On Thursday, a writer at The Federalist highlighted a newly released court document from the Mueller special counsel case against the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA), the entity referred to in Western reporting as the “Russian troll factory.” The defendants in this case are the ones accused of creating numerous fake user personas on social media and using them to promote themes about the 2016 election, as part of the “Russian meddling” effort.
The author, an attorney who uses the alias Adam Mill, recalled the odd timing of the press conference, which seemed to emerge with little warning, and Mueller’s demeanor at the time, which came off as a bit shell-shocked.
A Robert Mueller with a surprisingly frail voice took to the lectern on May 29, 2019. Visibly uncomfortable, he delivered a puzzling address to reporters curious about the strangely timed press conference.
Friendly commentators – e.g., here and here – suggested Mueller looked like a tired professor reiterating to irresponsible students that they should have read the course overview and material, if they wanted to know what was expected of them. “Read the report” was Mueller’s message to America, according to this interpretation. And indeed, Mueller’s interesting conference consisted largely of his basically giving a reading of selected passages from the report.
That wasn’t good enough for critics, who pointed out that Mueller didn’t need to spend nine minutes reading from the report, and then emphasize a profoundly unprofessional (and un-American) statement about proof of guilt, in order to convey that message.
In the aftermath of Robert Mueller’s bizarre press conference, famed lawyer Alan Dershowitz slammed Mueller, a man he has previously defended, for exceeding his role as special counsel. “The statement by special counsel Robert Mueller in a Wednesday press conference that ‘if we had confidence that the president clearly did not commit a crime we would have said that’ is worse than the statement made by then FBI Director James Comey regarding Hillary Clinton during the 2016 presidential campaign,” Dershowitz wrote in an op-ed for The Hill.
[…] Mueller… went beyond the conclusion of his report and gave a political gift to Democrats in Congress who are seeking to institute impeachment proceedings against President Trump. By implying that President Trump might have committed obstruction of justice, Mueller effectively invited Democrats to institute impeachment proceedings.
Some of Mueller’s critics may have been sorrowfully disappointed in him, but it wasn’t hard for them to conclude that his real purpose was to inflame the political atmosphere against Trump with the gratuitous and unprofessional statement about “not saying he had confidence the president did not commit a crime.”
Adam Mill, however, has keyed on another passage from the press conference, one that got zero attention from the media afterward. John Podhoretz’s piece on the presser (which he called “weird even by the standards of the weirdness of the past couple of years”) had previewed that effect:
Mueller just made sure all the oxygen in Washington will be sucked into talking about the president’s post-election conduct and not Russia’s 2016 conduct.
So readers will be excused for not even remembering that Mueller uttered these words during his recital on 29 May (emphasis added, for reasons clarified below):
“As the grand jury alleged in a separate indictment, a private Russian entity engaged in a social media operation, where Russian citizens posed as Americans in order to influence an election,” he said. “These indictments contain allegations, and we are not commenting on the guilt or the innocence of any specific defendant. Every defendant is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.”
This is what Adam Mill homed in on, after seeing the just-released document from the D.C. District Court. It’s an order from Judge Dabney L. Friedrich letting DOJ prosecutors off with a warning on a potential criminal contempt holding.
The basis for contempt would have been Mueller’s report, published in April, which did two things prejudicial to the case against the Russians. It stated a special counsel finding that Russia – the Russian government – was behind the cyber-campaign against the 2016 election, which included the social media trolling. And it weighed in with an affirmative statement about the defendants’ guilt; i.e., implicitly a prior assumption of guilt, stated by the Department of Justice, before the trial had produced a verdict.
The defense team for the private company under indictment, Concord Management & Consulting, LLC, which facilitated the IRA’s activities in the U.S., promptly filed its concern about these statements. The prior assumption of guilt was bad enough. But with the implied finding that the IRA had been acting on behalf of the Russian government, the Mueller report – a DOJ document – was alleging something that is not actually alleged in the indictment, filed in February 2018.
Judge Friedrich held a hearing on this matter after the filing by the Concord defense team. The date of the hearing? One day before the out-of-left-field Mueller press conference: 28 May 2019. Mueller took to the lectern before the cameras on 29 May.
As Adam Mill notes, Mueller addressed both concerns – the report’s finding about Russian government involvement and the presumption of innocence (as opposed to framing an “established” premise of guilt) – in his overlooked comment about the Russian trolls.
Mill also reminds us, meanwhile, of how laughable it is that the DOJ prosecutors claimed, when Judge Friedrich confronted them about the prejudicial statements in the Mueller report, that “the report doesn’t say” the Russian government was behind the IRA troll activity.
He highlights a courtroom exchange from 28 May:
The judge asked the prosecutor, “Can you address also the specific tie to the Russian government, which is the overarching comment that the attorney general made tying both this case and then the case involving the hacking and the release of the e-mails, the GRU case, to the Russian government?”
Buckle up, buttercup, because you’re not going to believe DOJ’s response: “The report doesn’t say that.” What? I thought we “knew” that the Russian government committed an act of war by posting politically charged information on the internet. Now the DOJ is backing away from any tie between the internet troll farm and the Russian government?
The DOJ has now admitted that the Mueller report “itself does not state anywhere that the Russian government was behind the Internet Research Agency [and Concord] activity.” Whoa.
Well, it’s laughable – and it also undercuts the long-touted theme that all of the activity maps back to the Kremlin.
What are the rock and the hard place here?
That, in turn, undercuts the logical sense of the whole Russiagate narrative. The owner of the IRA (as well as of Concord) is Yevgeny Prigozhin, widely and incessantly referred to as a Putin crony, “Putin’s chef” (Prigozhin got his start as a caterer), and a Kremlin-backed actor on the order of a Russian “Erik Prince” (of the private security firm Blackwater).
The media have been going to town for a year and a half outlining all the multifarious ways in which Prigozhin is carrying out Putin’s wishes in the shadow world abroad, from the U.S. election meddling in 2016 to the weird incident between Russian mercenaries and U.S. Marines in Syria in 2018, Prigozhin’s stamp on the Russian backing of Libyan rebel chief Khalifa Haftar, and Moscow’s mercenary-based push into other parts of Africa, including Sudan. (Yada, yada, yada.)
There’s a lot of there there when it comes to Prigozhin. But it doesn’t fit any sort of sensible narrative that he would be acting in his own right to make all these moves that look so much like proxy activities for the Russian government. It certainly does nothing for the “Russia-Trump” hypothesis.
Prigozhin’s ownership of the IRA and Concord Management, on the other hand, would seem to be one of the strongest points in the case that Russia – that Vladimir Putin – was behind the interference against U.S. electoral politics in 2016. Unlike John Brennan’s much-touted secret-squirrel intelligence on the matter, which the public will have to take on faith till the end of time because it will never not perilously reveal “sources and methods,” the Prigozhin connection can be validated to the public. It comes with background and detail that bolster the national security case about Russian disinformation and “active measures.”
So the real question about the “link to the Russian government” allegation isn’t why it has been so trumpeted throughout the Mueller probe, and why it was included in the Mueller report. The question is why the allegation wasn’t included in the Concord/IRA indictment.
A couple of reasons would be the most obvious candidates. One is that the case for Russian state backing of the IRA’s activities wouldn’t hold up in court, perhaps especially without bringing in sensitive intelligence.
A related reason would be that the disclosure process would have to reveal too much about “intelligence sources and methods” to the Concord defense team, if the allegation about Russian state backing were included.
I’m actually dubious about these reasons, because the media are onto so much open-source information that makes the case. Would it really be necessary to sell out national intelligence secrets in order to tie Prigozhin to the Kremlin?
But perhaps some combination of these two conjectures is the answer. If Mueller and his team saw a winnable fraud case without the state-backing allegation, they may have decided to go that route. They may also have thought it likely that the Concord case wouldn’t be defended in court – the defendants can’t be extradited to face punishment in the U.S. – and they wouldn’t need to deploy an allegation that would be high-payoff but also high-risk.
It strikes me as odd, however, that a seasoned prosecutor like Mueller chose to thread the needle by leaving the allegation out of the indictment, while letting it be featured with uncaveated prominence in the report on his special counsel adventure – and then be seemingly surprised by the result.
It sounds as if the DOJ prosecutors weren’t ready with a good answer for the judge on 28 May. The next day, Mueller looked like a hunted man trying to avoid saying too much, but for some reason using the peculiar method for that of stepping up to speak to the media.
Apparently he satisfied Judge Friedrich, at any rate. She won’t be holding the prosecutors in criminal contempt for the time being.
I don’t know that I fully buy Adam Mill’s take: that repairing the damage in the Concord case was the reason for the Mueller presser. A couple of additional observations stand out. One, this is the kind of problem that arises with trying to combine counterintelligence, criminal indictments, and politics. It’s a combustible mixture.
Two, the world of Russian oligarchs is an ugly one, with a reputation for ruthlessness and homicide, and Yevgeny Prigozhin has been suspected of his share of dark operations. In spite of having access to reams of U.S. national intelligence on Donald Trump and his associates, however – going back to at least 2008 based on the investigative avenues through Manafort and Page, and probably much further than that – the DOJ and FBI have never found evidence that Trump is implicated in the oligarchs’ world. Continuing to pump that dry well doesn’t appear to be nearly as important to American security as hardening our defenses against Prigozhin, and others of his kind.