The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Time has only weakened the argument that the Russia probe was a victory for Trump

Attorney General William P. Barr, right, listens as President Donald Trump speaks during a White House meeting on Sept. 23, 2020. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Donald Trump was dismissing the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election as a “witch hunt” even before he became president. He was dismissing it as a “hoax” more than a month before he fired FBI Director James B. Comey in May 2017. He was declaring the entire thing to have been fabricated when all we really knew about it was that Russia was seeking to influence the election (later demonstrated robustly) and that it was doing so to Trump’s advantage (same).

From there, everything else was retrofitted into place. Little bits of information that emerged were pasted onto this idea that the whole thing was corrupt and fake until, by the time special counsel Robert S. Mueller III had completed his investigation into the interference in March 2019, there was an entire counternarrative centered on government malfeasance that cast Trump and his team as innocent actors. The bountiful evidence that Trump’s team had interacted with individuals connected to Russian intelligence or to Russia’s efforts to reshape the election — his adviser Roger Stone’s claims about interacting with WikiLeaks, his son and campaign manager meeting with an attorney linked to the Russian government after being promised dirt on Trump’s opponent, etc. — all of that was waved away as unimportant or misunderstood. The real problem, we were told, was that a low-level adviser to the Trump campaign had been targeted with a surveillance warrant after he’d left the campaign. (That this same adviser had previously been identified as a possible target by Russian intelligence and that he’d traveled to Moscow in July 2016 and met with a government official is often not included in that narrative.)

When the Mueller investigation ended, Trump got what seemed to be a final, authoritative declaration that nothing untoward had occurred.

The report compiled by Mueller’s team included two parts, one assessing what Russia had done and where it overlapped with Trump’s team, and the second evaluating the extent to which Trump had tried to undercut the investigation itself. In a four-page letter released shortly before a redacted version of the full report was made public, Attorney General William P. Barr — who had been confirmed to the position the prior month — offered Trump precisely the exoneration that the president had always sought. Barr quoted the Mueller report’s determination that it could not “establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” More important, Barr announced that he and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein had concluded that Trump hadn’t violated obstruction-of-justice statutes — a decision that Barr insisted was made regardless of the Justice Department’s policy that prevented a sitting president from being indicted.

Even at the time, this was an obviously generous interpretation of what Mueller found. Mueller did not exonerate Trump’s team entirely on possible interactions with Russian actors. In fact, his report was explicit in identifying places where it couldn’t definitively answer questions about what Trump’s team had done.

For example, in early February 2019, a member of Mueller’s team argued to a federal judge that an August 2016 meeting between Paul Manafort, then Trump’s campaign manager, and a man named Konstantin Kilimnik went “very much to the heart of what the special counsel’s office is investigating” — that is, the question of possible coordination. In the final Mueller report, though, the investigators admitted that they couldn’t answer key questions about that meeting.

At that meeting, Manafort had shared campaign data with Kilimnik, though Mueller’s team “could not reliably determine Manafort’s purpose in sharing internal polling data with Kilimnik during the campaign period.” This was hampered by Manafort offering false information to his team and to the grand jury and by Manafort’s using encrypted messaging apps.

“Because of questions about Manafort’s credibility and our limited ability to gather evidence on what happened to the polling data after it was sent to Kilimnik,” the Mueller report reads, his team, referred to as “the Office,” “could not assess what Kilimnik (or others he may have given it to) did with it. The Office did not identify evidence of a connection between Manafort’s sharing polling data and Russia’s interference in the election, which had already been reported by U.S. media outlets at the time of the August 2 meeting.”

Only last month was the question of what happened more fully answered: Kilimnik — who had been previously identified as a Russian intelligence agent (including casually by Manafort’s number two at the campaign) — “provided the Russian Intelligence Services with sensitive information on polling and campaign strategy.” This overlapped with the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency actively trying to influence the outcome of the election, though that effort itself wasn’t particularly sophisticated in terms of political targeting.

Nonetheless, there is now a line that didn’t exist at the time Barr elevated Mueller’s assertion that no “members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” A member of Trump’s campaign — his campaign manager — coordinated with an agent of the Russian government to the Russian government’s apparent benefit.

Manafort, convicted of financial crimes and having pleaded guilty to conspiracy and obstruction charges, was ultimately pardoned by Trump shortly before he left office.

This week saw another development that spoke to the other way Barr gave Trump a pass. In response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), the Justice Department returned a heavily redacted memo that had ostensibly been used to inform Barr’s decision not to charge Trump with obstruction. CREW objected to the redaction because “whatever the contents of [the memo], it was not part of a deliberation about whether or not to prosecute the President” — since the decision not to prosecute had already been made.

Beyond the specific evidence for that claim, there was an obvious reason to believe it was the case. In June 2018, months before Barr was nominated to become attorney general, he sent an unsolicited memo to the Justice Department laying out arguments against the specific idea that Mueller could bring obstruction charges against Trump.

That aside, U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson found CREW’s arguments about the memo compelling — and, upon reading the memo itself, she agreed that it should not have been withheld because of any claim that it was deliberative.

“The review of the document reveals that the Attorney General was not then engaged in making a decision about whether the President should be charged with obstruction of justice; the fact that he would not be prosecuted was a given,” she wrote. The department’s claims about the memo “are so inconsistent with evidence in the record,” she said at another point in her decision, “they are not worthy of credence.”

The Washington Post’s Spencer S. Hsu, in reporting on Jackson’s decision, notes that this is the second time the Justice Department or Barr has been rebuked over the Mueller report. In 2020, U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton questioned the validity of redactions made within the report itself “in light of Attorney General Barr’s conduct and misleading public statements about the findings in the Mueller Report.”

Jackson went further, questioning Barr’s assertions about Trump in the four-page letter itself.

After the letter was released, Jackson wrote, Trump “declared himself to have been fully exonerated. The Attorney General’s characterization of what he’d hardly had time to skim, much less, study closely, prompted an immediate reaction, as politicians and pundits took to their microphones and Twitter feeds to decry what they feared was an attempt to hide the ball.”

Her characterization of Barr as having not had the time to offer a considered opinion of Mueller’s findings suggests that the ball was, in fact, being hidden.

It was always likely to be the case that time would erode Trump’s defenses surrounding the Russia probe. Mueller’s investigation had holes and, as years passed, those holes would be filled. But, of course, the effort to offset the implications of those new discoveries had already been set in concrete — firmly by Barr at the time Mueller completed his work and loosely by Trump as far back as January 2017.