What The Mueller Report Says About The Trump Campaign's Russian Contacts

Apr 18, 2019
Originally published on April 18, 2019 6:45 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

It was well known that the Trump campaign had a variety of contacts with Russian officials throughout the 2016 campaign. One of the big mysteries the Mueller probe was supposed to solve was whether any of those links crossed into criminal activity. NPR's Tim Mak joins us now to discuss what the Mueller report says about this. Hey, Tim.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey there.

CHANG: All right, so let's look at the top-line conclusion of the Mueller report - not enough evidence to charge anyone in the Trump campaign with conspiracy with Russia. Tell us more about that.

MAK: OK, so the Mueller report does not establish that there was criminal coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia. But in case after case, the report outlines in great detail efforts by figures in the Trump orbit - they were seeking to arrange meetings in Russia with Russian officials or even meetings between then candidate Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos made efforts to arrange a meeting between the campaign and the Russian government, for example, and told the special counsel's office that Trump was interested in meeting with Putin. There were multiple efforts by multiple officials to establish links between the Trump campaign and Russia but nothing that rose to the level of conspiracy or coordination, according to Mueller's team.

CHANG: OK. Now, Trump's team and President Trump himself maintained during the campaign and into the administration that they had no links to Russia, but that claim is contradicted by a lot of details in this report, right?

MAK: That's right. The Mueller report outlines in great detail that, in September 2015, Trump gave the go-ahead to his fixer, Michael Cohen, to negotiate with a Russian real estate development corporation. Throughout the campaign, Cohen briefed Donald Trump, Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr. about the Trump Tower project in Moscow. According to Cohen, Trump even agreed to travel to Russia during the campaign if it would help them with the real estate deal. And while this might have had an impact on Trump's views towards Russia during the campaign, the Trump Organization's Moscow project ultimately fizzled out.

CHANG: Now, what about WikiLeaks, which disseminated emails stolen by Russian government hackers? Former Trump confidant Roger Stone is now facing charges in a case in which he's described as having been a go-between who connected Trump and WikiLeaks. Tell us more about that case.

MAK: That's right. He's going on trial later this year, but Stone hasn't been charged with - he's actually been charged with obstructing an investigation and lying to Congress, not specifically with conspiring with the Russians.

CHANG: Right.

MAK: And he's pleaded not guilty. The interesting thing here is we don't know whether Trump's campaign and maybe even Stone knew in 2016 what we know quite clearly now, which is that WikiLeaks was working in concert with Russia's military intelligence agency. Here's what the Mueller report describes - Russian government hackers created front groups; they used those fronts to transfer stolen emails from the DNC and the chairman of the Clinton campaign to WikiLeaks; WikiLeaks then published 33 tranches of stolen emails during the last month of the campaign.

CHANG: I just want to take a step back. Multiple links here between Trump and the Russian government, but no coordination, no conspiracy. Is this then just a matter of the Trump campaign being willing to coordinate with or deal with unsavory characters but just ultimately being unable to?

MAK: Let me just give you one final example.

CHANG: OK.

MAK: The special counsel team looked into the president's comments urging Russia to find 30,000 emails from Hillary Clinton; they didn't find evidence that they actually got those emails, but they did find evidence that they tried to obtain them and failed to come up with them. This is a recurring theme in a long narrative arc about the Trump campaign and so-called collusion, right? The Mueller report shows that figures in Trump's orbit repeatedly tried to connect with the Russian government and at times were receptive to the idea of receiving assistance from the Russian government, but they were never really able to execute their efforts successfully.

CHANG: That's NPR's Tim Mak. Thanks, Tim.

MAK: Thanks a lot. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.