During the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Russian President Vladimir Putin opened a new front in his war against Western democracy. Using an army of hackers and trolls, the Kremlin worked to sow discord and tear down Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of state who had taken an increasingly hard line on Mr. Putin’s autocratic regime. The candidate Mr. Putin favoured, Donald Trump, carried the day, thanks to narrow margins in three states.
The idea that a onetime KGB officer had influenced an election for the leader of the world’s most powerful country was disconcerting enough. But even before the ballots were counted, the FBI wondered the almost unthinkable: Had the winning candidate, or his associates, colluded with the Russians to make it happen?
Over the course of nearly two years, special counsel Robert Mueller worked to answer that question. Along the way, he exposed the full extent of the Russian election interference and prosecuted a host of political advisers, lobbyists and other assorted schemers. Mr. Mueller filed his final report on March 22, but for weeks, all the public knew about its contents was what Attorney-General William Barr decided to share in a brief summary (which you can read below). A longer, redacted version is being released on April 18.
According to him, Mr. Mueller ultimately concluded that Mr. Trump’s campaign did not collude with the Kremlin. He did not reach a determination on whether the President had committed obstruction of justice, leaving that call to Mr. Barr, who decided not to charge Mr. Trump with obstruction. The outcome has allowed Americans to breathe a sigh of relief that their president did not collude with Moscow, and it lifts the legal cloud that hung over Mr. Trump since the start of his term. But the political and legal wrangling may not be over. Depending on what Mr. Mueller found on the obstruction-of-justice question, the Democrats may yet decide to push for impeachment.
Who is Robert Mueller, what exactly did he investigate and what did he conclude?
A former FBI director and career prosecutor, Mr. Mueller was appointed special counsel in the Russia investigation in May, 2017. Deputy Attorney-General Rod Rosenstein brought him in after Mr. Trump fired then-FBI director James Comey. The idea behind handing off the investigation to Mr. Mueller was to ensure it would stay at arm’s length from the government and quell fears of political interference after Mr. Comey’s ouster.
As special counsel, Mr. Mueller had a fair amount of independence from the government. He had a team of FBI agents, prosecutors and support staff under his command, allowing him to investigate and lay charges without having to seek permission from higher-ups at the Justice Department.
His investigation, roughly, broke into three parts:
Collusion between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign
The central question for Mr. Mueller was whether Mr. Trump or members of his presidential campaign co-ordinated with Mr. Putin and the Russian government to tip the 2016 election. Mr. Mueller found that the Kremlin interfered in the campaign by stealing and leaking embarrassing internal e-mails from the Democratic Party, as well as by deploying internet trolls to promote Mr. Trump and flame his rival, Ms. Clinton. He also found links between several advisers on Mr. Trump’s campaign and the Russian government.
But Mr. Mueller determined that those connections did not amount to collusion between the campaign and the Kremlin. “The investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or co-ordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities,” Mr. Mueller wrote in his report, according to Mr. Barr’s summary.
Obstruction of justice and lying
Mr. Mueller was also trying to determine whether Mr. Trump or anyone around him tried to interfere with the investigation into Russian election hacking. Mr. Comey, for instance, has said the President threatened his job and asked him to dial back at least some aspects of the investigation before firing him.
Several members of Mr. Trump’s campaign team and administration also lied about, played down or concealed their conversations with Russian officials. Mr. Mueller charged several people with lying to his investigators or to Congress, which has led figures in Trump’s orbit to agree to co-operate with Mr. Mueller in exchange for lighter sentences.
Mr. Mueller opted not to reach a conclusion over whether Mr. Trump obstructed justice. Instead, he laid out the evidence for and against for Mr. Barr. “While this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him,” Mr. Mueller wrote. What evidence, exactly, Mr. Mueller presented to Mr. Barr is unclear. Mr. Barr’s summary does not say why Mr. Mueller decided not to make a decision on the obstruction question.
Mr. Barr, in consultation with Mr. Rosenstein, decided not to charge Mr. Trump. In his summary to Congress, Mr. Barr suggested that because there was no collusion, there was no crime for Mr. Trump to cover up, and therefore his actions did not amount to obstruction of justice.
Financial fraud and other crimes
The Special Counsel’s mandate allowed him to investigate any criminal activity he found, even if it wasn’t directly connected to Russian hacking in the U.S. election.
Among other things, he uncovered a massive money-laundering operation run by Paul Manafort, Mr. Trump’s campaign chair, and Mr. Manafort’s business partner, Rick Gates. Mr. Mueller also discovered that Mr. Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, orchestrated hush-money payoffs to two women who claimed to have had extramarital affairs with Mr. Trump.
What did Mueller find?
Mr. Barr’s summary does not spell out what information Mr. Mueller unearthed or what evidence he examined, so we won’t know all of that until the redacted report is released. But based on several prosecutions Mr. Mueller launched during his investigation, we know he uncovered a few significant things.
A Russian spy agency and a troll farm interfered in the U.S. election
The Kremlin’s military intelligence agency (the Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, better known as the GRU) hacked the e-mails and computers of numerous Democratic Party organizations and officials. It stole thousands of documents, including embarrassing e-mails that showed supposedly neutral party officials conspiring to derail Bernie Sanders’s challenge to Ms. Clinton for the nomination. The GRU released the e-mails through WikiLeaks and a hacker persona it set up, “Guccifer 2.0.”
Meanwhile, a St. Petersburg company called the Internet Research Agency had hundreds of employees working around the clock to create fake American personas online. The trolls pushed pro-Trump, anti-Clinton memes and messages on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. They also bought online advertising for Mr. Trump and created Facebook groups for hot-button issues such as race and immigration.
The trolls also organized rallies in the U.S. for Mr. Trump without leaving their desks, funnelling money to pro-Trump groups to fund the activities. In one case, the Internet Research Agency even hired a Clinton impersonator to appear in a mock jail cell at a rally in West Palm Beach, Fla. They also created fake personas as minority voters to discourage black and Muslim Americans from voting (both demographics skew Democratic).
Mr. Trump’s campaign chair is closely connected to a suspected Russian spy
Mr. Manafort’s consulting firm employed a Russo-Ukrainian operative named Konstantin Kilimnik. U.S. intelligence believes he is a former GRU officer and maintains ties to the agency. Mr. Kilimnik worked with Mr. Manafort and his business partner, Mr. Gates, on several projects to improve the image of Viktor Yanukovych, the autocratic pro-Russia former president of Ukraine. During the 2016 campaign, Mr. Manafort shared polling with Mr. Kilimnik and also discussed a “Ukraine peace plan” – generally understood to mean a plan to end the Ukrainian civil war on terms favourable to Russia – with him. These talks lasted throughout the campaign and for the next two years.
Mr. Mueller accused Mr. Manafort of trying to hide the extent of his dealings with Mr. Kilimnik from investigators.
That campaign chair also laundered tens of millions of dollars to dodge taxes and ripped off a few banks as well
Mr. Manafort and Mr. Gates made tens of millions of dollars over the years as unregistered lobbyists and advisers to Mr. Yanukovych. To dodge taxes on these earnings, they set up an elaborate system that funnelled the money through shell companies in Cyprus and into the U.S.
The pair used the money to fund lavish lifestyles – Mr. Manafort spent nearly a million dollars on clothes over the course of four years. In many cases, his bills were paid directly by the overseas companies he controlled.
Mr. Manafort also lied to various banks to take out larger loans than he was entitled to.
The Trump Organization wanted the Russian government’s help building a hotel in Moscow during the campaign
Mr. Trump’s company was trying to get a Trump Tower Moscow built at the same time as the firm’s owner was running for president. The project was a joint venture with Bayrock Group, whose point man on the file was Felix Sater, a Russo-American who once admitted taking part in a stock scam run by the Russian mafia and has also been an FBI informant.
Mr. Trump’s lawyer, Mr. Cohen, tried to enlist the Kremlin’s help getting land and financing for the hotel. He contacted the office of Dmitry Peskov, Mr. Putin’s spokesman, to outline the project in January, 2016. He and Mr. Sater discussed having Mr. Trump visit Russia sometime after he won the presidential nomination.
In June of 2016, Mr. Cohen and Mr. Sater made arrangements to meet with Mr. Peskov – and possibly Mr. Putin or his prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev – in Russia. The plan was for Mr. Cohen to attend the St. Petersburg Forum, a Davos-like confab of political and business leaders. But Mr. Cohen abruptly cancelled the trip after the Democratic Party publicly accused the Russians of stealing its documents.
One Trump campaign adviser knew about Russian election hacking before it became public; another allegedly tried to get the hacked e-mails
George Papadopoulos, an energy consultant and foreign-policy adviser to the Trump campaign, tried to make contacts with the Kremlin in view of potentially setting up a Trump-Putin meeting. He spoke several times with Joseph Mifsud, a Maltese university professor tied to the Russian government, as well as with a man connected to the Russian foreign ministry and a woman he incorrectly believed to be related to Mr. Putin.
At a breakfast meeting in a London hotel on April 26, 2016, Mr. Mifsud told Mr. Papadopoulos that Russia had stolen e-mails that contained “dirt” on Ms. Clinton. This information came months before the Russians released the e-mails through WikiLeaks and Guccifer.
Meanwhile, Roger Stone, a confidant of Mr. Trump’s, repeatedly tried to contact WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange through two intermediaries, conspiracy theorist Jerome Corsi and radio host Randy Credico. Mr. Stone allegedly wanted WikiLeaks to slip him the e-mails.
Neither Mr. Corsi nor Mr. Credico appears to have obtained any e-mails for Mr. Stone, but they did pass on information about when WikiLeaks was going to release future batches of e-mails and what the messages contained. Mr. Stone allegedly relayed what he learned to high-ranking members of the Trump campaign.
Mr. Trump’s lawyer orchestrated hush-money payments to a porn star and a Playboy model
Mr. Cohen arranged for Stephanie Clifford, an adult-film actress who performs under the name Stormy Daniels, to receive US$130,000 and for US$125,000 to go to Karen McDougal, a former nude model. Both women claimed to have had affairs with Mr. Trump after he married Melania Trump. The payments, made in the fall of 2016, were meant to buy the women’s silence before the election.
Mr. Cohen made the payment to Ms. Clifford on condition that she sign a gag order prohibiting her from revealing her relationship with Mr. Trump. Ms. McDougal’s money was routed through American Media Inc., owner of the National Enquirer, which bought the exclusive rights to her story with the intention of never publishing it – a practice called “catch and kill.”
The Trump Organization reimbursed Mr. Cohen US$420,000 for the payments.
Who has been charged?
Paul Manafort, Mr. Trump’s campaign chair
Charged with: Conspiracy against the United States; money laundering; tax evasion; bank fraud; illegal lobbying; obstruction of justice
Outcome: Convicted of the financial crimes at trial in the summer of 2018, he subsequently pleaded guilty to conspiracy and obstruction. Mr. Manafort was sentenced to seven-and-a-half years in prison.
Richard Gates, Mr. Manafort’s former business associate
Charged with: Conspiracy, lying to Mr. Mueller’s office
Outcome: He has not yet been sentenced.
Michael Cohen, Mr. Trump’s former lawyer and fixer
Charged with: Breaking campaign finance law; lying to Congress about the Moscow hotel deal; running a scam involving taxi medallions
Outcome: Sentenced to three years in prison.
Michael Flynn, Mr. Trump’s fired national security adviser
Charged with: Lying to the FBI about discussing Russian sanctions with Russia’s then-ambassador
Outcome: Has not yet been sentenced.
George Papadopoulos, a foreign-policy adviser to the Trump campaign
Charged with what Lying to the FBI about his conversations with Kremlin intermediaries
Outcome Sentenced to 14 days in prison.
Alex van der Zwaan, a London-based lawyer who worked for Mr. Manafort and Mr. Gates
Charged with: Lying to Mr. Mueller’s office about his dealings with Mr. Gates and Mr. Kilimnik
Outcome: Sentenced to 30 days in prison.
Richard Pinedo, who sold stolen bank account numbers to the Internet Research Agency
Charged with: Identity fraud
Outcome: Sentenced to six months in prison and six months of house arrest.
PLEADED NOT GUILTY
Roger Stone, Republican operative and friend of Mr. Trump’s
Charged with: Lying to Congress about his attempts to get Democratic e-mails from WikiLeaks; obstruction of justice; witness tampering, for allegedly trying to get one of his intermediaries to support his lies
Outcome: He has pleaded not guilty.
The Internet Research Agency, a St. Petersburg company
Indictment includes: Its funder, Yevgeny Prigozhin, and 12 individual employees: Mikhail Bystrov, Mikhail Burchik (aka Mikhail Abramov), Aleksandra Krylova, Anna Bogacheva, Sergey Polozov, Maria Bovda (aka Maria Belyaeva), Robert Bovda, Dzheykhun Aslanov (aka Jay Aslanov), Vadim Podkopaev, Gleb Vasilchenko, Irina Kaverzina, Vladimir Venkov
Charged with: Conspiracy to defraud the United States and conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud over interference in the election
Outcome: None of these people have so far been arrested. The U.S. does not have an extradition treaty with Russia.
The Main Directorate of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces or the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency
Indictment includes: 12 of its officers: Viktor Netyksho, Boris Antonov, Dmitry Badin, Ivan Ermakov, Aleksey Lukashev, Sergey Morgachev, Nikolay Kozachek, Pavel Yershov, Artem Malyshev, Aleksandr Osadchuk, Aleksey Potemkin, Anatoliy Kovalev
Charged with: Conspiracy to commit an offence against the United States, for hacking Democratic computers and stealing e-mails
Outcome: None of these people have so far been arrested. The U.S. does not have an extradition treaty with Russia.
Konstantin Kilimnik, the alleged GRU spy who has worked for Mr. Manafort in Ukraine
Charged with: Obstruction of justice for witness tampering in Mr. Manafort’s trial
Outcome: He has not been arrested and is reportedly in Russia.
What happens next? Will Trump be impeached?
The report release
For weeks after Mr. Mueller handed in his report, Mr. Barr was under pressure from congressional Democrats to release more of it. He pleaded for time to decide what could be legally disclosed, because some material in the report is subject to rules that prevent information presented to grand juries from being released publicly. Other aspects of the report touch on matters currently subject to other investigations.
The Democrat leaders in the House and Senate, who accuse Mr. Barr of trying to shield Mr. Trump by stage-managing the report’s release, have called for Mr. Mueller to testify about his findings personally.
What is impeachment?
The U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to impeach (an archaic synonym for “accuse”) the President and other government officials of wrongdoing, and decide whether to remove them from office.
Congress can effectively impeach for any reason. The Constitution names “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors” as impeachable offences, but does not define “high crimes and misdemeanors,” meaning it is up to Congress to decide.
How does impeachment work?
a) First, the House of Representatives has to pass one or more “articles of impeachment.” These lay out the president’s alleged crimes. It only takes a simple majority (half of the votes plus one) to pass.
b) Next, the president faces a trial in the Senate. The Chief Justice of the Supreme Court presides. A group of Representatives lead the prosecution; the president can bring in defence lawyers.
c) The Senate votes on the outcome. If two-thirds of senators pronounce the president guilty, he is removed from office; any less than that, and he remains president.
Has a president ever been impeached before? What is the likelihood of Trump being impeached?
Three presidents have faced impeachment proceedings, but none have ever been removed from office.
The House of Representatives passed articles of impeachment against Andrew Johnson in 1868 for firing a member of cabinet over Congress’s objections, and Bill Clinton in 1998 for lying under oath about an extramarital affair. Both Mr. Johnson and Mr. Clinton survived trials in the Senate: Senators fell one vote short of the two-thirds needed to remove Mr. Johnson from office, while half of senators voted to convict Mr. Clinton on at least one charge.
The House of Representatives considered articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon in 1974 for trying to thwart investigations into the Watergate scandal, but Mr. Nixon resigned before the House could vote.
(The term “impeachment” refers specifically to the House making a formal accusation by passing articles of impeachment. So, both Mr. Johnson and Mr. Clinton were impeached, but neither was removed from office.)
The fact that Mr. Mueller found no evidence of collusion makes it less likely Mr. Trump will face impeachment. Speaker Nancy Pelosi has also publicly said she would rather not impeach the President. But that could change, depending on what information Mr. Mueller unearthed regarding obstruction of justice.
The Democrats currently hold a majority in the House of Representatives. The Republicans hold a majority in the Senate, meaning that, even if the Democrats tried to impeach Mr. Trump, they would have to convince at least 19 members of Mr. Trump’s own party to vote with them to remove him from office.
Could Trump be charged criminally?
Mr. Barr ultimately decided not to charge Mr. Trump with obstruction of justice, but the question of whether a sitting President can face criminal charges is unresolved. Notably, Mr. Barr said that he was choosing not to charge Mr. Trump based on the evidence and not the Department of Justice’s 2000 legal opinion. In other words, Mr. Barr said that even if you could charge a president, there would be no reason to charge Mr. Trump.
There is no explicit constitutional ban on charging a president, but the Department of Justice has issued legal opinions in 1973 and 2000 that a sitting president cannot be charged.