Saturday cartoon

When former Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos testified before Congress last fall, he explained why he pleaded guilty to a single count of false statements in October 2017: “I thought I was really in the middle of a real Russia conspiracy, that this was all real, and that I had to plead out or face life in prison.”

But a year after he had sworn to a judge that he had lied about something material to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, Papadopoulos told Congress he had come to see things through a “different lens.” He insisted he had “no Russia connection whatsoever, never did,” suggesting that some of the people who had cultivated him — including the mysterious professor Joseph Mifsud, who had been “giddy” when he told Papadopoulos on April 26, 2016, that “the Russians have thousands of Hillary Clinton emails” — were “masquerading as something they were not.” He appears to have come to suspect by last fall that they were members of Western intelligence services pretending to be Russians in an attempt to entrap Donald Trump.

Papadopoulos’s testimony and its aftermath have led to current efforts, now directed by Attorney General William Barr, to find a conspiracy behind the Russian conspiracy, a “coup” by the so-called “Deep State” somehow launched even before Trump’s election made a coup necessary or possible.

And one subtle part of the explosive news conference Mueller gave last Wednesday seemed like an attempt to debunk such conspiracy theories.

Mueller ended his news conference by emphasizing that “there were multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election.” His statement referenced the two indictments he had mentioned earlier in his remarks, one charging Russian officers with hacking Democratic targets, another charging Russian civilians with trolling U.S. voters. But he also included “other activities in our report” among the “efforts to interfere in our political system.” He explains that the “first volume of the report details numerous efforts emanating from Russia to influence the election,” along with “the Trump campaign’s response to this activity.”

That is, the Russian outreach that the Trump campaign responded to — in Papadopoulos’s case, by redoubling his efforts to set up a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin after he learned the Russians wanted to release emails to help Trump win — were also part of the Russian attempts to interfere with the 2016 election. Mueller was reminding us of something easily forgotten: All those stories of mysterious professors and Russian lawyers and various oligarchs reaching out to Trump associates that appear in Volume I of the special counsel’s report next to the Russian hackers and trolls were themselves part of the Russian operation.

That means the Russian efforts to get Papadopoulos to help their efforts were real, just as Papadopoulos says he believed when he pleaded guilty. Likewise, the Russian attempt to get Donald Trump Jr. to listen to a pitch on eliminating sanctions in hopes of obtaining dirt on Hillary Clinton was real — the offer that he responded to by saying, “if it’s what you say, I love it, especially later in the summer.” That would also suggest that when Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska allegedly used Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s debt to him as leverage to obtain information on how Manafort planned to win the election — and maybe even a commitment from Manafort to help carve up Ukraine, a plan Mueller’s prosecutors alleged that Manafort pursued as late as 2018 — that, too, was part of one of the numerous efforts Russia made in 2016.

When Barr introduced the report in a March 24 memo, however, he did not treat those efforts as part of the Russian efforts.

“The Special Counsel’s report is divided into two parts,” Barr wrote. He said “the Special Counsel’s investigation determined that there were two main Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election. The first involved attempts by a Russian organization, the Internet Research Agency (IRA), to conduct disinformation and social media operations in the United States. . . . The second element involved the Russian government’s efforts to conduct hacking operations designed to gather and disseminate information to influence the election.”

While Barr mentioned “multiple offers from Russian-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign,” he didn’t explain that those offers were themselves an effort to interfere in the election.

Effectively, Barr’s description that there were just “two main Russian efforts” treats all the other outreach from Russian-associated individuals — to Papadopoulos, to Trump Jr., to Manafort, as well as the actions of WikiLeaks and Roger Stone’s efforts to optimize their releases — as somehow dissociated from efforts centered in Moscow and St. Petersburg to get Trump elected.

Of course, Mueller did not charge any of those other Russian attempts as a crime — not even a conspiracy exclusively among Russians, much less one including Trump associates. His statement Wednesday made clear that “there was insufficient evidence to charge a broader conspiracy.” Still, even that phrasing makes one thing obvious: that there was at least some evidence to support such a case. “A statement that the investigation did not establish particular facts does not mean there was no evidence of those facts,” Mueller’s report says somewhat legalistically on page 2.

That distinction — that there was evidence of a conspiracy but not enough to charge — is critically important to Mueller’s analysis of obstruction of justice. Where Barr claimed that there was no underlying crime to obstruct the investigation, Mueller suggested that both the June 9 meeting offering dirt and the Russian release of stolen emails might amount to an illegal campaign contribution, but that prosecutors couldn’t get and sustain a conviction on them. Similarly, the report noted that the investigation could neither fully explain what Trump adviser Carter Page was doing in Russia nor reliably determine why Manafort was sharing campaign data with Oleg Deripaska.

In several cases, a lack of cooperation — Trump Jr.’s unwillingness to testify, the president’s “insufficien[t]” responses to Mueller’s questions, Manafort’s lies about sharing polling data in hopes of getting a pardon — may well have prevented the collection of evidence that might justify a charge.

“It was critical for us to obtain full and accurate information from every person we questioned,” Mueller explained in his statement. But prosecutors didn’t get that — not from the president, his son or his campaign manager.

Just after insisting that the attorneys, FBI agents, analysts and professional staff who conducted this investigation did so with the highest integrity — that is, debunking the claims of a coup or “Deep State” conspiracy — Robert Mueller ended by reminding Americans what this was about.

“[T]here were multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election.” This was an attack on our democracy. Investigators functioning with integrity concluded that the attack was real. “That allegation,” Mueller said in his last words in government service, “deserves the attention of every American.”

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Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist who writes about national security and civil liberties.