By now, few American elected leaders dispute that elements of the Russian state meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election -- though President Donald Trump has continued to say it "could have been a lot of different groups." What remains unknown, or at least unproven, is whether anybody from Trump’s winning campaign assisted in that meddling. As Trump dismisses talk of collusion as "a total hoax," a wide-ranging criminal investigation continues. So far it’s produced one indictment, plus a guilty plea that offered a hint of what could be seen as the Trump campaign playing ball with the Russians.
1. What exactly did Russia do?
U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally ordered a campaign to undermine "public faith in the U.S. democratic process" and the candidacy of Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, 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.
2. What’s still not known?
What if anything Trump or his team did to solicit, encourage or participate in Russia’s effort. Did anybody from the campaign’s digital team, for instance, help Russia target voters with fake news? (Absolutely not, says the director of that effort.) Investigators already have a guilty plea from a former Trump foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos, who sought damaging information on Clinton from people connected to the Russian government. (He’s pleaded guilty to lying to investigators.) Then there’s the 35-page “dossier” alleging Russia has been "cultivating, supporting and assisting” Trump for at least five years and fed his campaign “valuable intelligence” on Clinton. Its major allegations -- compiled by a former British spy at the behest of the Clinton campaign -- remain unsubstantiated, and Trump has dismissed them as "a complete fraud."
3. Who is investigating?
Robert Mueller, a former FBI director, was called back into service as special counsel to oversee the probe. He was appointed on May 17 by Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, who cited the "unique circumstances" of the case. (It was Rosenstein’s call because Attorney General Jeff Sessions, his boss, recused himself, a move that bothered Trump.) Eight days before the appointment, Trump had fired the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, James Comey, who’d been a key player in the investigation.
4. Why did Trump fire Comey?
The dismissal of the FBI director in the midst of the Russia probe is at the heart of allegations that Trump might have obstructed justice. Trump said that in firing Comey, he considered "this Russia thing," which he called a "made-up story." The New York Times reported that months before being fired, Comey wrote a memo describing how Trump had personally asked him to shut down the investigation of Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn. The White House called that "not a truthful or accurate portrayal of the conversation."
5. 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, just after Clinton clinched the party’s nomination for president, and just after WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange said his group had "upcoming leaks in relation to Hillary Clinton."
6. What were those leaks?
WikiLeaks released almost 20,000 emails from inside the Democratic National Committee that showed, among other things, how DNC staffers had favored Clinton during her primary campaign against Bernie Sanders -- prompting Debbie Wasserman Schultz to resign as DNC head. Later in the campaign, WikiLeaks released tens of thousands of emails from the Gmail account of John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chairman.
7. And WikiLeaks got those emails from Russia?
That’s the allegation. The report by U.S. intelligence agencies says Russia’s General Staff Main Intelligence Directorate, or GRU, gave the material to WikiLeaks through an intermediary. (Assange has said the source of the hacked emails "is not the Russian government and it is not a state party," though that doesn’t rule out the possibility that an intermediary was used.) 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.
8. Which Trump aides are under scrutiny?
Potentially any who had contact with Russian representatives or intermediaries during the presidential campaign. That list includes:
- Paul Manafort, Trump’s onetime campaign chairman, who received more than $17 million for his work with Ukraine’s pro-Russian Party of Regions in 2012-2013 and, according to corporate records in Cyprus, took as much as $52.8 million in loans from companies controlled by Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska from 2009 to 2013. Manafort was charged on Oct. 27 with money laundering, conspiracy and tax charges in a 12-count indictment that says he laundered more than $18 million to support a “lavish lifestyle.”
- Michael Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser for just 24 days, who, in the words of former acting Attorney General Sally Yates, "compromised" himself -- made himself vulnerable to being blackmailed -- by lying about the contents of a December 2016 phone call with Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the U.S.
- Trump’s eldest son, Donald Jr., who met in June 2016 with a Russian lawyer offering potentially damaging information on Clinton.
- Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and top assistant, who also attended the June 2016 meeting; confirmed four contacts with Russians during the campaign and White House transition; and, after Trump’s victory, discussed creating a secret line of communication between the Trump transition and the Russian government. (He denies any "improper contacts.")
- 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.
- Roger Stone, a longtime Republican operative, who dropped hints during the campaign that he had advance knowledge of the release of hacked campaign material.
9. Is Trump himself being investigated?
He keeps saying no, though most indications point to yes. Comey, whom Trump fired on May 9, said he assured Trump three times that he wasn’t personally the target of a counterintelligence case. But in firing Comey, Trump appears to have opened himself up to allegations of obstruction of justice, now being investigated by Mueller, the special counsel. Plus, as the indictment of Manafort shows, Mueller isn’t limiting his investigation to the 2016 campaign. Bloomberg News reported on July 20 that the broad probe includes Russian purchases of apartments in Trump buildings, Trump’s involvement in a controversial SoHo development in New York with Russian associates, the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow and Trump’s sale of a Florida mansion to a Russian oligarch in 2008.
10. Is Mueller allowed to look beyond the Russia question?
The Justice Department’s May 17 order appointing Mueller instructs him to investigate “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign,” as well as -- and this is key -- “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation." Trump and his lawyer, John Dowd, say that digging into matters beyond Russia and the 2016 election is out of bounds.
11. Does Trump acknowledge Russian meddling in the election?
He’s given mixed signals. 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." His first chief of staff, Reince Priebus, said in January that Trump was “not denying that entities in Russia were behind" the hackings. But since then Trump has called the concern about Russian involvement "fake news put out by the media," a "ruse" and a "scam." Over the weekend, Trump tweeted that investigators should focus on Democrats paying for the "fake dossier," rather than on the "phony Trump/Russia ‘collusion,’ which doesn’t exist."
The Reference Shelf
- What’s in the indictment of Manafort and Gates.
- A deep dive into Manafort’s lucrative Ukraine years.
- More on Manafort and that Russian oligarch.
- Manafort’s indictment doesn’t implicate Trump, a Bloomberg View editorial says.
- But it should worry him, writes Bloomberg View executive editor Timothy L. O’Brien.
- QuickTake Q&As on impeachment, obstruction of justice and the early murmurs about pardons.
- A QuickTake explainer on cybercrime and cybersecurity.
- Remembering when Putin came up in that Clinton-Trump debate.
- People, Politico and the BBC on the biggest revelations from hacked Clinton emails.