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U.S. Politics Spies, trolls, leaks and cyberwarfare: The Mueller report lays bare an extraordinary tale of the treacherous and the absurd

Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election are seen in Washington

Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

It all began when an army of Russian trolls set its sights on America.

The company was called the Internet Research Agency. Funded by Yevgeniy Prigozhin, an oligarch best known for holding Kremlin catering contracts, the IRA was set up to flood the internet with propaganda backing President Vladimir Putin and trashing his enemies.

In April of 2014, the company created a special department called “the translator project” to target the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The reason is not hard to guess. Just weeks earlier, Mr. Putin had sent troops into Ukraine, annexing Crimea and backing separatist groups in Donbass. U.S. President Barack Obama punished Russia with sanctions.

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Russian businessman Yevgeniy Prigozhin

Sergei Ilnitsky/The Associated Press

The IRA agents started with some basic research: Two employees visited nine U.S. states over a three-week period that spring and summer to gather intelligence. The company also analyzed U.S. political groups on social media, trying to figure out what sort of posts and messages had the greatest influence.

Then, they got to work. From a four-storey office block north of St. Petersburg’s city centre, the company ran what is known as a sock-puppet operation, on an industrial scale. Hundreds of people worked 12-hour shifts day and night, creating fake American personas on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. They bombarded the world with posts, ads and memes meant to whip up divisions over hot-button social issues in the U.S.: immigration, race, religion. There were teams that specialized in creating graphics, analyzing data and search-engine optimization.

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It was a new front in a Second Cold War. Before it was done, the attack would include a sweeping disinformation campaign to influence U.S. voters, expand to a massive hacking operation by a Russian spy agency, shake the democratic foundations of the world’s most powerful country and seek to deliver the U.S. presidency to a nationalistic billionaire in one of the most stunning upsets in political history.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller would spend more than two years unraveling the 2016 U.S. election campaign.

Joshua Roberts/Reuters

Special Counsel Robert Mueller would spend more than two years trying to unravel it all. He ultimately cleared Donald Trump of colluding with the Kremlin.

Along the way, Mr. Mueller laid bare an extraordinary tale mixing the treacherous and the absurd. A campaign of cyberwarfare and espionage that aimed to manipulate U.S. politics by duping gullible grandpas with Facebook memes and by exposing mildly embarrassing e-mails. A willingness by a presidential candidate’s associates to co-ordinate with Moscow to win the election, but with zero ability to do it effectively. And repeated attempts by the President himself to shut down Mr. Mueller’s investigation, potentially obstructing justice and testing the limits of constitutional democracy – attempts thwarted by the disobedience of Mr. Trump’s own advisers and the President’s personal ineptitude.

While Mr. Mueller’s probe is done, the U.S. Congress has now become a political battlefield over his revelations. Some Democrats have called for Attorney-General William Barr to be held in contempt for his handling of the report’s release. And they are still mulling how to hold Mr. Trump accountable.

Whatever the outcome, the Special Counsel’s narrative speaks for itself. Here it is, gleaned unvarnished from Mr. Mueller’s final report and a string of earlier court filings.

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The trolling

Donald Trump, moments before he announces his bid to run for U.S. president.

The Associated Press

On June 16, 2015, Donald Trump descended the golden escalator at the midtown Manhattan skyscraper that bears his name. In a rambling 45-minute speech, the real estate tycoon, beauty-pageant owner and reality-television star announced his presidential bid as he lamented everything from the U.S.’s international treaties to its trade deals.

“The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems,” he said. “Our enemies are getting stronger and stronger, by the way, and we as a country are getting weaker.”

Mr. Trump had a history of praising Mr. Putin. In a Fox Business interview the previous year, he said the Russian despot was “very strong” and was boosting his country’s “world prestige.” On another occasion, he claimed that people in Ukraine were “marching in favour of joining Russia.” In the months after the announcement, he kept up the flattery, telling reporters he would “get along very well” with Mr. Putin, that he “always had a good feeling about him” and that the Russian was “getting an A” in leadership.

The Internet Research Agency swiftly focused its campaign on helping Mr. Trump. One internal memo from February, 2016, instructed workers to attack Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton – as well as Republican contenders Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio – while boosting Mr. Trump and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Ms. Clinton’s rival in the primaries. “Use any opportunity to criticize Hillary and the rest (except Sanders and Trump – we support them),” it read.

The Russians churned out memes attacking Ms. Clinton and boosting Mr. Trump. One depicted the devil proclaiming his support for Ms. Clinton and arm-wrestling Jesus Christ. “Hillary is a Satan, and her crimes and lies had proved just how evil she is,” the text read. “Donald wants to defeat terrorism. Hillary wants to sponsor it,” proclaimed another. The Facebook groups they set up – bearing names such as Secured Borders; Army of Jesus; Trumpsters United; and Clinton FRAUDation – attracted hundreds of thousands of followers.

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The hacking

On March 19, 2016, at the height of the primary battle for the Democratic nomination, Ms. Clinton’s campaign chair, John Podesta, received what appeared to be a security notification from Google. The e-mail told Mr. Podesta his Gmail account had been compromised and to click on a link to change the password. He did.

The e-mail, in fact, was created by Lieutenant Aleksey Lukashev, a Russian officer assigned to Unit 26165 of the Main Intelligence Directorate – the military spy agency best known as the GRU. From Unit 26165’s offices in a sprawling neo-classical building on Komsomolskiy Prospekt in Moscow, intelligence officers spent the spring of 2016 stealing Democratic Party e-mails and other documents.

On April 6, Unit 26165 used another fake e-mail to trick a staffer with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) into entering her login information. The spies installed a spy program on her computer called X-Agent. Developed by Lieutenant Nikolay Kozachek, the malware allowed them to log her keystrokes and take screenshots of her computer. The GRU was able to access at least 10 DCCC computers, plus 33 more belonging to the Democratic National Committee (DNC).

The spies stole reams of documents, including plans for Democratic get-out-the-vote operations, opposition research and one folder titled Benghazi Investigations. In late May, one of the hackers, Ivan Yermakov, broke into the DNC’s e-mail server.

As the GRU was hacking the Democrats, the Trump campaign was hiring a man who was indirectly connected to the Russian spy agency.

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In March of 2016, Mr. Trump brought veteran Republican operative Paul Manafort on board as campaign chair. Mr. Manafort had earned his living for decades as the Washington lobbyist for a string of foreign dictators. Most recently, he had worked for Viktor Yanukovych, the Putin-allied president of Ukraine. One of Mr. Manafort’s key employees was Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russo-Ukrainian based in Kiev. The FBI believes Mr. Kilimnik is a former GRU officer who has maintained his ties to the agency.

Mr. Manafort ordered his business associate Rick Gates to regularly share internal Trump campaign information, including polling data, with Mr. Kilimnik. And at a meeting on Aug. 2, 2016, at a Manhattan cigar bar not far from Trump Tower, Mr. Kilimnik and Mr. Manafort discussed a “Ukraine peace plan” that was designed to turn over the eastern part of the country to Russian control. The pair agreed they would have to get Mr. Trump to sign off on it.

Mr. Mueller couldn’t figure out why Mr. Manafort gave Mr. Kilimnik the polling data or what Mr. Kilimnik did with it. But the suggestion that Mr. Trump’s campaign manager shared information with a suspected Russian spy – and discussed how Russia’s interests in Ukraine could be advanced – was a troubling development.

Mr. Trump’s campaign had other links to Russia too.

Foreign-policy adviser George Papadopoulos, an oil and gas consultant living in London, cultivated Josef Mifsud, a Maltese university professor with extensive Russian connections including at least one former employee of the Internet Research Agency. During breakfast on April, 2016, at the Andaz hotel in London, Mr. Mifsud dropped a bombshell: The Russians, he told Mr. Papadopoulos, had obtained thousands of e-mails containing “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.

Mr. Papadopoulos later mentioned this information to Australian diplomat Alexander Downer, The New York Times reported, during a boozy evening the following month. Mr. Downer passed the intelligence back to Canberra, which informed the U.S. Unbeknownst to American voters and the media – who were preoccupied with a separate scandal over Ms. Clinton’s use of a private e-mail server while in office as secretary of state – the FBI quietly opened a counterintelligence investigation.

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Another Moscow-connected character offered Mr. Trump’s campaign access to some of the Kremlin’s “dirt.” On June 3, Rob Goldstone, a music promoter who does business with Russian oligarchs, e-mailed Mr. Trump’s oldest son to say Mr. Putin’s government supported Mr. Trump and wanted to give him “official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary.” Donald Trump Jr. replied less than 20 minutes later: “I love it.”

On the afternoon of June 9, Don Jr. convened a meeting in his Trump Tower office to receive the damaging information. Joining him from the campaign were Mr. Manafort and Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law. Across the table was a Russian lawyer named Natalia Veselnitskaya and several associates.

But instead of concrete information on Ms. Clinton, Ms. Veselnitskaya provided only unsubstantiated claims that the Democrats had received illegal campaign donations. “Waste of time,” Mr. Kushner texted Mr. Manafort during the meeting, before e-mailing his assistants to call him with an excuse to leave.

Still, the episode revealed a surprising recklessness on the part of three of Mr. Trump’s top campaign officials. Apparently, they had no qualms about working with the Kremlin.

In fact, the Trump Organization had already spent much of the campaign angling for Mr. Putin’s backing on a different project: a Trump hotel in Moscow. On Jan. 14, 2016, Michael Cohen, Mr. Trump’s lawyer and fixer, e-mailed the office of Mr. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, to discuss the hotel. A few days later, he spoke with Mr. Peskov’s assistant Elena Poliakova for 20 minutes by telephone, asking for Russian government help securing land and construction financing.

Despite these moves, Mr. Trump would repeatedly deny in the subsequent months that he had any business dealings in Russia, saying at various times that he had “nothing to do with Russia,” that he didn’t “deal there” and that he had deliberately “stayed away” from the country.

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Through May and June, Mr. Cohen made plans with Felix Sater, a Russo-American businessman also involved in the project, to have Mr. Cohen and Mr. Trump fly to Moscow to meet with Russian officials. Mr. Cohen arranged to attend the St. Petersburg Forum, a meeting of Russian politicians and academics in mid-June, as Mr. Peskov’s guest. In an e-mail to Mr. Cohen, Mr. Sater said Mr. Peskov would introduce Mr. Cohen to Mr. Putin if the Russian President was at the forum. “Anything you want to discuss including dates and subjects are on the table to discuss,” Mr. Sater wrote.

But on June 14, just two days before the scheduled trip, Mr. Cohen met Mr. Sater in the lobby of Trump Tower to tell him he wouldn’t be going. Mr. Cohen later told Mr. Mueller he had decided the trip was not worthwhile because he wasn’t certain the promised meetings with government officials would materialize.

Mr. Cohen’s change of mind also came the same day the world first learned Russia was trying to interfere with the election. That day, The Washington Post reported the hack of the Democratic National Committee. The following day, the DNC’s cybersecurity company confirmed Moscow’s spies had broken in.

The “leaking”

On June 7, Ms. Clinton secured the Democratic nomination by defeating Mr. Sanders in the California primary and turned her attention to Mr. Trump, who had clinched the Republican nod more than two weeks before.

The next day, a Wednesday, a website named DCLeaks.com started publishing e-mails stolen from Democratic politicians, including members of Ms. Clinton’s campaign. The site purported to be the work of “American hacktivists.” The following week, a blog run by “Guccifer 2.0,” who claimed to be a lone Romanian hacker, released internal DNC documents.

The GRU, of course, had created both sites. The hackers in Unit 26165 brought in another department of the agency, Unit 74455, that ran sock-puppet social-media accounts, to handle the distribution. The unit worked out of a facility nicknamed “the tower,” behind a wrought-iron gate at 22 Kirova St. in suburban Moscow.

Shortly after, Guccifer received a message from the whistleblower site WikiLeaks. The group asked the Russians if they would share any hacked Democratic documents. WikiLeaks made clear its goal was to make sure Ms. Clinton lost the presidency and urged Guccifer to hand over information before her nomination at the Democratic National Convention.

“We think trump has only a 25% chance of winning against hillary … so conflict between bernie and hillary supporters is interesting,” WikiLeaks wrote. The group’s founder, Julian Assange, had long harboured an antipathy toward Ms. Clinton, who he believed was out to arrest him for publishing secret U.S. military and diplomatic documents.

The Russians sent WikiLeaks a 1-GB archive of Democratic documents. WikiLeaks published 20,000 internal Democratic National Committee e-mails on July 22, three days before the party’s convention opened in Philadelphia. The embarrassing e-mails showed that DNC officials, despite publicly remaining neutral in Ms. Clinton’s bitter primary battle with Mr. Sanders, had tried behind the scenes to derail Mr. Sanders’s campaign.

Mr. Trump urged Moscow to hack some more. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 e-mails that are missing,” he said at a campaign stop in Florida the next day.

And at the Trump campaign’s behest, Roger Stone, a showy Republican consultant with a tattoo of Richard Nixon’s face on his back, tried to get in touch with Mr. Assange to get hold of Democratic documents that had not yet been released.

On Oct. 7, less than an hour after The Washington Post revealed a tape of Mr. Trump bragging about grabbing women’s genitals, WikiLeaks published the e-mails of Mr. Podesta, Ms. Clinton’s campaign chair. Among other things, they contained excerpts of closed-door speeches Ms. Clinton had made to wealthy Wall Street audiences and suggestions that Ms. Clinton had received questions in advance during Democratic primary debates.

The troll army in St. Petersburg, meanwhile, was working feverishly.

In addition to inundating social media with memes, comments and posts, the Russians turned to a more audacious tactic: organizing rallies. From behind their computer screens an ocean away, the trolls scheduled events in New York (“Down with Hillary”), Pennsylvania (“Miners for Trump”) and Florida (“Florida goes Trump”). They used their Trump Facebook and Twitter groups to promote the events, bought advertisements and sent press releases to media.

The Russians, using their fake American personas, recruited real GOP activists in the U.S. to help out, assigning tasks to their dupes and wiring them money to help pay for posters, megaphones and other expenses. In one case, the Russians even hired a Hillary Clinton impersonator to dress in a prison uniform and appear in a cage mounted on a flatbed truck at an event in West Palm Beach, Fla.

Invariably, the organizers – actually Russian agents – would be unable to attend their own rallies, sending regrets to the unwitting Americans who had carried their water.

The Internet Research Agency also organized some pro-Clinton rallies in a bid to make her supporters appear unhinged. At a “Save American Muslims” event organized for Washington in July, 2016, they had an American hold a sign with a picture of Ms. Clinton and a quote falsely attributed to her: “I think sharia law will be a powerful new direction of freedom.”

On Nov. 8, 2016, Mr. Trump managed the seemingly impossible and was elected the 45th President of the United States of America.

The administration

As the dust settled on a divided America after the election, Mr. Obama ordered his country’s intelligence agencies to determine if the Kremlin had tried to interfere with the vote. When they reported back in late December with an answer – yes – the outgoing President slapped additional sanctions on Russia and kicked some of its diplomats out of the country.

On the evening of Dec. 28, 2016, Mike Flynn was on holiday in the Dominican Republic when his mobile phone lit up with a text from Sergey Kislyak. “Can you kindly call me back at your convenience,” the Russian ambassador to the U.S. messaged the retired general Mr. Trump had tapped as national security adviser.

In conversations over the next two days, Mr. Flynn successfully lobbied Mr. Kislyak not to retaliate against the U.S. for the new sanctions.

In early February, mere weeks after Mr. Trump took office, The Washington Post revealed these conversations. The implications were politically damaging: It appeared Mr. Flynn had undermined the previous administration. At first, Mr. Flynn told Vice-President Mike Pence he had not discussed sanctions with Mr. Kislyak and Mr. Pence defended him to the media. After further reporting by the Post, however, Mr. Flynn admitted the truth. Mr. Trump fired him.

The incident set the tone for the opening months of the new presidential term. At every turn, Mr. Trump was dogged by questions about his administration’s ties to the Kremlin and became increasingly agitated.

Attorney-General Jeff Sessions was the next domino to fall. On March 1, The Post revealed that he had also met with Mr. Kislyak, at his Senate office the previous autumn. This contradicted Mr. Sessions’s testimony during his confirmation hearing, in which he said he “did not have communications with the Russians.” The following day, Mr. Sessions announced that he would recuse himself from overseeing the Russia investigation. His deputy, Rod Rosenstein, would oversee the file.

Mr. Trump, for his part, repeatedly pressed FBI director James Comey to dial back the probe, Mr. Comey would later recount. At a one-on-one White House dinner, the President ominously asked the FBI director whether he wanted to keep his job. “I expect loyalty,” Mr. Trump told him. On other occasions, he asked Mr. Comey to consider “letting Flynn go” and to “lift the cloud” by publicly saying Mr. Trump was not under investigation.

On the afternoon of May 9, Mr. Trump fired Mr. Comey. The move was so abrupt that Mr. Comey, in Los Angeles visiting the FBI’s local field office, learned of his own termination from television. The act touched off a new firestorm, drawing accusations Mr. Trump was trying to thwart the investigation.

Eight days later, Mr. Rosenstein tried to calm the maelstrom by appointing a special counsel to oversee the investigation. He called in Mr. Mueller, a lantern-jawed former FBI director and career prosecutor.

When the President learned of the news in the Oval Office, according to notes from Mr. Sessions’s chief of staff, he slumped back in his chair.

“Oh my God. This is terrible. This is the end of my presidency. I’m fucked,” he said. “How could you let this happen, Jeff? … You were supposed to protect me.”

The investigation

Among the things Mr. Mueller would wind up exposing were numerous presidential efforts to stop his own probe.

On Saturday, June 17, White House counsel Don McGahn was at home when Mr. Trump called from Camp David. The President ordered Mr. McGahn to tell Mr. Rosenstein to fire Mr. Mueller. Mr. McGahn tried to ignore the request. But Mr. Trump called a second time. “Mueller has to go,” he said. “Call me back when you do it.”

Determined not to carry out the order, Mr. McGahn drove to the White House, packed his belongings and wrote out his resignation. He informed then-White House chief of staff Reince Priebus that Mr. Trump had asked Mr. McGahn to “do crazy shit.” Mr. Priebus told Mr. McGahn not to leave. He agreed and returned to work on Monday. Mr. Trump never mentioned his order again.

This episode was only the most dramatic example of a recurring pattern: Mr. Trump would try to block Mr. Mueller, his aides would refuse to follow his commands and the President would then seemingly forget the whole thing.

Two days after Mr. Trump’s calls to Mr. McGahn, the President brought his former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski into the Oval Office. Mr. Trump dictated a note to Mr. Lewandowski, which he asked him to deliver to Mr. Sessions, ordering Mr. Sessions to give a speech announcing that he would curtail Mr. Mueller’s investigation to focus only on preventing future election interference and not probing 2016.

Mr. Lewandowski tried to set up a meeting with Mr. Sessions at Mr. Lewandowski’s office to deliver the note. Mr. Sessions cancelled because of a scheduling conflict. The following month, after Mr. Trump asked Mr. Lewandowski whether he had passed along the message, Mr. Lewandowski handed it off to Rick Dearborn, a deputy White House chief of staff. Mr. Dearborn decided not to deliver it.

On several other occasions, Mr. Trump chastised Mr. Sessions for recusing himself, asking him to “unrecuse” so he could take control of Mr. Mueller’s investigation. One time, Mr. Sessions submitted his resignation to Mr. Trump; the President turned it down, but held onto the letter and waved it around on Air Force One asking people what he should do about it. It took 12 days for Mr. Priebus and Steve Bannon, the President’s then-chief strategist, to get the resignation letter back.

Another time, Mr. Trump demanded Mr. Priebus get Mr. Sessions to resign. Mr. Priebus refused.

In July, 2017, when The New York Times broke a story about the Trump Tower meeting the previous year, Mr. Trump ordered that Don Jr.’s statement delete a reference to the fact that he had taken the sit-down hoping to get dirt on Ms. Clinton.

And Mr. Trump’s lawyers co-ordinated with Mr. Cohen on a lie-filled letter he submitted to Congress that summer, claiming the Moscow hotel project had come to an end in early 2016 and he had not spoken with anyone in the Russian government about getting the Kremlin’s help.

Mr. Trump wasn’t the only one panicking. In an e-mail to a family member on Sept. 13, 2017, Irina Kaverzina, an Internet Research Agency employee who had run a bunch of the fake social-media accounts, wrote that the company was trying to cover up its activity.

“We had a slight crisis here at work: the FBI busted our activity (not a joke.) So, I got preoccupied with covering tracks together with the colleagues,” she wrote. “I created all these pictures and posts, and the Americans believed that it was written by their people.”

Mr. Mueller’s investigation, meanwhile, rolled through Washington.

Mr. Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations with Mr. Mifsud. Mr. Manafort and Mr. Gates were convicted of illegally lobbying for Mr. Yanukovych and laundering payments from the Ukrainian strongman to avoid paying taxes. Mr. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about talking to Mr. Kislyak. Alex van der Zwaan, a London-based lawyer who worked for Mr. Yanukovych, pleaded guilty to lying about his work to investigators. Mr. Stone was charged with lying to Congress about his WikiLeaks discussions.

Mr. Mueller indicted the Internet Research Agency, 12 of its employees and Mr. Prigozhin, on Feb. 16, 2018. He charged the GRU and a string of intelligence officers in July of the same year.

Mr. Cohen pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about the Moscow hotel deal and to breaking campaign-finance laws by arranging hush-money payoffs before the election to two women who claimed to have had extramarital affairs with Mr. Trump.

In a dramatic courtroom scene in December, Mr. Cohen denounced the President.

“I have been living in a personal and mental incarceration ever since the day that I accepted the offer to work for a real estate mogul whose business acumen that I deeply admired,” Mr. Cohen said. “Time and time again, I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds.”

The sincerity of Mr. Cohen’s conversion is debatable. Prosecutors revealed an extensive criminal history that predated his employment by Mr. Trump and only ended when he was indicted. But it was nonetheless an extraordinary moment: a former consigliere to the leader of the free world portraying him as little more than a two-bit schemer.

The denouement

For 22 months, Mr. Mueller and his team holed up in an office building south of the National Mall in Washington, doing everything possible to avoid getting drawn into the political firestorm burning the town around them. They spoke only through indictments and in court proceedings; not a single major leak came from within the office.

Mr. Trump, for his part, tried to pre-emptively discredit the investigation, whatever it might find. He baselessly accused Mr. Mueller, a lifelong Republican, of having a Democratic agenda and of employing only “angry” investigators who were biased against the President.

On March 22 of this year, Mr. Mueller finished the probe and submitted a final report to Attorney-General Barr – who replaced Mr. Sessions the previous month. Mr. Barr released a redacted version in April.

In the 400-plus-page tome, the Special Counsel argued that he could not indict a sitting President for obstruction of justice as this would be too disruptive to the government. But he refused to explicitly exonerate Mr. Trump, leaving it for Congress to decide whether to start impeachment proceedings.

He also referred 14 other potential crimes uncovered in the course of the investigation to other agencies. In one of those cases, concerning Mr. Cohen’s campaign-finance violations, prosecutors left open the possibility Mr. Trump could be charged when he leaves the White House.

On collusion, however, Mr. Mueller concluded the entire matter was a simple alignment of interests.

“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,” he wrote, “the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or co-ordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities."

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