The special counsel investigation was often cast as a clash between President Trump and Robert S. Mueller III. But there was always a third player, for whom victory seemed assured no matter the outcome.
Russian President Vladimir Putin set this sequence of events in motion with a Kremlin campaign to destabilize American democracy. That operation and its aftermath inflamed partisan tensions in the United States, eroded public confidence in core institutions and triggered a two-year investigation that consumed the nation’s attention and much of the Trump presidency.
The investigation may be finished now that the bulk of the report has been released, but the political battle it has generated in the United States — and the advantage Putin sees for Russia in that infighting — appears far from over.
In a sign of the Russian leader’s confidence on that front, Putin could not resist preemptive gloating in the days leading up to Thursday’s release. The entire Russia inquiry, Putin said with a smirk last week, was like “a mountain that brought forth a mouse.”
Speaking at an event in St. Petersburg, not far from where Russian trolls unleashed torrents of disinformation on American voters, Putin dismissed the U.S. effort to understand what had happened as “complete nonsense intended only for the domestic audience and used for interior political combat.”
It is a self-serving assessment that fails to acknowledge significant costs to Moscow, but U.S. officials and experts find it hard to argue with the view of the United States as a nation beset by internal dysfunction and strife.
In the months after the 2016 election, there was debate among U.S. intelligence analysts on Russia about whether the Kremlin operation’s gains exceeded its costs — economic sanctions, the expulsion of diplomatic personnel and further deterioration in its relations with the West.
That debate has waned, current and former officials said, with most describing the outcome as an overall win for Putin. The United States is led by a Kremlin-backed candidate who frequently praises autocrats, disparages allies and — based on the findings in the Mueller report — sought repeatedly to thwart the Russia investigation.
The smug display in St. Petersburg was “vintage Putin,” said William J. Burns, who served as U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008. Putin “likes to be snarky when he sees an event breaking his way. The backdrop is his sense that [Russia’s interference in 2016] worked,” that he saw vulnerability in the fraying American political landscape and “was able to sow even further chaos.”
Though always bound to be contentious, the special counsel inquiry had the potential to create a clarifying and unifying moment for the United States, a chance to stop arguing over what did and did not happen and confront more difficult questions about why it was possible and whether it could happen again.
Instead, the Mueller report itself has become something to fight over, viewed from political extremes as either exonerating or damning to the president, fulfilling or failing to uphold the rule of law, affirming or discrediting the press and its coverage of Russia and Trump.
The Mueller report may provide a definitive record of what happened. However, “it’s not going to bring any closure,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a former senior U.S. intelligence analyst focused on Russia, now at the Center for a New American Security. “We’ll continue living in these two different realities.”
If anything, the report has caused additional splintering, with divisions coming into view between Mueller’s team and the Justice Department. While Attorney General William P. Barr has essentially declared that Trump is legally in the clear, the report suggests Mueller’s team believed it had found compelling evidence that the president obstructed justice — reigniting the prospect of aggressive follow-up investigations by Congress.
Setting aside the issues of collusion and obstruction, the country’s polarized view of the Russia investigation is perhaps most evident in connection to the least contentious of Mueller’s conclusions — that Russian interference in 2016 was real.
Much of Mueller’s evidence of this has been on public view for a year or more, contained in indictments that document how Russian intelligence agencies hacked the Democratic National Committee and how Russian trolls bombarded American voters with waves of false and divisive content on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms.
Yet, recent polls show most Republicans refuse to believe the evidence. When asked whether Moscow meddled in the 2016 race, more than half of GOP voters polled said Russia did not even try.
More than anyone, Trump has stoked resistance to that objective reality. It dovetails with a cynical worldview Putin expressed in his summit with Trump in Helsinki last year, when he declared that ground truth will never be known and that, despite all the evidence, “no one is to be believed.”
Because so many American voters seem to have adopted a Putin-like cynicism, few experts believe they will be swayed by additional details in the Mueller document.
The report describes an elaborately choreographed campaign of disinformation and manipulation that reached tens of millions of U.S. voters. It recruited unwitting Americans to spread divisive messages on Facebook and Twitter, with some of its posts recirculated by senior figures close to Trump, including his son, Donald Trump Jr., and national security adviser Michael Flynn.
The Mueller team, which enlisted the CIA and other U.S. spy agencies, gained such comprehensive insights into the hacking operations of Russian intelligence services that the report catalogues the cyberweapons they used to breach the defenses of the DNC, and traces how it turned the trove of stolen emails over to WikiLeaks to inflict maximum damage on Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee.
The chapters on Russian operations expand upon and augment the conclusions made public in 2016 and 2017 by U.S. intelligence agencies, providing evidence that is as close to irrefutable as the public is ever allowed to glimpse in the realm of espionage.
Russia’s election assault carried a more significant price than Putin may care to admit, mostly because of countermeasures imposed despite Trump’s seeming aversion to displeasing the Russian leader.
Moscow is increasingly isolated economically and politically. It has been hit with waves of economic sanctions, faces bipartisan hostility from the U.S. Congress and is flanked by European democracies erecting new defenses against Russian incursions — cyber and otherwise.
These consequences are on top of the repercussions Russia faced for its 2014 push into Ukraine. The U.S. military has ramped up the deployment of combat forces into Europe — a continent without a single American tank as recently as 2013 — while the Pentagon budget to deter Russia has grown by billions of dollars.
Every penalty for Moscow has been offset by developments that appear to advance Russia’s interests or expand its influence — gains that Putin and the 2016 operation cannot necessarily take direct credit for but have accrued like dividends.
Among them are Trump’s frequent disparagement of NATO and attacks on Western alliances, the United States’ perceived retreat from international commitments and human rights advocacy, and the extent to which domestic turmoil has diverted attention from challenges abroad.
U.S. intelligence agencies described Russia’s overriding objective in 2016 as seeking “to advance its long-standing desire to undermine the U.S.-led liberal democratic order” and erode “public faith in the U.S. democratic process.”
The Mueller investigation proceeded against the backdrop of ceaseless effort by Trump to blunt the inquiry and a two-year campaign by his supporters in Congress to discredit the Justice Department, depicting as corrupt an inquiry they now say exonerates the president.
The charged climate has rendered the Russia issue so radioactive that foreign diplomats arriving in Washington have been advised by foreign policy experts at Washington think tanks to avoid even raising the subject of relations with Moscow in conversations with the Trump administration, according to a participant in one such briefing.
Although the Mueller report has answered some key questions about Russia’s interference and interactions with the Trump campaign, it was never intended to serve as a 9/11 commission-style inquiry with sweeping judgments and proposed reforms.
“We’ve never had a serious bipartisan effort to investigate and bring in the practical questions to address what do you do to make sure it never happens again,” said Andrew Weiss, a former adviser on Russia in the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations who is now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Some foreign policy experts who are more optimistic said they hope the completion of the report will enable the country to turn a corner and the president to emerge from what he once called the Russia “cloud.”
“If, in fact, it really looks like there wasn’t anything — contacts, yes, but collusion, no — in some sense, it frees the Trump administration’s hand a little bit to try to have some kind of dialogue with Russia,” said Stephen Hadley, who served as national security adviser to President George W. Bush.
“But at the same time, we have to recognize the reality of what Putin and Russia are doing,” he said. “They are weaponizing corruption and technology as tools to undermine us and undermine democracies.”