Editor’s Note: John Avlon is a CNN senior political analyst and anchor. The opinions expressed in this commentary are the author’s own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
News is what’s new. And even a week after the redacted Mueller report’s release there’s still a lot of new information to be found in its 448-pages.
Birthed amid a blizzard of lies by Team Trump, the Mueller report is replete with buried ledes – stories that would normally dominate headlines – as well as open questions that deserve a lot more attention and further investigation.
So before the topline summaries harden into conventional wisdom and we collectively skip ahead to snack-sized conversations about whether Democrats should pursue impeachment, stop a moment and dig deeper into the treasure trove of actual information we’ve been given after 22 months of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.
After reading through the report and consulting with journalists about the clues surrounding the 36 pages of redactions and 14 investigations –12 of the cases are redacted and two are known – Mueller referred to other prosecutors, here is a look at some of the key buried ledes and unanswered questions we should all be paying attention to. Because while the Trump administration desperately wants to spin the report’s findings, stonewall additional investigations and turn the conversation to its unhinged call to “investigate the investigators,” this core story is far from over.
WikiLeaks, Russia and Trump
Julian Assange has been dislodged from his safe space in London’s Ecuadorian Embassy, but he was arrested for skipping bail in the UK in 2012 and at the request of US authorities; after his arrest, the Department of Justice announced that they had charged him with allegedly assisting Chelsea Manning – not because of anything to do with the 2016 election dump of stolen information from the DNC and Clinton campaign. Charges relating to those events may still be coming.
Because despite President Donald Trump’s denials that he knew anything about WikiLeaks, a partially redacted section of the Mueller report makes clear that “Trump publicly expressed skepticism that Russia was responsible for the hacks at the same time that he and other Campaign officials privately sought information (redacted) about any further planned WikiLeaks releases.” In addition, the report says that on a drive to New York City’s LaGuardia Airport in 2016, Trump told senior campaign aide Rick Gates that “more releases of damaging information would be coming.” And we know from Roger Stone’s indictment that a still-unnamed “senior Trump Campaign official was directed to contact Stone about any additional releases.”
The unredacted sections of Mueller’s report also make clear that Assange fanned the flames of the bogus Seth Rich conspiracy theory – essentially that Rich, a murdered DNC staffer, had been the source of the hack – to obscure the real sources, namely the Russian GRU intelligence service. (Sean Hannity was among those who promoted the conspiracy theory.)
With Assange now in custody, expect much more information to come out on this front.
Russia hacked a Florida government network
This revelation should be a bombshell for anyone who cares about the integrity of our elections. We know from FBI Director Christopher Wray and others that Russia and other foreign actors continue to try hacking our elections, virtually unabated. We know that attempts to get the White House to focus on Russian election interference has been like “pulling teeth,” according to a US government official.
What we didn’t know until the Mueller report is that the Russians were successful in hacking into at least one still unnamed Florida county government network before the 2016 election. This had been previously denied, even after Florida’s then-Senator Bill Nelson raised the specter in his unsuccessful 2018 re-election effort against Rick Scott.
We also now know that an election equipment manufacturer had malware planted on its systems. This does not mean that any votes were changed but it raises more questions about why the federal government was not more forthcoming to local authorities about the scale and success of Russian hacking – and what’s being done to stop the next foreign hack attack.
What did Russia do with Trump’s internal polling?
We’ve known that convicted one-time Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort had extensive financial ties with Russian oligarchs and pro-Putin campaigns in Ukraine. His 2016 meetings with his Russian intelligence-tied business partner Konstantin Kilimnik drew appropriate scrutiny when it was revealed that Manafort handed over detailed internal Trump campaign polling to him.
What’s new in the Mueller report is that Manafort discussed with Kilimnik on August 2, 2016 what the campaign regarded as key “‘battleground’ states” – including “Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota.” This is significant because in August of 2016, few were convinced that Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota were battleground states. Hillary Clinton was ahead in those states according to most polls, so much so that when Trump went there in the final two weeks of the campaign it struck some observers as desperate.
In fact, it turned out to be a bold stroke of brilliance.
But what, if any, boost did Trump get from Russian online efforts with this level of detailed polling? Team Mueller was unable to interview Kilimnik, and Manafort’s lack of honest cooperation – even after copping a plea deal – compounded his sentence. So this remains an open question answerable perhaps only with a more detailed accounting of Russian online efforts on behalf of Trump. If they were focusing on, say, Wisconsin – either to motivate potential Trump voters or depress African-American voters in Milwaukee – it could have helped him win a pivotal state that few people thought was in play. And given that Trump won Wisconsin by less than one percent – or some 23,000 votes – every vote mattered.
Russia’s pro-Trump disinformation campaign
We now know that Russia’s disinformation campaign was far more politically biased than previously acknowledged. Previous reports have indicated that Russian social media disinformation campaigns were politically polyamorous – designed to exacerbate identity politics divisions in American society almost regardless of party. But the Mueller report makes clear that the disinformation campaign’s overwhelming purpose was to support the election of Trump and defeat Clinton.
We also now know that Russian troll accounts were unwittingly cited, responded to or retweeted by senior Team Trump members from Donald Trump Jr. to Eric Trump, Kellyanne Conway to Brad Parscale, to Michael T. Flynn to the account of candidate Donald Trump himself. We also know that Russian disinformation translated to the cultivation of real American activists and the sponsorship of rallies ranging from pro-Trump to pro-Confederate. Taken together, the report paints a more detailed picture of how democracy can be effectively hijacked by a hostile foreign power seeking to exploit divisions of identity politics to elect their preferred candidate.
The Cambridge Analytica no-show
Sometimes the open question is about the absence of information. Cambridge Analytica was the infamous and now defunct voter targeting company funded in part by Trump donor Robert Mercer and co-founded by Trump campaign CEO Steve Bannon. In an undercover investigation video from Britain’s Channel 4 news, Cambridge Analytica executives claimed they’d swung the election to Trump, and whistleblower Christopher Wylie described the company as Bannon’s “arsenal of weaponry to wage a culture war on America using military strategies.” After investigations began on both sides of the Atlantic, Facebook said that Cambridge Analytica had illicitly gained the data of as many as 87 million people and last summer a member of British parliament said that Cambridge Analytica’s Facebook database had been accessed from within Russia.
The company declared bankruptcy amid international scrutiny after the 2016 election, with some questioning how effective it actually was in achieving its stated goals. It’s possible that Cambridge Analytica was just one of many big talking emperors without clothes in the Trump campaign orbit.