Flynn . Flynn, a former Defense Department official under Bush and Obama, joined Trump’s campaign early in 2016. He went on to briefly serve as Trump’s national security adviser. George Papadopoulos . A consultant in the oil and gas industry, Papadopoulos was named in March 2016 as a member of Trump’s foreign-policy advisory team. Roger Stone . Stone is a longtime political activist and former business partner of Manafort’s who for a long time provided political advice to Trump. He briefly worked directly with the campaign during 2015. Michael Cohen . Trump’s personal attorney from 2007 until last year. Russia . This is an admittedly broad group. Of particular interest to investigators were two groups of Russians: The group of Russians alleged to have hacked the email accounts of the Democratic National Committee and Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman in 2016. This group is believed to work for Russia’s intelligence service. The group that orchestrated an effort on social media to influence American voters and foster political disagreement. “Guccifer 2.0.” One of the personas used to distribute information stolen from the DNC during 2016. It’s believed that the persona was controlled by an individual tied to Russian intelligence. WikiLeaks . The document-sharing organization was eventually responsible for the dissemination of the bulk of the hacked information.
The others The names below are listed in alphabetical order by last name. Aras and Emin Agalarov . The Agalarovs are a family of developers in Moscow. They partnered with the Trump Organization in 2013 to host the Miss Universe pageant when it was owned by Trump. Emin Agalarov is also a pop singer. Rinat Akhmetshin . A lobbyist who at one point worked with a military unit linked to the Soviet Union’s intelligence service. Julian Assange . The founder of WikiLeaks. During the 2016 election, he was living in Ecuador’s embassy in London after seeking asylum there in 2012. Maria Butina . A college student and gun activist who last year admitted to working on behalf of the Russian government. She worked closely with Alexander Torshin (see below). Hillary Clinton . The Democratic candidate for the presidency in 2016. Sam Clovis . Clovis is a longtime political activist from Iowa who joined the Trump campaign in August 2015. He eventually led the campaign’s foreign-policy advisory team. Jerome Corsi . A conservative writer and conspiracy theorist who was associated with Roger Stone. Randy Credico . A New York-area radio host who was also associated with Stone. Democratic National Committee . The DNC is the official organization housing the Democratic Party. Rob Goldstone . A British music promoter who represents Emin Agalarov. J.D. Gordon. A campaign adviser who worked with the foreign policy team. Stefan Halper . A professor at Cambridge University who also worked as an FBI informant during the 2016 campaign. Konstantin Kilimnik . A Russian-born aide to Manafort’s lobbying work with reported ties to Russian intelligence. Sergey Kislyak . Russia’s ambassador to the United States. Joseph Mifsud . A British professor with alleged links to the Russian government. Carter Page . Page, like Papadopoulos, was tapped to serve on Trump’s foreign-policy advisory team in March 2016. He had already attracted attention from the FBI several years earlier when a wiretap picked up a suspected Russian agent naming Page as a possible target for recruitment. Dmitry Peskov . Spokesman for Russia’s president. Richard Pinedo . A businessman who illegally provided valid bank account numbers to individuals. John Podesta . Clinton’s campaign chairman. Russian President Vladimir Putin . Felix Sater . A longtime business partner of Trump’s with whom he worked on several development projects, including the onetime Trump Soho hotel in Lower Manhattan. Alexander Torshin . A Russian politician and lifetime member of the NRA. Alex van der Zwaan . An attorney who worked with Manafort and Gates on their Ukraine work. Natalia Veselnitskaya . An attorney who, among other things, works to overturn sanctions imposed on Russia by the Obama administration. She’s linked to Russia’s government.
How the investigation started Over the course of the 2016 campaign, federal investigators began noticing a number of links between members of Trump’s campaign and Russia. There was Manafort, who had links to Russian oligarchs and to pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine. There was Page, who traveled to Russia in July 2016 to give a speech and who was already on the FBI’s radar. There was Flynn, who’d traveled to Moscow for a dinner in December 2015, sharing a table with Putin.
And then there was Papadopoulos. In July 2016, after WikiLeaks started publishing files stolen from the DNC, the Australian government reached out to U.S. officials. It turns out that Papadopoulos had told an Australian diplomat in May 2016 that he’d heard Russia had dirt on Clinton — a comment that seemed to be bolstered by the WikiLeaks releases. That information spurred the launch of Crossfire Hurricane, the FBI’s investigation into the Trump campaign’s possible links with Russia, on July 31. Part of the investigation involved the use of Halper to collect information. He had interactions with Page, Papadopoulos and Clovis during the campaign. In October, after Page had left the campaign, he was targeted with a federal counterintelligence surveillance warrant. The FBI’s investigation continued over the course of the campaign, with FBI agents debating how forcefully to push on the probe. It continued after Trump won — at which point it was first reported in the news media. Once Trump was inaugurated, he saw the investigation as a “cloud” overhanging his presidency. After reportedly pressuring Comey to end an investigation into Flynn and asking Comey to help lift that cloud, Trump fired Comey on May 9, 2017. Eight days later, Rosenstein, apparently worried about protecting the investigations into Trump’s campaign, appointed Mueller — moving the probe largely (but not entirely) out of Trump’s grasp. Mueller’s mandate was to, first, identify any links or coordination between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government and, second, to investigate anything that “arose or may arise” from that investigation. That eventually included a look at whether Trump had tried to unlawfully derail the investigation. The probe was soon distilled to those two primary issues: Possible collusion with Russia by Trump’s campaign and possible obstruction by Trump. Russia’s involvement in the campaign was similarly reduced to two main components: the hacking and distribution of stolen information; and the simultaneous effort to influence Americans on social media and through public events. Last month, Mueller completed his work.
Wasn’t this already settled? What’s being released now? After Mueller (and his team of lawyers) completed their investigation, they sent a report, several hundred pages long, to Barr, as the regulations creating a special counsel dictate. It is expected to include explanations of why Mueller chose to indict some individuals (see below) and why he decided not to indict others. After Mueller turned his report over to Barr, Barr released a four-page letter providing a summary of the two questions identified above. The probe, Barr said, quoting Mueller, had “not establish[ed] that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” As for obstruction, Mueller’s team did “not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him,” as Mueller’s report is quoted. Barr and Rosenstein, though, determined that there was insufficient evidence to constitute an obstruction-of-justice crime. This summary was used by Trump and his supporters to argue that he’d been cleared on both the charge of collusion and any obstruction of justice. That’s not the case. Barr’s letter never addressed “collusion,” a loosely used (and not legally defined) term that means different things to different people. Instead, Mueller found insufficient evidence to establish that Trump’s team had coordinated with the Russian government. On obstruction, Mueller’s “does not exonerate” speaks for itself. What’s more, Barr’s letter suggests that the evidence on obstruction includes material that is still not public. It may become public with the release of the redacted report on Thursday. What’s expected to be published is what Mueller gave Barr, those 300-plus pages of information — but only after Barr and the Justice Department have scrubbed out material that needs to be protected because it involves grand jury work or information related to ongoing investigations. There’s some question about how extensive those redactions will be, particularly given Barr’s history on such matters. In other words: We probably still won’t know everything that Mueller established once the redacted report is out. What we already know That said, we already know a lot. In February, we looked at the fact that Mueller had already published hundreds of pages of material related to existing indictments and plea deals. The numbers that we already know about are big: 2,800 subpoenas, 500 witnesses, 500 search warrants leading to nearly 200 individual criminal counts obtained against more than 30 people. Admissions of guilt by six people and outstanding indictments covering identity theft, money laundering, obstruction, witness tampering, lying to investigators and conspiracy. Even beyond the demonstrated and alleged criminal conduct, we’ve also learned a lot about how and where Trump’s team and Russian actors overlapped. Here’s how it breaks down.