Donald Trump ordered the man who would later serve briefly as his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, to find thousands of missing emails from Hillary Clinton’s computer server at the height of the 2016 presidential campaign, the special counsel’s report revealed on Thursday.
The episode is among the closest that investigators came to uncovering an instance in which Mr Trump himself appeared to use whatever means necessary to locate the messages.
However, it stops short of saying he encouraged a breach of his opponent’s computers, networks or email accounts.
Trump had insisted at the time that he was only joking when he encouraged Russian hackers to find and disclose 30,000 deleted emails from Ms Clinton’s servers.
But behind the scenes, Trump was serious, according to the report by special counsel Robert Mueller.
It said that Mr Flynn, by then a retired three-star Army intelligence officer, told the investigators “that Trump made this request repeatedly, and Flynn subsequently contacted multiple people in an effort to obtain the emails”.
As it turned out, Russia’s military intelligence unit and supporters of Mr Trump’s campaign had — apparently independently — sought the email trove, convinced that it contained embarrassing material that could prove decisive on election day.
Ms Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state had been the focus of a lengthy investigation by the FBI, and Mr Trump, calling his campaign opponent “Crooked Hillary”, was eager to turn attention to her actions.
Moscow’s most intense efforts came just five hours after Trump first signalled his desire by declaring in Florida in July 2016, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing”.
Skilled Russian attackers working for two different military units of Russia’s GRU intelligence agency — one called Unit 26165, another Unit 74455 — went to work on exactly that task.
Mr Mueller’s investigators never cracked the mystery of how they knew, within hours, which servers and accounts to try to breach.
They failed. But Trump’s deputy campaign manager, Rick Gates, was so certain that the emails would soon be on the way that by late summer 2016, he was “planning a press strategy, a communications campaign and messaging based on the possible release of Clinton emails by WikiLeaks”.
The picture of those and other hacking efforts that emerged from Mr Mueller’s report is, not surprisingly, a complex mix of political desires in Moscow and New York, and a complex series of computer breaches that, at times, the Russians carried out with remarkable precision.
Mr Mueller concluded that “the Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion”, and for nearly 200 pages it lays out details of that effort.
Because there will never be the equivalent of a 9/11 Commission report on perhaps the most famous and consequential state-sponsored attempt to hack an election, the report will stand as the final word on what happened, even if it does not address how to prevent future breaches.
Meanwhile, a candidate who understood very little about how computers and networks operate was clamouring for the leak of data from Clinton’s private server, the special counsel’s investigation found.
Mr Mueller found no evidence that Russians and the Trump campaign worked together, and that while the Russians easily infiltrated the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, they appeared to have a difficult time doing so with Clinton’s own personal server.
The account of those efforts may be the closest the nation comes to understanding the details of the largest cyber-operation ever initiated against a US election.
Mueller found that Russian military intelligence units and Trump’s campaign found themselves working opposite ends of a mutually beneficial, but uncoordinated, effort.
“Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts,” the report concludes, there was no finding that any “member of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government”.
When General Flynn received the request from Trump, he contacted Barbara Ledeen, a former Senate staff member close to the retired general, and Peter Smith, an investment adviser.
The investigators concluded that as early as December 2015, long before the Russian hacking of the Democratic National Committee became known, Ms Ledeen had sent a 25-page proposal to Smith about how to obtain what she believed were “classified emails” that had already been “purloined by our enemies”.
The exchange was included in emails the special counsel obtained during the investigation.
Ms Ledeen urged a search of public sources, in hopes that some of the Clinton emails had been leaked by foreign intelligence services that she believed had perhaps already extracted them from Ms Clinton’s server in Chappaqua, New York.
If that failed, she wanted to make contact with “various foreign services” to see if any of them had cracked the server.
After initially turning down the idea, Mr Smith eventually had a change of heart, the report states, after Trump’s requests in July 2016.
Ms Ledeen later contended she had found a trove of the emails on what she termed the “dark web” — referring to parts of the web that are not searchable, and that are often used for criminal activity.
But it turned out that the trove was “not authentic”, the report says, prompting a more fevered search.
Mr Smith wrote in one message that “all 33k deleted emails” would be released by 1 Nov on WikiLeaks, a week before the election. They never appeared.
Trump continued to insist that Russia was unlikely to have been responsible for any of the hacking activity around the 2016 campaign.
After meeting President Vladimir Putin of Russia for the first time in Hamburg, Germany, in 2017, Mr Trump called a reporter and noted that Mr Putin had denied being behind the breaches, quoting him as saying, “If we did, we wouldn’t have gotten caught, because we’re professionals’.’
Trump said he believed that explanation, “because they are some of the best in the world”.
Mr Mueller’s report concluded that they were good but ultimately failed to cover their tracks.
The New York Times