If former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s point in speaking publicly about the conclusions of his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election was, in part, to reinforce that Russia did in fact interfere to President Trump’s benefit, his effort had one particular and unexpected success.
On Thursday morning, as part of a series of tweets disparaging Mueller’s work, Trump indirectly acknowledged precisely that.
“Russia, Russia, Russia! That’s all you heard at the beginning of this Witch Hunt Hoax,” Trump wrote. “And now Russia has disappeared because I had nothing to do with Russia helping me to get elected. It was a crime that didn’t exist.”
For years, Trump has regularly denied that Russia was involved in the effort to interfere in the election and he’s certainly never acknowledged the intelligence community’s assessment that it did so in order to boost his own chances. At times, he’s implied that Russian President Vladimir Putin would have been happier if Hillary Clinton had won, though Putin himself said he wanted Trump to win during a news conference in Helsinki last year.
That phrase — “I had nothing to do with Russia helping me to get elected” — is therefore significant. So significant, in fact, that when Trump spoke to reporters a few minutes later, he denied that Russia had, in fact, boosted his campaign. (He also again claimed that Russia wanted Clinton to win.)
He was right the first time: Russia did boost his election. But he was wrong when he said he had nothing to do with it.
We should start by delineating what Russians actually did to try to influence the election, according to Mueller’s report. The effort was three-pronged: Russians stole information from the Democratic Party and Clinton’s campaign chairman that ended up being released by WikiLeaks; Russians launched an effort to sow division on social media; and Russians reached out to the Trump campaign in myriad other ways, contacting and interacting with various Trump team members. Those three efforts were linked back to the Russian government in different ways, but the Mueller report (and Mueller’s comments on Wednesday) make clear that these were seen as a collective effort.
The social media effort has attracted a lot of attention but was almost certainly not particularly useful in getting Trump elected. The footprint and timing of the interference efforts makes it hard to know just how much of an effect it had, but the paucity of paid, targeted outreach at critical moments suggests that the impact was minimal. This effort was also led by an organization only indirectly linked to the Russian government.
Trump himself engaged with this effort, though there’s no indication he knew that it was powered by Russian actors. At one point, Mueller’s report details how Trump’s campaign Facebook page praised a real-life event in Miami orchestrated by Russia’s team.
Much more direct was the hacking and dissemination of stolen material. In the past, Trump has often claimed that Russia didn’t affect the 2016 vote, but, as we detailed shortly after Mueller’s report came out, the hacking and WikiLeaks dumps almost certainly did affect how Americans voted, perhaps to a significant degree.
Why? Primarily because of how the stolen material was amplified in the media. Discussion of the material stolen from John Podesta swamped other coverage for much of October 2016, despite there being relatively little information in the documents that offered much insight into Clinton’s candidacy.
But you don’t have to take our word for it. Trump himself eagerly hyped the ongoing WikiLeaks releases during October, declaring at one point that he loved WikiLeaks for its efforts.
That, by itself, suggests that Trump did in fact aid Russia’s efforts to interfere in the election on his behalf. Granted, he may not have known at the time that the stolen material was a function of Russian activity, but he should have. As early as mid-June, The Post was reporting that Russian hackers had accessed the Democratic National Committee’s network, material that was published by WikiLeaks in late July.
Here, a bit of information from the Mueller report is worth highlighting.
At the time that those initial WikiLeaks releases began, there are several suggestions that Trump himself was encouraged about what he saw — and hoped to leverage the releases to his campaign’s benefit. Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen described a phone call in which Trump’s longtime ally Roger Stone gave Trump a heads-up on imminent WikiLeaks releases (something he may have learned from public pronouncements by WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange). When they got off the phone, Trump marveled at how useful such a release would be, according to Cohen.
An indictment obtained by Mueller’s team against Stone describes what happened after that material was released.
“After the July 22, 2016 release of stolen DNC emails by [WikiLeaks], a senior Trump Campaign official was directed to contact STONE about any additional releases and what other damaging information [WikiLeaks] had regarding the Clinton Campaign,” the indictment reads. “STONE thereafter told the Trump Campaign about potential future releases of damaging material by [WikiLeaks].”
Who directed that “senior Trump Campaign official” to contact Stone? It’s not hard to imagine that the person directing senior officials to take actions was the candidate himself. Stone quickly reached out to points of contact who he thought might be able to obtain the desired information.
Trump was asked about his interactions with Stone and possible contacts with WikiLeaks in the written questions Mueller’s team provided to him. Those questions were the subject of some of the many “I don’t recalls” with which Trump responded.
Both publicly and apparently behind the scenes, Trump encouraged WikiLeaks’ release of material damaging to Clinton. At a news conference in late July, he publicly encouraged Russia to release emails it might have stolen from Clinton’s private email server; within hours, Russian hackers for the first time tried to access that device. (Note, too, how this undercuts the idea that he was unaware that WikiLeaks’ material was related to Russian activity.)
We barely need to get into the third bucket of Russian outreach, those myriad contacts between Russians connected to that country’s government and Trump campaign team members: The interactions between a government official and campaign adviser George Papadopoulos, the contact between adviser Carter Page and a deputy prime minister in Moscow, and, of course, the Kremlin-linked attorney who appeared at Trump Tower for a meeting in June 2016. Russia wanted to aid Trump’s campaign? If it’s what you say, Trump’s campaign loved it.
The intelligence community established even before Trump took office that Russia interfered in the 2016 election and that it did so in part because it hoped Trump would win. Mueller’s investigation bolstered those findings and demonstrated ways in which Trump and his campaign aided or encouraged those interference efforts, even if unwittingly. Mueller on Wednesday didn’t say that Trump and his team didn’t conspire with Russia; he said that there was insufficient evidence to prove that they had.
Trump’s temporary acknowledgment of Russia’s role in the campaign was a step closer to an acknowledgment of reality. His denial that he had anything to do with the effort is still off the mark.