Debate over what the Mueller Report concluded with regard to Russian interference in the 2016 election has only intensified since Robert Mueller spoke to the nation on May 29. In his sphinx-like manner, the special counsel summarized what he had found, declining to go beyond the confines of his written report.
Mueller was unequivocal on one point—the Russians engaged in “multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election.” He began and ended his presentation with that stark warning, apparently confounded by the fact that the U.S. has not seriously mobilized to stop it from happening again in 2020. Normally, there would be an all-hands-on-deck effort to warn off the Russians, prepare strong countermeasures, and harden our election systems, among other things, but these are not normal times.
Because Mueller declined to give his personal views on the report findings, all sides have stepped forward to give their particular slant. The Attorney General has repeatedly claimed that the report found no “collusion” between the Russians and the Trump campaign. That is absolutely correct but beside the point. On pages 2 and 180 of Volume One of his report, Mueller clearly states that he did not look into the question of whether there was collusion.
Mueller’s inquiry was concerned with whether the Trump campaign committed the crime of conspiracy, which he describes at page 181 as “an agreement to commit any substantive violation of federal criminal law—including foreign-influence and campaign-finance laws.”
The report details over 140 Russian contacts with the Trump campaign in pages 66-173 of Volume One, concluding that Russia made offers of assistance to the campaign and that the campaign was receptive to some of those offers. However, Mueller said on May 29 that “there was insufficient evidence to charge a broader conspiracy.” At page 2 of the report, he clarifies: “A statement that the investigation did not establish particular facts does not mean there was no evidence of those facts.” In other words, there was evidence of conspiracy, but not enough to support a conviction beyond a reasonable doubt.
Proving criminal conspiracy is no easy task because of the reasonable doubt standard. During my tenure as Idaho Attorney General in the nineteen-eighties, I spent many hours trying to pinpoint price-fixing among gasoline dealers. It generally requires either court-approved electronic surveillance or a credible inside source to make a triable conspiracy case. A phone tap won’t help if the conduct is not on-going, and credible inside sources are hard to come by, as Paul Manafort clearly demonstrated.
I often explained to the public that it was not a price-fixing conspiracy for gas retailers to charge the same price all over town. It was only an unlawful conspiracy when there was an agreement to set prices. In the case of the 2016 election, there would have had to be strong proof of an agreement between Russian actors and the campaign in order to establish a conspiracy. Mueller implies that such evidence existed but he apparently was unable to obtain enough documents or credible inside witnesses to prove it.
We will likely never know whether the Russian interference helped Trump win the presidency. The President hinted in that direction when he tweeted on May 30 that, “I had nothing to do with Russia helping me to get elected.” He later denied that Russia helped him get elected.
What we do know is that Russia gave the President substantial help in the 2016 election. Putin admitted in Helsinki that he wanted Trump to win. All honorable and patriotic presidential candidates should loudly and clearly tell the Russians and every other foreign country that the United States will not tolerate interference in our elections in 2020 or ever. Our Congressional delegation should demand severe consequences for those who try to pervert our democracy.