The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence confirmed what the Mueller report could not.
Rereading the Mueller report more than a year after its publication is an exercise in disappointment. One gets the feeling that Robert Mueller didn’t press his inquiry to its end. Instead of settling the questions that haunt the 2016 campaign, he left them dangling, publishing a stilted document riddled with insinuation and lacunae. He rushed his work, closing up shop before finishing his assignment.
While Mueller received all the hype, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence kept its head down. Yesterday, having avoided cable speculation almost entirely, the SSCI released the fifth and final volume of a report on Russia’s attempt to sway the last election in Donald Trump’s favor. It finally delivered what Mueller either could not or would not: a comprehensive presentation of the evidence in the matter of “collusion.” The report confirms that Russiagate is no hoax. Whether or not the Trump campaign illegally coordinated with the Kremlin, Trump has no grounds for proclaiming vindication, much less that he’s the victim of a witch hunt.
Credit largely goes to Mark Warner, the ranking Democrat on the SSCI, who shrewdly orchestrated the proceedings. Cultivating a close relationship with the SSCI’s Republican chair, Richard Burr, he worked to keep the investigation deliberately low-key. (The committee did the bulk of its work behind closed doors, without leaks.) As a result, the committee on the whole miraculously avoided the politicization that tainted the broader debate over Russian interference. Each of its findings won bipartisan approval prior to publication. Instead of rushing forward, the committee left the incendiary question of collusion for last.
The thousand-page fifth volume doesn’t definitively settle the question, in part because the SSCI was unable to procure a full record of events. The White House engaged in gamesmanship, invoking executive privilege to deny witnesses and block access to a paper trail. A slew of important witnesses invoked the Fifth Amendment. Others, such as Paul Manafort, lied relentlessly to investigators. The election of 2016 is one of the most closely studied events of recent memory, yet even the best-informed students of Russian interference don’t have a comprehensive understanding of it.
When Mueller’s prosecutors appeared in court, in February 2019, they implied that the most troubling evidence they had uncovered implicated Manafort, the Trump campaign chairman. This wasn’t a surprising admission. Throughout their filings, Mueller’s team referred to Manafort’s Kyiv-based aide-de-camp, Konstantin Kilimnik, as an active Russian agent. Manafort had clearly spoken with Kilimnik during the campaign, and had even passed confidential campaign information to him, with the understanding that the documents would ultimately arrive in the hands of oligarchs close to the Kremlin.
One of the great disappointments of the Mueller Report is that it fails to provide narrative closure after building so much anticipation for the Kilimnik story line. Mueller did not fully explain why Manafort’s relationship with his Ukraine-based adviser so bothered his prosecutors. Why had Manafort passed along the documents? And what did the oligarchs want with them?