The attention on Mueller's report has been focused mostly on Volume II which deals with the obstruction of justice inquiry. Rightfully so, because in refraining from a decision on whether obstruction crimes were committed, Mueller rolled a big ball of wax down Constitution Avenue at the Capitol.
House Democrats will have to decide whether to digest and accept, or reject (and impeach). Before we drown in that debate, sure to be partisan, let’s take a step back and marvel at what Mueller concluded in Volume I of his report which focuses on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Mueller may not have found actionable crimes by Trump and his campaign, but he did find an American electoral system shockingly easy to infect and manipulate.
Imagine how difficult it used to be for the Russians to sabotage our democratic process. They had to train agents, identify vulnerable Americans to lure into committing treason and do it all secretly, undercover, with the danger of Russian nationals being apprehended and jailed in America.
In his report, Mueller details how in 2016 Russian saboteurs organized political rallies in the U.S. to highlight divisive issues, such as support for the Confederate flag. They chose rally locations and convinced unknowing Americans to do the work of coordinating the rallies for them. Russians contacted attendees, collected pictures and videos, and projected them on social media. They did this all without even setting foot in America, according to Mueller.
Then there is Russia’s spy agency, the GRU (successor to the KGB), which used “X-Agents” and “X-Tunnels” to attack the Democratic Party. These are not secret operatives Russia had to sneak into America; they are malware weaponized by Russian spies from the safety of Russian government buildings in Moscow.
Russia found the DNC and DCCC’s computer systems surprisingly easy to penetrate. GRU officers stole tens of thousands of emails from Democrats. They also stole personal data about donors, created a fake political fundraising platform and redirected visitors to the DCCC’s website to a fake platform run by Russians.
If Democrats were an easy target, Trump and his campaign were surprisingly friendly cheerleaders.
After the DNC announced publicly that Russians had hacked their networks, then-candidate Trump made a public statement: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” referring to his opponent Hillary Clinton’s emails.
According to Mueller, just five hours later, Russian officers of the GRU responded and targeted the computer network of Clinton’s personal office for the first time.
When Russian interlopers wanted direct contact with the Trump campaign, it was easy. In March 2016, within weeks of becoming the Trump’s campaign’s foreign policy adviser, George Papadopolous met with a Maltese professor named Joseph Mifsud who is connected to the Russian Defense Ministry.
Mifsud brought along a mysterious Russian woman to a subsequent meeting that same month and convinced Pappadopolous it was President Putin’s niece -- apparently a lie.
In late April 2016, when Russians apparently wanted to dangle the fact they had “dirt” in the form of thousands of Clinton emails before the Trump campaign, Mifsud told Papadopolous, who passed along this information to other third parties, like the Australian ambassador in the U.K.
Mueller could not determine if Papadopolous told Trump campaign officials about this. However, it kicked off a period marked by many interactions between Trump campaign officials and persons acting on behalf of the Russians related to “dirt.”
For instance, on June 9, 2016, Donald Trump Jr. convened campaign chairman Manafort and others to meet at Trump Tower with persons acting on behalf of Russia, purely on the offer they would share documents and information to incriminate Hillary Clinton.
Mueller concluded this was not a crime because Donald Trump Jr. might not have known it was illegal for a campaign to accept something of value from the Russian government. Even so, Donald Trump Jr. and Manafort sent a pretty clear message to Russians they were open to such “support” by taking the meeting.
Mueller also noted “[t]he Trump Campaign showed interest in WikiLeak’s releases of [Russian] hacked materials throughout the summer and fall of 2016.” Numerous communications then occurred between Trump confidante Roger Stone and cutouts the Russian agents were using to facilitate publication of the emails stolen from the Democratic Party, including Guccifer 2.0 and WikiLeaks.
Much of this information is redacted in the public version of the Mueller Report, ostensibly because Stone and others are still the subject of ongoing prosecutions by the Justice Department.
Perhaps the most shocking disclosure from Mueller’s investigation is how the GRU targeted computer systems of our state and local election boards and even innocent individuals who help administer elections.
For instance, they compromised the computer network of the Illinois State Board of Elections and copied databases with information on millions of Illinois registered voters. They also targeted Florida county election board officials using spear-phishing schemes on over 120 email accounts and gained access to at least one Florida county government.
Though Mueller was thorough, he could not investigate the full impact of these attacks on the 2016 election.
Thus, as Congress looks at a response to the Mueller Report, it will consider bringing articles of impeachment or taking lesser action directed at Trump, such as censure. However, it should also consider bipartisan legislation to protect our electoral system from future attacks by foreign governments.
Russians found a system easy to attack from afar, turning Americans into unwitting accomplices. New legislation should penalize social media companies that make it easy for foreign governments to conduct information operations. Campaign finance laws should strictly prevent American political campaigns from entertaining support from foreign actors.
Finally, systems must be mandated for government entities running elections, ensuring cybersecurity and needed redundancy to protect the integrity of our elections if hacked in the future, perhaps requiring paper ballots.