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The report written by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III is unequivocal on one of its most important points: Russia sought to influence the 2016 U.S. election in favor of Donald Trump. “The Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion,” the 448-page document states on page nine.
The report, released by the Justice Department on Thursday, does not make definitive conclusions in other aspects of its investigation. It did not prove that Trump’s campaign “conspired or coordinated with the Russian government” in its election interference activities and declined to reach a position on potential obstruction of justice by the president.
And yet, on the case of Russian interference, the report is clear: Russia intended to influence the election. That detail brings up a couple of big questions. First, what did Moscow want from a Trump presidency? And, secondly, did they get what they hoped for?
These are not new questions. But halfway through Trump’s first presidential term, with the U.S.-Russia relationship still in tatters, it’s likely many in Moscow will be revisiting them. Before the release of the report, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that Russian officials would read through it before deciding whether they should share it with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“It is America that is looking forward to the report’s release but we aren’t,” Peskov told reporters. But if Russian officials want to understand why Trump has failed to turn his sympathetic Russian rhetoric into action, they should read the through the report closely too.
Putin hoped Trump would revive the U.S.-Russia relationship. He was wrong. U.S. sanctions on Russia, clearly the biggest issue in that relationship, are not only still in place — they have been expanded. The Obama administration first installed these economic restrictions in 2014, following Russia’s support for separatists in eastern Ukraine as well as the annexation of Crimea.
As a candidate, Trump had suggested he would be open to relaxing sanctions against Russia and perhaps even recognizing Crimea. “We’ll be looking at that. Yeah, we’ll be looking,” Trump said in July 2016.
But rather than providing sanctions relief, under the Trump administration more sanctions have been placed on Russia. Some of these sanctions were put in place in direct response to the allegations of U.S. election interference. Others are broader: Last year, the U.S. implemented further sanctions due to Russia’s “malign activity around the globe.”
In total, 700 Russian people and companies are currently targeted by U.S. sanctions. Meanwhile, the United States has not recognized Russian control of Crimea. Instead, it has codified its position that the peninsula is part of Ukraine with the Crimea Declaration of July 25, 2018. And the Trump administration reversed an Obama-era decision to not provide lethal weapons to the conflict and began supplying anti-tank missiles to Ukraine.
Trump has also been a vocal critic of European nations who sought to get oil from Russia through the Nord Stream 2. “Germany, as far as I’m concerned, is captive to Russia because it’s getting so much of its energy from Russia,” Trump told NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg last July.
“Nobody has been tougher on Russia than I have,” Trump said last year. As former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul noted last year, that isn’t quite accurate: Trump himself often distances himself from policies that target Russia. But it is true that his administration is tough on Russia — perhaps tougher than any in the post-Cold War era.
Is there a bright side to a Trump presidency for Russia? Some critics say that Trump’s decision to pull out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces arms treaty with Russia this year was a win for Putin. Yes, perhaps, but it doesn’t match sanctions relief. Trump’s criticism of NATO and other U.S. alliances, as well as his wishes to pull troops out of Syria and Afghanistan, are clearly in line with Russian thinking; they’re also completely inconclusive so far.
Trump himself remains preternaturally inclined toward praising Putin and often undermines his administration’s own Russia policy. Last year, as he met Putin in Finland, he cast doubt upon his own intelligence agencies and suggested that the U.S. was partially to blame for the poor relationship with Russia. “I think that the United States has been foolish,” he said. “I think we’ve all been foolish.”
But the Mueller report helps explain why Trump’s rhetoric is so far from his actual policy. In the document, we see evidence of fumbles and failures, not necessarily of a grand conspiracy to collude with Russia. The campaign expected to benefit from information released by Russia, but, as Mueller notes, Russian offers of assistance often had trouble getting through.
A Russian proposal for a peace plan in Ukraine was conveyed to Paul Manafort, Trump’s initial campaign adviser, but it is unclear if it ever reached Trump; it was never acted upon and Manafort resigned months ahead of the election. Russia’s main point of contact for proposed sanctions relief, Michael Flynn, briefly Trump’s national security adviser, left Trump’s orbit after lying to the FBI over his contacts with Russian diplomats.
At points, this chaotic approach seems to have inadvertently benefited the Trump clan. In the case of the infamous Trump Tower meeting that Donald Trump Jr. attended in June 2016, ignorance of the law may be the only reason it wasn’t illegal. Mueller also notes that Trump ordered his staff to undertake many actions that could been obstruction of justice: they often didn’t do it, potentially saving their boss from legal peril.
Meanwhile, scrutiny of Trump’s links to Moscow may have hemmed in his actual ability to make concessions in Russia’s favor. The American president may be willing to make big bold decisions in other aspects of foreign policy, but he recognized the danger Mueller’s investigation posed to him (“I’m fucked,” is how he put it, according to the Special Counsel’s memo).
Perhaps that’s why the Kremlin isn’t keen to read Mueller’s report. Its intervention in American politics has provided no clear upside: Many Americans feel that the Trump candidacy has made their country weaker. Russians may feel the same too.