By now, few American leaders -- other than President Donald Trump, on occasion -- dispute that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. What remains unproven is whether anybody from Trump’s winning campaign assisted in that interference. A wide-ranging criminal investigation that has produced indictments against Russian nationals and former Trump advisers hasn’t directly tied any of the Americans to Russia’s influence campaign, but it has produced hints that some people in the Trump campaign at least wanted to play ball.
1. What clues might point to the campaign’s involvement?
Roger Stone, a political operative who cut his teeth working for Richard Nixon and advised Trump during the 2016 campaign, was indicted on Jan. 25 on charges of witness tampering and making false statements. During the election, he strongly hinted that he knew in advance that information hacked from the campaign of Trump’s rival, Hillary Clinton, would be released publicly to hurt her. Paul Manafort, chairman of Trump’s campaign for two months, may have shared polling data with an associate tied to Russian intelligence, and a Justice Department lawyer said Manafort may have been a “back channel” between the campaign and Russia. Former Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos pursued Russia’s help in the campaign and interacted with a suspected Russian agent who promised compromising information about Clinton. And as Trump was sewing up the Republican Party’s nomination in June 2016, a Russian lawyer offering information on Clinton was granted a meeting at Trump Tower in New York with Trump’s eldest son, Donald Jr.; Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner; and Manafort.
2. What exactly did Russia do?
U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a campaign to undermine “public faith in the U.S. democratic process” and Clinton’s candidacy, and that along the way, Putin and his government “developed a clear preference” for Trump. Russia’s efforts included hacking and leaking emails that undermined Clinton’s campaign and using phony accounts and advertising on Facebook and Twitter to sway American public opinion. Putin confirmed he did in fact want Trump to win the election but said that was only because Trump was interested in improving U.S.-Russian relations, and the Russian leader called allegations of meddling “utterly ridiculous.” Trump dismisses as a “total hoax” the suggestion that his campaign welcomed Russian interference.
3. What’s still not known?
Whether Trump or his team did anything to solicit, encourage or participate in Russia’s effort, and if so, what. This is where Trump has drawn the line, swearing that no evidence will emerge of “collusion,” which in legal terms would translate to conspiracy. But Trump’s opponents say some compelling clues are already out in the open.
4. Who’s investigating?
Robert Mueller, a former Federal Bureau of Investigation director, was called back into service as special counsel to oversee the probe. Eight days before his appointment, Trump had fired the head of the FBI, James Comey, who’d been a key player in the investigation.
5. When will Mueller announce his conclusions?
There’s no set deadline, and how much more Mueller plans to do has Washington guessing. As a special counsel, he must conclude his work with a report spelling out who was and wasn’t prosecuted, and why. That confidential report goes to the attorney general; there’s no requirement that it gets shared with Congress or the public. (One exception: The attorney general must explain to the House and Senate Judiciary Committees any instances in which the special counsel was blocked from taking certain actions.) If the opposition Democratic Party, which now controls the House, makes good on its promise to demand Mueller’s full report from the Justice Department, there could be a legal fight, with the White House asserting executive privilege.
6. How did this all begin?
In April 2016, Democratic Party leaders called in a cybersecurity firm to look at suspicious software on their computers. The firm said it found digital footprints of hackers tied to the Russian government. The Democratic National Committee went public with the news and the suspicion of Russian involvement in June of that year, just after Clinton clinched the party’s nomination for president, and just after Julian Assange, editor of the hacktivist website WikiLeaks, said his group had ”upcoming leaks in relation to Hillary Clinton.”
7. What were those leaks?
WikiLeaks released almost 20,000 emails from inside the Democratic National Committee that showed how staffers there had favored Clinton during the primary against Bernie Sanders. That prompted the resignation of the DNC’s chairman, Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Later in the campaign, WikiLeaks released tens of thousands of emails from the Gmail account of John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman. Clinton, looking back on her defeat, said the “WikiLeaks email dumps” had been “like Chinese water torture.”
8. And WikiLeaks got those emails from Russia?
That’s the allegation. The report by U.S. intelligence says Russia’s General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU, gave the material to WikiLeaks through an intermediary. Some of the emails also were released through the “persona” of a purported Romanian hacker, Guccifer 2.0, and a website, DCLeaks.com, both of which promoted the hacked information to certain journalists. Assange has denied that the Russian government was his source of the hacked emails. But an indictment released by Mueller in July 2018, charging 12 Russian military intelligence officers allegedly assigned to disrupt the U.S. election, said that WikiLeaks asked Guccifer for the hacked emails in order to help promote them in advance of the Democratic National Convention, and that Guccifer responded with instructions on how to access them.
9. Which Trump aides are under scrutiny?
Potentially any who had contact with Russian representatives or intermediaries during the presidential campaign. That list includes Trump Jr., Kushner and Stone, plus:
• Manafort, Trump’s onetime campaign chairman, who was convicted of evading taxes on some of the tens of millions of dollars he earned as a political consultant in Ukraine, advising the pro-Russian Party of Regions, in the years before he went to work for Trump.
• Michael Flynn, who lasted just 24 days as Trump’s first national security adviser. In the words of former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, Flynn “compromised” himself -- made himself vulnerable to being blackmailed -- by lying about the contents of a December 2016 phone call with Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying about that call to federal agents.
• Carter Page, a U.S. energy consultant once listed by Trump as a foreign policy adviser, whose July 2016 visit to Moscow drew the FBI’s interest.
• Michael Cohen, Trump’s onetime personal attorney, who pleaded guilty to lying to Congress about how deeply into his presidential run Trump was pursuing a real-estate project in Moscow. Cohen’s admission could be used to show Trump had sought to conceal his business interests in Russia. In January 2017, shortly before he took office, Trump wrote on Twitter, “I HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH RUSSIA - NO DEALS, NO LOANS, NO NOTHING!”
10. Is Trump himself being investigated?
Mueller appears interested in whether Trump obstructed justice by firing Comey as FBI director in May 2017; allegedly asking Comey, days earlier, to go easy on Flynn; and allegedly asking Comey for a pledge of loyalty. Then there’s Trump’s personal involvement in the drafting of a misleading statement that tried to spin the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting -- the one that included his son, son-in-law and a Russian lawyer -- as being about international adoptions. In November, Trump’s legal team submitted written answers to questions posed by Mueller’s team.
11. Does Trump acknowledge Russian meddling in the election?
He dismissed such reports during the campaign, theorizing that Democrats could just as easily have been hacked by “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.” In November 2017, he said he believed Putin was sincere in denying Russian meddling in the election. The next day, Trump said he stands with U.S. intelligence agencies on the matter. Appearing with Putin on July 13, Trump again expressed doubt that Russia interfered in the election.
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