NBC: Mueller asking witnesses what Trump knew about Wikileaks releases -- and when

Did Donald Trump have advance knowledge about the hacked e-mails from the DNC and John Podesta — and if so, how? NBC reports that special counsel Robert Mueller has asked multiple witnesses about the timing of Trump’s knowledge and the potential for his involvement in the exposure of the e-mails, or at least the timing of them. That might be a path for a finding of collusion, or it could just be a fishing expedition:

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s team is asking witnesses pointed questions about whether Donald Trump was aware that Democratic emails had been stolen before that was publicly known, and whether he was involved in their strategic release, according to multiple people familiar with the probe.

Mueller’s investigators have asked witnesses whether Trump was aware of plans for WikiLeaks to publish the emails. They have also asked about the relationship between GOP operative Roger Stone and WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and why Trump took policy positions favorable to Russia.

The line of questioning suggests the special counsel, who is tasked with examining whether there was collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 election, is looking into possible coordination between WikiLeaks and Trump associates in disseminating the emails, which U.S. intelligence officials say were stolen by Russia.

Have they found any connection between Trump and Wikileaks that doesn’t involve Roger Stone? He got pushed out of the campaign a year before the leaks went public, which makes the timing a little tough — although NBC reports that Mueller’s team has been asking whether Stone was really fired, and how much contact he had with Trump.

Stone has repeatedly denied having any link to Assange or Wikileaks, and said he never had any discussions with Trump about the e-mails.  Stone could be lying, of course, but also according to Stone, no one at the special counsel’s office has contacted him to ask about it. He has appeared before the House Intelligence Committee, but that was almost six months ago, and none of the investigations have appeared interested in him since, at least not yet. If NBC’s report is accurate, Mueller might be holding off until they have Stone boxed in … or may not have anything on him to discuss at all. Both are possible, and which of these are more likely is a judgment call that probably relies more on the guesser’s hopes for the Mueller probe.

NBC also reports that witnesses believe that Mueller’s interest lies in part with a remarkably foolish statement Trump made after the leaks went public:

In one line of questioning, investigators have focused on Trump’s public comments in July 2016 asking Russia to find emails that were deleted by his then-opponent Hillary Clinton from a private server she maintained while secretary of state. The comments came at a news conference on July 27, 2016, just days after WikiLeaks began publishing the Democratic National Committee emails. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump said.

Witnesses have been asked whether Trump himself knew then that Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta, whose emails were released several months later, had already been targeted. They were also asked if Trump was advised to make the statement about Clinton’s emails from someone outside his campaign, and if the witnesses had reason to believe Trump tried to coordinate the release of the DNC emails to do the most damage to Clinton, the people familiar with the matter said.

That seems … pretty darned thin, really. That comment came six weeks after the DNC hack was made public, and the sentiment that Trump expressed had been a popular meme on right-leaning social media as a joke, referencing both Hillary’s e-mails and the DNC hack. Trump clearly meant it that way too, and it seems all but certain that he was just amplifying what he saw on Twitter. Even as a joke it attracted plenty of criticism, much of it warranted, but it’s hardly an admission or a direction of a conspiracy.

Another reason for skepticism: Does anyone remember the content of the first release from the DNC hack, and who got it? It wasn’t Wikileaks, but Gawker, and it wasn’t something that made Hillary Clinton or the DNC look bad. It was the Democrats’ oppo research on Trump. In fact, Trump felt compelled to rebut the information after it got released, and accused the DNC of hacking itself to get disinformation out with clean hands:

The Gawker page is still up, so feel free to peruse the attack material, but all of it got hashed out in the general election. If Trump was coordinating the release of the hacked DNC material, why would he have pushed out their oppo research as the lead story? Yes, yes, one can craft an eight-dimensional-chess-strategy argument about lancing boils early, but Trump’s infamous for his ego, and the last thing he’d want to promote is an attack on his reputation as a business genius. Needless to say, it was less than flattering in a lot of other ways besides that, too:

The enormous opposition document, titled simply “Donald Trump Report,” appears to be a summary of the Democratic Party’s strategy for delegitimizing and undermining Trump’s presidential aspirations—at least as they existed at the end of last year, well before he unseated a field of establishment Republicans and clinched the nomination. A section titled “Top Narratives” describes a seven-pronged attack on Trump’s character and record. …

What follows is roughly two hundred pages of dossier-style background information, instances of Trump dramatically changing his stance on a litany of issues, and a round-up of the candidate’s most inflammatory and false statements (as of December ‘15, at least).

It appears that virtually all of the claims are derived from published sources, as opposed to independent investigations or mere rumor. It’s also very light on anything that could be considered “dirt,” although Trump’s colorful marital history is covered extensively[.]

That makes this line of questioning look less than compelling, although it’s certainly understandable. This is the actual core collusion theory that carries any hint of legal jeopardy; it’s the entire basis of the special counsel probe. If Trump coordinated with the hackers in any way, shape, or form, that would be collusion in a criminal act. But that’s a mighty big if, and just because Mueller’s asking about it doesn’t mean he’s going to find anything on it.