The special counsel investigation was often cast as a clash between President Donald Trump and Robert Mueller. But there was always a third player, for whom victory seemed assured no matter the outcome.
Russian President Vladimir Putin set this sequence of events in motion with a Kremlin campaign to destabilize American democracy. That operation and its aftermath inflamed partisan tensions in the United States, eroded public confidence in core institutions and triggered a two-year investigation that consumed the nation’s attention and much of the Trump presidency.
The investigation may be finished now that the bulk of the Mueller report has been released, but the political battle it has generated in the United States — and the advantage Putin sees for Russia in that infighting — appears far from over.
In a sign of the Russian leader’s confidence on that front, Putin could not resist pre-emptive gloating in the days leading up to Thursday’s release. The entire Russia inquiry, he said with a smirk last week, was like “a mountain that brought forth a mouse.”
Speaking at an event in St. Petersburg, not far from where Russian trolls unleashed torrents of disinformation on American voters, Putin dismissed the U.S. effort to understand what had happened as “complete nonsense intended only for the domestic audience and used for interior political combat.”
It is a self-serving assessment that fails to acknowledge significant costs to Moscow, but U.S. officials and experts find it hard to argue with the view of the United States as a nation beset by internal dysfunction and strife.
In the months after the 2016 election, there was debate among U.S. intelligence analysts on Russia about whether the Kremlin operation’s gains exceeded its costs — economic sanctions, the expulsion of diplomatic personnel and further deterioration in its relations with the West.
That debate has waned, current and former officials said, with most describing the outcome as an overall win for Putin. The United States is led by a disruptive, Kremlin-backed candidate who has frequently praised autocrats, disparaged allies, done little to prevent future interference and — according to the Mueller report — sought repeatedly to thwart the Russia investigation.
The smug display in St. Petersburg was “vintage Putin,” said William Burns, who served as U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008. Putin “likes to be snarky when he sees an event breaking his way. The backdrop is his sense that [Russia’s interference in 2016] worked,” that he saw vulnerability in the fraying American political landscape and “was able to sow even further chaos.”
Though always bound to be contentious, the special counsel inquiry had the potential to create a clarifying and unifying moment for the United States, a chance to stop arguing over what did and did not happen and confront more difficult questions about why it was possible and whether it could happen again.
Instead, the Mueller report itself has become something to fight over, viewed from political extremes as either exonerating or damning to the president, fulfilling or failing to uphold the rule of law, affirming or discrediting the press and its coverage of Russia and Trump.
The Mueller report may provide a definitive record of what happened. However, “it’s not going to bring any closure,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, a former senior U.S. intelligence analyst focused on Russia, now at the Center for a New American Security. “We’ll continue living in these two different realities.”