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Mueller’s report paints a portrait of a campaign intrigued by Russian overtures

  • Author: Rosalind S. Helderman, Tom Hamburger, Karoun Demirjian, Rachel Weiner, The Washington Post
  • Updated: April 18
  • Published April 18

U.S. President Donald Trump, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands at the beginning of a meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki, Finland, on July 16, 2018. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

WASHINGTON - The outreach had begun by August 2015, when Donald Trump was a newly announced presidential candidate in a crowded Republican field and a Russian news outlet emailed a top Trump aide to request an interview.

It persisted through the next 15 months of the 2016 campaign and into the presidential transition, when a Russian banker back-channeled a plan for reconciliation between the United States and the Kremlin to the new administration through a friend of Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

The portrait painted by special counsel Robert Mueller in his report released Thursday is one in which, again and again, Russian officials and business executives offered assistance to Trump and the people around him.

The campaign was intrigued by the Russian overtures, Mueller found, which came at the same time that the Russian government was seeking to tilt the outcome of the race in Trump's favor.

The special counsel did not find any of the contacts between Trump associates and Russians constituted a crime. Mueller said his "investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities."

But the episodes detailed in his report show that Trump aides declined to forcefully reject the Russian offers or report them to law enforcement. Amid a growing awareness that Russia probably had hacked and disseminated Democratic emails, the campaign eagerly made use of the material - and its flirtation with Russian figures continued.

The “Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome,” Mueller wrote, and “the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.”

There were, Mueller wrote, "numerous links" between individuals tied to the Russian government and people associated with Trump. The special counsel said the communications consisted of business contacts, offers to assist the campaign, invitations for Trump and Putin to meet and for campaign aides to meet with Russian government officials, and policy proposals to improve U.S.-Russia relations.

"The number of meetings with Russians during the campaign was extraordinary and unprecedented," said Michael McFaul, a Russia scholar who served as U.S. ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration.

"I cannot understand why there were so many contacts," he added. "I would like to know more about motivations on both sides."

Various episodes detailed in Mueller's report were revealed in news coverage during the past two years.

But investigators laid out intriguing new details about those incidents - and also identified moments of interaction previously unknown publicly.

Overtures through business associates

Mueller wrote that Russian interest in Trump's campaign began soon after the celebrity mogul announced he was running for president in June 2015.

On Aug. 18, 2015, the editor in chief of an online news outlet called Vzglyad emailed Hope Hicks, a Trump campaign aide, to request an interview with the new candidate. The publication was founded by a former Russian lawmaker who days earlier had registered two pro-Trump websites in Russia, according to the report.

The interview apparently never took place - the first of numerous moments in which Russian outreach appeared to falter through happenstance, the hectic nature of the campaign or, at times, lack of interest from the Trump campaign.

"In some instances, the campaign was receptive to the offer, while in other instances, the campaign officials shied away," Mueller wrote.

At times, the Russians sought to make connections with Trump through business ties and his children's professional contacts.

Twice, longtime Trump attorney Michael Cohen fielded offers to build a Trump tower in Moscow during the campaign, even as the candidate was publicly claiming he had no business ties to Russia. Cohen reached out directly to the Kremlin for assistance with one of the projects, though it did not ultimately advance.

Later, a fashion world contact reached out to Trump's daughter Ivanka to pass along an invitation from a Russian deputy prime minister to attend an annual economic forum in St. Petersburg with her father.

Trump's assistant Rhona Graff declined the invitation but received a follow-up email from Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Prikhodko in March 2016 renewing the invitation, according to the report - perhaps the only instance during the campaign of a Russian government official directly reaching out to Trump.

Graff declined, noting Trump's busy campaign schedule, but added that he would otherwise "have gladly given every consideration to attending such an important event."

New York investment banker Robert Foresman used a connection to Mark Burnett, the producer of Trump's television show "The Apprentice," to try to pass along an invitation to the same event from a Russian presidential aide, the special counsel wrote.

In an email to Graff, Foresman wrote that he'd had an "approach" from "senior Kremlin officials" about Trump.

Foresman did not respond to a request for comment.

Mueller wrote that investigators did not locate evidence that Foresman reached Trump. The banker told prosecutors that he was merely trying to burnish his credentials with the campaign and not establish a Russian back channel to Trump.

In one of the best-known examples of Russia overtures, Russian business executives Aras and Emin Agalarov, who had hosted the Trump-owned Miss Universe pageant in Moscow in 2013, helped arranged a meeting for a Russian lawyer with Trump's son Donald Trump Jr.

Trump Jr. agreed to the meeting after being told the lawyer would share damaging information about Hillary Clinton as part of a Russian government effort to assist his father's campaign, responding: "I love it."

Mueller's team assessed whether the meeting violated campaign finance prohibitions on accepting foreign contributions. The special counsel concluded that charges would not meet Justice Department standards requiring that "admissible evidence will probably be sufficient to obtain and sustain a conviction" because it was not clear the offer of information on Clinton would have constituted an in-kind contribution and because it would be difficult to demonstrate that participants knowingly and willfully broke the law, the report said.

Campaign contacts

The Russians also sought to forge relationships with people involved directly in Trump's campaign - particularly through aides with their own connections to Russia.

One of the first contacts came through Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos, who was told by London-based professor Joseph Mifsud in April 2016 that the Russians had dirt about Clinton in the form of thousands of emails, according to court documents.

Mueller revealed in his report that Mifsud "maintained various Russian connections," including with people associated with entities involved in the Russian election interference operation.

The report delves deeply into the relationship between Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and figures in Russia and Ukraine with ties to Putin, revealing the extent of Manafort's efforts to leverage his role on the campaign to get work in Eastern Europe.

Immediately upon joining the Trump campaign in March 2016, Manafort instructed deputy Rick Gates to send memos announcing his appointment to four "friends" with Russia connections: three Ukrainian business titans and one Russian, the Putin ally Oleg Deripaska, the report said.

Soon after, Manafort told Gates to begin sending "internal polling data" to the business executives, the report said.

The man Manafort and Gates trusted to translate and disseminate the information was Konstantin Kilimnik, a longtime Manafort associate assessed by the FBI to have ties to Russian intelligence, according to court documents.

Gates told the special counsel he suspected Kilimnik was a "spy," a characterization Manafort disputed. In a 2017 statement to The Washington Post, Kilimnik denied ties to Russia intelligence.

That spring, Manafort briefed Kilimnik in person on the campaign. Kilimnik requested the second meeting, at a New York City cigar bar, to deliver a proposal from former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych that would guarantee Russian control over a new autonomous region in eastern Ukraine, according to Mueller.

Manafort claimed he dismissed the plan as crazy, but he continued to discuss it with Kilimnik through Trump's victory and presidency, the report said. In one email, Kilimnik wrote that with a "minor 'wink' (or slight push)," Trump "could have peace in Ukraine basically within a few months after inauguration."

Manafort, who was deeply in debt, told the special counsel he hoped to revive a once-lucrative consulting relationship with Deripaska and the Ukrainians. He denied bringing the peace plan to Trump or the campaign. The special counsel noted that Manafort lied repeatedly in interviews and before the grand jury about his interactions with Kilimnik, who could not be reached.

Meanwhile, Dimitri Simes, the Russian-born head of a Washington think tank, the Center for National Interest, who has advocated improved U.S.-Russian relations, had repeated communications with Kushner during the campaign, the special counsel found. Simes has numerous Russian government contacts, Mueller said.

Simes helped arrange an April 16, 2016, speech by Trump at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington that was attended by the Russian ambassador.

The report provided new details about an August 2016 discussion between Simes and Kushner to discuss how to respond to Clinton campaign criticism of Trump and Russia.

Before the meeting, Mueller wrote, "Simes sent Kushner a 'Russia Policy Memo' laying out 'what Mr. Trump may want to say about Russia.' "

In an email setting up the meeting, Simes also told Kushner about "a well-documented story of highly questionable connections between Bill Clinton and the Russian government."

Kushner forwarded the email to top campaign officials and met with Simes to discuss the matter, but he told investigators that he didn't believe Simes had provided anything that could be "operationalized" for the Trump campaign.

In an interview Thursday, Simes said that the information he discussed with Kushner came from U.S. government sources, not from Russia. He said the Mueller report was "on target in that it found there was no collusion but that there was Russian interference" in the U.S. election.

‘Don’t want to blow off Putin!’

Russian overtures to Trump world intensified after the election, Mueller found.

Putin was anxious after Trump's victory that he didn't know the new president's team better, Russian businessman Petr Aven told Mueller's investigators.

Aven, who sits on the board of Alfa Bank, said that in late 2016, Putin appealed to his country's most influential business executives to make contacts with the Trump transition team. Aven said the Russian president made it clear "there would be consequences" if they did not deliver, the report said.

In early 2017, Aven said, he met again with Putin and told him he had failed to build contacts with the Trump team. In subsequent meetings, the Russian president continued to press him to make further efforts, he told investigators. At one point, Aven told Putin's chief of staff he had been subpoenaed by the FBI and asked about whether he had tried to create a back channel between Russia and the Trump administration.

A spokesman for Aven declined to comment.

At 3 a.m. on election night, Hicks received a call on her cellphone from a man who said something about a "Putin call," she told investigators. The man, an official at the Russian Embassy, sent her a note the following morning with the subject line "Message from Putin."

Uncertain about the man's identity, Hicks forwarded the email to Kushner, writing, "Can you look into this? Don't want to get duped but don't want to blow off Putin!"

Two days before Trump's inauguration, the chief executive of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, Kirill Dmitriev, submitted a "a proposal for reconciliation between the United States and Russia" to Kushner via an associate, according to the report. Kushner gave the proposal to incoming chief strategist Stephen Bannon and incoming Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, but neither ever followed up before Trump and Putin spoke later in January, Mueller found.

Even after 22 months of investigation, the special counsel's team was unable to fully examine all the Russian contacts, Mueller said.

Some key players communicated using encrypted apps or ones that do not preserve records. Some witnesses provided false or incomplete testimony, and some could not be interviewed because they were overseas.

Among the remaining mysteries: the full story of a meeting at a Seychelles resort between Trump associate Erik Prince and Dmitriev, a Russian banker close to Putin, and why Manafort shared polling data with Kilimnik - and then lied about it. Prosecutors said they did not establish that Trump foreign policy adviser Carter Page, who was under surveillance for nearly a year, conspired with Russia. But they also said they were unable to fully determine his activities during a July 2016 visit to Moscow.

Page said Thursday he was not surprised.

"As I have been explaining for years, this was a big nothingburger," he said in an interview.

The special counsel indicated he believes there is more to learn.

“While this report embodies factual and legal determinations that the Office believes to be accurate and complete to the greatest extent possible,” Mueller wrote, “given these identified gaps, the Office cannot rule out the possibility that the unavailable information would shed additional light on (or cast in a new light) the events described in the report.”

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