But Mueller has already been submitting his report, piece by piece, in indictments and other charging documents. He has hidden it in plain sight in the court dockets of individuals and organizations he has prosecuted. Many of those court papers have included far more detail than necessary to prove the culpability of defendants who have agreed to plead guilty. This isn’t just legal overkill on Mueller’s part — it’s the outlines of a sweeping narrative about the 2016 election.
Mueller’s most conventional “speaking indictments” were two filings charging Russians for conduct during the 2016 election — employees of a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin who trolled American voters on social media, then officers with the GRU , a Russian military intelligence agency, who stole emails and documents from Democratic Party targets. Since 2014, when it used an indictment against Chinese military hackers to embarrass China for intellectual property theft, the Justice Department has increasingly used detailed indictments to accuse states such as Iran, Russia and North Korea of hacking U.S. targets. Mueller’s indictments provided enough explanation of how investigators broke through efforts to obscure the hackers’ and trolls’ true identities to charge the Russian entities without having to expose classified intelligence.
Even these more conventional indictments wove in details of how Trump and his associates interacted with the attackers. The February indictment of the Putin-linked Internet Research Agency, for example, described three unnamed Trump campaign officials in Florida interacting with Russian trolls who were setting up real-world events. The GRU indictment described how Russian hackers seemingly responded to Trump’s July 2016 statement, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 [Hillary Clinton] emails that are missing,” by launching a new assault on targets close to his opponent.
Far more unusual were the almost 40 pages of exhibits Mueller released when Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, entered into his ill-fated plea agreement in September. The records were ostensibly presented as proof that Manafort had lied in 2016 and 2017 when he said he had no documents relating to the work he did for former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych.
But the documents serve just as well as a prequel to the story Mueller will eventually tell about Manafort’s work for Trump in 2016.
They describe how Manafort used elaborate cutouts to accuse Yanukovych’s opponent, Yulia Tymoshenko, of criminal deeds. Russian-run bots made similar accusations against Clinton in 2016. Other exhibits describe how Manafort falsely accused Yanukovych’s opponent of criminal intent. When Manafort’s client Trump used the same tactic, he didn’t even bother with cutouts, riling up mobs of supporters to chant “Lock her up!” based on false claims that Clinton deliberately received classified information on her home email server.
Mueller’s filings also show how, while lobbying for Ukraine, Manafort made a concerted effort to argue that sanctions for human rights abuses would backfire. Questions surrounding a June 9, 2016, meeting at which Russians asked Donald Trump Jr. to end similar sanctions on Russia remain a central focus of Mueller’s investigation. Finally, documents seized from Manafort’s home describe how, in 2010 and 2012, he made elaborate advance preparations to claim electoral irregularities to discredit adverse election results. Trump and longtime Manafort associate Roger Stone made similar efforts to “Stop the Steal ” in 2016, which paralleled Russian-backed warnings of supposed “election rigging” by Democrats.
Mueller didn’t have to present that much evidence to prove Manafort was guilty. But the exhibits laid out a rich story of how Manafort used tactics he perfected while working for a corrupt Russian-backed oligarch in Ukraine to get billionaire Trump elected in 2016.
Mueller’s most recent bombshell filing looked like it, too, was overkill. Late last month, Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer, pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about a deal to build a Trump tower in Moscow. That single count won’t add much, if any, prison time to the federal money laundering and campaign finance charges to which Cohen already pleaded guilty in New York. But by filing the new plea, Mueller got to reveal additional details of the story of the 2016 election. Significantly, Cohen’s plea documents show Trump knew he stood to benefit financially from his ties to Russia when his son accepted the meeting with Russians offering assistance in conjunction with their request for sanctions relief. The documents also show that Cohen planned a trip to Russia about the deal just afterward.
Mueller hasn’t always shown his cards when submitting filings. Along with a memo recommending that former national security adviser Michael Flynn serve no prison time for making false statements, Mueller submitted an addendum laying out the “several ongoing investigations” that Flynn discussed with prosecutors during 19 meetings over the past year. Yet the most interesting details — such as which “firsthand witnesses” decided “to be forthcoming with the [special counsel’s office] and cooperate” after Flynn did so — were redacted. Similarly, when Mueller’s office submitted a sentencing memo for Cohen Friday afternoon, it listed four areas on which he cooperated, but remained vague about the exact subjects.
All this storytelling came before Mueller submitted new court papers Friday night, laying out the “discernable lies” Manafort allegedly told prosecutors when he was supposed to be cooperating. Mueller submitted a sealed and unsealed filing. The unsealed one focused on lies Manafort allegedly told about his ongoing communications with Konstantin Kilimnik, whom the government alleges is tied to the same Russian intelligence service that hacked the DNC.
In spite of reporting that prosecutors discussed the topic with Manafort, Mueller remained silent about a far more inflammatory detail: whether they have proof that Trump knew of his son’s meeting with Russians offering dirt on Clinton. That’s a question to which Trump’s denial, submitted even as his lawyers continued to compare notes with Manafort, may have been crafted to match the testimony of his former campaign chairman. And if Manafort lied about that, then he may have persuaded Trump to do so as well.