Mueller’s Bombshells Are About Putin, Not Trump

Donald Trump meets Vladimir Putin at the opening of the G20 summit on July 7, 2017 in Hamburg, Germany. (Steffen Kugler/BPA via Getty Images)

The special counsel’s report reveals a disorganized government with unclear lines of authority—and not just in Washington –  MARK LAWRENCE SCHRAD//FP

For as long as the storm clouds of Russiagate have swirled over the Trump White House, the key question has been: What did U.S. President Donald Trump know, and when? Yet the report on Moscow’s interference in the 2016 presidential election written by special counsel Robert Mueller and his team and released to the public on Thursday confirms that he was focused on a related, but different, question: What did Russian President Vladimir Putin do, and when?

“The money trail is the most important part of the unanswered questions,” says former U.S. Ambassador to Russia…

Vladimir Putin has become the shadowy supervillain of U.S. politics: a seemingly omnipotent, five-dimensional-chess-playing mastermind subverting American society, sowing “chaos” across Europe, and subverting the entire world democratic order. Ever since Trump and his Democratic rival Hillary Clinton famously sniped about who was really Putin’s “puppet,” Putin himself has been conspicuously absent from discussions of potential collusion. Like Keyser Soze or Thanos, Putin is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere.

Since the 2016 election, investigative journalists have played the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game, except linking Trump to Putin, with varying degrees of futility. Trump-Michael Flynn-Sergey Kislyak-Putin? Trump-George Papadopoulos-Joseph Mifsud-Putin? Trump-Paul Manafort-Oleg Deripaska-Sergei Prikhodko-Putin? For those with an interest in the workings of Kremlin politics, one benefit of the Mueller investigation—and all of the intelligence tools at their disposal—is that it examines not only efforts emanating from the Trump side but those from the Russian side as well. In many cases—as the Mueller report suggests—those efforts did not always link up with one another, though perhaps it was not for a lack of effort.

The House Oversight Committee said the scope of Michael Cohen’s public testimony would be limited to President Donald Trump’s “payoffs, financial disclosures, compliance with campaign finance laws, business practices, and other matters.” | Drew Angerer/Getty Images
The House Oversight Committee said the scope of Michael Cohen’s public testimony would be limited to President Donald Trump’s “payoffs, financial disclosures, compliance with campaign finance laws, business practices, and other matters.” | Drew Angerer/Getty Images

In addressing Russian activities, the Mueller report begins by addressing the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency (IRA) troll farm, which intended to sow discord in U.S. politics. This section essentially summarizes the 2018 indictments of 13 Russian nationals associated with the IRA—and the man known as “Putin’s cook,” the oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, who bankrolled the operation. While much here remains redacted to avoid potentially harming ongoing investigations, the report concludes that “these operations constituted ‘active measures’ (активные мероприятия), a term that typically refers to operations conducted by Russian security services aimed at influencing the course of international affairs.” While the specific nature of the IRA’s relationship with the Kremlin remains obscured, the report does make reference to Prigogine’s publicly known ties to Putin.

The report then chronicles the operations of specific cyberwarfare units of Russia’s military intelligence service, the GRU, which hacked the Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee, then released their emails through DCLeaks, Guccifer 2.0, and WikiLeaks, which was “designed and timed to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election and undermine the Clinton Campaign.” While much of this section is likewise redacted to protect specific intelligence sources and methods, even what we’re left to read suggests a detailed knowledge of the inner workings of the GRU and Russian military intelligence, to the point that “evidence was sufficient to support computer-intrusion (and other) charges against GRU officers.” As with the IRA investigation, that the GRU—as a Russian government agency—got its marching orders from Putin is assumed rather than demonstrated, albeit with reasonable confidence.

Putin makes more appearances in Section IV, “Russian Government Links to and Contacts With the Trump Campaign,” which examines “whether those contacts constituted a third avenue of attempted Russian interference.” Not surprisingly, then, much of this section chronicles the efforts of members of Team Trump to contact Putin through his various intermediaries—both formal and informal—as well as the Russians’ desires to contact Trump. Much of these efforts are already public knowledge, including attempts by Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen and the Russian American businessman Felix Sater to woo Russian government officials for the Trump Tower Moscow project and the efforts of the Trump campaign staffers George Papadopoulos and Carter Page to forge back-channel links with the Kremlin.

However, the most fascinating insights into Kremlin politics come from the testimony of Petr Aven—the head of Russia’s largest commercial bank, Alfa Bank. Aven told the special counsel that he was one of 50 influential oligarchs who meet on a quarterly basis with Putin in the Kremlin, including around the time of the 2016 elections. Before every meeting, there would be a preparatory meeting with Anton Vaino, Putin’s chief of staff. Aven “took these meetings seriously and understood that any suggestions or critiques that Putin made during these meetings were implicit directives, and that there would be consequences for Aven if he did not follow through.”

According to the testimony, in a one-on-one meeting in the fourth quarter of 2016, Putin warned Aven that the United States might impose additional sanctions on Russia, Alfa Bank, and Aven himself, and that he should take all steps to protect all three. “Putin spoke of the difficulty faced by the Russian government in getting in touch with the incoming Trump Administration. According to Aven, Putin indicated that he did not know with whom formally to speak and generally did not know the people around the President-Elect.” Such evidence is clearly at odds with the imagery of Vladimir Putin as the all-seeing, all-knowing puppet master of U.S. politics.

One means of protection against sanctions Aven raised was reaching out to the incoming administration and establishing lines of communication, though “Aven described Putin responding with scepticism about Aven’s prospect for success.”

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