WASHINGTON – Former special counsel Robert Mueller on Wednesday called Donald Trump’s declarations of “love” for stolen Russian material a “boost” for “illegal activity” in the final days of the 2016 election, and reminded Congress that accepting foreign help in an election is “a crime.”
“Problematic is an understatement, in terms of giving some hope or boost to what is and should be illegal activity,” Mueller said in testimony to the House Intelligence Committee.
Trump, now the president, cited WikiLeaks 160 times in the final month of the 2016 campaign as he attacked Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton – even though he knew the Clinton campaign emails that the group was disseminating had been stolen by Russian intelligence.
Mueller was responding to a question by Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), who was displaying a number of Trump quotations that praised WikiLeaks and urged his audiences to read the material as proof of Clinton’s “corruption.”
The White House, current Trump campaign officials and 2016 Trump campaign officials all ignored HuffPost’s requests for a response to Mueller’s criticism.
More than a year ago, Trump’s outside lawyer claimed that there was nothing wrong about using material stolen by Russian intelligence even though Trump and his campaign knew at the time that Russian intelligence had perpetrated the theft and transferred the emails to WikiLeaks for dissemination.
“It isn’t illegal... It was sort of like a gift,” Rudy Giuliani, a former federal prosecutor himself, told HuffPost in May 2018. “And you’re not involved in the illegality of getting it.”
Giuliani on Wednesday did not respond to HuffPost queries, either.
Trump cited WikiLeaks 160 times in the final month of the 2016 campaign as he attacked Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton – even though he knew that the Clinton campaign emails WikiLeaks was disseminating had been stolen by Russian intelligence.
As the GOP nominee, Trump started receiving U.S. intelligence briefings on Aug. 17, 2016 ― at which time, according to sources who spoke on condition of anonymity, Trump would have learned that analysts had concluded that Russia was behind the theft of emails from the Democratic National Committee and was releasing them through WikiLeaks. WikiLeaks, which bills itself as a “transparency” organization, has for years been considered an ally and tool of Russian spy agencies by the U.S. intelligence community.
On Oct. 7, 2016, U.S. intelligence went public with its analysis about Russia and WikiLeaks. “These thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the U.S. election process,” said the statement from the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Trump, though, ignored all of that information. Instead, just three days after WikiLeaks began releasing batches of emails stolen from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, Trump began praising WikiLeaks in campaign speeches and interviews and urging Americans to read the emails for themselves.
“WikiLeaks! I love WikiLeaks,” Trump told an audience in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, on Oct. 10.
“It’s just the latest evidence of the hatred that the Clinton campaign really has for everyday Americans and you see, and you see so much from these WikiLeaks,” Trump said in Panama City, Florida, the following day.
“I’ll tell you, this WikiLeaks stuff is unbelievable,” Trump said on Oct. 12 in Ocala, Florida. “It tells you the inner heart. You’ve got to read it and you’ve got to maybe get it, because they’re not putting it out.”
That was the same day the WikiLeaks Twitter account sent a direct message to Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr., asking his father to highlight the stolen emails and offering a web link for Trump to advertise. Fifteen minutes after that direct message, candidate Trump sent out a tweet praising WikiLeaks. Two days later, Trump Jr. sent out the link WikiLeaks had provided.
Trump continued citing WikiLeaks and its stolen emails right through Election Day, as did others in his campaign. Giuliani, a campaign adviser who frequently appeared with Trump at rallies, cited WikiLeaks on Oct. 9 in a CBS News interview ― just two days after the intelligence community’s statement about Russia’s involvement in the leaked material.
That same day, Trump was challenged about his praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin during the second presidential debate, when Clinton brought up the email theft as proof that Russia was trying to help Trump win.
“She doesn’t know if it’s the Russians doing the hacking,” Trump said. “Maybe there is no hacking. But they always blame Russia.”
Eleven days later, at the third and final debate, he said, “She has no idea whether it’s Russia, China or anybody else. And our country has no idea.”
Trump and his hard-core political allies continue to argue that there is no proof that Putin was trying to help Trump win, even though other top Republicans do not dispute that finding.
When he was the director of the CIA, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo conducted his own review of the intelligence community’s conclusion and decided it was correct. He then called WikiLeaks a “non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia.”
Mueller did not hesitate on Wednesday when asked which candidate the Russian government wanted to win the election: “Donald Trump.”
This story has been updated with additional background and quotes from Trump and Giuliani.