Events of this week are making clear that the Spring of 2016 was a pretty important time in American politics. Let’s take a trip back in time and have a look at what we knew back then – and moreover, what we didn’t know.
By the Spring of last year, Donald Trump had survived the interminable string of clown-car Republican primary debates despite so-called slip-ups such as referring to the size of his dick. He had not only survived the early primaries, he had won most of the races in March and April. By May, he was the presumptive Republican nominee. Without a normal campaign staff or state campaign organizations,Trump had completely confounded the experts. He delivered unhinged performances at debates — and won them. He delivered one unhinged speech after another at rallies on the campaign trail — and got what the New York Times called $2 billion in free media for his troubles. He had exactly one endorsement from a congressional Republican, Jeff Sessions, and only one prominent supporter with any national security experience, retired general Michael Flynn. All that stood between him and the nomination was the Republican national convention. That’s what we knew about Trump in the Spring of 2016.
Here is what we didn’t know. We didn’t know that in February of 2016, lobbyist and former Republican campaign operative Paul Manafort began making moves to join the Trump campaign. By late March, he was on board as Trump’s delegate wrangler for the convention, along with his long-time aide and business associate Rick Gates. We didn’t then know about Manafort’s long association with former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. We didn’t know that in 2005, Manafort had signed a $10 million contract with billionaire and Putin-pal Oleg Deripaska to “greatly benefit the Putin Government” with a U.S.-based lobbying campaign. We didn’t know that Manafort would offer to provide “personal briefings” on the Trump campaign to his friend Deripaska. We didn’t know that Manafort would engineer the removal of the so-called “Russia plank,” which was critical of Russia’s seizure of Crimea, from the Republican party platform at their July convention. We didn’t know that Manafort and Gates had received as much as $75 million from their various business contacts in Ukraine and Russia and had been laundering that money through front-companies and banks in Cyprus.
We didn’t know that in early March, a 30 year old “energy consultant” by the name of George Papadopoulos was named by Jeff Sessions to Trump’s foreign policy advisory council, along with another “energy consultant” specializing in Russian oil and gas deals by the name of Carter Page. We didn’t know that Carter Page had been recruited in 2013 in New York by a Russian spy named Victor Podobnyy, who was recorded by the FBI telling another Russian spy, Igor Sporyshev, about a meeting he had with Page concerning the Russian oil and gas giant Gazprom: “I think he is an idiot and forgot who I am,” Podobnyy said. “He got hooked on Gazprom thinking that if they have a project, he could rise up.” Podobnyy and Sporyshev fled the United States to avoid espionage charges. Another Russian spy, Evgeny Buryakov was convicted and sent to Federal prison by New York U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara, who Trump fired from his job soon after he took office.
We didn’t know that after he joined the Trump campaign team, Papadopoulos would run into a London-based “Professor” by the name of Joseph Mifsud in Italy. We didn’t know that this obvious agent of Russian intelligence calling himself “Professor” Mifsud would show great interest in young Papadopoulos as soon as he learned he was part of the Trump campaign. We didn’t know that in late March, Papadopoulos would be introduced by Mifsud to a Russian woman he described as a “niece” of Russian President Vladimir Putin. We didn’t know that Mifsud would introduce Papadopoulos to another Russian who had close ties to Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, and that Papadopoulos would, with the knowledge of the Trump campaign, try try to set up a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. We didn’t know that over breakfast in London, Mifsud would tell Papadopoulos he knew some Russians who had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton and thousands of her emails. We wouldn’t know until July 22 what those emails contained, when WikiLeaks released them in an attack on Clinton’s candidacy for president.
We didn’t know that senior campaign officials told Papadopoulos to go ahead and set up a trip to Russia for a “low level” campaign official or to travel there himself. We didn’t know that the other Russia-connected foreign policy adviser to Trump, Carter Page, (according to an interview with Chris Hayes on MSNBC) would be copied on the email exchanges within the Trump campaign, and that Page would take just such a trip to Russia in July to give a speech to the New Economic School, where he would be reported to have met with Igor Sechin, the Russian oligarch close to Putin who is the head of the Russian state oil company Roseneft. We didn’t know that the FBI and U.S. intelligence were so shocked by Page’s behavior in Moscow that they would open a counterintelligence investigation of him and obtain a FISA warrant in an attempt to learn about his contacts with Russian government officials.
We didn’t know that on June 9, a meeting would take place at the Trump Tower headquarters of the Trump campaign between Donald Trump Jr., Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, and Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and four Russians who had been advertised as having negative information to share with them on Hillary Clinton. We didn’t know that one of the Russians at the meeting would be a lawyer by the name of Natalia Veselnitskaya, and that she would present a memo to the assembled Trump campaign officials that contained language about Russian sanctions that Russian Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had shared with California Congressman Dana Rohrabacher two months previously.
We didn’t know that members of the Trump campaign, including Campaign manager Manafort and chief foreign policy adviser Jeff Sessions, would attend an event at the Republican National Convention and meet with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, the first of a series of contacts between the Trump campaign and transition staff and Kislyak that would extend through the end of 2016 and into 2017.
In fact, way back in March, April, May, June, and July of last year, we didn’t know a thing about all of these contacts between members of Trump’s campaign and so many Russian citizens. We also didn’t know that not once did anyone from the Trump campaign pick up the phone and call the FBI and report that Russians were offering them material they had stolen from the Democrats.
We didn’t know any of this stuff about the Trump campaign and Russians last year, here is what Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller knows this year.
He knows what’s in the tax returns of Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, because he’s seen them. If Mueller suspects anyone else of money laundering, he will subpoena their tax returns and examine them, too.
There was nothing in the charges against Papadopoulos about who he told about the “dirt” and “thousands of emails” the Russians had on Hillary Clinton. But Mueller knows the names of those in the Trump campaign Papadopoulos told about the stolen emails, because the former Trump foreign policy advisor is cooperating with him.
Donald Trump Jr. described the meeting with Russians at Trump Tower as “such nothing . . . a wasted 20 minutes.” Jared Kushner claimed he was so bored he got up and left early. Campaign manager Manafort claimed he just ducked into the meeting as a courtesy. But Special Prosecutor Mueller knows why the meeting was a bust. Everyone from the Trump campaign already knew the Russians had the Democrat’s emails because Papadopoulos had told them. They knew the Clinton and Podesta emails would soon be released. They took the meeting with the Russians because they were looking for new dirt on Hillary. Mueller knows they quickly brought the meeting to a close because the dirt they were being offered wasn’t new.
Mueller knows that the claims by Trump that there was “no collusion” are hollow because he already has evidence of that collusion and the crimes that flow from it. He knows that Papadopoulos informed the Trump campaign about the emails Russia stole from the Democratic Party. He has a long list of the dozens of times Trump talked about the stolen emails in his campaign. Mueller knows what crimes were committed as a result of this collusion, and he is looking to prosecute somebody for them.
Mueller knows that charging Manafort and Gates with serious crimes that carry sentences of 20 years in Federal prison will incentivize them to reveal what they know about the Trump campaign’s connection to Russians. Mueller knows that announcing the deal he made with Papadopoulos will send a signal to all of those named and not named by Papadopoulos that he is coming after them, and he’s serious.
Mueller knows the contents of all of the other documents he has subpoenaed so far. Mueller knows what was said in the interviews with other witnesses he has conducted. And he knows the answer to the biggest question of them all. He knows why he didn’t charge Michael Flynn.
There are only two reasons Mueller didn’t charge Michael Flynn on Monday. The first is that he hasn’t finished with his investigation and he’s going to charge him at some point in the future. The second is, like he did with Papadopoulos, he has already arrested Flynn, charged him and made a plea deal. It’s known that Flynn failed to register as a lobbyist for foreign powers, a charge that Mueller has already brought against Manafort and Gates. It’s known that at the time Sally Yates reported him to the White House for lying to the Vice President about his contacts with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, Flynn lied to the FBI, a charge Mueller has already brought against Papadopoulos.
Michael Flynn spent more time with candidate Trump last year than anyone. Michael Flynn was the cut-out Trump used to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Michael Flynn was in the meeting at Trump Tower between Jared Kushner, Kislyak, and Sergey Gorkov, the head Vnesheconombank, the Russian state bank currently under U.S. sanctions. Michael Flynn knows everything there is to know about Trump and the Russians.
I think Special Counsel Mueller already knows what Michael Flynn knows. When it comes to Trump and the Russians, Robert Mueller knows what happened.