The various subplots of the Donald Trump-Russia saga often feel like they belong less in a Special Counsel investigation and more in the you-won’t-believe-this tabloid pages that made our president famous to begin with. According to the Mueller report, one early encounter between Team Trump and Russia occurred in 2015, when a Russian woman named Lana Erchov offered the Trump campaign an offer of help on behalf of her husband, Dmitry Klokov, a top Russian executive with ties to the Kremlin. As the Intercept recounts in its annotation of the report:
In November 2015, according to the Mueller report, Ivanka Trump received an email from a woman identifying herself as “Lana E. Alexander.” The woman said she was the wife of Dmitry Klokov and was writing to offer her husband’s assistance to Trump’s presidential campaign.
“If you know anyone who knows Russian to Google my husband Dmitry Klokov, you’ll see who he is close to and that he has done Putin’s political campaigns,” the email read. Ivanka Trump forwarded the email to Michael Cohen, her father’s longtime lawyer and a senior official in the campaign.
Klokov, the communications director of a large electricity company in Russia, previously served as a press secretary to Russia’s energy minister. But Cohen didn’t know who Klokov was, so he took the emailer’s advice and Googled the guy.
Cohen discovered the Russian weightlifter, also named Dmitry Klokov, and Trump’s crack legal mind assumed that he was touch with an Olympic weightlifter. According to Mueller’s report, Cohen spoke on the phone with Klokov, exchanged follow-up emails about the Trump Tower Moscow project, and discussed a meeting between Trump and “the person of interest” in Russia, presumably Putin.
The meeting never happened. Trump was elected president and Cohen ended up becoming a cooperating witness in the Mueller probe.
All the while, Cohen never realized that his contact wasn’t the weightlifter. In a footnote in the report, Mueller wrote: “During his interviews with the Office, Cohen still appeared to believe that the Klokov he spoke with was that Olympian.”
Mixing up a former Olympian with a Kremlin ally was one of many unforced errors by the campaign in a months-long flirtation between Trump affiliates and the Russian government. The Kremlin was determined to support Trump, and was successful at interfering with–if not at actually impacting–the election “in a sweeping and systematic fashion,” Mueller writes. Meanwhile, as much as it seemed to want to, the Trump team was no more successful at explicitly coordinating with Russian government officials than it was at securing a meeting with the Kremlin about a Trump Tower Moscow.
And there were a lot of missed connections and digital slip-ups, the Special Counsel’s office reports. As Garrett Graff noted at Wired, prior to a post-election meeting with the Kremlin-connected head of Russia’s development bank Sergey Gorkov, Jared Kushner’s team “did little prep work beyond a Google search that determined Gorkov was a ‘banker,’ leaving out his key role in the Kremlin hierarchy.” During the campaign, another bad Google search led George Papadopoulos to believe, writes Graff, that “he was meeting privately with Putin’s niece [he wasn’t], a fact the special counsel corroborates because Papadopoulos searched for, among other phrases, ‘Putin’s niece.'” Papadopoulos himself had apparently been recruited to the campaign after Sam Clovis, the campaign co-chair, conducted a single Google search on him, writes Mueller.
In another digital mistake in December 2015, Cohen, in an effort to bolster official support for the Moscow development, tried to reach Vladimir Putin through the Kremlin’s press secretary, Dmitry Peskov, at firstname.lastname@example.org. Except he wrote “.gof” instead of “.gov.”
“So the email apparently did not go through,” Mueller’s report said.
Cohen tried again two days later, using the right address. While he initially told investigators that he didn’t recall hearing a response, Mueller found that “Cohen had received [and recalled receiving] a response to his inquiry, and he continued to work on and update candidate Trump on the project through as late as June 2016.”
When it came to the actual matter of election meddling, however, Russian intelligence services appeared to wisely avoid the liability of having direct contact with Team Trump, by using Wikileaks to distribute hacked emails.
Still, Klokov–the executive, not the weightlifter–was one of many business figures the Kremlin used to try to connect with Team Trump. In July 2018, the Special Counsel’s office wrote, it “received an unsolicited email purporting to be from Erchova, in which she wrote that ‘[a]t the end of 2015 and beginning of 2016 I was asked by my ex-husband to contact Ivanka Trump . . . and offer cooperation to Trump’s team on behalf of the Russian officials.” Curiously, this lead didn’t go far. “In order to vet the email’s claims, the Office responded requesting more details,” Mueller wrote. “The Office did not receive any reply.”
Competence and incompetence
The Special Counsel’s office, however, said it identified multiple contacts–“‘links,’ in the words of the Appointment Order–between Trump Campaign officials and individuals with ties to the Russian government,” the report said. “In particular, the investigation examined whether these contacts involved or resulted in coordination or a conspiracy with the Trump Campaign and Russia, including with respect to Russia providing assistance to the Campaign in exchange for any sort of favorable treatment in the future. Based on the available information, the investigation did not establish such coordination.”
Contrary to what President Trump said after the report dropped, what the Special Counsel showed was not “no collusion” or exoneration. In fact, Mueller said explicitly that there was not sufficient evidence to exonerate Trump on the obstruction charge. Trump’s lawyer refused to fire Robert Mueller when the president asked him to–thereby averting what the lawyer rightly feared would be a calamity for the White House and the nation–while other White House lawyers ensured that he never sat for an interview with the Special Counsel, providing carefully vetted lawyer-written answers instead.
What the Mueller report showed wasn’t just the facts but the possibilities that those facts paint: There may well have been “coordination” if people in the Trump campaign hadn’t been so incompetent, and there may have been clear obstruction if those around the President weren’t so competent.
In the longer view, the Special Counsel’s report sketches a path for congressional investigators to look more closely. And it gives everyone, however you want to interpret it, something good: a compendium of terrible mistakes, big and small, and the most authoritative guide there is to How To Not Let This Happen Again.