WASHINGTON — By April 2016, Donald Trump had become the front-runner in the Republican presidential primaries and, needing help to seal the deal on the nomination, he turned to an experienced campaign adviser, Paul Manafort.
Yet, as special counsel Robert Mueller’s redacted report released Thursday said in extensive and surprising detail, Trump also began benefiting that month from the help of another experienced but more furtive source: Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“The Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion,” Mueller’s team of investigators said in one of their primary conclusions in the 448-page two volume report.
Russia’s influence campaign, the report said, used two primary vehicles — social media messaging and computer hacking of Democrats’ emails — that “favored presidential candidate Donald J. Trump and disparaged presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.”
In a third avenue, the report said, Russians reached out to or sought to enlist people affiliated with the Trump campaign to help them publicize their messages and hacked emails — and Trump and his campaign did help, often unknowingly with retweets, but also as they sought to get “dirt” on Clinton or to tout posts of hacked emails.
The Russians' scheme lasted through much of the 2016 campaign and extended into the early months of the Trump administration, when Russian oligarchs reached out at Putin’s request to develop contacts with the new president’s team, the report said.
When Trump’s unexpected election victory was announced early in the morning on Nov. 9, 2016, the report said, Kirill Dmitriev, one of those oligarchs who heads Russia's sovereign wealth fund, received a message from a source whose name is redacted: “Putin has won.”
In the days since the report’s release, most of the focus has been on Mueller’s decision not to charge, or exonerate, Trump on obstructing the investigation and his conclusion that he could not establish that any Trump associate criminally conspired or coordinated with Russia.
But Mueller’s conclusion that the Russian government did interfere in the election not only confirms the U.S. intelligence community’s two-year-old finding that Russia tried to sway the election, it also rebuts Trump’s dismissal of the entire investigation as a “hoax.”
So far, though, the report hasn’t changed many minds on either side of the deep partisan divide.
An Ipsos Poll conducted for Reuters after the report’s release asked those surveyed if they believe President Trump or someone from his campaign worked with Russia to influence the 2016 election: 79 percent of Democrats agreed and 63 percent of Republicans disagreed.
The Mueller report said his team did not establish that members of the Trump campaign criminally conspired or coordinated with the Russian government, but it also said that both sides thought they would benefit from the Russian interference.
“The Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome,” the report said, and “the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts.”
The report describes many contacts between Russia and Trump associates: in the offer of Clinton “dirt” at the June 9, 2016, Trump Tower meeting, at events at the Republican National Convention, in contacts with the Russian ambassador and through Manafort and an associate.
The Trump campaign initially greeted release of hacked emails with enthusiasm, the report said. But as news stories focused on its links to Russia, Trump denied any connection to Russia, and the campaign tried to distance itself by cutting ties with Russian-linked advisers.
April 2016 turned out to be an important month for Trump. Though he came in second in the Wisconsin primary, he still had nearly half the delegates needed to win the nomination, and by the end of the month he would win primaries in six key states, including New York.
He also gave his first major foreign policy speech on April 27, in which he did not mention Putin by name, but promised he would improve relations with Russia. “Some say the Russians won’t be reasonable,” he said. “I intend to find out.”
Behind the scenes, the Russian government and related entities also shifted gears that month, according to the report.
On April 12, 2016, Russian GRU military intelligence officers broke into the computer network of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, and six days later cracked into the Democratic National Committee network, and stole thousands of emails and documents.
A week later, on April 19, the GRU registered the domain dcleaks.com, which would later post hacked materials.
Two weeks later came a meeting that would prompt the FBI to open an investigation into Russian interference in the election.
On April 26, the report said, George Papadopoulos, who was named a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser in March, learned from a London-based professor who had just returned to England from Russia about new “dirt” on Clinton — in the form of thousands of hacked emails.
The GRU release of hacked materials from Democrats and the Clinton campaign would be posted by a site called Guccifer 2.0 and then WikiLeaks before and during the Democratic National Convention and later in the month before the election.
Mueller last year indicted the GRU and 12 of its officers for their computer hacking conspiracies aimed at interfering in the 2016 U.S. elections.
The social media operation also made a crucial shift during that month.
On April 19, a Russian company called the Internet Research Agency, which for two years had been spreading disinformation on social media, purchased “its first known” advertisement, on Instagram, “explicitly endorsing the Trump Campaign,” the report said.
This effort by the agency, referred to as IRA, also used accounts for fake individuals and fake official-sounding groups on Twitter, Facebook and other social media to spread disinformation and eventually to organize rallies and marches, the report said.
Last year, Mueller also indicted the Internet Research Agency, 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities on charges of violating U.S. criminal laws to interfere with U.S. elections.
The report said Trump and his campaign aides and supporters welcomed the help.
Trump, his son Donald Jr., his pollster Kellyanne Conway, social media operator Brad Parscale and adviser Michael T. Flynn retweeted the IRA’s tweets and Facebook posts attacking Clinton and organizing pro-Trump rallies in New York, Pennsylvania and Florida.
Some lower-level campaign workers even unknowingly handed out signs or helped with logistics for the rallies, the report said.
After GRU and WikiLeaks posted hacked emails of Democrats, Trump in July publicly cast doubt about the Russian role but said it would give him “no pause” if Russia had them, the report said. He welcomed the posts and his campaign planned a press strategy for them.
Donald Trump Jr. even corresponded with WikiLeaks, and Trump associate Roger Stone had a relationship with WikiLeaks. But that section of the report is largely blacked out because of Mueller’s indictment of Stone in a still-pending case.
When Manafort began his new post as an adviser to Trump’s campaign in April or early May 2016, he took an unusual step.
He told investigators that he had the campaign’s internal polling data regularly sent to a business associate the FBI suspected of having ties to Russian intelligence with the expectation it would be shared with his former client, Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, the report said.
But Mueller’s office, which accused Manafort of lying despite his agreement to cooperate, said that because of Manafort’s credibility issues and its limited ability to gather evidence, it could not determine who ultimately received the polling data or what they did with it.