Mueller report dives into Russian election interference and Trump campaign

The report from special counsel Robert Mueller outlines cyberattacks and social media disinformation leading up to the 2016 US presidential election.

Alfred Ng Senior Reporter / CNET News
Alfred Ng was a senior reporter for CNET News. He was raised in Brooklyn and previously worked on the New York Daily News's social media and breaking news teams.
Alfred Ng
8 min read
President Trump and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.

President Donald J. Trump and special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. 

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images; Win McNamee/Getty Images

The Mueller report, released to the public Thursday, is offering a deeper look at the efforts by Russia to meddle in the 2016 presidential election, including ways that intersected with actions by members of Donald Trump's campaign.

The nearly two-year investigation, led by special counsel Robert Mueller, concluded that Russian interference took place through two channels. The first was a social media campaign designed to favor Trump and to disparage rival candidate Hillary Clinton, and more broadly to sow discord among American voters, and the second involved "computer-intrusion operations," including hacking, against members of the Clinton campaign.

"The Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion," the report says.

You can download the report, some of which has been heavily redacted at points to shield sensitive information, from the special counsel's website here. (We've also embedded the report at the bottom of this article.) It was released to Congress and the public Thursday following a press conference with Attorney General William Barr

Barr emphasized that the investigation failed to find that any Americans, including those working to elect Trump, colluded in Russia's schemes.

"There was no evidence of Trump campaign 'collusion' with the Russian government's hacking," he said. 

Shortly after Barr's press conference, the president claimed victory in a Game of Thrones-styled tweet. "Game Over," read the tweet, addressed to his political opponents.

Watch this: AG Barr: Trump campaign did not work with Russia in election meddling

But the report has landed in a politically charged environment, and repercussions are likely to persist for months.

Some lawmakers remain skeptical, because of the Justice Department's role in redacting multiple pages of the document, as well as Barr's input on its release. At a press conference Thursday, Barr said he had no objection to Mueller testifying before Congress.

Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and a Democrat from California, invited Mueller to testify shortly after the report's release.

"After a two year investigation, the public deserves the facts, not Attorney General Barr's political spin," Schiff said in a statement.

Sen. Richard Burr, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and a Republican from North Carolina, didn't indicate whether he intends to have Mueller testify, but he noted that the committee would be releasing its own findings soon. 

"I look forward to presenting the American people with an accounting of the facts the Committee has uncovered as we conclude our own investigation. It is my hope to release the first of our final reports in the coming weeks," Burr said in a statement. 

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, also criticized how much was redacted in the report, joining the growing demand for Mueller to testify before Congress.

The ongoing drama of the Mueller investigation has seized the public's attention and shined a spotlight on the ways Russia has been able to manipulate the US electoral process -- an issue companies like Facebook and Google and agencies like the Department of Homeland Security are still working to address

The special counsel wrapped up his investigation and delivered his report to Barr on March 22. The next day, Barr provided Congress with a four-page summary of the roughly 450-page report and received criticism from some members for the summary's lack of details.

Following the release of the Justice Department's summary, the White House said the report was a "total and complete exoneration" of Trump. Barr's summary, however, noted that Mueller's report said in regard to obstruction of justice that "while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him." 

The report found that the Russian government would benefit from a Trump presidency and that Trump's campaign benefited from Russia's efforts, but didn't find any coordination between the two parties.

On Thursday at a veterans event at the White House, Trump called the investigation a "hoax" and said, "This should never happen again to another president."

At a press conference outside the White House on Thursday afternoon, White House counselor Kellyanne Conway said Mueller's report exonerated the president.

"There was no collusion and there was certainly no criminal conspiracy with any Russians," Conway said.

Russian meddling

The investigation was heavily focused on connections between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives, but the report also gives an in-depth look at how election meddling played out through technology.

The special counsel examined how Russian hackers infiltrated the Democratic National Committee and used social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to spread disinformation.

As the investigation proceeded, the special counsel's office announced multiple indictments, including charges against 12 Russian hackers behind the DNC's cyberattacks and 13 Russian nationals for spreading disinformation on social media. The propaganda efforts' chief accountant was also charged.

Watch this: Justice Department indicts 12 Russian cyberspies suspected in DNC hacking

Though the evidence didn't point to an agreement between the Trump campaign and the Russians on election interference, Mueller's investigation turned up issues with key members of the campaign, including former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, former campaign advisers Rick Gates and George Papadopoulos, former national security adviser Michael Flynn, former Trump attorney Michael Cohen and longtime Trump associate Roger Stone.    

Stone has been accused of communicating with WikiLeaks, which published thousands of hacked emails stolen from Hillary Clinton's campaign and the Democratic committee. Last Thursday, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange was arrested after being kicked out of the Ecuadorian embassy in London, where he'd been in asylum for more than six years. and is facing extradition to the US over hacking charges. 

Tech giants have also fallen under the investigation's scope. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said his company was working with Mueller's office. Russian operatives had used fake personalities on the social network to pose as Americans arguing on divisive issues.

Facebook was also heavily scrutinized over its Cambridge Analytica scandal, involving a UK data analytics firm with consultants who worked with the Trump campaign. The firm, which harvested data on 87 million Facebook users without their permission, kicked the hornet's nest on privacy issues for Facebook, leading to multiple congressional hearings and changes within the company. Mueller's investigation questioned Cambridge Analytica's former director of business development, Brittany Kaiser.

Cambridge Analytica and Zuckerberg were not mentioned in the report.

The special counsel's office scrutinized Twitter as well, looking at tweets Trump sent related to then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions and former FBI Director James Comey.

Trump has taken to Twitter to criticize Mueller's investigation, often calling it a "witch hunt" and arguing that there was "no collusion" and "no obstruction."

Russia's hacking efforts

Mueller's indictment against 12 Russian hackers last July detailed that their operations started in March 2016, as hundreds of files containing malware infected the DNC's servers.

The Russian malware stole thousands of emails, which were posted on WikiLeaks and DC Leaks, a website created by Russian hackers posing as Americans. The defendants are members of Russia's military intelligence agency, the GRU.  

The hacking victims included John Podesta, who was Clinton's campaign chairman during the election, with 50,000 emails leaked online. The Russian hackers also bought servers to host their operations, paying more than $95,000 for setups, Mueller's investigation found.

The malware was discovered on at least 10 different DNC computers and allowed hackers to steal passwords, take screenshots and monitor network activity. They searched for terms like "Hillary," "Trump" and "Benghazi Investigations."

Another hacking group from the GRU targeted the US's election infrastructure, hacking systems belonging to state board of elections, local election officials, and US companies that supply voting software and machines, the report noted.

Mueller's investigation found that Russian hackers looked for vulnerabilities on election websites in more than 24 states. When the GRU successfully hacked Illinois's Board of Elections, it gained access to a database containing information on millions of voters in the state.

The investigation also found that Trump's campaign had a strategy in place if WikiLeaks released stolen emails from Clinton's campaign. The report detailed communications between Donald Trump Jr. and WikiLeaks during the campaign. On Oct. 12, 2016, WikiLeaks asked for Trump to tweet out a URL. Two days later, Trump Jr. tweeted out that same URL. 


WikiLeaks asked Trump Jr. to tweet this URL out on Oct. 12.


But while Mueller's investigation found direct contact between Trump's campaign and WikiLeaks, it did not find any evidence of coordination or exchange of services.

The social media storm

Mueller's investigation also found that Russia was backing a $35 million operation to meddle with US politics through social media.

The money was spent between January 2016 and June 2018 and dedicated to spreading disinformation on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. The operation ran like a professional social media marketing campaign, with specific departments in search engine optimization and graphic design, along with a staff of hundreds who posted on social networks.

The operation studied political groups on social media starting in 2014 and mimicked their tactics, Mueller's investigation found.

The group behind the effort, the Internet Research Agency, was directed to support Trump's campaign and attack Clinton, according to the investigation.

The operation also spent $60,000 on Facebook ads, $6,000 on Instagram ads and $18,000 on Twitter.


A screenshot of a Trump post from Mueller's report.

Department of Justice

The report showed that the first ad the IRA paid for was on Instagram, on April 19, 2016. The ad said it came from the "Tea Party News," and it asked people to upload photos with the hashtag "#KidsForTrump." 

The disinformation campaign was so successful that Facebook estimated the posts had reached up to 126 million people on the social network, with more than 80,000 posts. They also hosted rallies and events posing as Americans -- sometimes even tricking the Trump campaign. 

A post from August 2016 from Trump's official Facebook account posted photos from a rally the IRA had organized.

The Russian state-actors would pose as Americans opining on divisive issues like race, gender and gun control. The goal was to create political chaos by fueling intense arguments around these issues.

The IRA tricked politicians and social activists with the fake personas, targeting battleground states like Colorado, Virginia and Florida. It also used stolen Social Security numbers and birthdates of US citizens to set up PayPal accounts.

While members of the IRA had contact with Trump's campaign, the investigation found that no one from the campaign knew that they were speaking with Russian actors. 

The only American charged in Russia's disinformation efforts was Richard Pinedo, a fake ID salesman in California, who sold bank account credentials to the IRA, which allowed the group to use PayPal. He pleaded guilty to one charge of identity fraud. He was sentenced in October to six months in prison and six months house arrest. 

You can read the redacted Mueller report here:  

Originally published April 18, 8:05 a.m. PT.
Updates, 8:51 a.m.: Adds more detail; 9:02 a.m.: Includes responses from lawmakers. 11:39 a.m.: Adds more analysis from the report; 1:48 p.m.: Includes response from Kellyanne Conway.