Spearhead Analysis – 04.04.2019
By Syed Murtaza Zaidi
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research
When Donald Trump’s victory was announced to the world, there were many who were taken by surprise, especially when considering his vitriolic attacks on minority groups in the US, scathing comments about former Presidents and members of Congress, sexist remarks about various women, and his apparent fondness for the Russians. Never before had a Presidential nominee ever expressed opinions even remotely close to those espoused by Trump, and unexpectedly these very ideals became the basis of his appeal for his large vote base.
Once he had established himself in the White House, Trump went about putting in to action many of his campaign promises, like repealing Obamacare, building a wall on the US-Mexico border and developing a better relationship with his counterpart in Russia, Vladimir Putin. However, by October 2016, several intelligence agencies had started to report evidence of Russian involvement in the 2016 elections, and there were even reports of a possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence officers.
It was alleged that, on the behest of Putin, Russian intelligence units initiated an online campaign, of which the objective was to disrupt Hillary Clinton’s election campaign, assist the Trump campaign in gaining momentum in the polls, and sow discord amongst the general US populace. These allegations were later confirmed by the Director of National Intelligence office, and caused an uproar across the nation.
Democrats and liberals called for Trump’s resignation, while others talked of impeachment and fresh elections. The Russians were severely criticized for their involvement by major countries around the world, especially when it later emerged that they had used the same tactics of online manipulation to affect the outcome of the Brexit vote in the UK as well. It was soon revealed that the FBI had long been investigating possible Russian involvement in the US elections, and that they had some serious concerns about certain meetings that were said to have taken place between many of Donald Trump’s closest associates and suspicious Russian individuals.
As the FBI’s investigation into possible Russian involvement in the 2016 elections continued, new reports of collusion with the Trump campaign also came to light. At the time, the FBI’s Director was James Comey, and he publicly vowed to look further in to the allegations dogging the Trump camp. In particular, he was looking to charge Trump’s National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who was alleged to have delivered sensitive information to a Russian intelligence operative for a certain amount of money. Even though Flynn was fired shortly after by Donald Trump himself, Comey continued to view him as a prime suspect and a key cog in the investigation.
However, before Comey could proceed any further with his enquiries, he was also removed from his post by Trump. The reason behind his dismissal was said to be Comey’s inability to prosecute Hillary Clinton for her email scandal, and his insistence on investigating Trump and his associates with regards to their relationship with Russian operatives.
Sean Spicer, the White House Press Secretary at the time, reasoned that “by grandstanding and politicizing the investigation into Russia’s actions, James Comey created unnecessary pressure on our (Trump) ability to engage and negotiate with Russia”.
Later, excerpts from a meeting between Russian officials and Donald Trump revealed that Comey’s investigation into his affairs was the primary reason for his dismissal, with the President calling Comey “crazy” and “a real nut job”. Trump went on to tell the Russian delegation that he had faced a lot of pressure on their country’s behalf, but that by firing Comey he had ensured that he was “not under investigation” anymore.
This move was seen as an obstruction of justice by many, and there were calls for Trump’s dismissal of Comey to be investigated. As a result, the US Attorney General at the time, Jeff Sessions, was told to pursue the matter further. However, it soon emerged that Sessions himself was part of the Russian investigation, and was alleged to have met Russian officials sometime before the 2016 elections. Hence, Sessions had to recuse himself from the case, and the Deputy US Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had to take over the investigation instead.
Rosenstein chose Robert Muller, a former FBI Director and lawyer, to be the Special Counsel to investigate the possibility of Russian involvement in the 2016 elections, and whether there was any evidence to suggest that Donald Trump had obstructed justice by dismissing Comey, or colluded with Russia during his election campaign.
Robert Muller was officially appointed as the Special Counsel on May, 17, 2017, and his selection was lauded across the political aisle. Muller, for his part, took no time in getting down to work, and within a couple of months had managed to arrest his first high profile suspect, George Papadopoulos, who was a former Trump campaign adviser for foreign policy. He pleaded guilty for lying in an official FBI investigation and received a sentence of 14 days.
Soon, one after the other, many of Donald Trump’s former associates found themselves being summoned by the Special Counsel for questioning. One of the first and high profile indictments came in the case of Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chair, who was charged on a total of 25 different counts by Mueller’s team. These charges were related to his work with many Ukrainian politicians, and due to discrepancies in his finances. Of the two trials he was scheduled to take part in, Manafort was convicted on eight counts of financial crime in the first, but managed to avoid the second trial after taking a plea deal that reduced his sentence to a total of seven and a half years in prison.
Manafort’s conviction was followed by his junior business partner and Trump campaign aide, Rick Gates, who was convicted on similar charges to his boss. He also agreed to a plea deal, and to assist the Muller investigation in any way he could. Gates’ conviction was followed by Michael Flynn’s sentencing. Flynn was Trump’s former national security adviser, and in late 2017 he pled guilty to making false statements to the FBI, and is currently awaiting sentencing. Manafort and Gates’ associates Alex van der Zwaan, a lawyer based in London, and Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian political consultant, were also charged for obstructing justice and lying to the FBI.
One of Muller’s biggest coups was the arrest of Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s former longtime lawyer. In August 2018, he pleaded guilty to 8 counts related to various tax and bank charges, along with finance violations and a questionable taxi business. He was also indicted for campaign finance violations, relating to the hush money payments he made to certain women who were alleged to have had an affair with Donald Trump. Only a few months later, Cohen also accepted a plea deal in another case in which he was accused of lying to congress under oath regarding Trump’s efforts to construct a high rise building in Moscow.
Another longtime Trump adviser, Roger Stone, was indicted on seven counts in January 2019. He was accused of lying to the House Intelligence Committee about his concentrated efforts to get in contact with WikiLeaks during the election campaign in order to obtain incriminating evidence against Hillary Clinton, as well as tampering with a witness in order to cover his tracks. A Republican lobbyist, Sam Patten was also under investigation, but his case was handed over to the Justice Department after he agreed to cooperate with the government.
Finally, Muller also investigated questionable Russian businesses and citizens active in the US. 13 Russian nationals were arrested on conspiracy charges, with some even alleged to have committed identity theft to conceal their true identities from US authorities. These individuals, along with three Russian based firms, were accused of having led the campaign to manipulate the American voters through online propaganda aimed at disrupting the 2016 election cycle. Yevgeny Prigozhin was determined to be the main financier behind this scheme, using two companies to funnel money in to another firm called the Internet Research Agency that was later revealed to be essentially a ‘Russian Troll Farm’.
Additionally, 12 alleged Russian GRU officers, or members of the Russian military intelligence service, were indicted on charges related to the hacking and subsequent leaking of emails from the Democratic National Party in 2016. Their cases are still ongoing.
After over two years of exhaustive research and speculation, Robert Muller finally concluded his investigation, and submitted the final report to the Department of Justice on 22 March. After Attorney General Jeff Sessions had been asked to resign by Donald Trump in November 2018, he was replaced with the former Attorney General of the US between 1991 and 1993, William Barr. It was now up to Barr to assess the findings of the report, and either provide a comprehensive summary, or the report in full, to Congress and the American public.
Soon after getting the report, Barr sent a four-page notification to Congress, in which he gave a summary of sorts of the final report, and ended by quoting the Special Counsel, who apparently stated that “while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him”. This ambiguous statement was well received by Republicans and Trump supporters everywhere, but angered Democrats in Congress, who demanded to see the whole report in full, so that they could judge for themselves whether President Trump had been involved in any criminal activity or not.
Several democrats made efforts to pass a resolution in order to have the full report released before any information could be redacted or removed by Attorney General Barr; however, each one of their efforts was blocked by Republican and Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell. This move was quite frustrating for Democrats for various reasons, as explained by chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Jerrold L. Nadler.
He stated that “We — the members of the Judiciary Committee, the House of Representatives and the entire American public — are still waiting to see that report. We will not wait much longer. We have an obligation to read the full report, and the Department of Justice has an obligation to provide it, in its entirely, without delay. If the department is unwilling to produce the full report voluntarily, then we will do everything in our power to secure it for ourselves”. He also added that “the attorney general’s (Barr) recent proposal to redact the special counsel’s report before we receive it is unprecedented. We require the evidence, not whatever remains after the report has been filtered by the president’s political appointee”.
It is important to note, that as per the law governing the role of a Special Counsel, the Attorney General can choose to keep the final report confidential, and not share it with Congress or the public, if he so chooses. This is mainly due to the fact that the law is defined in only one small sentence, which states that “At the conclusion of the Special Counsel’s work, he or she shall provide the Attorney General with a confidential report explaining the prosecution or declination decisions reached by the Special Counsel”.
However, after severe backlash from the public and members of the Congress, Attorney General Barr finally announced publically that he would be releasing the full Muller Report within a few weeks’ time, stating that “I share your (Nadler) desire to ensure that Congress and the public have the opportunity to read the Special Counsel’s report” and that “Everyone will soon be able to read it on their own”. He added that “I do not believe it would be in the public’s interest for me to attempt to summarize the full report or to release it in a serial or piecemeal fashion” as it was over “400 pages long”.
Republican and Russian Reaction
Soon after the Muller report was released to the office of the Attorney General, Donald Trump was informed of its findings and the inconclusive conclusion that had been reached by the Special Counsel and his team. President Trump was visibly happy with the results, and called it an “illegal takedown that failed” and a “witch-hunt” that he had been subject to for the best part of two years. He claimed the report was enough for a “complete and total exoneration” of himself and his family and associates linked to the investigation.
Republicans all around the country were ecstatic with the results, with United States House of Representatives Minority Whip Steve Scalise, saying the report confirmed what everyone had known all along that “there was never any collusion with Russia” and that “The only collusion was between Democrats and many in the media who peddled this lie because they continue to refuse to accept the results of the 2016 election”. Ronna McDaniel, the chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, pointed out that the Democrats had already moved from “crying collusion to arguing that the Mueller report is just the beginning”. She added that the “The American people knew what a politically motivated smear campaign looks like, and that’s exactly what this is”.
Across the world, the Muller report also made news in Russia, with its final conclusion seen as a vindication for the Kremlin as well. The Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, stated that “We believe the accusations that continue to be made against Russia in terms of interference in the U.S. electoral processes are unfounded because even the brief information that is listed in the summary [of the Mueller report] has no basis”. He added that “It’s hard to find a black cat in a dark room, especially if it’s not there”. Alexei Pushkov, the chairman of the information committee at the Federation Council, gave an even more heated response, saying that “From the very start it (Muller investigation) was a biased, artificial, provocative, conspiratorial, designed-to-fuel-hatred towards Trump campaign” and that “Its second goal was to demonize Russia and prevent any US moves towards better relations with Moscow”.
It is hard to believe that a report that has not even been made public has led to such debate and strife across the political aisle. It is also surprising to see that after spending almost two years on the investigation, and after apprehending and sentencing so many of Donald Trump’s associates, that Robert Muller still did not possess sufficient evidence to incriminate the President or his family. It is even more astonishing that he also could not come to a concrete conclusion that could make Trump’s involvement, or lack thereof, in collusion or obstruction of justice, more transparent.
It seems that the only way that this situation can be resolved is if and when the full Muller report is released to the Congress and public, so that they may judge for themselves whether Trump was guilty or not. However, that is easier said than done. This is because, as stated earlier, the Attorney General has no compulsion to release the report at all, and also has the power to redact any information from the report that he so chooses.
In the end it will come down to Donald Trump and the incriminating evidence or data contained within the report itself. If President Trump feels that the information within the report is going to have a detrimental effect on his popularity and his upcoming reelection bid, then he will do everything in his power to shield the report from prying eyes. Democrats on the other hand will not rest till they have examined the report in its entirety themselves, and come to their own conclusions with regards to Trump’s involvement in colluding with Russia and obstruction of justice.