What the Mueller report tells us about Putin, Russia and Trump's election

What the Mueller report tells us about Putin, Russia and Trump's election
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The celebratory messages reportedly circulated within Russian government circles following Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpConway defends herself against Hatch Act allegations amid threat of subpoena How to defuse Gulf tensions and avoid war with Iran Trump says 'stubborn child' Fed 'blew it' by not cutting rates MORE’s victory in the 2016 election are oft-cited as proof of Russian collusion. This mood reportedly was shared by the Russian people, who had been told that Trump had no chance against the corrupt American establishment. Russia’s jubilation is consistent with ex-British spy Christopher Steele’s dossier claim that Russian President Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinTrump on addressing election interference with Putin: 'I may' Beware the Bolton path to US military strikes on Iran House Intelligence Committee to subpoena Trump associate Felix Sater MORE wanted Trump to win.

The Mueller report, however, portrays a somber, apprehensive and confused Kremlin following Trump’s victory — strange behavior for Putin who, according to Steele, had just placed a “Manchurian candidate” in the White House.

Special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) Swan MuellerKamala Harris says her Justice Dept would have 'no choice' but to prosecute Trump for obstruction Dem committees win new powers to investigate Trump Schiff says Intel panel will hold 'series' of hearings on Mueller report MORE’s report thus questions one of the last generally accepted assertions of the otherwise discredited Steele dossier: that Russia interfered for the express purpose of electing Trump.

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Recall that the Steele dossier spun the story of a five-year-plus conspiracy during which Putin groomed Trump as a Russian asset. During the campaign, the Kremlin boosted Trump with cyberattacks and other dirty tricks purportedly paid for and co-organized by Trump’s own fixer. Trump was given to know that Putin personally controlled a Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Hill's Morning Report - Crunch time arrives for 2020 Dems with debates on deck The Memo: All eyes on faltering Biden ahead of first debate Trump says he's not prepared to lose in 2020 MORE file, and Trump was advised that Putin could blackmail him with tapes of him cavorting with Russian prostitutes. According to Steele’s account, the Kremlin was ideally positioned in November 2016 to gain sanctions relief and an accommodation of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its attack on eastern Ukraine, all under the guise of a new reset under Trump.

The Steele dossier has been universally described as “unverified.” A better description is “unverifiable.”

Steele characterized his alleged informants as occupying the highest positions in the Kremlin and Russian government. There is something fishy here, as I have written more than once: No Kremlin official occupying such a lofty position would sell Kremlin secrets to Steele for the few bucks Steele had in his budget. Their testimonies, therefore, were likely either fictional ramblings or Kremlin disinformation.

In contrast to the Steele dossier, the Mueller report offers some rarified, well-documented glimpses inside Putin’s Kremlin, but few seem to be paying attention. In one case, we have the testimony of a key Kremlin oligarch and uber-insider, Petr Aven, co-owner of Russia’s largest private bank, Alfa Bank (notoriously misspelled as “Alpha” by Steele). Mueller’s report also describes attempts by Kirill Dmitriev, Putin’s head of Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, to arrange post-election contacts with the incoming administration.

Aven, who values his reputation as one of the more trustworthy of Russia oligarchs, describes what went on in one-on-one and all-hands meetings of some 50 Russian oligarchs with Putin and Putin’s chief of staff in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s victory. Aven’s account of these meetings portrays a somber, pessimistic mood inside the Kremlin in the aftermath of Trump’s election.

The Mueller report states that Aven “understood that any suggestions or critiques that Putin made during these meetings were implicit directives, and that there would be consequences for Aven if he did not follow through.” In Aven’s meeting with Putin, “Putin raised the prospect that the United States would impose additional sanctions on Russian interests, including sanctions against Aven and/or Alfa-Bank. Putin suggested that Aven needed to take steps to protect himself and Alfa-Bank.”

Aven testified further that “Putin spoke of the difficulty faced by the Russian government in getting in touch with the incoming Trump Administration.” According to Aven, Putin indicated that “he did not know with whom formally to speak and generally did not know the people around the President-Elect.”

Aven told Putin he “would try to reach out to the incoming Administration to establish a line of communication.” Aven described Putin as responding with skepticism about the prospects for establishing such contacts.

Aven subsequently reached out to a former U.S. ambassador to Germany, whose charge was to facilitate business contacts. The inquiry went from there to Russian expert Dimitry Simes of the Center for the National Interest, who purportedly had contacts with the Trump transition team. True to Putin’s prediction, Aven had no success in creating a back channel with the Trump team, and reported that to Putin.

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The Mueller report documents the efforts of another Kremlin insider, Kirill Dmitriev, the head of Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, to establish ties to the Trump transition team using Middle Eastern business contacts, including Saudi Arabia’s crown prince. Dmitriev’s email trail, documented in footnotes to the Mueller report, shows that he too failed to open a back channel to the Trump team.

What does this all mean?

Real Kremlin insiders — not Steele’s anonymous “trusted officials” — reveal that Putin did not share the elation of his security officers and of the Russian people with respect to the unexpected election of Donald Trump. No conspiracy structure was in place. Putin had no idea how to create either a formal or a back channel to the Trump team, and he warned his oligarchs to get ready for more sanctions under Trump. He “suggested” that his oligarchs open up back channels, but his low expectation of success turned out to be correct.

Even The New York Times has admitted that the Steele dossier could be a Kremlin disinformation campaign to “hedge their bets and place a few land mines under Trump’s presidency as well.” Yet, the Times’ recognition of that does not answer why the Kremlin would sabotage the candidate it wanted so much to win.

As I have written on numerous occasions, Putin’s main objective in 2016 was to discredit U.S. democracy — to convince the Russian people that his flawed “managed democracy” was superior to the corrupt American electoral circus. He just might have a case with a make-believe dossier funded by the opposition candidate that has paralyzed the U.S. political system for more than two years.

Paul Roderick Gregory is a professor of economics at the University of Houston, Texas, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a research fellow at the German Institute for Economic Research. Follow him on Twitter @PaulR_Gregory