Washington – He pulled back the curtain on a sophisticated Kremlin hacking operation — identifying by name the 12 Russian military officers who he said sought to sway a U.S. election.
He exposed a Russian online influence campaign — bringing criminal charges against the 13 members of a Russian troll farm now accused of trying to manipulate U.S. voters and sow division through fake social media personae.
And he revealed how those closest to President Donald Trump defrauded banks, cheated on their taxes and, time and time again, lied to deflect inquiries into their ties with Russia.
After 22 months of meticulous investigation, charges against 34 people — including six former Trump aides or confidants — and countless hours of all-consuming news coverage, special counsel Robert Mueller on Friday submitted the long-anticipated report on his findings to Attorney General William Barr.
It’s not clear whether or when Mueller’s full report will become public — or how his conclusions might impact Trump’s presidency.
But through legal documents and court hearings, Mueller has already revealed rich details about the Russian attack on the U.S. democracy in 2016 — and his investigation has triggered unpredictable ripple effects.
The special counsel indirectly helped expose hush money that Trump’s lawyer paid an adult-film actress, shed new light on foreign-backed lobbying efforts and helped force a reckoning at technology companies over how social media can be used to divide and inflame.
“He’s almost like a venture capital incubator who has spun out multiple lines of business,” said David Kris, a former Justice Department national security division chief and founder of the consulting firm Culper Partners. “He’s shown us an awful lot, and yet I think there’s an awful lot more to come.”
The special counsel team worked amid an unrelenting onslaught of insults and attacks from the president and his party — ensuring that its findings will probably be viewed through the lens of tribal partisan politics.
While polling has found that more Americans are likely to trust Mueller than Trump, those views break down sharply on partisan lines.
“I think the question of whether you assess it as a success or a failure,” Kris said, “is probably really just holding up a mirror to your own expectations, hopes and dreams.”
From the start of his investigation, Mueller and his team followed a consistent pattern. They would toil in silence for months, saying nothing about what leads they were exploring. Then — often on a Friday — they would reveal indictments packed with more detail than needed to substantiate the charges, though perhaps less than an insatiable public might have preferred.
Mueller struck first at the heart of Trump’s campaign — charging its former chairman, Paul Manafort, and deputy campaign chairman, Rick Gates, with crimes related to their work for a pro-Russian candidate in Ukraine.
The infractions Mueller alleged were not related to possible coordination with Russia, a fact Trump and his allies were quick to seize on. But the October 2017 indictment sent a message: Mueller was alleging that the president’s campaign had been led by people who had engaged in serious criminal wrongdoing.
Mueller also revealed that another campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos, had secretly pleaded guilty that month to lying to the FBI about his contacts with foreigners claiming to have high-level Russian connections.
He was one of at least 14 Trump associates who had contact with Russian nationals during the campaign and transition.
Papadopoulos’ plea agreement described his extensive efforts to try to arrange a meeting between Russians and the Trump campaign. And he said that in April 2016, a London-based professor claiming to have Russian connections confided that he had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, including “thousands of e-mails.”
That same month, Mueller would later allege, Russian hackers had accessed the networks of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the Democratic National Committee.
The plea deal previewed what Mueller would show over and over: Those surrounding the president sought to hide or downplay their dealings with Russia.
One of the persistent mysteries has been why.
One of Mueller’s core assignments from the start was to dissect exactly how Russia sought to influence the 2016 presidential campaign.
Four months before Mueller was appointed, the U.S. intelligence community laid out in a terse 14-page report how it said Russia — on the order of President Vladimir Putin — had waged an online campaign to help Trump win the election.
The special counsel added to that 66 richly detailed pages of his own, outlining in two indictments the granular specifics of the cyberoperations.
In the first, which accused 13 Russians of waging a social media influence effort that ran afoul of U.S. law, Mueller revealed he had access to the group’s internal communications, including an e-mail from September 2017 in which one of those charged wrote to a family member: “The FBI busted our work (not a joke).”
Mueller also described how the group worked offline, visiting states to gather intelligence on U.S. politics and enlisting unwitting Americans to hold rallies in support of Trump — providing the clearest window yet into Russia’s covert efforts.
In the second, which charged a group of Russian military officers with hacking Democrats’ e-mails and laundering them through fake online personae so they could be posted online, Mueller identified by name those he asserted were responsible for the attack. The indictment expanded considerably on the intelligence community’s assessment.
Notably, the indictments did not accuse any Americans of conspiring with Russia — one of the main questions the special counsel was asked to examine.
The most Mueller’s team has said publicly on that topic was in court papers related to Trump’s longtime adviser Roger Stone, which alleged that he made efforts to get information about the release of the hacked e-mails in consultation with the campaign — then lied to Congress about it.
Court filings also revealed that Paul Manafort, as Trump’s campaign chairman, provided 2016 polling data to a Russian associate who the FBI has assessed had ties to Russian intelligence — although Manafort was not charged with conspiring with Russia.
Still, the revelations throughout the course of the investigation formed a compelling narrative, some analysts said — one muted only by how it dribbed out over time.
“It’s so much, it’s so gradual, it’s so complicated, people don’t have a chance to sort of pause, catch their breath and really sort of survey the whole story that [Mueller has] found,” Kris said. “I think if you took it all in in one day, it would kill you. It’s simply too much.”