WASHINGTON — The White House official had a startling assertion: He thought he had received an email in the first half of 2016 alerting the Trump campaign that Russia had damaging information about Hillary Clinton.
Such an email could have proved explosive, providing evidence that at least one high-ranking Trump campaign official was alerted to Russia’s meddling, raising questions about which advisers knew and undercutting President Donald Trump’s denials of collusion.
But two months after Mashburn testified, investigators for the Senate Judiciary Committee have not found any such message. The special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, was also searching for similar emails, according to a person familiar with a request for documents that his investigators sent to the Trump campaign. The campaign, which has examined its emails and other documents, also cannot find the message, and officials do not believe it exists.
Mashburn offered a tantalizing prospect for Senate Judiciary Committee investigators, who sifted through a tranche of emails from Papadopoulos. But the search that he inspired demonstrates the difficulty investigators for Congress and Mueller face nearly two years after the FBI began looking into ties between Trump’s campaign and Russia. Counterintelligence experts say that uncovering what occurred during an event like the 2016 election could take years, if not decades, to understand.
Witnesses have turned over more than 1 million documents. Hundreds of individuals have been interviewed and dozens have testified before grand juries. Yet basic questions about the Trump campaign’s relationship with Russia remain unanswered, including the central question of whether officials or Trump associates coordinated with the election interference.
The most specific evidence connecting the Trump campaign to Russia’s interference involves Papadopoulos. In April 2016, a Maltese professor connected to Russian intelligence, Joseph Mifsud, told him that the Russians had compromising information on Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails.” No evidence has come to light indicating that Papadopoulos told anyone on the campaign.
In the case of Mashburn’s testimony, investigators will now have to decide what to do with a witness who appears to be telling the truth and remembers a potentially volatile detail that cannot be corroborated.
Mashburn was nonchalant when he met with committee staff in late March. When investigators gave him an opportunity to change his story, he stuck to his testimony. At one point, he returned from a short break with an ice cream sandwich to snack on as he testified.
Mashburn’s testimony was described by three people familiar with it, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the session publicly. The Judiciary Committee, like other panels on Capitol Hill, is conducting its inquiry mostly in secret and has publicized little of what it has learned.
Lawyers for Mashburn and Papadopoulos declined to comment. Michael Glassner, the chief operating officer of the campaign, and Mashburn did not reply to requests for comment.
A veteran culture warrior and anti-abortion activist, Mashburn joined the Trump campaign in April 2016 as Trump was wrapping up the Republican nomination and looking to consolidate support after a bruising primary. A longtime Senate lawyer — he rose to prominence as an aide in the 1980s to Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, the divisive conservative firebrand — Mashburn brought with him deep connections to Washington’s conservative policy networks and a long résumé of the sort that had been lacking on the campaign.
For about the next six months, Mashburn served as the campaign’s policy director, working closely with Rick Dearborn, another longtime Senate lawyer, to oversee the campaign’s policy shop in Washington. Later, he advised the presidential transition team and followed Dearborn to the White House, where until mid-April he was the deputy Cabinet secretary at the White House. Mashburn is now a senior adviser to Rick Perry, the energy secretary.
During his testimony before the Judiciary Committee, Mashburn said repeatedly that he recalled receiving a message with some detail about Russian information on Clinton, and that other campaign officials almost certainly would have been copied on the memo, the people said. Mashburn did not name the campaign officials and did not remember precisely when he received the message.
Mashburn told the investigators that he did not take Papadopoulos, a volunteer adviser with few political connections and scant experience, seriously. He said he did not remember acting on the communication, according to the people familiar with his testimony. At one point in the interview, he recalled replying to Papadopoulos to instruct him to raise the issue with someone else, although he did direct him to a particular campaign aide. At another point, he said he might have forwarded the email to Dearborn.
After speaking with Mashburn, Senate investigators searched through the thousands of pages of correspondence already shared with them by the campaign but turned up nothing. So the committee’s top two senators wrote to the Trump campaign requesting copies of campaign correspondence to and from Mashburn and Dearborn.
The letter, signed by Sens. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, and Dianne Feinstein, D-California, specifies only that “information obtained in a recent committee interview warrants expanding” the committee’s original document request to the campaign. The letter also included a footnote that requested that the campaign search not just for emails referring to Papadopoulos but also for potential misspellings of his last name.
It is unclear whether Mashburn has spoken with Mueller’s investigators.
Three committees on Capitol Hill have undertaken investigations into Russia’s election interference efforts. The Judiciary Committee’s inquiry has been by far the most halting. A short-lived spurt of bipartisan cooperation over the summer has given way to a partisan split. While Feinstein and Democrats have pushed to continue investigating the campaign’s ties to Russia, calling witnesses and requesting documents without the chairman, Grassley, he has shown more interest in actions taken by the FBI during the investigation. The letter that followed Mashburn’s testimony was the first joint request by the two sides in months.
Papadopoulos pleaded guilty in October to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Mifsud, the Maltese professor. Papadopoulos began cooperating with the special counsel but has not spoken with congressional investigators.
The two men met in Italy in March 2016, and after Mifsud learned of Papadopoulos’ ties to the Trump campaign, the professor began showing an intense interest in Papadopoulos, a 28-year-old American. They both wanted to arrange a meeting between Trump and President Vladimir Putin of Russia, and Mifsud introduced Papadopoulos to Russians.
In late April, court documents show, Mifsud told Papadopoulos that high-level Russian officials had informed him that the Russians had “dirt” on Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails.” The next month, Papadopoulos disclosed what he had learned to Alexander Downer, Australia’s ambassador to Britain. When Australian officials passed on information about the exchange to their American counterparts two months later, the FBI used it as a basis to open a counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign.
Trump campaign and White House officials have sought to paint Papadopoulos as a marginal campaign adviser who latched onto the campaign and operated without the approval of policy officials like Mashburn.
In at least one case, after Papadopoulos requested that the campaign reimburse him for travel related to work he said he was doing for the campaign, Mashburn put his thoughts into writing to other campaign officials.
The email, which was excerpted in a report assembled by Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee, refers to an interview Papadopoulos had given in May to The Times of London in which he called on David Cameron, then the prime minister of Britain, to apologize to Trump for criticizing the candidate’s remarks. The campaign had reprimanded Papadopoulos for not clearing his comments before speaking on its behalf.
“He cost us a lot more in having to deal with what he said about Cameron 2 months ago ... he got no approval for the travel and did it on his own,” Mashburn wrote to Dearborn and J.D. Gordon, another foreign policy adviser to the campaign, on June 24, 2016. “Let him eat the cost and maybe he will learn to play nice with the team, not go off on his own.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times