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Wednesday 5 June 2019

tortoise take • opinion

The meaning of Mueller

The Special Counsel’s work is done – he resigned last week because his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US elections had run its course. But we must not forget that work, as it contains important lessons for Western democracies. Here are five of them.

By Giles Whittell

1. There was criminal interference in the 2016 election

“I will close by reiterating the central allegation of our indictments – that there were multiple, systematic efforts to interfere in our election. That allegation deserves the attention of every American.”

Statement by Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III on his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election, 29 May 2019

The Queen’s guest this week was elected with the help of criminal interference in American democracy by the Russian state. This is not surmise. It was the verdict of the US intelligence community in 2016, and it was confirmed last month by Special Counsel Robert Mueller. His last words before resigning were a plea to Americans to pay closer attention to what is happening to their politics. We all should.

Democracy is under attack. Thirty years after Tiananmen Square, representative government is being out-muscled by authoritarianism in the world’s second-biggest economy, but it is also being actively undermined by Putin’s Russia wherever its troll farms and hackers can gain a foothold.

America’s democracy, the world’s most sophisticated, has been systematically disrupted – and distracted. As London recoils from Trump, his immediate fate is not the issue; nor is the question of whether Congress moves against him. Mueller’s words have been endlessly parsed for hints as to whether or not he backs impeachment. But hints were never Mueller’s currency. What matters is what he actually said.

2. The Mueller Report is clear about the threat from Russia

“The Office [of the Special Prosecutor] determined that Russia’s two principal interference operations – the social media campaign and the hacking-and-dumping operations – violated US criminal law.”

Volume 1, page 9, Report On The Investigation Into Russian Interference In The 2016 Presidential Election

The Mueller Report is detailed and explicit on the threat from Russia, which was two-pronged, years in the making, and criminal. Two months after publication, its words have lost none of their sting, even though many members of Congress have yet to read them. When they do they will find among other things that:

  • “In mid-2014 the [St Petersburg-based] Internet Research Agency sent employees to the United States on an intelligence-gathering mission… The IRA’s operation also included the purchase of political advertisements on social media in the names of US persons and entities, as well as the staging of political rallies inside the United States.”
  • “Military Unit 74455 is a GRU [Russian military intelligence] unit with multiple departments that… hacked computers belonging to state boards of elections, secretaries of state, and US companies that supplied software and other technology related to the administration of US elections.”
  • “The IRA bought an advertisement… asking US persons to help them make a “patriotic team of young Trump supporters” by uploading photos with the hashtag KIDS4TRUMP.”

And we still don’t know the half of it. The full significance of the Mueller Report is not yet known because so much of it is not yet public.

3. Yet we still don’t know the full story

The redactions – by the office of Attorney General William Barr, a Trump appointee – begin on page 4 of 448 and are extensive throughout. Each has an explanatory note such as “Investigative Technique” or “Personal Privacy”, but by far the most common is “Harm to Ongoing Matter” – a reference into continuing investigations into Russian interference. For example:

4. All the talk of collusion is a red herring

“He actually sort of smiled when he said something to the effect that it started off being a mountain and it ended up being a mouse, but he knew that because he knew there was no collusion whatsoever.”

President Trump on his first phone call with President Putin following publication of the Mueller Report, 3 May 2019

The Mueller Report did not find compelling evidence of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign. It did find that Trump campaign staff were eager to accept dirt on Hillary Clinton from any source, including Russia, but in the end the question of collusion was beside the point. What Putin “knew” was that collusion was not needed to upend America’s great festival of democracy. In the new age of online politics, he could use other means to influence the outcome or to simply cast doubt on it. Without consulting or colluding with anyone the Kremlin was able to deploy:

  • 470 IRA-controlled Facebook accounts;
  • 80,000 posts made by these accounts between January 2015 and August 2017, reaching an estimated 126 million people; and
  • 3,500 Facebook ads bought by the IRA for $100,000

Russia’s leg-up for Trump was cheap at the price. It was also on trend.

5. Western democracy is under threat

1. Russia Regional democracy abolished and a rubber stamp parliament in Moscow

2. China Tiananmen Square massacre wiped from the internet in China 30 years on

3. United States “Sweeping and systematic” Russian interference in 2016 election

4. United Kingdom Mounting evidence of IRA meddling in 2016 referendum

5. Turkey Erdogan dismantling the democratic institutions that brought him to power

6. Hungary Most national media now state-controlled

7. Poland Judicial independence under assault from ruling Law and Justice Party

8. Sudan Hopes of democracy dashed by military junta

9. Algeria Promised elections repeatedly postponed

10. India Nationalism trumps pluralism with Narendra Modi’s 2019 landslide

A year after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Francis Fukuyama predicted “the universalisation of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government”. Vladimir Putin, and a generation of autocrats that has watched and learned from him, had other ideas.

On learning of the appointment of Mueller as Special Prosecutor, President Trump is reported to have remarked that his presidency was “fucked”. It wasn’t, but western democracy might be if Mueller’s warning is not heeded.