Robert Mueller; Donald Trump (Getty/Salon)

Robert Mueller has not cleared Donald Trump’s campaign staff of colluding with Russians

Friday's indictment of alleged Russian trolls is only a tiny part of the Mueller probe, despite White House spin


Matthew Sheffield
February 17, 2018 12:53AM (UTC)

Responding to Department of Justice special counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment of 13 Russians and a secretive “troll farm” company for interfering in the 2016 election, President Donald Trump and his supporters have tried to frame the news as proof that neither Trump nor his former campaign staffers had deliberately worked with foreign actors.

In a public statement, the White House press office said that the president “has been fully briefed on this matter and is glad to see the Special Counsel’s investigation further indicates — that there was NO COLLUSION between the Trump campaign and Russia.”

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Trump reiterated the claim in a tweet:

Many of the president’s media fans made the point as well:

It is true that the indictments and a statement by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein indicate that prosecutors have no evidence that Americans knowingly worked with professional Russian trolls. But to claim that Mueller has somehow cleared Trump and his former campaign staffers of illegal conduct is simply untrue.

In the first place, collusion is not a crime. That’s almost certainly why the word has become the preferred term of Trump supporters eager to defend their president.

As the Washington Post’s Matt Zapotosky noted last October in a story that quotes a number of legal experts, it is not illegal for an American to work in a limited capacity to promote shared policy views with foreign individuals. Nor is it illegal for an American to exchange information about campaigns.

“There could be something out there that stinks to high heaven but it doesn’t make it a violation of the law,” Jacob Frenkel, a former attorney in a past federal independent counsel investigation told Zapotosky.

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In terms of Trump officials having colluded with overt or covert Russian government agents, we already know that it happened. Donald Trump Jr. has already publicly revealed that he, indicted former campaign chief Paul Manafort, and future top presidential counselor Jared Kushner had met with Natalia Veselnitskaya, an attorney known to have close connections to the Russian government, for the express purpose of obtaining secret, negative information about Trump’s 2016 Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.

We already know that Trump’s former foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos, has admitted to knowing about hacked emails stolen by Russians from Clinton’s campaign long before they became public information. And that Papadopoulos had been told about them by a Maltese foreign policy professor with ties to Russia. We also know that Papadopoulos’ former colleague, Carter Page, has admitted to having met with high-ranking Russian government officials during his time with the former Trump campaign and that he once described himself as “an informal adviser to the staff of the Kremlin,” the Russian government’s central seat of power.

We also know that Manafort worked for decades for various Eastern European politicians with strong ties to Russia, that he was millions of dollars in debt to several wealthy supporters of Putin, and that he had offered to provide “private briefings” to a Russian billionaire who is a close Putin ally.

There are plenty of other possible crimes that could have been committed by Trump or his former staffers during the course of their conversations with Russians or others working for them. One way would have been to encourage Russians to engage in criminal activity, such as by violating campaign finance laws by propagandizing Americans online as foreign nationals (the crime which Mueller on Friday accused the 13 Russians of doing).

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Some of Trump’s critics have also charged that he may have committed a crime in July of 2016 when he urged Russian hackers to “find” some emails that FBI investigators said had been erased from an illegal private email server once used by Clinton during her time as secretary of state. Last June, the White House dismissed the remark as a joke.

Beyond the fact that collusion isn’t a crime in and of itself and that former Trump campaign workers have already admitted to dialoguing with Russians, the reality is that the latest indictments are only a small portion of the Mueller investigation. Bloomberg News confirmed this explicitly on Friday, citing an unnamed person “with knowledge of the probe” who said that the special prosecutor was continuing his work into former Trump staffers’ connections to Russians.

We still do not know the full extent of the special counsel’s case against Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort. While he and his partner Rick Gates have been indicted on 12 separate counts of money laundering, conspiracy, and perjury, it’s almost a certitude that those charges are only the beginning of the ones that Mueller wishes to level against Manafort.

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Instead of being a complete case, the indictments appear to be part of an attempt to coerce Gates into testifying against Manafort and whoever else Mueller may have in his cross-hairs. That Gates is rumored to be close to a plea deal signifies that this is almost certainly true.

Mueller might also have a surprise or two for Jared Kushner, who has his own web of connections to Russian interests that is almost as extensive as Manafort’s. We also know that he was the White House official who instructed former national security adviser Michael Flynn to engage in secret talks with the Russian government before Trump had become president.

There's still a lot more to the Mueller investigation. We still don't know just what the prosecutor and his team will try to prove in court or what they will say in their final report. The president and his supporters may be terribly surprised if they actually believe their spin that this thing is over.

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Matthew Sheffield

A writer, web developer, and former tv producer, Matthew Sheffield covers politics, media, and technology for Salon. You can email him via m.sheffield@salon.com or follow him on Twitter.

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