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Robert Mueller’s “collusion” case so far, explained

Court filings about Cohen, Manafort, and Stone have alleged scandalous activities during the 2016 campaign.

Robert Mueller in 2013
Then-FBI director Robert Mueller, in 2013
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

President Trump keeps insisting that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has found “no collusion” between his 2016 presidential campaign and Russia. But a close read of what we already know about what Mueller’s been doing suggests at the very least, some very questionable things were going on during the campaign.

Mueller’s team has already laid out a startling story in indictments, plea deals, and other court documents that are full of new revelations about the Trump team’s contacts with Russia that year — contacts that have moved from suspicious to downright scandalous.

Special counsel Robert Mueller leaves a closed meeting with members of the Senate Judiciary Committee on June 21, 2017, in Washington, DC.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The special counsel has not alleged any sinister, high-level election interference conspiracy involving Trump himself and the Russian government. But, particularly in recent filings, he has laid out damaging facts on three major matters that certainly seem at least collusion-adjacent.

1) The business opportunity for Trump: The Trump Organization was secretly in talks for a potentially very lucrative Moscow real estate deal during the campaign, and Russian government officials were involved. Trump and members of his family were briefed several times on the project.

2) A key figure with shady Russia connections: Trump’s former campaign chair Paul Manafort had a history of illegal work for pro-Russian interests and was in debt to a Russian oligarch. Then, during the campaign, he allegedly handed over Trump polling data to a Russian intelligence-tied associate.

3) The hacked — and leaked — emails: Russian intelligence officers hacked leading Democrats’ emails, and WikiLeaks eventually posted many of those stolen emails publicly. Trump associates like George Papadopoulos and Roger Stone seem to have had at least some advance knowledge of this.

These revelations are all significant, and greatly change what we know about what happened in 2016. They tell us that while Trump was praising Putin on the campaign trail, he and his family were trying to make massive amounts of money in Russia. Meanwhile, Manafort was handing out his polling data for unknown reasons, and Stone was at least trying to get an inside line on the emails criminally stolen from Democrats.

We don’t yet know whether there’s more to be revealed about any of these. Mueller also hasn’t indicated how these pieces fit together to form a larger story, and he hasn’t yet assessed how much, exactly, the president knew about each. And there are other incidents, like the infamous meeting with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower, that the special counsel has not yet said a single word about.

But the bigger picture is that, however you define “collusion,” we’ve learned a great deal more about just what top figures in Trumpworld were doing regarding Russia during the election — and it’s far from being a “nothingburger.”

1) Trump pursued a major Moscow business deal during the campaign

After Donald Trump began running for president in June 2015, Michael Cohen — his longtime lawyer and an executive at the Trump Organization — embarked on a secret effort to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.

Last November, Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about that project, and Mueller has used Cohen’s criminal information and a subsequent sentencing memo to lay out facts related to the project. Namely:

The deal could have made Trump — and Cohen — lots of money: “If the project was completed,” Mueller’s team asserted in the sentencing memo, Trump’s business “could have received hundreds of millions of dollars from Russian sources in licensing fees and other venues.” They added that once Cohen began cooperating, he “explained financial aspects of the deal that would have made it highly lucrative for the Company and himself.”

Michael Cohen, longtime personal lawyer for President Donald Trump, leaves the US District Court for the Southern District of New York on April 26, 2018.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Trump and his family members were briefed on the talks: Cohen discussed the project with Trump personally at least four times, according to his plea agreement, and briefed Trump’s family members about it.

The Russian government got involved: We know that in January 2016, Cohen twice emailed Vladimir Putin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, asking for help moving the project forward. On January 20, Peskov’s personal assistant got in touch, and in a phone call, Cohen asked for assistance “in securing land to build the proposed tower and financing the construction.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and his press secretary Dmitry Peskov (left) attend a meeting at the Hermitage on October 3, 2018.
Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Trips to Russia were planned — but scrapped: At one point, Cohen asked Trump whether he’d be able to travel to Russia in connection with the project. In May 2016, Cohen texted an associate that he’d make the trip first, and Trump would do so “once he becomes the nominee after the convention.” Arrangements were made for Cohen to attend the St. Petersburg Forum in mid-June 2016, but days before it began, Cohen called off the trip. The deal, so far as we know, never ended up happening.

Importantly, Trump was either the Republican presidential primary frontrunner or the nominee-in-waiting all this time. He offered an unusually positive assessment of Putin on the campaign trail. It now seems likely this was motivated, at least in part, by Trump’s desire to score a major business deal in Russia.

2) Trump’s campaign chair, Paul Manafort, was compromised in all sorts of ways

Paul Manafort, a longtime Republican operative, joined the Trump campaign in March 2016, and a few months later he was put in charge as campaign chair.

There were three serious problems with that, Mueller’s charges against Manafort and other court filings make clear.

Manafort had skeletons in his closet: The GOP operative had spent much of the previous decade working for Ukraine’s pro-Russian political faction, including various oligarchs and Ukraine’s then-President Viktor Yanukovych.

Manafort made more than $60 million from this work — and hid much of it from the US government, laundering the money into the country through shell companies and dodging $15 million in taxes. He also coordinated an illegal unregistered lobbying campaign on the Ukrainian government’s behalf in the United States. (Manafort was convicted at trial for some of these crimes, and subsequently pleaded guilty to others.)

Manafort needed money: The second problem was that Manafort was in serious financial trouble. His patron Yanukovych had been deposed as president of Ukraine in 2014, and the Ukrainian money dried up.

As a result, Mueller has alleged, and Manafort eventually admitted, both before and after joining the campaign, Manafort made a series of fraudulent declarations to banks to try to get hefty mortgage loans. (He admitted the truth of these charges in his plea deal with Mueller.)

Paul Manafort arrives for a hearing at US District Court on June 15, 2018, in Washington, DC.
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Clearly, Manafort needed money by the time he joined the Trump campaign. But he took the Trump job unpaid. It’s also worth noting that Manafort was heavily indebted to Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, whom he had once worked for.

Manafort gave Trump campaign polls to Konstantin Kilimnik: Manafort had a years-long business relationship with a Russian associate, Konstantin Kilimnik, whom he’d worked with on his Ukrainian projects. And according to the FBI, Kilimnik has ties to a Russian intelligence service.

Manafort remained in contact with Kilimnik during the Trump campaign. And Mueller has alleged that in August 2016, Manafort shared the campaign’s private polling data with Kilimnik at a secret meeting in New York City. Many of the details of this accusation are still redacted.

So at the very least, Manafort was badly compromised due to his history of illegal work for pro-Russian interests and his financial troubles. And handing over the presidential campaign’s polling data to an associate tied to Russian intelligence is certainly highly inappropriate.

However, we don’t yet know what the purpose of transferring the polling data was — whether Manafort was merely trying to impress foreign oligarchs and secure future business and income, or whether he handed over the data in hopes it could inform Russian interference efforts.

3) Trump associates appear to have had at least some knowledge of Democrats’ emails that were hacked by Russia

The most visible, high-profile way the Russian government interfered with the 2016 election was through hacking and leaking leading Democrats’ emails. And we’ve learned, through Mueller’s charges, that some Trump associates appear to have had some information about what was coming.

The hack and leak: During the 2016 campaign, officers of Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, stole emails and other electronic documents from several leading Democrats and Democratic organizations — including the DNC, the DCCC, and several Clinton staffers, including campaign chair John Podesta.

The Russian intelligence officers publicly posted some of these stolen documents themselves — through a website they had set up called DCLeaks, and through an online persona they created called “Guccifer 2.0.” Other emails from the DNC and Podesta were eventually posted by WikiLeaks.

The Papadopoulos tip: In March 2016, George Papadopoulos, a little-known London-based energy consultant, was named a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign. Shortly afterward, Papadopoulos met Joseph Mifsud, a Maltese professor. Mifsud said he had ties to the Russian government, began talking with him about a potential Trump trip to Russia, and soon afterward introduced him to two Russians with ties to the country’s government.

Then on April 26, 2016, Papadopoulos heard a bombshell from the professor. Mifsud had just returned from meeting top Russian officials in Moscow, he said, and he’d learned that the Russians had “dirt” on Clinton. Papadopoulos later told the FBI that Mifsud specifically said Russia had “thousands of emails.” (At this time, much of the hacking had been carried out, but it was not yet publicly known.)

Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about these contacts, but it hasn’t been shown that he shared this tip with others in the Trump campaign.

Roger Stone, Jerome Corsi, and WikiLeaks: In June and July 2016, longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone — then supporting the campaign from the outside — allegedly informed top campaign officials that WikiLeaks had documents that would hurt Clinton’s campaign.

Then after WikiLeaks began posting its first such documents — the hacked DNC emails — a senior Trump campaign official “was directed” to get in touch with Stone and learn more about WikiLeaks’ plans, Mueller alleges.

Stone emailed an associate, Jerome Corsi, telling him to “get to” Assange and “get the pending” WikiLeaks emails. Corsi eventually responded with an email claimed that Assange planned “2 dumps,” including one in October. He also mentioned Podesta in the email, claiming he would be “exposed as in bed w enemy.” (At the time, it was not public knowledge that Podesta had been hacked.)

After that, Stone claimed some knowledge of Assange’s plans, both publicly and privately, including to Trump campaign officials like Steve Bannon. He also exchanged private Twitter messages with both Guccifer 2.0 and WikiLeaks, though the messages we’ve seen are brief.

But Stone later said he didn’t actually know anything about Assange’s plans and was just passing on hearsay he’d gotten from a separate source, radio host Randy Credico. Corsi, too, said he didn’t know anything and had just somehow guessed that Assange had Podesta’s emails. (Mueller indicted Stone for allegedly lying to Congress about this.)

Roger Stone arrives for his arraignment hearing at the the US District Court in Washington, DC, on January 29, 2019.
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

The full story of what happened here remains unclear. But at the very least, Stone was clearly trying to get in touch with WikiLeaks regarding the documents it had. There are some indications he knew the group had Podesta’s emails. And he was in touch with top Trump campaign officials about this operation to release Democrats’ stolen documents.

Closer to collusion — but scandalous in their own right

Again, Mueller has brought no charges against Trump officials for criminally conspiring to interfere with the 2016 election.

Regardless of what is still to come from Mueller — and what Mueller puts in his final report, which is rumored to be coming soon — the special counsel’s court filings have already revealed or shed more light on matters like the Trump Tower Moscow talks, Manafort’s Russian contacts, and Stone’s outreach to WikiLeaks.

Whether these count as “collusion” may be in the eye of the beholder. But they’re all scandalous in and of themselves — and should be treated that way.

For more on the Mueller probe, follow Andrew Prokop on Twitter and check out Vox’s guide to the Trump-Russia investigation.

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