Mueller probe steams towards a critical conclusion

Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election took a significant turn with the recent indictment of longtime Donald Trump political adviser Roger Stone.

Stone, a self-proclaimed Republican “dirty trickster” with a history of inserting mischief into presidential elections, was charged with obstruction of justice and lying to Congress.

Mueller accused Stone of criminally concealing his communications with WikiLeaks, the activist website that collects and releases secret government, political or corporate documents. WikiLeaks first released thousands of stolen emails and documents from the Hillary Clinton campaign in July 2016. WikiLeaks obtained the stolen material from Russian government agents.

It was the modern day equivalent of the 1972 Nixonian era break-in of the Democratic National Committee office in the Watergate complex, only in 2016 the break-in was digital and the burglars were Russian government hackers. American intelligence agencies have determined it was part of Russia’s concerted effort to sabotage Clinton and help Trump.

Mueller contends that “a senior Trump campaign official was directed to contact” Stone prior to the second release of Clinton emails to learn more about what damaging information WikiLeaks had and when it would be released. WikiLeaks released the second batch of emails, hacked from the computer of Clinton campaign manager John Podesta, on Oct. 7, 2016.

Stone has pleaded not guilty.

Significantly, Mueller assumes in the Stone indictment that Trump’s campaign leadership had prior knowledge of WikiLeaks' plan to release the stolen campaign documents.

Stone’s indictment brings to 34 the number of people charged with crimes stemming from Mueller’s investigation.

Among those indicted are 13 Russian nationals who were employees of three Russian companies charged with executing a propaganda campaign using social media posts and online ads to assist Trump. They are charged with conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States, identity theft and conspiracy to launder money. It is illegal for foreign organizations to contribute donations or services to federal political campaigns.

Also indicted are 12 Russian military intelligence officers charged with hacking, stealing and passing the Clinton campaign documents to WikiLeaks.

Among the Americans indicted in the Mueller investigation, Stone is one of six former Trump campaign advisers. Five of the indicted former Trump advisers, excluding Stone, have entered plea agreements to cooperate with the special counsel. They include:

• Paul Manafort: The former Trump campaign chairman was convicted of financial fraud in the summer of 2018 for his consulting on behalf of Ukrainian politicians allied with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Manafort pled guilty before a second trial began in September and agreed to cooperate with Mueller. Mueller later told the presiding judge that Manafort reneged on that agreement by lying to the special counsel.

• Michael Cohen: Trump’s former personal attorney pled guilty last August to financial fraud related to his private businesses. Cohen also pled guilty to paying hush money during the 2016 campaign to two women who claimed to have had affairs with Trump. In November, Cohen pled guilty to charges of lying to Congress about a Trump Organization business venture to build a hotel complex in Moscow. In December Cohen was sentenced to three years.

• Michael Flynn: Trump’s former national security adviser pled guilty in December 2017 to lying to the FBI over his pre-and-post election meetings with Russian government embassy officials.

• George Papadopoulos: The former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser pled guilty in October 2017 to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian intermediaries to obtain negative information on Clinton. He only got 14 days.

• Rick Gates: The former Trump campaign aide and Manafort’s business partner was indicted on similar charges to those brought against Manafort. In February 2018, Gates pled guilty to making false statements to the FBI.

These arrests and indictments provide ample evidence of multiple interactions between Russian government operatives and top-level Trump advisers.

The big question, however, is whether Mueller has evidence of coordination, collusion or partnership between the Trump campaign, WikiLeaks and the Russian companies trolling social media on Trump’s behalf.

Beyond advanced knowledge of WikiLeaks' possession of the stolen emails, did the Trump campaign actively coordinate with WikiLeaks and/or the Russians to manipulate the 2016 election? Answering that question will be the key finding of the Mueller report when it is finally released. And released it must be.

Because on that question hangs the future of Donald Trump’s presidency.

 

The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Pat Richardson, Editorial Page Editor Paul Choiniere, retired Day editor Lisa McGinley, Managing Editor Tim Cotter and Staff Writer Julia Bergman. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.

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