Unanswered Questions in the Mueller Report Point to a Sprawling Russian Spy Game

The report documents a series of strange and still unexplained contacts between the Trump crowd and Russia.

Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump's former campaign chairman, leaves the federal courthouse after his hearing, Wednesday, Feb. 28, 2018, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Paul Manafort leaves the federal courthouse after his hearing on Feb. 28, 2018, in Washington, D.C.

Photo: Jose Luis Magana/AP

Throughout Robert Mueller’s two-year investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election, Paul Manafort had a target on his back. The former Trump campaign chair’s longstanding ties to powerful figures in Ukraine and Russia triggered intense scrutiny from Mueller, as he and his fellow prosecutors sought to determine whether President Donald Trump or the people around him conspired with Moscow to win the presidency.

Mueller saw Manafort as a central figure in his investigation and went after him repeatedly and aggressively; as a result, Manafort ultimately faced a variety of charges in federal courts in Virginia and Washington, D.C. Mueller offered Manafort a plea deal in exchange for Manafort telling the special counsel what he knew about Trump and Russia. But Mueller eventually grew angry because Manafort continued to lie to him. A federal judge determined that Manafort had violated his plea agreement, in part by lying about his communications with a longtime Manafort employee who the FBI assessed had ties to Russian intelligence. Manafort is now in prison.

In the end, Mueller’s investigators could not find evidence that Manafort coordinated his actions with the sophisticated Russian cybercampaign to help Trump win. But the report makes clear that there were many instances in which Mueller wasn’t able to get to the bottom of things and often couldn’t determine the whole story behind the Trump-Russia contacts.

In fact, the report documents a series of strange and still unexplained contacts between the Trump crowd and Russia. It is filled with unresolved mysteries.

One reason Mueller wasn’t able to answer many of the questions surrounding those contacts was that he had to navigate a blizzard of lies. “The investigation established that several individuals affiliated with the Trump campaign lied to [the Mueller team], and to Congress, about their interactions with Russian-affiliated individuals and related matters,” the report states. “Those lies materially impaired the investigation of Russian election interference.”

Some in the Trump circle, including Manafort and former national security adviser Michael Flynn, faced criminal charges for their falsehoods. In other cases, Mueller was blocked by the refusal of key figures to talk, while other potential witnesses were not credible or were out of reach overseas.

When it came to the infamous June 9, 2016 meeting at Trump Tower in New York between key members of the Trump circle and a Russian lawyer, for example, Mueller was unable to question the two most important participants. The president’s oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., refused to be interviewed by Mueller, while Natalia Veselnitskaya, the Russian lawyer, was in Russia and couldn’t be questioned. The report says that Mueller considered bringing campaign finance charges against some in the Trump circle who participated in the meeting but decided not to.

And what are we to make of the brief but mysterious interactions during the campaign between George Papadopoulos, a young Trump foreign policy adviser, and Sergei Millian, an American who was born in Belarus? Among other contacts with Papadopoulos, Millian sent him a Facebook message in August 2016 promising to “share with you a disruptive technology that might be instrumental in your political work for the campaign.”

The report notes that Mueller’s team was “not fully able to explore the contact because the individual at issue, Sergei Millian, remained out of the country since the inception of our investigation and declined to meet with members of [Mueller’s team] despite our repeated efforts to obtain an interview.”  (This isn’t the first time Millian’s name has surfaced in connection with the Trump-Russia case. During the campaign, Millian reportedly told an associate that Trump had longstanding ties to Russia and that the Russians were passing on damaging information about Hillary Clinton. Millian’s assertions ended up as secondhand information in the Steele dossier, an opposition research report on possible links between the Trump campaign and Russia compiled by a former British intelligence officer in 2016.)

In yet another instance, Mueller investigated whether anyone around Trump coordinated with WikiLeaks to release stolen emails from Clinton campaign chair John Podesta on October 7, 2016, about an hour after the Washington Post reported on an “Access Hollywood” audiotape of Trump using crude language about women. The release of the emails seemed designed to distract attention from the “Access Hollywood” tape, which had the makings of a major political scandal.

Jerome Corsi, a conservative author with close ties to Trump ally Roger Stone, told Mueller that he believed his actions prompted the quick WikiLeaks release, but Mueller’s report says investigators couldn’t corroborate Corsi’s story. The report doesn’t offer any other explanation for the release of the Podesta emails on what turned out to be one of the most important days of the 2016 campaign.

Special counsel Robert Mueller's redacted report on the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election is photographed Thursday, April 18, 2019, in Washington. The pages refer to former campaign chairman Paul Manafort. (AP Photo/Jon Elswick)

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s redacted report on the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. These pages refer to former campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

Photo: Jon Elswick/AP

Mueller’s frustration with Manafort’s lies reflects a major theme in the report’s account of the contacts between people around Trump and figures with ties to Russia. Although Mueller’s investigation “identified numerous links between individuals with ties to the Russian government and individuals associated with the Trump campaign, the evidence was not sufficient to support criminal charges,” the report states. It adds that “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.”

It’s important to remember that as special counsel, Mueller was trying to answer very narrow questions about whether contacts between the Trump circle and Russia were directly related to the Russian cybercampaign against the Democratic Party, and whether those actions violated federal law.

But that narrow scope may have obscured the possibility that the Russians were seeking to gain influence in the United States in many different ways at the same time. The reality is that every great power, including the United States and Russia, conducts many different intelligence operations simultaneously against its adversaries. The cyberoffensive against the Democratic Party, launched by the GRU, Russian military intelligence, could have been going on separately from a more diffuse Russian effort to gather intelligence and probe for influence in Washington.

The report makes clear that Manafort remained a frustrating enigma to Mueller. It’s not hard to read between the lines and glean that Mueller, the straight-arrow prosecutor, former FBI director, and former Marine, was revulsed by the international political consultant’s corrupt behavior and found it difficult to comprehend his willingness to work for Russian and Ukrainian oligarchs. In this regard, Manafort was a sort of object of fascination for Mueller.

Mueller had good reason to focus on Manafort. Before he joined the Trump campaign, Manafort made millions working for Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch with extensive international aluminum and power holdings and close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Rick Gates, Manafort’s former deputy, who pleaded guilty to conspiracy and lying to the FBI and agreed to cooperate with the special counsel’s office, explained that Deripaska used Manafort to install friendly political officials in countries where Deripaska had business interests.

Manafort’s work for Deripaska began in about 2005 and ultimately led him to Rinat Akhmetov, a Ukrainian oligarch who brought Manafort in as a political consultant in Ukraine for the pro-Russian Party of Regions. Manafort helped Viktor Yanukovych, the Party of Regions candidate, win the presidency in 2010. Manafort became a close adviser to Yanukovych until he was forced to flee to Russia in 2014 in the wake of the Maidan Revolution in Kiev that ousted his government.

With Yanukovych’s ouster, Manafort lost his meal ticket in Ukraine. By then, his relations with Deripaska had also turned bitter. Deripaska had invested in a fund created by Manafort that had failed, and he wanted his money back.

FILE - In this Sept. 19, 2014 file-pool photo, Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, shakes hands with Russian metals magnate Oleg Deripaska while visiting the RusVinyl plant in Kstovo, in Russia's Nizhny Novgorod region. D(AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press Service, File)

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, shakes hands with Russian metals magnate Oleg Deripaska while visiting the RusVinyl plant in Russia’s Nizhny Novgorod region on Sept. 19, 2014.

Photo: RIA-Novosti/Mikhail Klimentyev/Presidential Press Service via AP

By the time Manafort joined the Trump team, he was eager to make peace with Deripaska. The Mueller report says that right after joining the campaign, Manafort asked Gates, who had accompanied him into Trump’s orbit, to prepare memos for Deripaska, Akhmetov, and two other Ukrainian oligarchs about Manafort’s new post with Trump and his willingness to work on Ukrainian politics in the future.

During this period, Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian national and longtime Manafort employee, served as an intermediary between Manafort, Deripaska, and Yanukovych. The FBI has concluded that Kilimnik has ties to Russian intelligence; indeed, Kilimnik’s connection to Deripaska was through a Deripaska deputy who had previously served in the defense attaché’s office in the Russian embassy in Washington. While it is not known whether the Deripaska deputy, Victor Boyarkin, has an intelligence background, a position in an embassy defense attaché’s office is commonly used as cover for intelligence officers.

Manafort met with Kilimnik twice in the United States during the campaign. In one meeting, Manafort discussed with Kilimnik the political situation in the battleground states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota, according to the report.

Manafort also arranged for Gates to send Kilimnik updates on the Trump campaign, including internal polling data, which he asked Kilimnik to pass on to Deripaska. Manafort also communicated with Kilimnik about pro-Russian peace plans for Ukraine at least four times during and after the campaign.

Those frequent communications between Manafort and prominent people from Ukraine and Russia in the midst of the campaign certainly raised Mueller’s suspicions. But Mueller ultimately couldn’t find evidence of a connection between Manafort’s decision to give polling data to Kilimnik and the Russian cyberoffensive in the 2016 election. The special counsel and his team “could not reliably determine Manafort’s purpose in sharing internal polling data with Kilimnik during the campaign period,” the report notes, adding that “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, [Mueller’s team] could not assess what Kilimnik [or others with whom he may have shared it] did with it.”

Mueller’s investigators did not find evidence that Manafort passed along information about the Ukrainian peace plan he discussed with Kilimnik to Trump or anyone else in the campaign, or, later, to members of the Trump administration. But Mueller also notes that “while Manafort denied that he spoke to members of the Trump campaign or the new Administration about the peace plan, he lied to the [special counsel’s] office and the grand jury about the peace plan and his meetings with Kilmnik, and his unreliability on this subject was among the reasons that [the judge in his case] found that he breached his cooperation agreement.”

While the evidence Mueller gathered about Manafort may not have been sufficient to bring criminal charges, it does fit the pattern of information that might typically emerge in a counterintelligence investigation, which is very different from a criminal inquiry.

The Mueller report documents Manafort’s deep connections with Russians and Ukrainians, and shows that he shared internal campaign data with them in the hopes of winning their favor and “monetizing” his work with Trump. But the report also suggests that as Trump’s campaign chair, Manafort opened a secret backchannel with Russia for his own selfish reasons that had nothing to do with Russia’s efforts to help Trump win the election.

In one conversation with Mueller’s team, Manafort may have given the special counsel a candid answer about what was going on in his case: He made it clear that while Deripaska may not have played any role in the GRU’s cybercampaign, the oligarch still saw Manafort as a valuable long-term asset.

If Trump won, “Deripaska would want to use Manafort to advance whatever interests Deripaska had in the United States and elsewhere,” Manafort told Mueller. And Deripaska, remember, was very close to Putin.

In court documents, the Justice Department painted a similar picture of Maria Butina, the young Russian woman who has pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as an agent of the Russian Federation. (Butina was sentenced on Friday to 18 months in prison. After she completes her sentence, she will be deported.)

Butina was “not a spy in the traditional sense,” the Justice Department now says. Yet she was still part of a “deliberate intelligence operation by the Russian Federation,” according to an affidavit from a former high-level FBI counterintelligence official. She was in the United States to “spot and assess” Americans who might be susceptible to recruitment as foreign intelligence assets. In addition, she sought to establish a backchannel of communication to bypass formal diplomatic channels between Moscow and Washington.

Manafort and Butina may have been on two sides of a complex new kind of spy game that few outsiders understand.

Join The Conversation