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Mueller says messaging apps likely destroyed Trump-Russia evidence

Tech challenges prevented special counsel from establishing full picture of what happened

Some of the individuals interviewed by the special counsel’s office communicated using apps that “do not provide for long term retention of data or communication records,” according to the Mueller report. (Carl Court/Getty Images file photo)
Some of the individuals interviewed by the special counsel’s office communicated using apps that “do not provide for long term retention of data or communication records,” according to the Mueller report. (Carl Court/Getty Images file photo)

Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III concluded that there was insufficient evidence to bring criminal charges against individuals connected with President Donald Trump’s campaign for their ties to Russia, but he said the investigation faced numerous challenges, including technological ones, in establishing a full picture of what transpired in 2015 and 2016.

“While the investigation identified numerous links between individuals with ties to the Russian government and individuals associated with the Trump Campaign, the evidence was not sufficient to support criminal charges,” Mueller wrote in his report made public Thursday by the Justice Department.

In investigating ties between the Trump campaign and Russian individuals, Mueller’s team ran into technological hurdles, in addition to old-fashioned ones such as unavailable foreign witnesses, according to the report.

The special counsel’s office “learned that some of the individuals we interviewed or whose conduct we investigated — including some associated with the Trump Campaign deleted relevant communications or communicated during the relevant period using applications that feature encryption or that do not provide for long term retention of data or communication records,” the report said. “In such cases the Office was not able to corroborate witness statements through comparison to contemporaneous communications or fully question witnesses about statements that appeared inconsistent with the other known facts.”

Apps such as Snapchat, for example, delete messages once they have been viewed, and the company says it deletes all messages from its servers after 30 days. WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram and Viber are some of the apps that offer end-to-end encryption of messages. The report does not mention which individuals may have used such apps.

The probe also “faced practical limits on its ability to access relevant evidence as well — numerous witnesses and subjects lived abroad, and documents were held outside the United States,” the report said.

Also watch: Barr on Mueller report ahead of release — ‘No collusion’

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As a result of the missing evidence, Mueller wrote that his office “cannot rule out the possibility that the unavailable information would shed additional light on (or cast in a new light) the events described in the report.”

The nearly two-year-long investigation “established multiple links between Trump Campaign officials and individuals tied to the Russian government,” according to the report. “Those links included Russian offers of assistance to the campaign. In some instances, the campaign was receptive to the offer, while in other instances the campaign officials shied away.”

One of the two most well-known episodes of close coordination between Trump campaign officials and Russian officials was the June 9, 2016, meeting in Trump Tower with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, who has ties to the Kremlin. The meeting was billed as a discussion on the Russian ban on adoption but in reality turned out to be an offer of Moscow’s help with damaging information on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton with the goal of aiding Trump.

The other instance was potential ties between Trump campaign officials and WikiLeaks, which released thousands of emails that were stolen from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta and the Democratic National Committee.

“Our evidence about the June 9, 2016 meeting and WikiLeaks’s releases of hacked materials was not sufficient to charge a criminal campaign-finance violation,” the Mueller report said. “Ultimately, the investigation did not establish that the campaign coordinated or conspired with the Russian government in its election-interference activities.”

In evaluating whether the actions of several Trump associates collectively amounted to a crime, Mueller’s office “applied the framework of conspiracy law, not the concept of ‘collusion,’” the report said, adding that the term “collusion” is not a specific offense defined by law.

Addressing the question of whether Trump campaign officials coordinated with Russian interference activities, Mueller noted that coordination would require some kind of an agreement between the campaign and the Russian government to act in ways that are responsive to each other’s actions or interests. On that score, the probe did not establish there was coordination between the two sides, the report said.

Numerous others already charged

The report, which runs to 448 pages, was redacted by the Justice Department to preserve grand jury testimony, safeguard ongoing probes, protect the privacy of some individuals, and remove material that could hurt intelligence sources and methods. Congressional Democrats are demanding a full, unredacted version.

The report was divided into two volumes, with the first one detailing the Russian interference in the 2016 election and the second one examining whether Trump obstructed justice. Mueller’s team neither found Trump guilty of obstruction nor exonerated him of that charge, according to the report.

During the course of the probe, numerous individuals tied to the Trump campaign lied either to Mueller’s office or to Congress about their interactions with Russians, leading to indictments and prison terms.

Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn was charged with lying to the FBI about his back-channel discussions with the Russian ambassador to the United States. Although Mueller’s office recommended no prison time for Flynn, citing his cooperation with the investigation, U.S. District Judge Emmet Sullivan postponed sentencing in late December.

Trump’s onetime foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos was charged with lying about his interactions with Joseph Mifsud, a professor in London with ties to the Kremlin who told Papadopoulos in March 2016 that Russia had “dirt on candidate Clinton in the form of thousands of emails.”

Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen was charged with lying to Congress about the Trump Moscow project, which continued through about June 2016, while Cohen told lawmakers that it ended in January 2016.

Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort faced multiple counts of indictments for money laundering and failing to register as a foreign agent. He was convicted of fraud and conspiracy linked to his work on behalf of pro-Kremlin figures in Ukraine and sentenced to seven and a half years in prison. Rick Gates, who was Manafort’s deputy, has pleaded guilty to conspiracy and lying to investigators and cooperated in the Mueller probe.

Separately, 28 others, including 26 Russians, face charges of interfering with U.S. elections and breaking into Democratic Party computers.

In February 2018, Mueller indicted 13 Russians and three Russian companies for interfering in the 2016 election. The indictment said 12 of those Russians worked for the St. Petersburg-based Internet Research Agency, an internet troll farm that employed hundreds of Russians who created fake social media accounts intended to mislead American voters. The company was funded and run by Yevgeny Prigozhin, who was also charged in the indictment. Prigozhin’s two other companies, Concord Management and Consulting as well as Concord Catering, were also charged. Prigozhin has close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

According to charges, the Russians operated social media accounts on Facebook, Twitter and Google, pretending to be Americans and posting inflammatory messages on race, police shootings and other contentious issues.

The Internet Research Agency “employed hundreds of persons for its online operations, ranging from creators of fictitious personas to technical and administrative support, with an annual budget of millions of dollars,” according to the Justice Department. The agency was a structured organization headed by a management group and arranged in departments, including graphics, search-engine optimization, information technology and finance departments. In 2014, the agency established a “translator project” to focus on the U.S. population. In July 2016, more than 80 employees were assigned to the translator project.

In another set of charges, Mueller in July 2018 indicted 12 Russian military intelligence officers for breaking into the Democratic National Committee’s email servers, stealing information, and leaking them through online outlets as well as through WikiLeaks. The Justice Department said the Russian military officers also hacked the website of a state election board and stole information on 500,000 voters.