The Vindicated and the Vanquished: The ‘Russiagate Skeptics’ & the Mueller Report – Part 3
By Will Banyan (Copyright © 18 October 2021)
“Good news, America. Russia helped install your president. But although he owes his job in large part to that help, the president did not conspire or collude with his helpers…”
David Frum, The Atlantic, March 25, 2019.
“I’m also confused as to why these self-righteous pundits are seizing on the conclusions of a man they slandered for two years as untrustworthy. Will they now apologize to Marine war hero and celebrated FBI Director Robert Mueller?”
Joe Scarborough, NBC Host, Twitter, March 25, 2019.
“I’m genuinely sorry if you spent the last 3 years believing a blatantly stupid partisan fairy tale ripped out of the pages of a primitive Tom Clancy novel & made it central to your worldview. I get that it’s upsetting & disorienting when it got revealed as a hoax. Look inward.”
Glenn Greenwald, Twitter, March 27, 2019
Continued from Part Two
In a Twitter tirade in late September 2020 in response to criticisms of the Mueller Report from former Bush speechwriter and neo-conservative ideologue turned-Never Trumper, David Frum, and former Mueller deputy Andrew Weissmann, who had been a key member of the investigation, a typically forgiving Glenn Greenwald lamented that “Conspiracy theorists can never be defeated…” True to form, he observed ruefully, they had “turned on Mueller rather than re-assess their beliefs” (Figure 1). He also criticized “liberals”, claiming that after not getting “the results they wanted for their dark conspiracy theory they feed on, profited off of, and disseminated for years”, they had “shift[ed] on a dime from ‘you’re not allowed to criticize Mueller’ to ‘Mueller is a coward’.” A point he sought to illustrate by retweeting comments from a number of largely unknown “liberals” describing Mueller as “no hero”, a “poor patriot”, and, of course, “a coward.”
Although apparently renowned for his consistent principles and self-proclaimed devotion to not being a “partisan hack”, Greenwald was not directing these cutting criticisms at his fellow Russiagate skeptics, both the “anti-anti-Trump” and avowedly pro-Trump “Deep State coup” theorists. On the contrary, he continued to rage against the “dangerous 4-year disinformation campaign cooked up by the CIA/FBI and disseminated through gullible, subservient media outlets”, whilst at the same time Greenwald was praising the “right wing media” for its coverage of the “many new documents & other major revelations relating to Russiagate and CIA and FBI’s behavior in the election.” Greenwald also directed his followers to a long twitter thread by conservative commentator Drew Holden, detailing how the “Dems & the media pushed the ‘Russian collusion’ narrative – absent any evidence.” In Holden’s telling this started with Hillary Clinton “whose team invented this smear”; these “fabricated allegations” were in turn promoted by senior Democrats and journalists supported by “clear coordination across multiple organs of the US government.”1
The sincerity of this critique of the “Collusion Truthers” apparent inability to engage honestly with Mueller’s conclusions can be easily tested. If Russiagate skeptics were somehow above the conspiratorial excesses of their “Collusion Truther” opponents, who have supposedly rejected Mueller’s efforts, then we should expect to find the Mueller Report the subject of widespread praise from the skeptics for its objectivity and attention to detail. Although one might anticipate some minor quibbles in some areas, its broader conclusions about Russian interference and the instances of outreach to the Trump campaign from “Russian affiliated individuals” would be largely uncontested—in effect these skeptics would graciously reverse their contrarian positions on each of these issues (see Part 2). Equally one might also not expect to see these paragons of facts and logic seeking to discredit the Mueller Report by proposing elaborate conspiracy theories about “Deep State” plots against Trump.
The trend, though, has been the exact opposite: the “Collusion Truthers”, have, save for a few notable exceptions largely accepted the Mueller Report, quite simply because it confirmed key elements of the collusion narrative: Russian electoral interference, including the troll farm and the hacking of DNC emails, and outreach to the Trump campaign by various Russian cut-outs. Some even maintained Mueller had implicitly validated the collusion allegations, but had been stymied by obstruction and deceitful witnesses. The “Deep State coup” theorists, in contrast, after initially welcoming Mueller’s headline conclusion – “the evidence was not sufficient to charge that any member of the Trump Campaign conspired with representatives of the Russian government to interfere in the 2016 election” (Mueller Report, Vol 1, p.9; emphasis added) – have gone on to dispute, at some length, the rest of the Mueller Report. They have, arguably, “turned on Mueller rather than re-assess their beliefs”, rejecting most of his findings as part of a “hoax” aimed at unseating Trump.
Breach of Trust
According to the Russigate skeptics, the Mueller Report was an unequivocal repudiation and rejection of the “Collusion Truther” theories about a conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign, consequently they must face this reality and accept its findings as fact. “By now you’d think promoters of the Russia-Trump 2016 collusion myth would give up from embarrassment,” observed the Wall Street Journal (Aug. 19, 2020), “but they’ve become like believers in the second JFK shooter on the grassy knoll.” The Journal noted that Mueller had spent “two years hunting for a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, only to concur with House investigators that there was no evidence.” “It is long past time for proponents of the Russia collusion conspiracy theory to back off,” argued Cato Institute Policy Scholar, Ted Galen Carpenter in May 2020, following the “damaging blow” the Mueller Report had struck against “the entire rationale for the Russian collusion investigation” “No reasonably objective observer can take the allegations seriously any longer”, he insisted. And yet, as Greenwald recently complained, “after Mueller closed his investigation saying he found no evidence to prove it & charged nobody with conspiring with Russia”, a number of “media people” had nevertheless “insisted they were right.”
The intent behind this criticism is to portray Russiagate proponents as unhinged conspiracy theorists who were incapable of admitting that Mueller’s report had refuted their Manichean imaginings. This is consistent with most negative characterizations of conspiracism in academia and popular commentary: that conspiracists subscribe to the logical fallacy that “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” According to British psychologist Rob Brotherton, for example, the “unassailable, irrefutable logic” of conspiracy theorists is that “absolutely nothing can disprove the conspiracy—even evidence to the contrary” (Suspicious Minds, pp.75-76). Further elaboration of this point is provided by Jovan Byford, a Senior Lecturer in Psychology from the Open University:
Conspiracy theories are essentially irrefutable: logical contradictions, evidence showing the opposite, even the complete absence of proof have no bearing on the conspiratorial explanation because they can always be accounted for in terms of the conspiracy. The lack of proof about a plot, or any positive proof against its existence, is turned around and taken as evidence of the craftiness of the secret cabal behind the conspiracy. It is seen as confirmation of the conspirators’ ability to conceal their machinations (The Conversation, Mar. 17, 2020).
A closer look at the responses of the much-maligned “Collusion Truthers” to the Mueller Report, though, suggests a more complex picture. Indeed, after the false start of the Barr letter, many “Collusion Truthers” discovered that Mueller’s full report had confirmed many of their suspicions and much of the media reporting about both the extent and the intent behind the Russian interference, and the Trump campaign’s receptiveness to that Russian assistance (Figure 2). The Mueller Report after all, did establish that “Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election” through two operations, the first a “social media campaign” that “favored…Trump and disparaged…Clinton”; and the second “computer-intrusion operations” against various entities associated with the Clinton campaign, with “stolen documents” that were then released. There were also “numerous links” identified between the Russian government and the Trump campaign; the Russian government believed it would benefit from a Trump presidency and had “worked to secure that outcome”, and the Trump campaign “expected to benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts” (Mueller Report, Vol. I, pp.1-2).
In short, the primary reason the “Collusion Truthers” did not abandon their theories was because the Mueller Report actually confirmed most of them, and even on the core question of “collusion” or conspiracy between Russia and Trump campaign, it established sufficient ambiguity to justify continued suspicion.
It is true that some key Russiagate proponents accepted the Trump camp’s initial headline conclusion of “no-collusion”. A key example was, Michael Isikoff, Chief Investigative Correspondent at Yahoo, and co-author with Mother Jones journalist David Corn of Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of the Russian War on American and the Election of Donald Trump (2018), a book which treated Steele Dossier as a reliable source. Ahead of the Mueller Report’s release Isikoff concluded the “Mueller report finds no collusion and must be accepted…” Appearing with Corn on MSNBC on March 26, 2019, Isikoff lamented that Mueller had indirectly refuted the version of events promoted by the Steele Dossier:
I think one of the reasons people were so surprised by the Mueller finding is that it undercuts almost everything that was in the dossier, which postulated a well-developed conspiracy between the Russians and the Trump campaign. That`s what got people worked up initially and we do have to acknowledge that, you know, that which was alleged has not panned out [emphasis added].
Most “Collusion Truthers”, though, including his co-author Corn, took the more nuanced approach, highlighting what Mueller had in fact proven. In Corn’s case he maintained that Mueller had demonstrated the Trump-Russia scandal was “neither a hoax nor a conspiracy theory.” He had “not exonerated Trump”, instead he had shown the President was “guilty of many serious misdeeds and transgressions.” In Corn’s reading, Mueller’s “long-awaited report” had merely confirmed what was already known:
that Donald Trump and his campaign privately interacted with Russia while Putin’s regime was preparing—and then carrying out—an attack on the 2016 US presidential election; that Russia’s goal (as early as the start of 2016) was to help Trump become president; that Trump and his campaign had good reason to believe Putin’s regime was behind the ongoing assault (but kept insisting Moscow was doing nothing); and that Trump and folks in his orbit have lied about much of this (Mother Jones, Apr. 18, 2019)
The most prominent example of this embrace of Mueller’s conclusions came from Hillary Clinton, simultaneously the primary target of both Russia’s electoral interference and the “Deep State” coup theorists, who credit her with birthing the “Russia Collusion hoax”. In a speech at Wellesley College in Massachusetts in June 2019, Clinton reportedly stated there were “two inescapable conclusions” draw from Mueller Report: “Russia conducted a sweeping and systematic interference into the 2016 election and…obstruction of justice occurred.” “You cannot read the report, chapter and verse, fact after fact, without reaching those conclusions”, Clinton said (Associated Press, Jun. 09, 2019).
A “first analysis” of the Mueller Report by contributors to the Lawfare site also failed to agree with the “cries of vindication” coming from the Trump camp. On the contrary:
No, Mueller did not find a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia, and no, he did not conclude that President Trump had obstructed justice. But Mueller emphatically did not find that there had been “no collusion” either (Lawfare, Apr. 18, 2019).
According to Quinta Juriec, Managing Editor of Lawfare, in a later piece:
Mr. Mueller tells a complicated story of “multiple, systematic” efforts at Russian election interference from which the Trump campaign was eager to benefit. And he describes a president eager to shut down an investigation into his own abusive conduct. This is far from, as the president put it, “no collusion, no obstruction” (NYT, Jun. 7, 2019).
New York Times columnist David Brooks in his somewhat restrained assessment, suggested that Mueller had exposed something that only fell short of a conspiracy:
The Mueller report indicates that Trump was not colluding with Russia. But it also shows that working relationships were beginning to be built, through networkers like Paul Manafort, Donald Trump Jr. and Roger Stone. More important, it shows that many of the Trumpists, the Russians and the WikiLeaks crowd all understood that they were somehow adjacent actors in the same project (NYT, Apr. 18, 2019; emphasis added).
Other commentators went further to assert that Mueller’s report not only confirmed Russian interference in the election, but had also provided circumstantial evidence of links between that effort and the Trump campaign. Alex Shephard in The New Republic (Apr. 19, 2019), for example, argued that Mueller clearly validated the collusion theory:
Even without clear evidence of criminal conspiracy, there’s plenty of evidence of collusion in what amounts to a consistently damning portrait of a campaign welcoming—and egging on—election interference.
Legal academics Barbara McQuade and Joyce White Vance, writing in Time (Jun. 24, 2019), dismissed as a “myth” claims Mueller had failed to find evidence of collusion. Although the conduct he reviewed “did not technically amount to conspiracy”, it was clear that Trump campaign members had “welcomed foreign influence into our election and then compromised themselves with the Russian government by covering it up.” In their summation:
Mueller found other contacts with Russia, such as the sharing of polling data about Midwestern states where Trump later won upset victories, conversations with the Russian ambassador to influence Russia’s response to sanctions imposed by the U.S. government in response to election interference, and communications with Wikileaks after it had received emails stolen by Russia. While none of these acts amounted to the crime of conspiracy, all could be described as “collusion.” [emphasis added]
Over at New York Magazine (Apr. 18, 2019), commentator Jonathan Chait asserted that Trump and Barr’s claims of exoneration were “at best highly misleading and at worst outright false.” The Mueller Report, he argued, is “the story of a crime that succeeded and a cover-up that quite possibly did too.” Although Mueller had “failed to establish ‘coordination’” between the Trump campaign and various Russian interlocutors, he had shown “both that Russia set out to help Trump’s campaign, in part by breaking American laws, and that the campaign expected to benefit from those actions, criminal and otherwise.”
Another RussiaGate theorist claiming vindication from Mueller’s magnum opus, was Seth Abramson, a Huffington Post contributor, former attorney, poet and currently an Assistant Professor in the Literary Arts and Studies Program at the University of New Hampshire, but also reviled by other commentators as the “reigning king of diarrhea tweeting” (Deadspin), a purveyor of “bizarre conspiracy theories” (The Atlantic), including a “fraudulent narrative” (Paste Magazine) on Russiagate. Notorious for his lengthy twitter threads, Abramson did not disappoint, producing a 450-tweet long twitter thread examining the Mueller Report’s key findings, which ended with this observation:
I’m just going to note that collusion occurred; other conspiracies are still being investigated; and the national security threat Mueller’s evidence clearly establishes is *unabated*.
In his subsequent book, Proof of a Conspiracy (2019), Abramson maintained the Mueller’s investigation had provided “overwhelming evidence that the Trump campaign colluded with Kremlin agents, even as it notes it cannot establish beyond reasonable doubt that the campaign conspired with the IRA or GRU in particular” (p.527).
At the same time, however, it is true that some “Collusion Truthers” and mainstream commentators were critical of Mueller, finding fault with both his findings and, as more information came to light, how the investigation was conducted. New York Times commentator David Leonhardt, for example, lamented although he had “conducted a thorough, fair investigation” of Trump and his campaign, Mueller had “ultimately failed to do his job.” Among Mueller’s failings were that he “ducked tough decisions”, by refusing to either clear Trump on some matters or conclude he broke the law on others, “[i]nstead Mueller tossed the hard decisions to Congress” (NYT, Jul. 24, 2019).2 The Mueller Report had “come up short in many respects”, argued Ronald Klain, then a former White House aide to Obama and Clinton (and now President Biden’s Chief of Staff); but Democrats had also “made a mistake to put so much confidence in it as a touchstone of accountability to Trump and his campaign.” Mueller’s failure to interview President Trump was a “grave tactical error”; and his decision not to charge Donald J. Trump Jr with campaign offenses ought to be “publicly debated” (Washington Post, Apr. 20, 2019).
British journalist Luke Harding, author of Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win (2017) had been a major booster of the Steele Dossier asserting that Steele was “regarded as credible” by the US intelligence community (p.25). Harding even claimed the “FBI had managed to verify some of Steele’s material” (p.212) and the Steele Dossier had “kickstarted” the FBI’s investigation. His initial reaction to the Mueller Report sought to put a positive spin on its findings, noting how it provided “compelling new texture” to interactions between Russia and the Trump Campaign:
The report concludes there was not an “active” criminal-level conspiracy between the Trump election team and Moscow. But the document contradicts claims of total exoneration made by Trump and his hand-picked attorney general William Barr, and provides fascinating new details (The Guardian, Apr. 19, 2019)
In 2020 Harding admitted to being “disappointed with the Mueller Report.” A key failing was that Mueller failed to explore the “whole issue of Russian money and Trump”, and the report was not accessible, “he didn’t tell the story.” He expanded on these criticisms in his latest book Shadow State: Murder, Mayhem, and Russia’s Remaking of the West (2020). Amongst Mueller’s faults was his: “lofty standard of proof” that focused on direct evidence of “coordination” between the Trump campaign and the Russian Government, rather than through cut-outs; his “ultraconservative” approach precluded charging Trump as a sitting president; it failed to “follow the money” by exploring Trump’s financial relationship with Russia; and finally, he had “failed as a storyteller and communicator to the nation.”
Taking a harder line was journalist Sarah Kendzior, who pilloried Mueller as a “weak-willed bureaucrat”, who carried out a “timid and plodding investigation”, one that “failed to interview key players, including Trump, and refused to indict its most dangerous parties, like Jared Kushner” (Hiding in Plain Sight, pp.202, 205). Jed Shugerman, a law professor from Fordham University, writing in the Daily Beast (Jul. 10, 2019) also dismissed the Mueller Report as a “failure…because it failed to get the law, the facts, or even the basics of writing right.” Among Mueller’s “errors” were that:
[F]irst, he failed to conclude that the Trump campaign criminally coordinated with Russia; second, he failed to indict campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates for felony campaign coordination…; third, the 10 acts of felony obstruction in Volume II fell flat among the general public because it lacked compelling context of these underlying crimes between the campaign and Russia.
Ahead of Mueller’s Congressional testimony, Shugerman took issue with Mueller’s “legal errors”, “confusing conclusion”, and his report’s curious “omissions”:
Volume I, on the campaign and Russia, also surprisingly omits key facts that the Mueller team revealed elsewhere in prosecutorial documents, which when put in context make a case for criminal coordination. For example, the Mueller team’s indictments of the Russian hackers showed a remarkable coincidence in dates between Trump campaign signals and Russian hacking and leaking efforts, often on the same day or even within hours. But the report itself either failed to note or failed to emphasize most of these (Politico, Jul. 22, 2019).
Also expressing frustration with Mueller was prominent “Collusion Truther”, Malcom Nance, a former naval intelligence officer, MSNBC contributor, and author of three Russiagate books: The Plot to Hack America (2016); The Plot to Destroy Democracy (2018) and The Plot to Betray America (2019). On the one hand, Nance claimed Mueller had validated his writings. “The Mueller report, when it finally came out, confirmed every word that I had ever written”, Nance explained to Salon (May 22, 2019). He later repeated this claim to the New Yorker (Nov. 24, 2019): “Every word of what I’ve put out there…has been proven true by the Mueller Report.” But on other hand Nance was also clearly disappointed in Mueller who had fallen short of the image of him as “patriot” and “someone who would never let the establishment get in his way.” As Nance lamented to Salon:
In reality, it turned out that Mueller was an institutionalist. He literally stuck to every guideline that was given to him in the face of all the evidence. Then Mueller pulled every punch that was thrown. Either he pulled it, Rod Rosenstein pulled it or Barr pulled it. I don’t know yet. I don’t know how Mueller thinks.
A similar game was played by self-styled “political journalist” Bill Palmer, publisher of the Palmer Report. For all his journalistic pretension, Palmer was widely derided by other commentators as a “hack” and “delusional narcissist” (James Jackson), a “crazed fanatical follower of Hillary Clinton” whose “Fake News site” (Greenwald), was given to “peddling conspiracy theories” (The Atlantic); and promoting “wildly speculative theories about Trump” (The New Republic). Palmer had confidently predicted that Mueller’s findings would be “absolutely devastating for Donald Trump.” Indeed, in his initial reading of the Mueller Report Palmer claimed it vindicated the media’s focus on Russiagate: “Mueller’s conclusions make clear that the media was correct to have focused on these matters…” It was only after subsequent readings that Palmer shifted his tone and accused Mueller of “pulling his punches” because he was an “institutionalist and constitutional conservative” who did not want to “rock the boat”, evident in his failure to charge Trump or others for either obstruction or coordinating with Russian representatives. A few months later Palmer dismissed Mueller as a “coward, wuss and a loser” who had “screwed us all by simply not doing his job”; his investigation had been a “years-long waste of time.”
Not In Your Lifetime
According to the skeptics, these “Russiagate propagandists” turned on Mueller because “he didn’t validate their conspiracy theories” (Maté); they also did not apologize when “Mueller came up with nothing”, noted Russia Today columnist Nebojša Malić, instead they “doubled down.” This was all part of the desperate “self-preservation tactic” by proponents of the “Russiagate conspiracy theory” to “salvage their credibility”, where they proposed a new storyline: “the conspiracy theory we pushed on you was correct all along, but Mueller was a coward and failed in his patriotic duty to say so” (Greenwald). But far from being the product of some conspiratorial derangement or a cynical attempt to save face, the critiques of Mueller’s investigation were mainly motivated by the obvious flaws and caveats in the Mueller Report, that were affirmed by dissenting members of Mueller’s team and by the report itself. Furthermore, while there are certainly instances where the existence of hidden information is assumed with no sound basis; in the case of the Mueller Report, however, there were strong reasons for the “Collusion Truthers” to make exactly that assumption.
First, within the Mueller Report there were numerous caveats suggesting its findings were not the final word on this affair. For example, although the phrase “did not establish” is used multiple times throughout the Mueller Report in regard to many of these specific allegations, the report also makes clear that:
A statement that the investigation did not establish particular facts does not mean there was no evidence of those facts (Mueller Report, Vol. I, p.2; emphasis added).
Indeed, the report confirmed the investigation had “identified numerous links between individuals with ties to the Russian government and individuals associated with the Trump Campaign” however, “the evidence was not sufficient to support criminal charges” (Mueller Report, Vol. I, p.9). The lack of “sufficient” or admissible evidence to pursue a prosecution on the core issues is a constant issue throughout the Mueller Report.
Contradicting claims from Attorney-General Barr and various pro-Trump commentators the Special Counsel’s Office (SCO) had all the information they could have possibly needed to complete their investigation, the final report explained that it was unable to draw a “complete picture” of the activities of those being investigated because at key points it did not have enough information (Figure 3). There were multiple reasons for this: not all the evidence was admissible; various individuals refused to testify; some witnesses “provided information that was false or incomplete”; communications had been deleted or encrypted; and as detailed in Volume II, Trump himself had sought on multiple occasions to obstruct the investigation (Mueller Report, Vol. I, p.10). On the matter of dishonest witnesses, the Report noted:
[T]he investigation established that several individuals affiliated with the Trump Campaign lied to the Office, and to Congress, about their interactions with Russian-affiliated individuals and related matters. Those lies materially impaired the investigation of Russian election interference (Mueller Report, Vol. I, p.9; emphasis added)
That certain persons of interest had lied and had sought to obstruct the investigation was repeated again in the consideration of prosecution and declination decisions:
The Office determined that certain individuals associated with the Campaign lied to investigators about Campaign contacts with Russia and have taken other actions to interfere with the investigation (Mueller Report, Vol. I, p.191; emphasis added).
Due to these “identified gaps”, the Office of the Special Counsel “cannot rule out the possibility that the unavailable information would shed additional light (or cast in a new light) the events described in the report” (Mueller Report, Vol. I, p.10; emphasis added).
Second, these arguments were reinforced by comments, both on and off-the-record, by members of Mueller’s team that they did find evidence of collusion, just not enough to justify prosecution. As former New Yorker journalist (and recently rehabilitated CNN legal analyst) Jeffrey Toobin noted in his book on the Mueller Report, True Crimes and Misdemeanors (2020), based on extensive interviews with members of Mueller’s team:
Certainly, Mueller found abundant evidence that Trump and his campaign wanted to collude and conspire with Russia, but they hadn’t been able to close the deal. Moreover, witnesses such as Flynn, Papadopoulos, and Manafort never came clean with Mueller’s office about the campaign’s ties with Russia which hamstrung the prosecutors’ effort to discover the truth. In simple terms, the report’s verdict was more insufficient evidence than innocent (True Crimes, p.300; original emphasis).
In his account of his time as lead prosecutor in the Special Counsel’s office, Where Law Ends: Inside the Mueller Investigation (2020), Andrew Weissmann makes a similar point in his rebuttal of Attorney-General Barr’s contentious letter:
Barr repeatedly stated that the special counsel “did not find” that the Trump campaign conspired with the Russian actors. What actually happened is that we did not find sufficient evidence of a conspiracy to bring a criminal case—which requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt. It is not true we did not find any evidence… (p.335; emphasis added).
For Weissmann the problem was that Trump’s concerted and deliberate obstructionism on a number of levels had been effective:
It is meaningless for the president to claim that our report is a total exoneration, and that we found no “collusion,” when he refused to be interviewed and dangled pardons to discourage key witnesses from cooperating with our probe—when, time and again, he kept us from finding all the facts (p.327; emphasis added).
Weissmann also claimed the investigation was incomplete, with numerous “gray areas and gaps in our evidence, and realms we decided not to investigate”, including:
the president’s financial ties to Russia; our failure to obtain the truthful cooperation of witnesses who’d been influenced by the president’s conduct in dangling the prospect of a pardon; what questions remained outstanding; what evidence we could not obtain; and our inability to interview certain other witnesses at all, up to and including the president (Where the Law Ends, p.264).
Even a short list of the blatant obstruction, dishonest and forgetful witnesses, prosecutorial missteps and missed opportunities strong suggests that Mueller’s evidence collection was not complete and comprehensive, hence its carefully qualified conclusions:
- Ivanka Trump was not interviewed about her role in the aftermath of the Trump Tower meeting because of fears within Mueller’s team that it would “play badly to an already antagonistic right-wing press” and also risked “enraging Trump, provoking him to shut down” Mueller’s investigation (Where the Law Ends, pp.117-118).3
- Donald Trump Jr refused to participate in a voluntary interview with the Mueller investigation, which in turn failed to issue a subpoena to compel him to appear before a grand jury (Where the Law Ends, pp.101-102 &118).
- President Trump, in his written answers to Mueller—actually composed by his lawyers—after successfully resisting giving an in-person interview, claimed he could not “recall” key incidents twenty-two times, had no “recollection” fourteen times, and could not “remember” three times. Trump also answered only one out of thirteen questions about the transition period and many of his answers, as Mueller’s team would tell Trump’s counsel, were “incomplete or imprecise” (True Crimes, pp.271-275; Mueller Report, Appendix C, pp.C1-C2). Mueller’s report would later claim a subpoena was unnecessary because the investigation had made “significant progress” in acquiring a “substantial quantity of information from elsewhere” to answer these questions(Mueller Report, Appendix C, p.C2), an assessment disputed by Weissmann who suggested the failure to pursue Trump’s obvious deceits was driven by fears of retribution from Trump (Where the Law Ends, p.279).
- Contrary to the speculation of some Deep State coup theorists and Trump himself, Mueller’s team did not undertake a “complete investigation into Trump’s finances and business dealings in Russia” (Where the Law Ends, p.264). According to Toobin, despite having the power to demand Trump’s tax returns and financial records, “Mueller decided to do neither. He did not examine Trump’s personal finances or obtain his tax returns” (True Crimes, p.163). Weissman recounts how Mueller backed off from investigating Trump’s finances after the White House became agitated when it learned the SCO had issued subpoenas to Deutsche Bank (though these actually targeted Manafort). Whatever financial investigation of Trump that was being contemplated was “put on hold”, though in Weissmann’s view, Mueller had actually “backed down” because examining Trump’s finances was “simply too incendiary; the risk, too severe” (Where the Law Ends, pp.147-48).
- Despite mentioning to both an Australian diplomat and the Greek Foreign Minister that Russia had “dirt” on Clinton it was prepared to release anonymously to help the Trump campaign, Papadopoulos “could not clearly recall” if he had also told the Trump campaign of this important detail; though he may have told co-chair of the Trump Campaign, Sam Clovis, “they have her emails.” Conveniently some Trump Campaign team members also “did not remember” (Stephen Miller) or “did not recall” (Clovis) if Papadopoulos shared this information with them (Mueller Report, Vol. I, p.93).4
- Roger Stone and Paul Manafort both repeatedly misled investigators, seemingly in response to the pardons that Trump was dangling (and delivered in 2020) (Mueller Report, Vol. II, pp.120-133). Stone told repeated lies about his communications with Trump and other members of the campaign on the Wikileaks email releases (Mueller Report, Vol. I, pp.196-197). While Manafort was also dishonest about his interactions with Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian national assessed by the FBI as having “ties to Russian intelligence”, to whom Manafort passed on campaign polling data (Mueller Report, Vol. I, p.133).
- Jerome Corsi, a professional conspiracist, was an unlikely but key link in the string of cut-outs between the Trump campaign and Wikileaks, managed by Roger Stone (on Corsi’s curious role see here, here, and here); also proved to be an unreliable witness. Repeatedly interviewed by Mueller’s investigators, Corsi offered “conflicting accounts” and “morphing” stories about his role in the Wikileaks email release and how he knew they had John Podesta’s emails (W.Post, Apr. 22, 2019). Mueller’s team prepared to indict Corsi for lying but he “stared them down and the prosecutors blinked” (True Crimes, p.268).
In terms of the “Collusion Truthers” response to the Mueller Report the pattern is clear: there was widespread acceptance of Mueller’s findings, even if they fell short on the core suspicion of a conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign. But because Mueller’s report had confirmed key elements of that narrative, coupled with the fact that the report acknowledged that many crucial witnesses had failed to cooperate, or had lied, or had inexplicable memory lapses, meaning it had not unequivocally repudiated the collusion thesis, there was no reason for the Russiagate proponents to completely abandon their views as demanded by some “Deep State” coup theorists and other pro-Trump commentators. Much to the obvious disgust of the Russiagate skeptics, the “Collusion Truthers” could quite legitimately accept most of the Mueller Report’s findings and claim vindication. Yet, according to the peculiar logic of the Russiagate skeptics, accepting Mueller’s findings was a sign of conspiratorial derangement, whilst rejecting them (as we shall see in Part Four) was a singular act of intellectual bravery, to be celebrated as an act of resistance against the “Deep State.”5
To be continued in Part Four
1 In one of many hubristic moments, Holden declared in his thread one need not “be a fan of Trump to be outraged about the Russian collusion conspiracy. But it’s a mark against your patriotism, your judgement, or your intellect if you aren’t” (emphasis added). And in what might be charitably described as a demonstration of profound ignorance of the past few decades, Holden also suggested that Clinton supporters should consider “how mad” they would be if, after she had “won an election”, they saw “your opponents and the media denigrate her for four years over allegations that never stuck.” Of course, the targets of Holden’s righteous ire were well-acquainted with such noxious conspiratorial mythmaking with the Clintons having been subjected to opportunistic and politically motivated Republican-initiated investigations into Whitewater and Benghazi, launched with the false promise of uncovering Clinton conspiracies; and claims by (current Trump confidant) Chris Ruddy that the 1993 death of Clinton White House aide, Vince Foster was not a suicide, (which in turn helped spawn the “Clinton Body Count” conspiracy theories); and as well as conspiratorial speculation by others that the 1996 aircraft crash that claimed the life of Commerce Secretary Ron Brown was not an accident.
The Clintons were not alone. Obama was the target of the “birther” conspiracy (which claimed Obama was not born in the US and thus ineligible to be President), largely driven by “Queen of the Birthers”, Orly Taitz, but also actively promoted by Donald Trump and by Deep State coup theorist and suspected Russiagate co-conspirator Jerome Corsi. More recent variations on these themes, aside from the Deep State coup allegations examined in this series, include the “Pizzagate” and “Qanon” metatheories, again targeting Democrats, with a special mention for the Clintons. It seems that amongst Republicans (Drew used to work for a Republican congressman) and other Russiagate skeptics, memories are remarkably short and selective when there is a need to confirm Trump’s belief he is history’s greatest victim and that conspiracism is a Democrat problem.
2 Leonhardt’s article was one of four examples cited by Greenwald (Mar. 16, 2021), (albeit only through a screenshot of the article title, Greenwald made no reference to the actual content of Leonhardt’s piece) as evidence of Russiagate proponents turning on Mueller for failing to confirm their theories. Aside from failing to honestly engage with Leonhardt’s arguments, Greenwald also implicitly misrepresented Leonhardt’s stance on Russiagate and Mueller’s findings. Far from being a hardcore “Collusion Truther”, Leonhardt had always been more cautious about what he thought Mueller would find. In 2017, for instance, he warned readers who believed the “worst about Trump” to “avoid jumping to unproven conclusions” about the Russia investigation (NYT, Oct. 31, 2017). On news that Mueller had finished his investigation Leonhardt noted: “So far, there is no clear evidence that the Trump campaign and Russian officials worked together to coordinate campaign strategy” (NYT, Mar. 22, 2019). Shortly after the release of the Barr letter Leonhardt argued that Trump critics should “accept the possibility—the likelihood, at this point—that his campaign did not work with Russia in a meaningful way.” He also warned “Progressives” not to “go down the Fox News road and start to adopt their own factually weak or outright false conspiracy theories…” (NYT, Mar. 25, 2019).
3 While the Mueller investigation was still underway, an article in Politico (May 01, 2018) speculated on why Ivanka had not been interviewed, citing the opinion of a number of former prosecutors and Justice Department lawyers that Mueller’s reticence to interview the First Daughter and White House policy adviser, was actually a “signal of his ‘don’t poke the bear until you have to’ strategy.” One former federal prosecutor suggested that “Mueller would know that trying to interview Ivanka Trump would be like lighting a match to the highly combustible Donald Trump.” Weissmann’s account appears to confirm this.
4 Reporting on the same information, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), found it “implausible” that Papadopoulos had not informed other members of the Trump Campaign about the claim by suspected Russian cut-out Joseph Mifsud that Russia had “dirt” on Clinton that it was prepared to release to help Trump’s campaign (SSCI, Russian Active Measures Campaigns and Interference in the 2016 U.S. Election, Volume 5: Counterintelligence Threats and Vulnerabilities, p.xi). And yet, in his book, Deep State Target (2019), Papadopoulos insists that he told the FBI on a number of occasions that he did not share Mifsud’s information “with anyone on the campaign” (p.139); that he did not have “a memory” of sharing that information and “never told anyone in the campaign about Mifsud’s tale” (p.179).
However, the reports from Papadopoulos’ FBI interviews in 2017, obtained by BuzzFeed News in January 2020, paint a different story of a deceitful rather than merely forgetful witness on this critical question. In an interview on February 17, 2017, for example, he flatly denied having told any “foreign government officials…about the Russians intent to disclose information during the 2016 Presidential campaign” or “anyone in the TRUMP campaign” (Leopold_Litigation_4th_Release.pdf, p.88). But in an August 10, 2017 interview Papadopoulos qualified this, stating that to “the best of his recollection”, he had not told anyone about the “Russians having dirt on CLINTON” (ibid, p.101). Then, in an FBI interview the next day, his story changed again:
PAPADOPOULOS stated to the best of his recollection he remembered [Trump campaign Co-Chair Sam] CLOVIS being upset after PAPADOPOULOS said, “Sam, I think they have her emails.” PAPADOPOULOS then reiterated he was not certain if that event actually happened or if he was wrongfully remembering an event which did not occur (ibid, p.108).
Papadopoulos’ slipperiness on this issue continued in other forums. In testimony before the House Judiciary Committee in October 2018, for example, Papadopoulos under questioning by a Democrat admitted his email to Stephen Miller the day after Mifsud told him about the “dirt”, which referred to “interesting messages from Moscow” may well have been an oblique reference to Mifsud’s revelation (Papadopoulos transcript, p.94). Questioned by a Republican, Papadopoulos pivoted back to the Greek Foreign Minister being the only person he shared this information with (ibid, p.96); or “knowingly told”, in another special formulation in answer to another Republican (p.210). Journalist Luke Harding noted that in a 2018 interview, cited in his book Shadow State, “Papadopoulos wouldn’t tell me if he passed the ‘dirt’ tip on to the Trump campaign.”
For his part, in one of his FBI interviews in 2017 (also liberated by BuzzFeed), when asked if he had “heard anyone discuss Russians having dirt on HILLARY CLINTON”, Sam Clovis said he “wasn’t aware of that” and did not think he would have been told about it (Litigation_6th_Release_-_Leopold.pdf, p.49). It was in his grand jury testimony later that year that Clovis recast it as a “did not recall”, as noted in the Mueller Report.
5 Again, Greenwald provides a sterling example of such sentiments. Speaking with fellow “progressive” Russiagate skeptic Michael Tracey soon after the release of the Mueller Report, Greenwald expressed disbelief that numerous journalists were “claiming vindication, even though the conspiracy theory that they’ve been pitching for two and a half years was just conclusively debunked.” Greenwald offered the theory that those journalists who were “continuing to propagate this conspiracy theory and pretend that they were vindicated rather than…shamefully discredited and debunked”, were perhaps beholden to a “collective pathology” because they were ultimately “unravelled and disoriented” by the “unexpected result of Trump’s victory.” Greenwald likened the Russiagate proponents to other more popularly derided conspiracists:
So, you say, Mueller looked for 22 months and he found nothing and they say oh that’s because they just destroyed all the evidence or because, Putin engineered it so that Trump through that Mueller couldn’t find it. No matter what you present them it just becomes further proof that they were right all again, it just, it’s like arguing with, you know, a birther, or a 9/11 truther or a chem trails believer, there’s there’s no evidence that you could ever amass that would extricate them from the conspiracy belief because it’s so central to their identity and way of understanding the world that they, they would rather die then then open their, their hands and let it go (Medium, Apr. 27, 2019; emphasis added).
Occurring in a lengthy exchange were Greenwald repeatedly claimed the Russigate “conspiracy theory…had its origins in the FBI and the CIA” and also misrepresented its findings (i.e. “discredited and debunked”, “found nothing”), Greenwald’s inability to see that his unqualified praise for those “Deep State” coup theorists who have rejected Mueller’s findings is at odds with these sentiments, remains remarkable.