Mueller's final report: Russian collusion or Russian manipulation?

Mueller's final report: Russian collusion or Russian manipulation?
© Getty Images

Risking opposition party appropriation, President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - White House, Congress: Urgency of now around budget GOP presses Trump to make a deal on spending Democrats wary of handing Trump a win on infrastructure MORE started swearing like a freshman Democrat this weekend while taking swings at the Russia-collusion investigation of special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerSasse: US should applaud choice of Mueller to lead Russia probe MORE.

He sounded like a man who feels confident and anticipates a favorable outcome. Things are rarely that cut and dried in Washington, but there are several factors that may support such a conclusion.

ADVERTISEMENT

Let’s face it, Mueller was handed a steaming pile of manure to start with. He inherited a train wreck of a counterintelligence case against U.S. persons (the Trump campaign), personally opened and run by the fired director and deputy director of the FBI, that didn’t meet basic thresholds of legitimacy.  

By their own words, these two failed FBI leaders have revealed their biases and animus towards the president and reinforced perceptions that the bureau was used by one political party against another. It’s the ultimate nightmare for the FBI and, by extension, the American people.

To Mueller’s probable dismay, they both have conducted a Magical Mutiny Tour through friendly media outlets hawking their books for personal profit and trashing the president while the investigation is ongoing.  

It is shameful and deeply embarrassing to most working FBI agents, past and present, who have never witnessed such behavior from senior executives in the bureau and, hopefully, never will again.

McCabe, in particular, was damaging to the special counsel investigation. He revealed that he went on a case-opening tantrum after Comey was fired, initiating an obstruction of justice criminal case and a separate counterintelligence case specifically against the president.

In between casting himself as a victim, as he was cuddled on “60 Minutes” and “The View,” he listed a half-dozen reasons justifying his opening of the cases that were either untrue or laughable and, in the aggregate, legally insufficient to open. He topped it off by admitting his goofy participation in 25th Amendment discussions. None of this was helpful to Mueller.

---

RELATED STORIES FROM THE HILL

---

To make matters worse, the special counsel’s formal marching orders came by way of a poorly written memo authored by Deputy Attorney General Rod RosensteinRod RosensteinKlobuchar: 'Don't think' there are reasons to investigate Mueller probe's origins Democrats are running out of stunts to pull from impeachment playbook Barr dismisses contempt vote as part of 'political circus' MORE on May 17, 2017, that did not give Mueller a solid foundation to stand on.  

Mueller was asked to examine Russian efforts to interfere with the 2016 election — that part is fine — but also any “links or coordination” between the Russian government and the Trump campaign. That part is not OK; “links or coordination” does not satisfy the attorney general’s own guidelines for conducting a counterintelligence investigation against U.S. persons.  

That means Mueller was handicapped from the get-go by his primary counterintelligence mandate — and perhaps that is why he has focused so intensively on criminal charges that presented themselves.  

Other factors that may have given him pause include Comey’s and McCabe’s aggressive,  invasive pursuit of former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The heavy reliance on the “salacious and unverified” Steele dossier (Comey’s words) to justify intercepting Page’s communications is certainly concerning.  

But so, too, would be the fact that, according to Page, the CIA and FBI treated him for years as a valuable asset who traveled to Russia and had interesting meetings — all the way up to the point when he joined the Trump campaign. Then suddenly he was treated as a target of investigation.  Naked politics should not determine when a person is suspected of being an agent of a foreign government. Mueller, hopefully, recognizes this.

ADVERTISEMENT

And then there’s the elephant in the room — or, more precisely, the bear in the room. It is always the intent of the Russian intelligence apparatus to sow discord and division into the American political and cultural environs. In this sense, thanks to the ineptitude and naivete of the former FBI leaders, who failed to recognize a Russian “active measures” operation, they have been spectacularly successful.  

Vladimir Putin could not have been more pleased with the appointment of a special counsel that Comey, by his own admission, so carefully orchestrated. Mueller has to ask himself: How much do I want to continue playing into Putin’s hand if, in fact, I’m standing on a weak foundation?

So, what will Mueller’s report look like? Based on the above and what is publicly known, we might expect:

  • A recapitulation of all criminal charges that were brought;
  • A particular recap of the more than 20 Russians indicted for direct interference in the 2016 election, a clear success of the special counsel’s team; and
  • A counterintelligence report that comprehensively documents Russian intentions, methods and actions to interfere with the 2016 election, but concludes overall that, despite some incidental intersections between the Trump campaign and Russian individuals, no one associated with the campaign actually acted as an agent on behalf of that foreign government.

Now, all of that said, here comes the hedge: Mueller likely has a lot of potentially pertinent information that is not publicly known. For example, even if it ultimately is determined to have been inappropriately obtained, he still has the full take of what was captured from the Carter Page intercepts.  

He also likely requested, and was granted, any pertinent signal or human intelligence collection done by other intelligence agencies. Should those reveal deeper relationships between the Trump campaign and the Russians, they must be dutifully reported, and appropriately so.

But that, admittedly, would be surprising. This two-year saga looks much more political than nefarious. No matter what Mueller’s report concludes, there will be, in Moscow, the raising of vodka-filled glasses. Discord and division has been accomplished.

Kevin R. Brock, former assistant director of intelligence for the FBI, was an FBI special agent for 24 years and principal deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC). He is a founder and principal of NewStreet Global Solutions, which consults with private companies and public-safety agencies on strategic mission technologies.