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A broad debunking of Trump’s claims about Russian interference and the Mueller investigation

Since Robert S. Mueller III was appointed in May 2017 to investigate the Trump campaign's ties to Russia, President Trump has relentlessly attacked him. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)
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It has been, as of this writing, two years and two weeks since The Post first reported that hackers linked to the Russian government had accessed the Democratic National Committee’s network and stolen documents. That first report predated any of the releases of material by WikiLeaks and preceded, by months, public awareness of a broad effort by the Russian government to interfere in that year’s presidential election.

And yet, two years and two weeks later, the person believed to have been the deliberate beneficiary of that interference offers this thought on Twitter.

There’s nothing new in that tweet, of course. Each of those thoughts has been offered in various ways and venues probably dozens of time.

But that there is nothing new in that tweet — that President Trump continues to offer this alternate view of reality and long-debunked conspiracy theories — is remarkable in itself. So, once and for all, let’s walk through Trump’s nebulous assertions, what’s known, and why Trump, perhaps more than anyone else, should know better.

He almost certainly does, of course. It’s just politically beneficial for him to cast as much doubt on the available evidence, either because he wants to fend off suggestions that his election was tainted (the Russia part) or that he aided the Russian effort (the part about special counsel Robert S. Mueller III).

In case some part of him doesn’t know better or in case there are others who are taking Trump’s queries at face value: Here are the answers.

Why it’s assumed that Russia interfered in the 2016 election. There were at least two tracks that actors linked to Russian intelligence took to try to subvert the election (and its aftermath).

One involved the hacking of the DNC network and, subsequently, accessing the email account of Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager John Podesta (among others). Files from those hacks were eventually made public by WikiLeaks. The other track was causing commotion on social media and at rallies, encouraging divisive issues with an eye toward pitting Americans against one another.

The public evidence for the hacking of the DNC and Podesta originates with that Post report in June 2016. The story details how the DNC had noted unusual activity and hired an outside firm called CrowdStrike to analyze what was happening. CrowdStrike saw signs of two known hacking groups tied to Russian intelligence. (We’ll come back to this issue in a bit.)

Our story noted that the hackers had targeted opposition research files. Shortly afterward, one was leaked to the website Gawker from a hacker calling himself “Guccifer 2.0.” That individual claimed to be Romanian, but at one point failed to mask his Internet address, allowing investigators to identify his location: “the agency’s headquarters on Grizodubovoy Street in Moscow,” as the Daily Beast reported, referring to Russia’s GRU military intelligence agency. The documents released by Guccifer contained their own clues, including files originally leaked with indicators that the hacking had been done on a Russian-language operating system.

“After this mistake became public, the intruders removed the Cyrillic information from the metadata in the next dump and carefully used made-up user names from different world regions,” Vice’s Motherboard reported, “thereby confirming they had made a mistake in the first round.”

The Associated Press last year published a report detailing how Russia accessed Podesta’s account with an email tricking him into providing his log-in credentials. The hack of his account was part of a barrage of attempts to compromise email accounts before Russian intelligence targeting not only American political figures but opponents of the Russian government globally.

This is a small taste of what’s public. American intelligence agencies compiled a classified report with more robust evidence, which was presented to the then-president-elect in January 2017. Intelligence officials working for both Trump and his predecessor Barack Obama have repeatedly testified that they have no doubt Russia interfered in the election. Even before Election Day, government agencies warned about infiltration attempts by the Russians and linked the DNC hacks to Russia.

Then there’s the social-media meddling. The best evidence for this was presented by Mueller himself in an indictment filed earlier this year. It alleges how, beginning in 2014, a group called the Internet Research Agency began analyzing American politics and traveling to the United States to determine points of tension. The group then allegedly created social-media accounts meant to propagate divisive messages about race, religion and national security, an effort that continued past the election itself.

The Internet Research Agency also allegedly promoted real-life rallies, often without much success. At one point, its operatives appear to have posed as Americans and paid an American citizen to build a cage that was used at a Trump rally to house a Hillary Clinton impersonator wearing a prison jumpsuit.

The Mueller indictment names specific people as having participated in this effort and details his team’s understanding of how they were established and funded. It includes messages from people involved in the effort talking specifically about fooling Americans on social media.

Again, these are just the tracks that are known.

Why the physical DNC server wasn’t investigated by the FBI. We’ll use an imperfect analogy here.

When investigators go to a crime scene, they use a technique to dust for fingerprints, which results in a reproduction of the contours of the tip of a suspect’s finger. It’s that reproduction that is used to find a match against a database of fingerprints; FBI investigators don’t have to take the safe with them to constantly recheck the original print. They use the copy.

That is essentially what the FBI did with the DNC server: The bureau was provided with copies of the data on the server, like duplicating your own hard drive. Had Russians accessed the physical server after breaking into the DNC, the physical server itself might have been useful. Instead, they were given the server’s fingerprint, so to speak. This was confirmed by a spokesman for the DNC and by then-FBI Director James B. Comey in testimony.

“Best practice is always to get access to the machines themselves,” Comey said in March 2017, “but this — my folks tell me was an appropriate substitute.”

One reason the fingerprint analogy is imperfect, incidentally, is that a duplicate of the data on the DNC server is a perfect copy. A lifted print is not.

Why Clinton’s links to Russia weren’t investigated. There are two primary ways in which improper links between Clinton and Russian actors have been alleged.

The first is that the sale of a uranium mining company to a Russian company was approved while Clinton was secretary of state. The allegation is that Clinton approved that sale after having received money for the Clinton Foundation and after Bill Clinton received $500,000 for a speaking engagement.

Our fact-checkers have walked through this repeatedly. There’s no evidence that Clinton was involved directly in approving the sale; the State Department was one of nine agencies responsible for approving it; there’s no indication that any contributions to the foundation or speech payments had anything to do with the decision.

The other alleged link between Clinton and Russians is even more circuitous. A former British intelligence officer named Christopher Steele compiled a series of reports on behalf of an agency called Fusion GPS, looking at possible links between Trump’s campaign and Russian actors — the collusion question. Those reports, which were never intended to become public, used a number of sources within the Russian government for information. Since Fusion GPS was hired by a law firm working for Clinton’s campaign and the DNC, the allegation (as articulated here) is that Russians aided Clinton by providing her damning information about Trump. That, Trump has said, was the real collusion.

There’s been no evidence presented (despite many people looking) that Clinton was aware of the Steele reports prior to their being made public, much less who his sources were. (There is evidence to the contrary.) There’s also no indication that the Russian government and Russian President Vladimir Putin directed misinformation to Steele, which is central to the idea of colluding with Russia’s efforts. (American intelligence officials believe that Putin directly ordered the interference effort meant to aid Trump in 2016.)

If Russian intelligence wanted to leak the negative information about Trump that was included in Steele’s reports, they chose a very indirect way to do so — and a very indirect way of getting Clinton involved in the effort.

Why asserting that there was “no collusion” is misleading. Trump’s repeated claim, from the outset of the Mueller probe, has been that there was no collusion between his campaign and Russia. He or the White House said it 140 times through this January alone.

It may be the case that there was no incident in which Trump or his senior campaign team specifically coordinated with Russian actors to guide their interference in the 2016 race. In fact, that is probably the safest default assumption. But that’s what Mueller is investigating and, just as the police don’t file charges in murder cases as soon as they enter a crime scene, it takes a while to assess the evidence and figure out what happened.

That said, whether Trump’s campaign “colluded” with the Russians depends very much on how you define “collusion.” Do you count a secret willingness of Trump’s family and campaign chairman Paul Manafort to get negative information from the Russian government an example of collusion? Various contacts between more ancillary campaign figures and Russian-government-connected individuals in which there was often an expressed support for Trump to win the race?

At least six people tied to the campaign and perhaps as many as 10 (including Trump) likely knew that the Russians were offering dirt on Clinton. Whether that indicates collusion is in the eye of the beholder.

Why confidence in Mueller’s investigation is warranted. In other tweets on Thursday, Trump cast aspersions on Mueller personally and his investigation more generally.

Trump and his allies have done a good job of undercutting confidence in Mueller’s probe, often by raising questions like the ones Trump tweeted about: That the investigation involves biased partisans and that it was launched by an FBI agent named Peter Strzok who was hopelessly biased.

But the investigation comes down to Mueller himself, a lifelong Republican who was appointed to run the FBI by George W. Bush and about whom no credible allegations of bias have been raised. (If I have missed any, please let me know.) Mueller is ultimately responsible for the investigation within boundaries set by Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein — also a lifelong Republican and someone appointed by Trump himself.

There is no evidence that Mueller is allowing the probe to be driven by animus against the president. On the contrary: While Strzok was involved in the investigation before Comey was fired and Mueller appointed, Mueller removed him from the special counsel team two months into his probe after discovering text messages in which Strzok had disparaged Trump. Trump at one point celebrated a judge who indicated skepticism about Mueller’s indictment of Manafort; that judge this week agreed that the charges against Manafort were within Mueller’s purview.

About that price tag. Trump has repeatedly complained about the high cost of the Mueller probe. The government has spent more on his trips to Mar-a-Lago alone than it has on the special counsel’s investigation.