The rumpled, jowly image of Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in Washington came to personify a number of unverified Trump-Moscow stories.
His contacts in 2016 with Trump campaign allies, the press said, provided a possible window into a conspiracy by which a Kremlin-Republican cabal hacked computers and spewed propaganda against Hillary Clinton on social media.
The Robert Mueller report tells a far different story, as is the case with other Trump figures whose supposed collusion with Moscow never happened.
It turns out that Mr. Kislyak, who left Washington two years ago amid the media fervor, had relatively few Trump contacts during the campaign. The contacts he did have were “non-substantive,” the special counsel said in his 448-page report.
Mr. Kislyak attended a Trump speech in April 2016, traveled to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland with 80 other ambassadors sponsored by the Obama State Department and visited Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama in his Capitol Hill office for less than 30 minutes.
The press intensity mutated into a “Saturday Night Live” cold open in March 2017 featuring Kate McKinnon portraying Mr. Sessions as Forrest Gump talking about the Russians.
If three Kislyak encounters were part of a grand Trump-Russia election conspiracy, then Mr. Mueller and his 40 FBI agents didn’t find it.
“The investigation established that interactions between Russian Ambassador Kislyak and Trump Campaign officials both at the candidate’s April 2016 foreign policy speech in Washington, D.C., and during the week of the Republican National Convention were brief, public, and non-substantive,” the Mueller report concluded.
The Mueller team followed up on suspicions that Mr. Kislyak attended a May 2016 dinner at the Four Seasons Hotel hosted by a long-standing U.S.-Russia think tank. Mr. Sessions, who headed Mr. Trump’s foreign policy advisory group, did attend.
Mueller sleuths interviewed diners, reviewed seating charts and examined photographs. They couldn’t nail down a Kislyak presence.
Mr. Kislyak invited Trump campaign adviser J.D. Gordon to breakfast post-convention, the report says. But Mr. Gordon didn’t go. Mr. Kislyak invited Mr. Sessions to dinner, but the senator declined.
In sum, Mr. Kislyak seemed to be playing the traditional role of a diplomat in a foreign country. He made contact with people who wanted better relations with Moscow and who might someday be in a position to carry out a friendlier foreign policy.
The Mayflower Hotel, Washington, D.C. — April 26, 2016
A bevy of press reports in spring-summer 2017 told of a Kislyak-Sessions meeting at The Mayflower as Mr. Trump delivered his first major foreign policy address.
The intrigue heightened with this news: the Center for the National Interest, a decades-old Washington think tank that pursues better U.S.-Moscow relations, was the organizer. It is led by Russian-born U.S. citizen Dimitri Simes.
CNI invited Mr. Kislyak, who was introduced to the candidate and chatted with Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and now a White House adviser.
One press report said there were intercepts of communications of Russians saying they conducted substantive discussions with Mr. Sessions. The Alabama Republican went on to become attorney general and shortly thereafter recused himself from the Russia investigation.
The Mueller report footnoted two media stories on the Mayflower speech: NBC News asked, “Did Trump, Kushner, Sessions Have an Undisclosed Meeting with Russian?” And The Atlantic inquired, “Why did Jeff Sessions Really meet with Sergey Kislyak?”
The Mueller report noted the Mayflower stories and then knocked them down.
“Several public reports state that, in addition to speaking to Kushner at the pre-speech reception, Kislyak also met or conversed with Sessions at that time. Sessions stated to investigators, however, that he did not remember any such conversation. Nor did anyone else affiliated with CNI or the National Interest specifically recall a conversation or meeting between Sessions and Kislyak at the pre-speech reception,” the Mueller report said. “It appears that, if a conversation occurred at the pre-speech reception, it was a brief one conducted in public view, similar to the exchange between Kushner and Kislyak.”
The Mueller report further stated that it “found no evidence that Kislyak conversed with either Trump or Sessions after the speech, or would have had the opportunity to do so. Simes, for example, did not recall seeing Kislyak at the post-speech luncheon, and the only witness who accounted for Sessions’ whereabouts stated that Sessions may have spoken to the press after the event but then departed for Capitol Hill.”
As for suspicions that CNI and Trump allies were part of a computer hacking conspiracy with the Kremlin, the Mueller report came up empty: “The investigation did not identify evidence that the Campaign passed or received any messages to or from the Russian government through CNI or Simes.”
In the end, the Mueller report validated what Trump people said at the time: that Mr. Kislyak attended the public event for all the world to see, but there were no substantive talks beyond a few greetings.
Republican National Convention, Cleveland — July 18-21, 2016
Just like the Mayflower confab, Mr. Kislyak’s presence at pre-convention events created scores of news stories implying an election conspiracy.
A reading of the Mueller report tells a far less interesting story.
For one, Mr. Kislyak attended as part of a large, State Department-sponsored contingent numbering more than 80 foreign diplomats.
He attended a pre-convention conference on foreign policy and then a reception, where he chatted briefly with Trump advisers Mr. Sessions, J.D. Gordon and Carter Page.
“As they ate, Gordon and Kislyak talked for what Gordon estimated to have been three to five minutes, during which Gordon again mentioned that he meant what he said in his speech about improving U.S.-Russia relations,” Mr. Mueller said.
The Mueller report concluded: “Trump Campaign officials met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the week of the Republican National Convention. The evidence indicates that those interactions were brief and non-substantive.”
Sen. Jeff Sessions’ office — September 2016
This was another high-intensity press scrum as stories implied a Russia conspiracy extended into the halls of the Senate, into the office of Mr. Sessions, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The meeting’s importance heightened when Sen. Al Franken, Minnesota Democrat, accused Mr. Sessions of lying during his confirmation hearing when he denied Russian contacts.
A number of liberal news sites accused Mr. Sessions of perjury.
A “Saturday Night Live” sketch featured Miss McKinnon portraying Mr. Sessions as a clueless Forrest Gump facing perjury allegations.
The Mueller report was much kinder to Mr. Sessions than were Mr. Franken, the liberal press or “Saturday Night Live.” It said the way Mr. Franken framed the question was imprecise.
“Sessions later explained to the Senate and to the Office that he understood the question as narrowly calling for disclosure of interactions with Russians that involved the exchange of campaign information, as distinguished from more routine contacts with Russian nationals,” the report said. “Given the context in which the question was asked, that understanding is plausible.”
The report also said Mr. Sessions, in a meeting that lasted less than 30 minutes and was attended by two Senate staffers, confronted Mr. Kislyak on bad Russian behavior.
“The investigation also did not establish that a meeting between Kislyak and Sessions in September 2016 at Sessions’ Senate office included any more than a passing mention of the presidential campaign,” Mr. Mueller said.
Mr. Kislyak’s infrequent and brief contacts with Trump campaign figures shifted into another gear during the postelection transition.
As demanded by candidate Trump, Mr. Kushner and incoming National Security Adviser Michael Flynn were forging the outlines of what would be a new approach to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Mr. Kislyak went to Trump Tower and communicated by phone with Flynn.
Flynn ultimately pleaded guilty to lying to two FBI agents who came to his White House office. He denied to them that he had discussed sanctions with Mr. Kislyak during a bugged phone call.
Mr. Mueller didn’t establish evidence that the transition period involved any type of election meddling conspiracy.
With the Mueller report, Mr. Kislyak joined other Trump-Russia figures who were portrayed in the press as keys to a conspiracy but were not. Targeted Trump associates Paul Manafort, Carter Page and George Papadopoulos weren’t charged in any election conspiracy.
“The investigation did not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities,” Mr. Mueller wrote.