The Mueller Report: Not a clean chit

The Mueller Report: Not a clean chit

T.P Sreenivasan

The clean chit that Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller was reported to have handed to President Trump in March this year in his Report on the Investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential Election gave the President a good day, but it turned out to be illusory. It raised more questions than it resolved and left the question of impeachment of the President wide open. The Report basically established that no conclusion could be reached. There are smoking guns all around, but no one can find the rounds fired or those who fired them.

A Special Counsel Report recently confirms that the Russian government, through various proxies, carried out a multi-pronged campaign against the United States before, during, and after the 2016 election. These consisted of social media influence and infiltration operation led by the Internet Research Agency (IRA),

a cyber hacking operation carried out by the Russian military intelligence (GRU) and an infiltration operation of the Trump campaign.

The report describes in detail the inner workings of the Russian operation. The report is the most comprehensive account of how the Russian operation evolved over time, how successful it was in targeting and cheating Americans and the Kremlin’s motivation.

The Mueller report tells us the details of the e information operations. According to the Report, the IRA’s first step was to build a network of accounts. Its social media activities started in 2014, seeking to create individual impersonation accounts meant to look like Americans, particularly on Facebook.

The IRA created and expanded the audience by creating pages and content that were not necessarily political or even divisive, but simply meant to attract more attention to IRA-controlled pages and accounts. By early 2015, the IRA had turned to audience-building around divisive social issues by creating social media groups and pages posing as U.S. groups and activists. Then they turned this carefully built up network to a political forum. It was only once the IRA established its audience base that it turned explicitly to the U.S. elections around February 2016, with the explicit goal of undermining the Clinton campaign.

The next step was a move towards promoting the Trump campaign while further building the reach of the content. The focus remained primarily on criticizing Clinton until late spring 2016, when the IRA began to actively promote Donald Trump. At the same time, it aimed to further increase its audience by purchasing advertisements to promote its pages and reaching out via private messages to Facebook users prompting them to organize anti-Clinton rallies.

By the end of the 2016 election, the IRA “had the ability to reach millions of U.S. persons through their social media accounts” on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube, and Tumblr, according to the report, Facebook later estimated that IRA-controlled accounts reached as many as 126 million people, and an additional 1.4 million were reached through Twitter. On Twitter, the IRA followed a similar impersonation and audience-building strategy by creating individual accounts that would post content, which networks would then amplify. The U.S. media outlets quoted the IRA-controlled accounts as representing real American opinions.

Even after discovering such operations, Mueller could not reach a conclusion after examining about 10 actions by the President to determine whether he sought to obstruct justice. He found a concerted effort by Russia to interfere in the 2016 election, but did not find any criminal conspiracy between Trump’s campaign and Russia

Among the incidents that the special counsel examined was Trump’s decision to fire James B. Comey, the F.B.I. director, in May 2017, and an attempt by the President a month later to have his White House counsel, Donald F. McGahn II, fire Mueller.

He also looked at the President’s efforts to hide details of a Trump Tower meeting with Russians during the election and to pressure Jeff Sessions, then the attorney general, to reverse his decision to recuse himself from supervising the investigation.

Attorney General William Barr made no criticism of the President and instead offered an understanding interpretation of actions that Trump’s critics have said amounted to obstruction of justice.

He explained actions seen as impeding the investigation as a result of being understandably “frustrated and angered by his sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents and fuelled by illegal leaks.”

The greatest relief to the President came from the fact that Mueller questioned many stories that appeared in investigative reports from private agencies, which had gained currency during the investigation. The Report mentions some of the reports and rejects them as inaccurate. For instance, the Mueller report directly contradicted a story alleging that Mueller had evidence that President Donald Trump ordered Michael Cohen, his former attorney, to lie to Congress about his exploration of a potential Trump Tower Moscow deal in 2016. Some of the Guardian reports, which were believed to be true have also been contradicted.

Though the President claimed that the Report had exonerated him completely on collusion and obstruction of justice charges, the Report contains enough material to provoke a discussion on his role in the whole affair. For that reason, the President criticised Mueller's report again, alleging that the report should not have been "authorised in the first place," adding that it had been written "as nastily as possible.” "Despite the fact that the Mueller Report should not have been authorized in the first place……the end result is No Collusion, No Obstruction!" From his statements after the report became public, it appears that the President was pleasantly surprised about the mildness of the report.

The Democrats are now divided on the impeachment question as it is certain that the Senate will reject it and no purpose will be served by stirring the issue up at this time. They would rather wait for the charges to be raised at the next election campaign. More evidence on the Russian collusion may emerge by then. The President appears to be off the hook for now, though Mueller has not given him a clean chit.