Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III did not find sufficient evidence to prove that anyone involved in the Trump campaign conspired — or “colluded” — directly with the Russians who interfered with the 2016 presidential election. But part of his report highlights a different species of collusion — one between the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks involving the release of stolen Democratic emails. This collusion may not have been criminal, but it is deeply troubling.
Attorney General William P. Barr foreshadowed the significance of this revelation during his news conference last Thursday ahead of the report’s release. Barr said the special counsel’s investigation had found no evidence that members of the Trump campaign conspired with the Russians in their extensive social media efforts to influence the election. He used similar words concerning the theft of Democratic emails by Russian hackers: The investigation did not conclude that the campaign conspired with the Russians in that hacking.
But when it came to the release of the stolen emails, Barr’s phrasing changed. He noted that, under applicable law, publication of the emails would be illegal only if the person publishing them had also participated in stealing them. He then went on to say the investigation did not find that any person associated with the Trump campaign “illegally participated in the dissemination” of the stolen emails.
This carefully lawyered language implied two things: that persons associated with the Trump campaign did participate in the dissemination of the stolen emails, and that Mueller concluded this likely was not illegal because those same persons were not also involved in the hacking.
And that’s exactly what the Mueller report suggests. The report devotes 15 pages to the Trump campaign’s interest in and connections to the stolen emails. One section describes what appears to be a pretty chummy Twitter relationship between WikiLeaks and the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr. In one direct message, WikiLeaks urged “you guys” (the campaign) to share a link to a story claiming that Hillary Clinton had advocated targeting WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange with a drone strike; Trump Jr. replied they had already done so. In another message, WikiLeaks said it was “great to see” the Trumps sharing information about WikiLeaks, said they had just released another batch of emails, and sent a suggested link for the campaign to use to help navigate the stolen emails; Trump Jr. later shared the link on Twitter.
But there is much we still don’t know about the extent of the campaign’s interactions with WikiLeaks, because a large amount of material was redacted to avoid interfering with an “ongoing matter.” That is likely a reference to the case against Trump associate Roger Stone, currently set for trial in November.
Stone was indicted for obstruction of justice and false statements related to his role as an intermediary between the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks. Note that Stone wasn’t charged with participating in a conspiracy to publish the emails. That is consistent with Barr’s statement that the publication alone would not be a crime. (Some of the report’s legal analysis is redacted, but presumably First Amendment defenses are a major reason.) Other Trump associates who, like Stone, may have coordinated with WikiLeaks did not end up facing criminal charges for those actions. The case against Stone is not for participating in the leaks, but for lying about it to Congress.
The several pages of redacted material suggest more details are coming about the campaign’s coordination with WikiLeaks and who else was involved. Recall that Stone’s indictment alleges that he was in regular contact with a number of unnamed senior Trump campaign officials. An associate of one senior campaign official allegedly texted him, “well done” after WikiLeaks released the first batch of Clinton emails. Stone’s indictment also contains the mysterious reference to a senior campaign official who “was directed” to contact Stone to learn more about when WikiLeaks would release more stolen emails and what other damaging information about Clinton it might have. We still don’t know who that senior official was — or who did the directing.
But we already know that Trump and his campaign enthusiastically welcomed WikiLeaks’s actions. Deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates told Mueller that, by late summer 2016, the campaign was planning an entire media and communications strategy around the expected release of the stolen Clinton emails. Candidate Trump praised WikiLeaks more than 100 times during the final weeks of the campaign. And all this was happening at a time when it was already being widely reported that the original source of the stolen emails was a hostile foreign government bent on interfering with our democratic process.
In the coming months, we will learn much more about the Trump campaign’s apparent collusion with WikiLeaks. Members of the campaign may not have conspired directly with the Russians, but by embracing WikiLeaks, they helped the Russians achieve their goals. This may not have been criminal. But in all the furor over obstruction of justice, we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that it was utterly wrong — and profoundly un-American.