Plausible Explanations

The Mueller report concluded that the contacts between the Trump campaign and the various Russian individuals they met or communicated with did not violate election laws or constitute conspiracy to violate those laws. The report did not comment at all on the activities of Cambridge Analytica or the NRA, on activities by countries other than Russia, or on the subject of money laundering.

The explanation of those contacts most consistent with the findings of the Mueller report is that Russians were working hard to cultivate members of the Trump campaign (including Trump himself) as unwitting agents, and were at least partially successful in that they were able to establish contact, convey their desires, and make it clear that the campaign could “expect it would benefit electorally” from their efforts. While the report determined that this did not rise to the legal standard for “conspiracy” in a way that could be proved beyond a reasonable doubt, it is behavior that is inconsistent with most Americans’ expectations that their elected officials will act in the public interest rather than their own. Afraid that this embarrassing information would become public, President Trump took actions that Congress could legitimately find to be obstruction of justice.

From the summary of volume 1 of the report:

The social media campaign and the GRU hacking operations coincided with a series of contacts between Trump Campaign officials and individuals with ties to the Russian government. The Office investigated whether those contacts reflected or resulted in the Campaign conspiring or coordinating with Russia in its election-interference activities. 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 investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities. The Russian contacts consisted of business connections, offers of assistance to the Campaign, invitations for candidate Trump and Putin to meet in person, invitations for Campaign officials and representatives of the Russian government to meet, and policy positions seeking improved U.S.-Russian relations.
[…]
Some of the earliest contacts were made in connection with a Trump Organization real-estate project in Russia known as Trump Tower Moscow. Candidate Trump signed a Letter of lntent for Trump Tower Moscow by November 2015, and in January 2016 Trump Organization executive Michael Cohen emailed and spoke about the project with the office of Russian government press secretary Dmitry Peskov. The Trump Organization pursued the project through at least June 2016, including by considering travel to Russia by Cohen and candidate Trump.

From the summary of volume 2 of the report:

[I]f we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment. The evidence we obtained about the President's actions and intent presents difficult issues that prevent us from conclusively determining that no criminal conduct occurred. Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.
[…]
[M]any of the President's acts directed at witnesses, including discouragement of cooperation with the government and suggestions of possible future pardons, took place in public view. That circumstance is unusual, but no principle of law excludes public acts from the reach of the obstruction laws. If the likely effect of public acts is to influence witnesses or alter their testimony, the harm to the justice system's integrity is the same.
[…]
A preclusion of " corrupt" official action does not diminish the President's ability to exercise Article II powers. For example, the proper supervision of criminal law does not demand freedom for the President to act with a corrupt intention of shielding himself from criminal punishment, avoiding financial liability, or preventing personal embarrassment.

Intelligence experts had commented on this possibility prior to the release of the report.

Ex-CIA chief John Brennan: Russians contacted Trump campaign by Tom LoBianco reporting on the testimony of John Brennan for CNN (May 23, 2017)

Brennan was speaking to the House intelligence committee on the extent of Russia's meddling in the 2016 elections and possible ties to the Trump campaign, where he was asked about how Moscow recruits sources "wittingly and unwittingly."

"Frequently, people who go along a treasonous path do not know they are on a treasonous path until it is too late," Brennan said.

[…]

Brennan cautioned lawmakers that although he could not definitively say if those contacts amounted to "collusion," he knew that Russians were actively cultivating US contacts and, very likely, did not present themselves as Russian spies.

Trump Jr.’s Russia meeting sure sounds like a Russian intelligence operation by Rolf Mowatt-Larssen (former CIA officer and DOE Intelligence Director) at the Washington Post (July 14, 2017)

[E]verything we know about the meeting — from whom it involved to how it was set up to how it unfolded — is in line with what intelligence analysts would expect an overture in a Russian influence operation to look like. It bears all the hallmarks of a professionally planned, carefully orchestrated intelligence soft pitch designed to gauge receptivity, while leaving room for plausible deniability in case the approach is rejected. And the Trump campaign’s willingness to take the meeting — and, more important, its failure to report the episode to U.S. authorities — may have been exactly the green light Russia was looking for to launch a more aggressive phase of intervention in the U.S. election.
[…]
And here, the deal should have been obvious to everyone. Moscow intended to discredit Clinton and help get Trump elected, and in exchange it hoped the Republican would consider its interests — in sanctions relief and otherwise. The Russian government appears to have signaled its direct involvement and real intention in advance of the meeting, presumably to avoid the possibility that its offer might be misconstrued, perhaps naively, as an innocent gesture of support and nothing more.

An ex-CIA officer: the Trump Jr. meeting shows how the Russians exploit intelligence targets by Sean Illing interviewing Glenn Carle at Vox (Jul 14, 2017)

It also seems certain that Trump is uncontrollable and would not ever consider himself a spy, but many spies don't consider themselves spies and often don't even know that they're spies. And intelligence services couldn’t care less about that.

What matters to them is exploiting people, and that is what is happening here.

Trump's shady and inept campaign team was a perfect target for Putin's spies  by  Zack Beauchamp at Vox (Nov 1, 2017)

Trump ran a chaotic and disorganized campaign, as one might expect from a complete political novice. That, combined with unorthodox policies that included attacks on traditional allies and kind words about traditional US adversaries, led most mainstream Republican operatives and experts to shy away — attracting a cast of inexperienced, shady, and/or pro-Russian characters like Manafort and Papadopoulos.

The basic set-up created an irresistible target for Russian intelligence, one that they repeatedly attempted to penetrate. We know, Trump’s protestations aside, that they managed to successfully make contact with several Trump campaign officials, ranging from junior figures like Papadopoulos to at least one member of the inner circle, Donald Trump Jr. 

For Russia, Trump Was a Vehicle, Not a Target by Clint Watts (former FBI agent) for the New York Times (Apr 3, 2018) 

In Trump and his campaign, Mr. Putin spotted a golden opportunity — an easily ingratiated celebrity motivated by fame and fortune, a foreign policy novice surrounded by unscreened opportunists open to manipulation and unaware of Russia’s long run game of subversion.

We note that in his August 2016 endorsement of Hillary Clinton, former CIA Director Michael Morell also warned of this outcome:

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia was a career intelligence officer, trained to identify vulnerabilities in an individual and to exploit them. That is exactly what he did early in the primaries. Mr. Putin played upon Mr. Trump’s vulnerabilities by complimenting him. He responded just as Mr. Putin had calculated.

Mr. Putin is a great leader, Mr. Trump says, ignoring that he has killed and jailed journalists and political opponents, has invaded two of his neighbors and is driving his economy to ruin. Mr. Trump has also taken policy positions consistent with Russian, not American, interests — endorsing Russian espionage against the United States, supporting Russia’s annexation of Crimea and giving a green light to a possible Russian invasion of the Baltic States.

In the intelligence business, we would say that Mr. Putin had recruited Mr. Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation.

 

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We preserve here for the record some links to discussions of other possibilities released before the Mueller report findings.

James Comey: No ‘treason.’ No coup. Just lies — and dumb lies at that Washington Post (May 28th, 2019)

Trump lawyers say no income from Russia, with exceptions CBS (May 12th, 2017)

Trump Lawyer ‘Vehemently’ Denies Russian Collusion New York Times (August 30th, 2017)

Jared Kushner's statement on Russia to congressional committees  CNN (July 24, 2017)

One year into the FBI's Russia investigation, Mueller is on the Trump money trail by Evan Perez, Pamela Brown and Shimon Prokupecz at CNN (Aug. 3, 2017) (Includes statements by representatives of Carter Page, Roger Stone, Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, and Donald Trump)

Another explanation has been  put forward by a hacker who was tried in Russia for breaking into bank records. He confesses to the DNC hacking under the direction of the FSB, but distances himself from the Kremlin. It is unlikely the confession letter would have been leaked without Kremlin approval.

Putin Ordered Theft of Clinton's Emails from DNC, Russian Hacker Confesses by  Cristina Maza at Newsweek (Dec. 12, 2017)

Some reflections on the word “collusion” and what it might imply:

The Art of the (Trump and Putin) Deal by Robert Reich (July 11, 2017)

Oh, Wait. Maybe It Was Collusion. By John Sipher and Steve Hall at the New York Times (Aug. 2, 2017)

We’re Back to Manafort by Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo (Aug. 4th, 2017)

Russian Leverage Over Trump Is Not Just a Theory. It’s Now Fact by Jonathan Chait at New York Magazine (May 8, 2018)

Donald Trump Gave Russia Leverage Over His Presidency by Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic (Nov. 29, 2018)

There is Only One Trump Scandal by Adam Serwer at the Atlantic (May 21, 2018)

Will Trump Be Meeting With His Counterpart — Or His Handler? A plausible theory of mind-boggling collusion by Jonathan Chait (July 8, 2018)

Putin's Payout: 10 Ways Trump Has Supported Putin's Foreign Policy Agenda by Max Bergmann, James Lamond, and Talia Dessel at the Moscow Project (July 10, 2018)

An Epiphany Article on the Trump/Russia Story by Joshua Marshall at Talking Points Memo (July 10, 2018)

What everyone’s forgetting about Paul Manafort by Diana Pilipenko at the Washington Post (Sept 18th, 2018)

Hidden Motives behind Key GOP Leaders’ Cooperation with Trump & Russia: An Evidence-based Examination of Irrational Behaviors & the Republican Congress Members Who Exhibit Them by Richard Painter and Leanne Watt on Medium (Nov 4th, 2018)

The Mueller Investigation Nears the Worst-Case Scenario by Garret M. Graff at Wired (Dec. 7th, 2018)

Here are 18 reasons Trump could be a Russian asset by Max Boot at the Washington Post (Jan 13, 2019)

Trump's job was to unlock the house for the thieves. He did not need to know what each thief was going to take by Larisa Alexandrovna on Twitter (Feb 6th, 2019)

Trump’s businesses are full of dirty Russian money. The scandal is that it’s legal. by Craig Unger for the Washington Post (March 29th, 2019)