Expert Garrett Graff puts probe of Trump into perspective

MIDDLEBURY — “If you want to look at how Bob Mueller conducts investigations,” FBI expert Garrett Graff told his audience at Middlebury College Tuesday afternoon, “reread the Rice Report.”

The 2015 report, a product of Mueller’s independent investigation into the National Football League’s handling of a video showing Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice beating his fiancée unconscious in a casino elevator, ran to 96 pages. Five of those were dedicated to an “incredibly detailed reconstruction” of “how the NFL mailroom signs for and receives packages,” Graff said.

“Where packages come into the building, where they’re put on shelves, where the documents are that people sign, whether it’s possible that something could have made it to the shelf without actually being signed for.”

Mueller also called every single telephone number that dialed in or out of the NFL headquarters during the period under investigation.

“This is what Bob Mueller does,” said Graff, executive director of the Aspen Institute’s Cybersecurity & Technology Program and a widely published writer.

In May 2017, Mueller was appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein as special counsel to the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate, as Rosenstein put it, “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump, and any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.”

What this new “Mueller Report” may contain — and what might follow from it — are subjects of round-the-clock speculation, including Graff’s talk, titled “Decoding Robert Mueller’s Investigation,” which drew an audience of more than 60 people.

Graff grew up in Montpelier and now lives in Burlington. His parents both well known journalists and Middlebury College grads (while at Middlebury his mother, Nancy Price Graff, edited the Middlebury Campus newspaper, and his father, Chris Graff, worked at WRMC, the college radio station). He spoke this week as part of the “Meet the Press” lecture series, which was established in 2003 by Scholar in Residence Sue Halpern under the auspices of the Middlebury College Institute on Working Journalism.

Garrett Graff, as they say, wrote the book on Mueller. Literally: “The Threat Matrix: Inside Robert Mueller’s FBI and the War on Global Terror” (2011) weighs in at more than 600 pages. He has been writing about Mueller since 2008 and about the Russia investigation since the beginning.

In his talk, Graff broke the Mueller puzzle down into different pieces:

•  Money laundering and past business deals of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, lobbyist Rick Gates, and various “pro-Russian elements.”

•  Information influence operations by Russia’s Internet Research Agency, which included thousands of fake posts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

•  Active cyber penetrations by Russia’s Main Intelligence Directorate into several computer networks, including the one owned by the Democratic National Committee.

•  “Sketchy” contacts between Trump campaign officials (Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Mike Flynn, George Papadopoulos, Carter Page and others) and Russian businessmen and government figures.

•  Obstruction of justice, including alleged conversations Trump had before firing FBI director James Comey.

•  Additional investigations whose connections have not been revealed to the public, including the past business deals and campaign finance violations of former Trump attorney Michael Cohen.

Graff discussed recent news stories that may have revealed additional pieces of the puzzle:

•  The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Republican activist Peter W. Smith allegedly raised $100,000, under the guise of “a scholarship fund ... for Russian students,” in an effort to obtain emails that had been stolen from Hillary Clinton by hackers. (Smith committed suicide days after talking with the WSJ in May 2017.)

•  Examining data related to revelations that had been dismissed during the presidential campaign, cyber experts now suggest that contact between the Trump campaign and a Russian bank may indeed have occurred, according to a story forthcoming in the New Yorker.

Mueller’s investigation has so far publicly initiated criminal charges against 33 people, six of them Americans.

He has established the four “corner pieces” of his puzzle, Graff told his audience. His job now is to fill in the middle of the puzzle. Every time a new piece is introduced, the question becomes “is this an end piece or a middle piece?” At the moment only Robert Mueller knows.

The puzzle analogy, taken a step further, gets rather complicated, Graff told the Independent on Wednesday:

“It could be that we’re seeing two or three puzzles being assembled before us (by Mueller). We see lots of pieces but we don’t know what the picture is or which pieces go with which puzzle. Is piece X a part of this puzzle or that one? Or is it a puzzle of its own?”

The week before his visit, Graff told the Middlebury Campus he thought perhaps Mueller’s investigation was in its “seventh inning.”

In covering the investigation, one of the advantages Graff has as a magazine reporter and book writer, he told the Independent, is the ability to step back and keep the larger picture in mind — which is harder to do for his peers in newspaper newsrooms who have to chase the story down every day.

“Part of my work over the last year has been explaining the issues, like at last night’s talk, and helping readers organize information,” he said.

The media have done a great job covering the investigation, he added, and uncovering some of the puzzle pieces.

“A lot of work has been advanced by journalists and investigative reporters. The Trump Tower meeting (June 9, 2016, in which Trump campaign officials are alleged to have discussed with a Russian lawyer and others information considered to be damaging to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton) came to light via journalists.”

The challenge is determining how far down into the “conspiracy theories” it’s useful to go. While investigative journalism often produces results that are less dramatic, less corrupt and about “80 percent less weird” than the original stories, “that hasn’t played out here,” Graff said.

“Stuff has turned out to be even weirder than we originally thought — about 140 percent more weird.”

Reach Christopher Ross at christopherr@addisonindependent.com.


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