By Aaron Maté, RealClearInvestigations
August 1, 2019
Robert Mueller’s two-year, $25.2 million investigation was supposed to provide the definitive account of Donald Trump, Russia and the 2016 election. Yet even after he issued a 448-page report and testified for five hours before Congress, critical aspects remain unexplained, calling into question the basis for the probe and the decisions of those who conducted it.
Time and again in his report and his testimony, Mueller refused to address a wide range of fundamental issues, claiming they were beyond his purview. Some of the issues Mueller and his team did not clarify include whether the FBI had a sound predicate for opening a counterintelligence probe of the Trump campaign; whether the FBI knowingly relied on false material; and the links between U.S. government agencies and key figures who fueled the most explosive claims of an illicit Trump-Russia relationship. Mueller claimed that he was prevented from answering critical questions due to ongoing Justice Department reviews, one by Attorney General William Barr and U.S. Attorney John Durham and the other by Inspector General Michael Horowitz. In the meantime, here are some of the biggest mysteries that Mueller’s team left hanging in the air.
Who Is Joseph Mifsud, and Was He the Actual Predicate for the Russia Investigation?
Mueller's pointed refusal to answer questions about Mifsud underscored that his team did not provide a plausible explanation for the incident that supposedly sparked the Russia investigation in July 2016. Mifsud is the mysterious Maltese professor who reportedly informed Trump campaign volunteer George Papadopoulos that the Russian government had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. Their conversation took place in April 2016, before the alleged hacking of Democratic Party emails was publicly known.
About a week later, Papadopoulos reportedly mentioned Mifsud's claim to Australian diplomat Alexander Downer over a drink in London – not, as the New York Times reported, after “a night of heavy drinking.” Downer took little note of the conversation until WikiLeaks released the stolen Democratic National Committee emails in July, after which he relayed his conversation with Papadopoulos to the U.S. Embassy in London. Downer's tip made its way to the FBI, which used it to launch the "Crossfire Hurricane" probe on July 31, 2016.
Mifsud has been widely portrayed as a Russian intermediary to the Trump campaign. In a May op-ed, former FBI Director James Comey referred to him as "a Russian agent." Mueller's report did not go that far. But it insinuates that Mifsud has suspicious Russian ties by claiming he "had connections to Russia" and "maintained various Russian contacts." A close reading of that ambiguous language reveals nothing – connections to whom or what? Missing from Mueller's account – and adding to the mystery -- is the complicating fact that, as Lee Smith reported for RealClearInvestigations, Mifsud's "closest public ties are to Western governments, politicians, and institutions, including the CIA, FBI and British intelligence services."
Stephan Roh, a Swiss lawyer who has previously represented Mifsud, confirms this, saying his former client "is not a Russian spy but a Western intelligence cooperator." In a recent interview with The Hill, Roh suggested that Mifsud got involved with Papadopoulos as part of an unspecified "intel operation" to find out "whether Papadopoulos was an 'agent provocateur' seeking foreign contacts."
Even without Mifsud's suspicious – and as yet un-explained – Western ties, the FBI's origin story for Crossfire Hurricane is suspect. The tip that the FBI received from Downer was vague and devoid of any claims that Russia had obtained Hillary Clinton's emails. In a 2017 interview, Downer recalled only that Papadopoulos "mentioned the Russians might use material that they have on Hillary Clinton in the lead-up to the election, which may be damaging." (Italics added for emphasis.) Papadopoulos "didn’t say dirt; he said material that could be damaging to her. … He didn’t say what it was." Given that the FBI opened its investigation on the basis of Downer's claim about what Papadopoulos said, this is a critical admission. If Downer's memory is accurate, that means the FBI opened a nearly unprecedented counterintelligence probe of a presidential campaign on the second-hand report of a rumor that Russians – not the Trump campaign – possessed unspecified "material that could be damaging to [Clinton]."
The Mueller report acknowledges the tenuous nature of the Downer tip with qualified, ambiguous language that fails to mention the stolen emails at the heart of the Russia probe. It describes the "information [that] prompted the FBI" to open the Trump-Russia investigation as follows (italics added for emphasis):
Papadopoulos had suggested to a representative of that foreign government that the Trump Campaign had received indications from the Russian government that it could assist the Campaign through the anonymous release of information damaging to Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
Putting aside the report’s misleading conflation of Papadopoulos and the Trump campaign to imply a wider web of actors, the vagueness of Mueller’s language raises the question: Is that all the FBI had? Given that Mueller did not, in fact, find evidence of a Trump-Russia conspiracy, understanding the real reasons the probe was launched seems crucial to understanding the events of 2016. But Mueller punted.
Instead of settling the question, Mueller’s failure only fueled speculation: Did the FBI egregiously overreact by launching its Trump-Russia probe on vague and ultimately fruitless information or is Mifsud himself evidence that the Russia investigation was itself a set-up launched for still unknown reasons?
What Was the Role of the Steele Dossier?
Mueller also refused to address another key driver of the Trump-Russia probe – the series of unverified and salacious opposition research memos against Trump secretly financed by the Clinton campaign and the DNC and compiled by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele. Some Republicans believe the dossier was the real trigger of the FBI probe and that Mifsud was later used as an excuse by the FBI to cover that up once the dossier’s partisan origins were revealed. As he did with Mifsud, Mueller, who was FBI Director between 2001 and 2013, stonewalled the many Republican efforts to press him on this topic.
Although the full extent of the FBI's reliance on the Steele dossier remains unclear, what has already been publicly confirmed is damning. In the fall of 2016, the FBI cited the Steele dossier to obtain a surveillance warrant on Carter Page, giving it a “two-hop” surveillance window into the Trump campaign. In Page's FISA warrant, the FBI said it "believes that [Russia's] efforts are being coordinated with Page and perhaps other individuals associated with" the Trump campaign. Steele is then described as "Source #1" and "credible." A footnote in the FISA application states the “FBI speculates” that Steele was hired by people “likely looking for information that could be used to discredit [Trump's] campaign” but did not disclose that Trump's political rivals – the DNC and the Clinton campaign – were paying him.
The fact that the FBI did not tell the court everything it knew about the dossier’s origins and that it relied on salacious claims paid for by Trump's opponent to spy on a member of Trump's campaign is a scandal in itself. But that did not interest Mueller. Nor did Mueller and his team address the bizarre intersection between the firm that hired Steele, Fusion GPS, and one of the key Russian figures who fueled claims of a Trump-Russia conspiracy, Natalya Veselnitskaya. On the days before and after she attended the infamous Trump Tower meeting in June 2016 – based on the false offer of Russian dirt on Clinton -- the Russian attorney had dinner with Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson. Veselnitskaya worked for the Russian gas firm Prevezon, which had hired Fusion GPS to help it fight the Magnitsky Act sanctions against some highly placed Russians allegedly connected to the death of a Russian whistleblower. The Mueller report omits Veselnitskaya's relationship with Fusion GPS and instead describes her as someone who "previously worked for the Russian government and maintained a relationship with that government throughout this period of time."
When several Republican lawmakers pressed Mueller on whether he investigated the Fusion GPS-Veselnitskaya connection, he responded that it was "outside my purview."
Why Did the Mueller Team Invent the Polling Data Theory About Konstantin Kilimnik, and Omit His U.S. Ties?
Mueller also refused to answer critical questions about his report's portrayal of Konstantin Kilimnik. The longtime business associate of Trump’s one-time campaign manager, Paul Manafort, became central to the Trump-Russia conspiracy theory as a result of the Mueller team's own innuendo. In January 2019, Mueller accused Manafort of lying about sharing Trump campaign polling data with Kilimnik during the 2016 campaign. According to Mueller, the FBI had assessed that Kilimnik has an unspecified "relationship with Russian intelligence." In court, Mueller deputy Andrew Weissmann repeated that ambiguous claim and tacked on a piece of tantalizing flourish: "This goes to the larger view of what we think is going on, and what we think is the motive here. This goes, I think, very much to the heart of what the special counsel’s office is investigating." Weissmann's comments fueled widespread speculation – and even confident assertions – that Kilimnik had passed on the polling data to the Russian government, which then put it to use for its supposed social media interference campaign targeting malleable swing-state voters.
And yet, at the same time that it fed the court – and a Russia-frenzied political climate – an explosive suggestion about "motive" at "the heart" of the Russia probe, the Mueller team was well aware of countervailing information. The Hill reported last month that Mueller was provided with evidence by early 2018 showing Kilimnik to be a "sensitive source" for the State Department in Ukraine. Yet the Mueller report's only faint nod to this relationship comes in passing, when it notes that Kilimnik, right after meeting Manafort in May 2016, "had pre-arranged meetings with State Department employees" in Washington, D.C.
At Mueller's July hearings, Democrats repeatedly introduced the polling data theory that Weissmann had generated. Mueller occasionally knocked down their most outlandish assertions. His report, after all, "did not identify evidence of a connection between Manafort’s sharing polling data and Russia’s interference in the election," and moreover, "did not establish that Manafort otherwise coordinated with the Russian government on its election-interference efforts." But when Republicans pressed Mueller on why Kilimnik's extensive U.S. ties were nowhere to be found in the report, the former special counsel reverted to silence.
Why Did the Mueller Team Falsely Suggest That Trump Tower Moscow Was a Viable Project – and What Was the Role of FBI Informant Felix Sater?
Along with the discredited polling-data theory, House Democrats repeatedly played up the Mueller team's indictment of Michael Cohen for lying to Congress about the failed effort to build a Trump Tower Moscow. In court filings, the Mueller team insinuated that the project was a viable and lucrative one. Because Cohen had lied to Congress and Trump had denied having business dealings in Russia, Rep. Joaquin Castro asked Mueller if he had assessed whether "President Trump could be vulnerable to blackmail by the Russians."
In reality, the Trump Tower Moscow project never got beyond a non-binding letter of intent. The only known Kremlin interaction with the Trump Organization came in January 2016, when Cohen wrote to a general Russian government email address in the hopes of making contact with someone who could help move the project along. Elena Poliakova, an assistant to Kremlin press secretary Dmitry Peskov, called Cohen back to reject his request, reportedly informing him that the "Presidential Administration doesn’t build houses." As the Mueller report notes, after their 20-minute phone call, "Cohen could not recall any direct follow-up from Poliakova or from any other representative of the Russian government, nor did the [Special Counsel's] Office identify any evidence of direct follow-up."
Cohen had contacted the Kremlin press office out of frustration with Felix Sater, a longtime Trump associate whose repeated promises of high-level Russian contacts never materialized. Sater's empty representations appear to have continued until the project ultimately collapsed. In the ensuing months, Sater repeatedly told Cohen that Peskov's office wanted them to travel to Moscow. But by June, as Cohen told the Mueller team, an invitation that Sater had secured for an economic forum in St. Petersburg "gave no indication that Peskov had been involved in inviting him." Cohen, the Mueller report adds, "was concerned that Russian officials were not actually involved or were not interested in meeting with him (as Sater had alleged), and so he decided not to go to the Forum."
All of this makes Sater the only source for the widespread belief that Trump and the Russians were "negotiating" over Trump Tower after January 2016. Cohen had no actual contacts with anyone in the Kremlin beyond the Peskov assistant who rejected his request in January 2016. Sater himself also happens to be a former FBI informant whose 1998 cooperation deal was signed by none other than Mueller prosecutor Andrew Weissmann.
Asked by Rep. Devin Nunes if the Mueller report had named "any people who were acting as U.S. government informants or sources without disclosing that fact," Mueller declined to answer.
Was Specious Info Leaked to Justify the Absence of Trump-Kremlin Links?
In the absence of evidence tying the Trump campaign to the Kremlin – and a preponderance of leads involving key figures actually tied to the West – U.S. intelligence officials helped cast a pall of suspicion through misleading, and sometimes false, media leaks. In January 2017, then-FBI Director James Comey briefed President-elect Trump on the Steele Dossier's most explosive allegation: that the Russians had a tape of him with prostitutes in a Moscow Ritz-Carlton hotel room. Comey's briefing to Trump was leaked to the press, leading to the dossier's publication by BuzzFeed and cementing the story the atop the news cycle for the more than two years since.
Less than two weeks after the dossier's publication, someone from U.S. intelligence leaked classified details of an intercepted phone call between Michael Flynn and then-Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. The leak fueled baseless speculation that Flynn and Kislyak had discussed sanctions relief in exchange for Russia's help in the 2016 election, and ultimately led to Flynn's resignation. Weeks later, the New York Times reported that the U.S. investigators had obtained "phone records and intercepted calls" showing that members of Trump's campaign and other associates "had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election." Four months later, Comey testified that the story was "not true." The Times has never retracted it.
Nunes also tried to question Mueller about U.S. government leaks, asking if he agreed that the leak of a phone call involving Flynn, the then-national security adviser, was a "major scandal." Mueller responded: "I can’t adopt that hypothesis."
Mueller could very well have a plausible explanation for his inability to account for the investigation's core flaws. Or, as his awkward testimony suggested, perhaps he was not the hard-nosed investigator that the media portrayed him to be, but instead a figurehead who did not make the key decisions in the office of the Special Counsel.
What is clear is that neither his report nor testimony provide the answer. After determining that there never was a Trump-Russia conspiracy, Mueller showed no interest in investigating why so many high-placed officials said they believed there had been. His report told us what didn’t happen during the 2016 election, but shed little light on what did happen, and why.