Editor’s note: Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Eric Nalder read and re-read the Mueller report, watched the House hearings and decided the report needed a crib sheet and a book review. This two-part analysis is the result. This is part two.
I spent four decades examining government and legal documents, so I’m accustomed to murk, but the Mueller report on our 2016 election is too important for its contents to be lost on us.
Moreover, the work isn’t done. After reading the document two times, then dissecting its awkward language with investigative reporting tools, I went back to a single statement that troubled me: special counsel Robert Mueller cited the numerous ways that witnesses lied and hid evidence, then stated that his office “cannot rule out the possibility that the unavailable information would shed additional light on (or cast in a new light) the events described in the report.”
In so many places, the reader hits a dead end after following strong evidence regarding the Trump campaign’s interactions with the Russians attacking our election system.
In one example, the Mueller team successfully prosecuted Paul Manafort, President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman, for serving as an unregistered agent for a pro-Russian, ex-Ukrainian president who fled to Russia as an accused traitor.
During the campaign, in August 2016, Manafort’s client wanted candidate Trump to endorse a peace plan for Russia and the Ukraine. Manafort acknowledged the plan was a “backdoor means for Russia to control eastern Ukraine.”
Manafort arranged to receive the plan during a late-night New York dinner meeting in early August 2016 with a longtime employee, a Russian-Ukrainian political consultant with “ties to Russian intelligence” who was also receiving regular campaign updates and polling data. The two men used coded language and surreptitious movements to arrange their get-together. Why? We may never know. Mueller pulled up fast, arriving at no conclusion.
The report explained that Manafort stymied that part of the probe by permanently encrypting messages and lying to the FBI and grand jury after agreeing, in a plea deal, to tell the truth. In another case, no one could remember whether an early tip that the Russians were stealing Clinton campaign emails was passed on to the campaign by a foreign policy adviser. Documents were encrypted, emails were deleted, witnesses lied and others, like the president, wouldn’t talk.
Readers should note how often the investigation stalled on faulty memories, including the president’s own. His written responses to Mueller were littered with “does not recall.” Mueller opted not to subpoena the president because he was running out of time to write his report. Too bad. Some of the best reading comes when Mueller’s team unravels Trump’s public claims that he never ordered a White House lawyer to get Mueller fired.
On Wednesday, Mueller agreed with Rep. Adam Schiff, Democrat and chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, that criminality isn’t the only way to judge behavior that seems “unpatriotic” and “wrong.” Another standard is whether it is “ethical.”
If we read the report through an ethical lens, Mueller’s cautious and upright approach emphasizes, by contrast, the disloyalty and skullduggery described therein. When I tore the Mueller report apart and reassembled the anecdotes chronologically, it was more damning. The timing of Russian attacks with actions by the Trump campaign and Trump’s real estate operation are highly suspicious. Candidate Trump and his campaign chairman had financial incentives to deal with the Russians. There was a potential Trump Tower deal in Moscow and potential financial relief for Manafort from a Russian oligarch.
In the report, a Russian oligarch described to Mueller’s team how his government works; 50 oligarchs regularly meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin to plot and set policy. That I believe underlines what is at stake.
'Putin has won'
Dozens of Russian agents were involved in “defeating” our voting and electoral system, some in direct contact with Trump campaigners. In the wee hours when Trump’s election was announced, a player (name redacted) sent a message to a top-level Russian: “Putin has won.” Russian agents hired an unwitting American to pose for a photograph in front of the White House with a sign that said “Happy Birthday Boss,” apparently “delivering” America’s headquarters to him as a gift.
Mueller points out that Congress can impeach the president and the Justice Department can indict an ex-president for crimes committed in office.
If Congress doesn’t act, historians, journalists and litigants will write the next chapter.