Rereading the Mueller report more than a year after its publication is an exercise in disappointment. One gets the feeling that Robert Mueller didn’t press his inquiry to its end. Instead of settling the questions that haunt the 2016 campaign, he left them dangling, publishing a stilted document riddled with insinuation and lacunae. He rushed his work, closing up shop before finishing his assignment.
While Mueller received all the hype, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence kept its head down. Yesterday, having avoided cable speculation almost entirely, the SSCI released the fifth and final volume of a report on Russia’s attempt to sway the last election in Donald Trump’s favor. It finally delivered what Mueller either could not or would not: a comprehensive presentation of the evidence in the matter of “collusion.” The report confirms that Russiagate is no hoax. Whether or not the Trump campaign illegally coordinated with the Kremlin, Trump has no grounds for proclaiming vindication, much less that he’s the victim of a witch hunt.
Credit largely goes to Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the SSCI, who shrewdly orchestrated the proceedings. Cultivating a close relationship with the SSCI’s Republican chair, Richard Burr, he worked to keep the investigation deliberately low-key. (The committee did the bulk of its work behind closed doors, without leaks.) As a result, the committee on the whole miraculously avoided the politicization that tainted the broader debate over Russian interference. Each of its findings won bipartisan approval prior to publication. Instead of rushing forward, the committee left the incendiary question of collusion for last.
The thousand-page fifth volume doesn’t definitively settle the question, in part because the SSCI was unable to procure a full record of events. The White House engaged in gamesmanship, invoking executive privilege to deny witnesses and block access to a paper trail. A slew of important witnesses invoked the Fifth Amendment. Others, such as Paul Manafort, lied relentlessly to investigators. The election of 2016 is one of the most closely studied events of recent memory, yet even the best-informed students of Russian interference don’t have a comprehensive understanding of it.
When Mueller’s prosecutors appeared in court, in February 2019, they implied that the most troubling evidence they had uncovered implicated Manafort, the Trump campaign chairman. This wasn’t a surprising admission. Throughout their filings, Mueller’s team referred to Manafort’s Kyiv-based aide-de-camp, Konstantin Kilimnik, as an active Russian agent. Manafort had clearly spoken with Kilimnik during the campaign, and had even passed confidential campaign information to him, with the understanding that the documents would ultimately arrive in the hands of oligarchs close to the Kremlin.
One of the great disappointments of the Mueller Report is that it fails to provide narrative closure after building so much anticipation for the Kilimnik story line. Mueller did not fully explain why Manafort’s relationship with his Ukraine-based adviser so bothered his prosecutors. Why had Manafort passed along the documents? And what did the oligarchs want with them?
The committee fills in the gaps somewhat. It reports that Manafort and Kilimnik talked almost daily during the campaign. They communicated through encrypted technologies set to automatically erase their correspondence; they spoke using code words and shared access to an email account. It’s worth pausing on these facts: The chairman of the Trump campaign was in daily contact with a Russian agent, constantly sharing confidential information with him. That alone makes for one of the worst scandals in American political history.
The significant revelation of the document is that Kilimnik was likely a participant in the Kremlin scheme to hack and leak Clinton campaign emails. Furthermore, Kilimnik kept in close contact with the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, a former client of Manafort’s. The report also indicates that Deripaska was connected to his government’s hacking efforts. This fact is especially suggestive: Deripaska had accused Manafort of stealing money from him, and Manafort hoped to repair his relationship with the oligarch. Was Manafort passing information to him, through Kilimnik, for the sake of currying favor with an old patron?
As maddeningly elliptical as this section of the report may be—and much of it is redacted—it still makes one wonder why Mueller would cut a deal with an established prevaricator like Manafort before pursuing his investigation of Kilimnik to more concrete conclusions.
When Manafort—with a pardon dangling in front of him—brazenly lied to prosecutors, he helped save Trump from having to confront this damning story. He wasn’t the only Trump associate to obstruct justice. (The committee has referred five Trump aides and supporters to the Justice Department for possibly providing false testimony.) By undermining investigators, Trump’s cronies rendered Mueller’s report a hash lacking a firm conclusion. They helped detonate the charge of collusion, letting it fizzle well ahead of the 2020 election.
The SSCI report does an honorable job of showing which strands of speculation deserve to be buried—Carter Page, for instance, was just a grifter who never got close to the heart of the Trump campaign. It also shows that many other strands, and not just those involving Manafort, merit further investigation. So many aspects of Trump-campaign behavior were suspicious—and designed to evade detection—that the truth remains elusive, even after a careful Senate investigation. The publication of this admirable report should not mark the end of the quest to uncover what really happened.