In response to President Trump's commutation of Roger Stone's prison sentence last week, the Russia investigation's two lead prosecutors published op-eds in the nation’s top newspapers that fueled the collusion narrative their own investigation failed to validate. As they chided Stone and others for alleged deceptions, both Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller and one of his top deputies, Andrew Weissmann, made claims greatly at odds with their official report, discrepancies that they did not acknowledge.
Neither responded to emailed requests Thursday for comment.
The Mueller op-ed, published in the Washington Post, does not just take aim at Stone – who was convicted for lying about his failed efforts to make contact with WikiLeaks regarding emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee in 2016. Mueller focuses, instead, on what he calls "broad claims that our investigation was illegitimate and our motives were improper."
In a bid to refute that criticism, Mueller begins by defending the FBI's justification for launching the probe. "By late 2016," he writes, "the FBI had evidence that the Russians had signaled to a Trump campaign adviser that they could assist the campaign through the anonymous release of information damaging to the Democratic candidate," Hillary Clinton. The campaign adviser is George Papadopoulos, whose barroom conversation with Australian diplomat Alexander Downer served as the basis for the Trump-Russia probe. (Downer passed this tip to the U.S. government in late July – though Mueller writes "late 2016.")
Contrary to Mueller's assertion, the record shows the FBI was not acting on any evidence that "the Russians had signaled" anything to Papadopoulos, but instead on the Australian diplomat's recounting of vague hearsay -- which Papadopoulos never relayed to anyone else in the Trump campaign. The bureau’s own documents make this clear. The recently declassified FBI electronic communication (EC) that officially opened its Russia investigation, code-named Crossfire Hurricane, states that Downer had told the U.S. government that Papadopoulos had "suggested the Trump team had received some kind of suggestion from Russia that it could assist" the Trump campaign by anonymously releasing damaging, yet "unclear," information about Clinton and President Obama. Not only was this tip vague, there was no evidence that the "some kind of suggestion" actually came from the Russian government or even a Russian national.
Instead, Downer was relaying what he claims Papadopoulos told him about an unspecified suggestion he had received of Russian assistance. Papadopoulos later told the FBI that the suggestion came from a conversation with Joseph Mifsud, a Maltese academic. But Downer did not hear about Mifsud at the time, and his tip to the FBI accordingly made no mention of him. Regardless of the exact date it learned of Mifsud, the U.S. government has never formally claimed or presented evidence that he was a Russian government representative or was relaying information that he had received from Russia. (After leaving office, former FBI Director James B. Comey claimed without evidence that Mifsud was “a Russian agent” in a Washington Post op-ed.)
The Mueller Report conspicuously avoided such a label. It instead stated that Mifsud had suspected "connections to Russia." Its inventory of such connections is this: Mifsud was apparently in touch with "a one-time employee" of the Internet Research Agency (the private Russian social media company that Mueller indicted before dropping the case) about "possibly meeting in Russia," but the investigation "did not identify evidence of them meeting." Mifsud was also apparently in contact with a social media account "linked to an employee of the Russian Ministry of Defense." At his congressional hearing one year ago, Mueller declined to discuss Mifsud's identity or explain why the FBI had not arrested him after interviewing him in Washington, D.C., in February 2017. Mueller also did not explain why his office did not charge Mifsud for perjury despite claiming in its final report that he had made false statements.
Recently declassified December 2017 testimony from Andrew McCabe, the former FBI deputy director who helped launch and oversee the Russia probe, support these details.
Speaking to the House Intelligence Committee, McCabe said the Papadopoulos-Mifsud tip was not considered evidence of a Russia connection. Asked to explain why the FBI never sought a FISA surveillance warrant on Papadopoulos, McCabe responded: "Papadopoulos' comment didn't particularly indicate that he was the person that had had -- that was interacting with the Russians." That admission not only contradicts Mueller's claim that the "FBI had evidence that the Russians had signaled" something, it raises an important question for his team to answer: Why did the FBI open – and continue – the Trump-Russia investigation based on a hearsay comment from a Trump adviser whom they did not believe was actually interacting with Russia?
After claiming that the collusion investigation was predicated on evidence of Russian outreach to the Trump campaign, Mueller's op-ed turns to Roger Stone. The veteran Republican operative, Mueller writes, "lied about the identity of his intermediary to WikiLeaks," as well as about "the existence of written communications with his intermediary."
But that claim from Mueller is at odds with his investigation’s failure to establish that Stone had an intermediary to WikiLeaks. In both public and private, Stone claimed to have intermediaries, but as the Mueller team found out, they were two individuals, Randy Credico and Jerome Corsi, who never made contact with WikiLeaks. The only interaction that either Credico or Corsi had with WikiLeaks during the campaign came when Credico interviewed WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange on his radio show in August 2016. And the only known contact between Stone and WikiLeaks before the election came when WikiLeaks wrote Stone, in a Twitter message, to cease making "false claims of association." This exchange was excluded from Stone's indictment and the Mueller Report, and Mueller's op-ed is no different.
Mueller also makes a striking claim about Stone's supposed Russian contacts and foreknowledge of WikiLeaks releases. "Stone became a central figure in our investigation," Mueller writes, "for two key reasons: He communicated in 2016 with individuals known to us to be Russian intelligence officers, and he claimed advance knowledge of WikiLeaks’ release of emails stolen by those Russian intelligence officers."
While Stone claimed advance knowledge, Mueller omits that he never asserted that Stone actually had such knowledge.
Mueller's reference to communication with Russian agents is likely the Twitter messages exchanged with Guccifer 2.0, the online persona that Mueller alleges was a front for Russian intelligence. Yet the only known communication between the two is in fact exculpatory for Stone. Stone sent Guccifer 2.0 just three short messages. None mentioned the stolen DNC emails. The closest they came to coordination was when Stone asked Guccifer 2.0 to retweet an article in The Hill. Mueller implies that all of this was grounds to investigate Stone, when it was evidence that Stone's contact with Guccifer 2.0 was minimal and inconsequential.
Three days after Mueller’s piece was published, the top prosecutor on his team, Andrew Weissmann, published an op-ed in the New York Times that went even further. While Mueller's article tried to defend his investigation, Weissmann effectively called for it to continue: Stone, Weissmann argued, should be brought "before a grand jury."
Weissmann – now a legal analyst for MSNBC and preparing for the September publication of his memoir on the Mueller probe -- bases his argument on the possibility that Stone hid incriminating information in order to protect Trump. Stone, Weissmann claimed (approvingly quoting the sentencing federal judge), "had been prosecuted for 'covering up for the president.'" Stone, Weissmann added, was found guilty of "lying to Congress about the coordination between the Trump 2016 campaign, Mr. Stone, WikiLeaks and Russia," and putting him before a grand jury would "get at the truth of why he lied."
Yet Stone's own case – and, of course the Mueller Report, which found no conspiracy -- underscored that there was no such "coordination," which is presumably why Stone was never accused, let alone convicted, of lying about it. The word "coordination" only appears once in his indictment: in describing the FBI investigation of potential Trump-Russia collusion, not in describing anything to do with Stone.
Stone was instead convicted of making false statements to Congress about his failed efforts to obtain information about WikiLeaks during the 2016 campaign. Stone's case and trial underscored that these efforts went nowhere: Both individuals whom he tapped as his intermediaries, Corsi and Credico, had no contact with WikiLeaks and no inside information of its plans. The suggestion to the contrary by Weissmann in the New York Times' op-ed section is contradicted by the paper's own reporting on Stone's trial last year, when it noted that Stone "had no real ties to WikiLeaks."
Despite this, Weissmann goes on to suggest, without evidence, that Stone still has something to hide. "If there was nothing nefarious about his coordination efforts, why did he lie about them to Congress?" the investigator writes. "This question remains unanswered, as the Mueller report notes." Yet the Mueller team has already answered Weissmann's question. In revealing that the Trump campaign tried to learn about WikiLeaks' plans through Stone – who had no inside information – Weissmann and his colleagues showed that the campaign had no "coordination" with WikiLeaks and no advance knowledge of its publications.
Weissmann fails to mention that his own team of prosecutors consciously avoided the very action that he is now advocating. The Mueller team never interviewed Stone or tried to bring him before a grand jury after an exhaustive investigation of Stone and his associates. By November 2018, CNN reported, "[r]oughly a dozen of Stone's current and former associates have been contacted by Mueller's team for interviews or to testify before the grand jury."
The Mueller team's pursuit of Stone included an engagement with Corsi that descended into farce. The Mueller investigators, the Washington Post later reported, spent more than two months "chasing tantalizing leads offered by Corsi," even "dispatch[ing] FBI agents around the country to interview potential witnesses," but, after "expending valuable government money and precious time," found "themselves unable to untangle Corsi’s assertions." This included multiple sessions with Corsi where Mueller prosecutors "spent weeks coaxing, cajoling and admonishing the conspiracy theorist, as they pressed him to stick to facts and not reconstruct stories." They even delved into philosophical territory: "At times, they had debated the nature of memory itself."
If, after all of this effort, Weissmann and the Mueller team thought that Stone was coordinating with WikiLeaks or had something to hide, they could have questioned him or brought him before a grand jury. But by the end of 2018, Stone was no longer claiming that he had a back channel to WikiLeaks and had corrected his prior statements to the contrary. Presumably, the Mueller team had reached the same conclusion after questioning scores of Stone's associates and chasing down leads from coast to coast. And presumably, they would have expected Stone to tell them the same story under oath.
That would have negated their ability to prosecute him, and it would have denied them an opportunity to advance the collusion theory with one final indictment. In January 2019, the Mueller team chose an off-ramp: Stone was indicted for making false statements to a House inquiry all the way back in September 2017. The Mueller team released a lengthy indictment that suggested a collusion angle, and conducted an early morning SWAT raid on Stone's Florida home with television cameras present.
Stone's January 2019 indictment appeared to be the Mueller probe's final act, the last in a series of cases that publicly implied collusion without ever alleging that such collusion occurred. These two op-eds suggests that effort continues.
Weissmann and Mueller's new public statements about Stone and the Russia investigation are only the latest in a series of contributions to the collusion narrative. In response, Senate Judiciary Chairman Lindsey Graham has said that he will seek Mueller's testimony. If Weissmann is summoned as well, this would be a critical opportunity, through sworn testimony under penalty of perjury, to get to the bottom of claims about the Russia investigation – although perhaps not the ones that the prosecutors behind it want the public to focus on.