By Nathan Layne and Mark Hosenball
NEW YORK/WASHINGTON, April 14 (Reuters) - As recently as February, Special Counsel Robert Mueller's team dropped hints that the inquiry into Russia's role in the 2016 U.S. election might unearth evidence of active cooperation between Moscow and President Donald Trump's campaign.
That turned out not to be the case. Attorney General William Barr, who has said he hopes to release Mueller's nearly 400 page report this week, told U.S. lawmakers on March 24 that the special counsel investigation "did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities."
To be sure, the investigation documented numerous contacts between Trump campaign figures and Russia, a willingness on the part of the campaign to accept help from Moscow, and no indication that the campaign told the Kremlin to keep out of an American presidential race.
No criminal conspiracy was documented, according to Barr. But tantalizing court statements by members of Mueller's team and evidence disclosed in various prosecutions by the special counsel had suggested on several occasions during the 22-month investigation that a different conclusion had been possible.
Frank Montoya, a former senior FBI official with extensive experience in counterintelligence investigations, said the words "did not establish" are commonly used in national security cases as language merely ruling out a chargeable offense.
"It doesn't mean a subject is innocent. It means investigators didn't find enough evidence to charge a crime," Montoya said.
The most recent indication that the special counsel might document a Trump-Russia conspiracy came on Feb. 4 during a closed-door court hearing in Washington. Prosecutor Andrew Weissmann said Mueller was still investigating interactions between former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his Russian business partner Konstantin Kilimnik as critical to the inquiry.
"This goes to the larger view of what we think is going on, and what we think the motive here is," Weissmann said, according to a transcript released days later that indicated Mueller might be on the verge of a breakthrough. "This goes, I think, very much to the heart of what the Special Counsel's Office is investigating."
Mueller's team said Manafort shared political polling data from the campaign with Kilimnik, who the special counsel has said had ties to Russian intelligence. The two also discussed proposals for a Ukrainian client to solve the Crimea conflict in a Kremlin-friendly way, Mueller said.
Three weeks after Weissmann made his comments, Mueller's office backtracked. It said in a court filing it needed to correct its assertions about Manafort's interactions with Kilimnik. Partially redacted court filings indicated the correction may relate to the polling data.
When Mueller's report is released - with parts blacked out by Barr to protect certain sensitive information - it is unclear how harsh a light it will shine on the contacts between Trump campaign figures and Russians. Those making contacts included the president's son Donald Trump Jr., son-in-law Jared Kushner, former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen and campaign figures Manafort, Jeff Sessions, Michael Flynn and George Papadopoulos.
Mueller and U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded Russia employed hacking and propaganda to sow division in the United States, harm Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and boost Trump's candidacy. Moscow has denied election interference.
A key event in the question of conspiracy was a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower in New York in which Manafort, Kushner and Trump Jr. met with Kremlin-connected lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, who had offered damaging information about Clinton. After being promised "dirt" on Clinton, Trump Jr. wrote in an email, "I love it."
Mueller charged 34 people and three Russian entities. He convicted or secured guilty pleas from Trump aides including Manafort, Flynn, Cohen and Papadopoulos, and charged Russian intelligence officers and a Russian "troll farm."
Perhaps no avenue of inquiry appeared more promising on the question of conspiracy than Mueller's pursuit of longtime Trump political adviser Roger Stone, who had suggested he had a relationship with the WikiLeaks website and advance knowledge of its release of Democratic emails the special counsel said were stolen by Russians to hurt Clinton.
But when Mueller indicted Stone in January, the seven criminal counts did not refer to conspiring with Russians and there was no allegation of close ties to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who separately was charged with conspiracy to commit computer intrusion related to a 2010 hack of U.S. government computers.
Mueller questioned more than a half dozen Stone associates to establish if he had acted as a go-between for the campaign with Wikileaks. Stone associates who spoke to Reuters suggested Stone was struggling to make contact with Assange rather than having an inside track.
Randy Credico, a New York comedian associated with Stone who appeared before Mueller's grand jury, is a case in point. Text messages seen by Reuters show Stone sought to use Credico as an intermediary with Assange and urged Credico to feed WikiLeaks anti-Clinton research. Credico told Reuters he never made good on the request.
Mueller's investigation was aided by witnesses including Flynn, the former national security adviser who pleaded guilty in December 2017 to lying about his communications with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak in 2016, and Samuel Patten, a political consultant and former Kilimnik business partner sentenced to probation on Friday after prosecutors credited him for assisting Mueller and other probes.
It is unclear to what extent Mueller's inability to secure fulsome cooperation from others impeded him.
A judge found that Manafort, after agreeing to cooperate, repeatedly lied to prosecutors about interactions with Kilimnik and other matters, breaching a plea deal. Kilimnik, charged along with Manafort with conspiring to tamper with witnesses, was believed to be in Russia, out of reach.
There also are witnesses like Papadopoulos, the first former Trump aide charged by Mueller who initially cooperated but became increasingly critical of the special counsel, especially after completing a two-week prison term in December.
Montoya, the former FBI agent, said it should fall to Congress to decide whether the conduct found by Mueller warranted punishment such as the impeachment process in Congress to remove a president from office.
"History suggests," Montoya said, "the impeachment process does not rely on establishing wrongdoing beyond a reasonable doubt."
(Reporting by Nathan Layne; Editing by Will Dunham)
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