By Paul Sperry
Although Republicans were pleased that Special Counsel Robert Mueller said he was unable to establish a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia, they fear his practice of distorting facts during his investigation will color his final report, which Attorney General William Barr is expected to release to Congress in redacted form this week.
Democrats are convinced that it will show examples of â€œcollusion” between Trump and Russia, even if there was no evidence of a criminal conspiracy.
Seeking to manage public perceptions about the Mueller report as much as Democrats are, Republicans say their counterparts are bent on cherry-picking its detailsÂ to make it still look as if President Trump coordinated with Russia, part of their effort to keep the collusion narrative alive heading into the 2020 presidential election. They fear Mueller will make it easy for them to continue spinning that tale.
Senior Republicans on investigative committees on Capitol Hill, who have reviewed some of the same evidence Muellerâ€™s investigators have examined, complain that the special counselâ€™s team of mostly Democratic prosecutorsÂ shaded evidence in charging documents filed against a number of Trump associates for process crimes unrelated to collusion (mostly lying to investigators) to suggest a broad conspiracy. They say that the special counsel and prosecutors misled the court and the media by, among other things, editing the contents of emails to cast a sinister shadow on otherwise innocuous communications among Trump advisers and by omitting exculpatory information.
They cite charging documents filed against Trump advisers GeorgeÂ Papadopoulos, Michael Cohen and former Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn as examples.
â€œThe indictments that were made by the Mueller team are very questionable, and thereâ€™s pieces of them that read like Russian spy novels,â€ said Rep. Devin Nunes, the topÂ Republican on the House Intelligence Committee.
â€œThat was done on purpose,â€ he added, “to create a narrative to make the American people think, as they were indicting these people, that somehow this had to do withÂ collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.â€
For example, in filing false-statement charges against former Trump campaign adviser Papadopoulos in October 2017, Muellerâ€™s team included a footnote that said emails obtained by the special counsel revealed that a Trump â€œcampaign official suggested â€˜low levelâ€™ staff should go to Russia.â€
As the Senate Judiciary Committee pointed out in a secret letter to Mueller, the special counsel neglected to mention that the emails had been provided to it by the Trump campaign and they showed the campaign wanted someone â€œlow levelâ€ to decline these types of invitations.
Republicans have pressed their own doubts about Mueller. Last month, in another little-noticedÂ letterÂ to Barr, Senate Judiciary Committee investigators elaborated on the Papadopoulos matter and what they described as Mueller unfairly cherry-picking from internal TrumpÂ campaign emails.
The distortions led the Washington Post, CNN and other major media to â€œmisinterpret the nature of the internal campaign dialogueâ€ as attempts by the Trump campaign toÂ coordinate activities with Moscow,Â accordingÂ to Sens. Lindsey Graham and Chuck Grassley, the top Republicans on the committee.
Muellerâ€™s office declined repeated requests for comment. A spokesman for Sen. Dianne Feinstein, the top Democrat on the committee, did not respond to a request for a statement regarding Grahamâ€™s and Grassleyâ€™s concerns about Muellerâ€™s objectivity. Feinstein on April 11 joined five other Democratic senators in signing a letter to Barr accusing the attorney general of working with Republicans to “perpetuate a partisan narrative designed to undermine the work of the Special Counsel,â€ arguing that their doubts about the Russia investigation only serve “to legitimize President Trumpâ€™sÂ dangerous attacks on the Department of Justice and the FBI.”
But Republicans have pressed their own doubts about Mueller. Last month, in another little-noticedÂ letterÂ to Barr, Senate Judiciary Committee investigators elaborated on the Papadopoulos matter and what they described as Mueller unfairly cherry-picking from internal TrumpÂ campaign emails.Â They claimed that he and his prosecutorsÂ had cited only fragments of the emails in the chargingÂ documentÂ against Papadopoulos.Â And they pointed out that thisÂ “selective use” of the emails made it seem as if the adviser and the campaign were working behind the scenes with Russia, when in fact that was not the case.
Taken in their fullerÂ context, the emails showed Papadopoulos was in fact discouraged from meeting with Russians. Additional context showed that Papadopoulos, acting as a foreign policyÂ adviser, had conversations with representatives from multiple governments, not just Russia, and that his supervisor Sam Clovis, along with campaign chair Paul Manafort, had opposed any trip to Russia for TrumpÂ and the campaign.
Mueller left all of this out of theÂ complaintÂ he personally signed against Papadopoulos in October 2017.
Citing the misleading complaint, CNNÂ erroneously reportedÂ that â€œrecords describe an email between Trump campaign officials suggesting theyÂ were considering acting on Russian invitations to go to Russia.â€ The story also stated that the Papadopoulos charge was â€œthe campaignâ€™s clearest connection so far to Russiaâ€™s efforts to meddle in the 2016 election.â€
Papadopoulos said Rhee repeatedly threatened him, telling him he wasÂ â€œlooking at 25 years in prisonâ€ if he didnâ€™t cooperate with Mueller. Ultimately he pleaded guilty to making a false statement…
The following month, after Senate investigators had compared the emails quoted in the Papadopoulos filing with the full emails they had obtained separately from theÂ Trump campaign, they called Mueller out on the omissions, arguing he took information out of context.
â€œIn this matter, the public deserves to have the full context for the information the special counsel chooses to release,â€ then-Senate Judiciary chair Grassley wroteÂ Mueller in a four-pageÂ letter.Â â€œThe glaring lack of it feeds speculation and innuendo that distorts the facts.”
Mueller objected to the committee releasing the full emails at the time.
Papadopoulos said he handed over all his emails, text messages and other communications with the Trump campaign to Muellerâ€™s investigators. He said they shaded the emails to make it seem as though he was â€œvaguely connected with the collusion aspectâ€ of Muellerâ€™s case.
Also listed on the charging document against Papadopoulos was Mueller prosecutor Jeannie Rhee, a former top Obama appointee and Clinton donor who PapadopoulosÂ saidÂ was biased against him and had political â€œconflicts of interestâ€ investigating him and the Republican campaign. She was one of 13 registered Democrats on Muellerâ€™s team of 17Â prosecutors.
Papadopoulos said Rhee repeatedly threatened him, telling him he wasÂ â€œlooking at 25 years in prisonâ€ if he didnâ€™t cooperate with Mueller. Ultimately he pleaded guilty to making a false statement â€“ he claimed he did not know that Joseph Mifsud, the Maltese academic who had told him the Russians had â€œdirtâ€ on Hillary Clinton, had connections to the Russian government when, in fact, he did. There are no reports he tried to track down the â€œdirtâ€ or told anyone in the Trump campaign about Mifsud. Ultimately he was sentenced to 14 days in jail.
Formerly a senior adviser to Attorney General Eric Holder, Rhee was a partner at Muellerâ€™s old law firm, WilmerHale. In 2015, she defended the Clinton Foundation in a lawsuit that claimed it operated as a racketeering enterprise shakingÂ down donors in exchange for government favors. In 2015 and 2016, she contributed $5,400 to Hillary Clintonâ€™s presidential campaign.
In his newÂ book, â€œDeep State Target,â€ Papadopoulos revealed that the FBI investigator handling his case and leading interrogations of him was FBI lawyerÂ Kevin Clinesmith, whom the Justice Department inspector general last year exposed for anti-Trump bias. Clinesmith was kicked off the Mueller team in February 2018 afterÂ the inspector general alerted Mueller to instant messages he wrote on FBINet revealing he was â€œdevastatedâ€ over Clintonâ€™s loss on Election Day and would join theÂ â€œresistanceâ€ against Trump. He also called Vice President Mike Pence â€œstupid.”
Republicans say MuellerÂ used the so-called Moscow Project talks â€“ Trumpâ€™s hope to build or at least brand a Russian skyscraper — to connect Trump directly to Vladimir Putin during the campaign, whileÂ withholding from theÂ court details that would exonerate Trump of such collusion.
Republicans say the special counsel also demonstrated collusion bias in itsÂ complaintÂ against Trump National Security Adviser Flynn, former prosecutors say.
Mueller charged the retired general with lying to FBI investigators about his conversation with the Russian ambassador during the presidential transition, even though one of the investigators â€” noted Trump critic Peter Strzok â€” â€œhad the impression at the time that Flynn was not lying or did not think he was lying,â€ according to internal FBIÂ documentsÂ uncoveredÂ by Flynnâ€™s defense team.
In fact, former FBI Director James Comey has said Flynn provided truthful answers and wasnâ€™t intentionally misleading investigators on Jan. 24, 2017, when he wasÂ questioned by Strzok and another agent.
Mueller omitted the exculpatory information from the chargingÂ documentsÂ he filed against Flynn.
â€œFlynnâ€™s charges were made up so Mueller could get his Russian connection,â€ said former federal prosecutor and well-known Trump defender Victoria Toensing. â€œThe complaint he filed against Flynn isÂ warped.”
A third troubling example Republicans point to is the special counselâ€™s complaints against Trumpâ€™s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, which like other court documents included tantalizing hints of collusion that dissolved upon closer inspection. They say MuellerÂ used the so-called Moscow Project talks â€“ Trumpâ€™s hope to build or at least brand a Russian skyscraper — to connect Trump directly to Vladimir Putin during the campaign, whileÂ withholding from theÂ court details that would exonerate Trump of such collusion.
A closer reading of the November 2018 chargingÂ documentÂ filed with Cohen’s false-statement plea deal reveals that Mueller â€” who personally signed the document â€” omitted a fullerÂ accounting of Cohenâ€™s emails and text messages which, according to Capitol Hill investigators who have seen them, make the deal look far less nefarious than portrayed inÂ the filing and in the press.
OnÂ pageÂ 7,Â Mueller mentions that Cohen tried to email Russian President Vladimir Putinâ€™s office on Jan. 14, 2016, and againÂ on Jan. 16, 2016. But Mueller omitted the fact that Cohen did not have any direct points of contact at the Kremlin, and had resortedÂ to sending the emails to a general press mailbox.
â€œIt’s clear from personal messages he sent in 2015 and 2016 that the TrumpÂ Organization did not have formal lines of communication set up with Putinâ€™s office or the Kremlin during the campaign,â€ one Hill investigator said. â€œThere was no secret â€˜back channel.â€™â€
â€œSo as far as collusion goes,â€ the source added, “the project is actually more exculpatory than incriminating for Trump and his campaign.”
In the end, neither Putin nor any Kremlin official was directly involved in the scuttled Moscow Project, sources say. Moreover, neither Cohen nor Trump traveled to MoscowÂ in support of the deal, as real estate broker and Cohen business associate Felix Sater had urged. No meetings with Russian government officials took place.
Adam Schiff, now the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said Trump was dealing directly with Putin on real estate ventures during the campaign.
It was Sater, a Russian immigrant with a checkered past, who came up with the tower project idea inÂ 2015.
But the project never went anywhere partly because Sater didnâ€™t have the pull with Putin he claimed to have.
Sources who have seen Saterâ€™s still-secret transcripts of closed-door testimony say Sater, whom Cohen described as a â€œsalesman,” testified to the House intelligence panelÂ in late 2017 that his communications with Cohen about putting Trump and Putin on a stage for a “ribbon-cutting” for a Trump Tower in Moscow were â€œmere pufferyâ€ to try toÂ promote the project and get it off the ground.
Also according to his still-undisclosed testimony, Sater swore none of those communications involved taking any action to influence the 2016 presidential election. None ofÂ the emails and texts between Sater and Cohen mention Russian plans or efforts to hack Democratsâ€™ campaign emails or influence the election.
Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a conservative nonpartisan government watchdog group, said the criminal-information statement of offense against Cohen reflects political bias. He said theÂ special counsel appeared more interested in trying to draw connections to Russia than highlighting exculpatory evidence in what he called “a transparent attempt to try toÂ embarrass the president.â€
Major news organizations seized on Mueller’s misrepresentations.
CNN said the charging documents, which reference the president as â€œIndividual 1,” suggest Trump had a working relationship with Russiaâ€™s president and that “Putin hadÂ leverage over Trump” because of the project.
â€œWell into the 2016 campaign, one of the presidentâ€™s closest associates was in touch with the Kremlin on this project, as we now know, and Michael Cohen says he wasÂ lying about it to protect the president,â€ said CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer.
â€œCohen was communicating directly with the Kremlin,â€ Blitzer added.
CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin said the development was so â€œenormousâ€ that Trump â€œmight not finish his term.â€ At MSNBC, pundits maintained the court papers proveÂ â€œTrump secretly interacted with Putinâ€™s own office.”
â€œNow we have evidence that there was direct communication between the Trump Organization and Putinâ€™s office on this. I mean, this is collusion,â€ said David Corn ofÂ Mother Jones, co-author of â€œRussian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putinâ€™s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump.â€
Adam Schiff, now the Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said Trump was dealing directly with Putin on real estate ventures during the campaign.
Clinton supporter Rheeâ€™s name is the first listed under Muellerâ€™s signature as one of the prosecutors involved in the Cohen case, appearing at the end of the governmentâ€™s December 2018 sentencingÂ memorandumÂ filed against him.
Muellerâ€™s office declined repeated requests for comment from RealClearInvestigations.Â â€œThanks, weâ€™ll decline to comment,â€ spokesman Peter Carr reiterated Sunday evening.
Attorney General Barr last week pledged to Democrats that he wonâ€™t withhold any derogatory information about the president regarding â€œcollusionâ€ contained in Muellerâ€™s report.
But Republican lawmakers warn that if the special counsel’s juiced indictments are any indication, his report wonâ€™t be any more objective in detailingÂ underlying evidence and telling the whole truth about Trump campaign activities in 2016.
Still puzzling to many Republicans is why Mueller, reportedly a Republican himself, would feint criminal collusion findings.
Did prolonging his investigation influence the 2018 election results? Exit polling shows that 49% of voters â€“ nearly 1 in 2 â€“ said they believed the Trump campaign coordinated with the Russian government during the 2016 election.
Itâ€™s not hard to see why many of the partisan Democrats he hired for his prosecution team, led by Clinton booster and anti-Trump â€œpit bullâ€ Andrew Weissmann, would want to leave the impression Trump was actively cooperating with Moscow to steal the election from Clinton. But why Mueller?
Former prosecutors and investigators think Muellerâ€™s hidden agenda was to protect the institutions of the FBI and Justice Department, as well as the broader intelligence community the agencies increasingly had become a part of following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
They describe Mueller as â€œan establishment guyâ€ who spent some 20 years loyally working for the Justice Department and FBI, which had come under attack as politicized and even dirty for employing two standards in investigating Clinton and Trump during the 2016 campaign; they needed to be protected from what he viewed as a hostile takeover by the Trump administration, these people say
â€œWhy did Mueller take the job? Not simply to protect the FBI but the entire intelligence community that he was part of,â€ said veteran FBI agent and lawyer Mark Wauck. â€œItâ€™s hard to overestimate his interest in protecting DOJ from a Trump takeover.â€
â€œTo do that,â€ he added, â€œit would be helpful to not necessarily prove â€˜collusionâ€™ but show at least a colorable case that the IC could claim a reasonable belief in collusion.â€
Muellerâ€™s â€œhiring of extreme partisans suggest that the view of Trump was of an existential threat [to the IC] that had to be, at a minimum, neutered but hopefully dumped.â€
To that end, some suggest Mueller had a more Machiavellian plan: swaying the 2018 congressional elections to change the House majority and trigger impeachment hearings.
Former federal prosecutor and commentator Andrew McCarthy pointed out that Mueller knew he had no collusion case more than a year before the midterm elections, yet kept teasing collusion in court filings throughout the 2018 campaign.
â€œWhen Mueller closed his investigation, he almost certainly knew for about a year and a half that there was no collusion case,â€ McCarthy said, adding that, among other things, Mueller let the surveillance warrant on Carter Page lapse in early fall of 2017.
Did prolonging his investigation influence the 2018 election results?
Exit polling shows that 49% of voters â€“ nearly 1 in 2 â€“ said they believed the Trump campaign coordinated with the Russian government during the 2016 election.
Â© 2019 RealClearInvestigations.com. Reprinted with permission.