BY DEL QUENTIN WILBER AND CHRIS MEGERIAN
LOS ANGELES TIMES/TNS
WASHINGTON – Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III appears close to turning in his final report after a historic investigation that initially sought to determine if President Donald Trump or his advisers had illegal dealings with Russia during the 2016 campaign, but ultimately expanded far beyond that.
Whether or not the report reveals new bombshells, the former FBI director already has produced an extraordinary public record of misdeeds, one that is sweeping in scope and momentous in its implications for American democracy.
Trump has consistently denied any wrongdoing, but hundreds of pages of indictments, court filings and testimony have tarnished his administration and led to new investigations in Congress and in other jurisdictions that could lead to new charges.
Since starting their work in May 2017, Mueller and his team have obtained indictments or charges against 34 individuals, including 25 Russians. That’s the highest number of individuals charged in any special counsel investigation since the Watergate scandal that forced President Richard Nixon from office in 1974.
While no Americans have been charged with conspiring with the Russian effort to sway the 2016 election, several people in Trump’s inner orbit have pleaded guilty to other crimes.
They include Michael Flynn, his former national security adviser; Paul Manafort, his former campaign chairman; Richard Gates, his deputy campaign chairman; and Michael Cohen, his former personal lawyer and a senior executive in the Trump Organization.
“Mueller’s public record is very impressive,” said Christopher Ott, a former federal prosecutor on national security matters. “These indictments are also a way to authoritatively make statements to the public about what the facts actually are. It is clear his team was objective, thorough and tenacious.”
Here are the findings so far.
RUSSIA’S SOCIAL MEDIA CAMPAIGN
The special counsel traced the Russian operation to the start of the Internet Research Agency, a shadowy group bent on influencing American public opinion, in 2013.
Working from an office building in St. Petersburg, Russia, and other sites, scores of cybertrolls conducted “information warfare against the United States,” according to an indictment.
The Russian group “spread distrust towards the candidates and the political system in general” by discouraging African-Americans from voting, by motivating conservatives wary of Trump, and other tactics.
The operation was controlled and largely funded by Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Russian tycoon with close ties to Putin and Russian intelligence services, U.S. officials said.
In 2014, two high-ranking agency employees visited the United States to collect information that could be used to target specific groups of U.S. voters on social media. Two years later, Russian hackers were impersonating Americans to pump out divisive posts and misleading advertising on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
By the time Trump accepted the Republican nomination in July 2016, more than 80 Russian bloggers were churning out daily social media posts that boosted Trump and denigrated his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton. Their posts contained hashtags familiar to many Americans: #Trump2016, #TrumpTrain and #MAGA.
At one point, supervisors criticized an employee for running a Facebook group called Secured Borders that had a “low number of posts dedicated to criticizing Hillary Clinton” and ordered him to “intensify” such critiques, the indictment alleged.
Russian operatives even staged political rallies while posing as Americans. For one, they paid a U.S. citizen to build a cage on a truck as a prop to whip up Clinton opponents who wanted to “lock her up” and for another to portray Clinton in a prison uniform.
To cover their tracks, the agency purchased space on U.S. computer servers, stole the identities of U.S. citizens and created hundreds of accounts under false identities that made the bloggers appear to be Americans.
As the troll farm roiled the internet, Russian cyberspies took more extreme steps to help Trump’s presidential campaign, according to Mueller.
In March 2016, Russian military intelligence officers penetrated computer networks used by the Democratic National Committee and Clinton’s top campaign staffers — with devastating effect.
Hackers at the Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff (known as the GRU) in Moscow targeted more than 300 Democratic Party officials and campaign aides and infected dozens of servers with computer code that let them steal opposition research, operational plans and other internal documents.
They also vacuumed up sensitive communications, including those of John Podesta, the Clinton campaign chairman. After Podesta fell for a ruse and inadvertently gave the hackers his Gmail password, they swiped 50,000 private emails from his account.
The GRU soon began posting the stolen data on a website it created, DCLeaks, and through a fake Romanian hacker known as Guccifer 2.0. That June, the WikiLeaks anti-secrecy group reached out to Guccifer 2.0.
“Send any new material here for us to review and it will have a much higher impact than what you are doing,” a WikiLeaks official wrote, asking for “anything Hillary related.”
By mid-July, the GRU had transferred thousands of stolen emails and records, and WikiLeaks began releasing sensitive DNC emails and internal documents, disrupting the Democrats’ nominating convention.
Another Trump adviser, Roger Stone, claimed to be in touch with WikiLeaks during that period, according to charges filed against the longtime political operative. He told one campaign official that the “payload is still coming” days before WikiLeaks posted a trove of stolen material.
On Oct. 7, after The Washington Post reported that Trump had boasted about groping women on an “Access Hollywood” tape, Wikileaks began pushing out Podesta’s emails, drawing attention away from Trump.
Stone was charged in January 2019 with several crimes including lying about his conversations involving WikiLeaks. He has pleaded not guilty.
All that year, Trump’s aides and associates met or communicated with Russian diplomats, officials and operatives, and expressed eagerness for their assistance.
George Papadopoulos, a volunteer foreign policy adviser on the campaign, was one of the first.
During a visit to Italy in March 2016, the low-level aide met Joseph Mifsud, a Maltese professor. They then met again in London with a Russian woman who claimed to be Putin’s niece, and discussed arranging a meeting between Trump and the Russian president during the campaign.
In April, Mifsud told Papadopoulos that the Russians had “dirt” on Clinton. “They have thousands of emails,” Mifsud told him, Mueller later disclosed in court papers.
That was before the Democratic National Committee and Podesta knew they had been hacked, and while GRU operatives were still ransacking Democratic Party servers.
Papadopoulos bragged about his encounter to an Australian diplomat over drinks in London, and the envoy reported his concerns to the FBI. The tip sparked the FBI’s initial counterintelligence investigation into Russia’s meddling in the campaign.
Separately, Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer, reached out to one of Putin’s top aides in an effort to secure a hugely lucrative business deal, a Trump Tower in Moscow. The effort continued until June 2016, after Trump had effectively locked up the Republican nomination, court records show.
Trump repeatedly denied ever having any business dealings with Russia, asserting that July, “I have nothing to do with Russia.”
Cohen has been sentenced to three years in prison for making false statements to Congress about the negotiations for Trump’s proposed Moscow project.
Other Trump associates were also dealing with Russians.
Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman, had long business ties with pro-Moscow politicians and Russian oligarchs.
In June 2016, Manafort joined Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, and Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, in a meeting on the 25th floor of Trump Tower in Manhattan with a woman identified to them as a “Russian government attorney.”
Before the meeting, when an intermediary’s email said the lawyer would present dirt on Clinton “as part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” Trump Jr. quickly replied, “If it’s what you say it is, I love it.” No evidence has emerged to suggest those present reported the Russian offer to the FBI.
Two months later, Manafort and Gates, the campaign’s deputy campaign, met with Konstantin Kilimnik at a posh New York City cigar bar. Mueller’s prosecutors later disclosed in court papers that Kilimnik “has ties to a Russian intelligence service and had such ties in 2016.”
At some point, Manafort provided Kilimnik with polling data, though precisely what he handed over and why is not revealed in court records.
Earlier this month, Manafort was sentenced to 7 1/2 years in prison for financial crimes, all connected to his work as a political consultant in Ukraine, prosecuted by Mueller’s team.
The contacts with Russians — and the lies about them — didn’t end with Trump’s election.
In December 2016, Flynn, the incoming national security adviser, spoke repeatedly with the Russian ambassador in Washington after President Barack Obama had expelled suspected Russian spies and slapped sanctions on Moscow in response to its election meddling.
Flynn wanted to stop Putin’s government from retaliating since Trump had campaigned on improving relations with the Kremlin.
Shortly after the inauguration, Flynn lied to the FBI, which had monitored the ambassador’s calls, by denying that they discussed sanctions.
Sally Yates, then the acting U.S. attorney general, warned the White House that Flynn could be blackmailed by the Kremlin and he was forced out as national security adviser after less than a month in the job.
The retired Army three-star general later pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agents. His sentencing was postponed in December after a federal judge told him “arguably, you sold your country out” and warned he could go to prison. Flynn is still cooperating with prosecutors in a related investigation.