By now, few American elected leaders -- other than President Donald Trump, on occasion --dispute that elements of the Russian state interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. What remains unproven is whether anybody from Trump’s winning campaign assisted in that interference. As Trump dismisses talk of collusion as "a total hoax," a wide-ranging criminal investigation has produced indictments against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his deputy; a guilty plea by a junior foreign policy adviser that hinted at the Trump campaign playing ball with the Russians; and a guilty plea by Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser.
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.) The former Trump foreign-policy adviser, George Papadopoulos, who has pleaded guilty to lying to investigators, sought damaging information on Clinton from people connected to the Russian government. 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 and paid for in part by 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. 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. Appointing Mueller was Rosenstein’s call because his boss, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was a top Trump adviser during the campaign, recused himself.
4. 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."
5. 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. Clinton, looking back on her defeat, said the "WikiLeaks email dumps" had been "like Chinese water torture."
6. 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.
7. Which Trump aides are under scrutiny?
Potentially any who had contact with Russian representatives or intermediaries during the presidential campaign. That list includes:
- Flynn, Trump’s national security adviser for just 24 days. 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., Sergey Kislyak. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying about that call to federal agents and has agreed to cooperate with investigators.
- Manafort, Trump’s onetime campaign chairman. He was charged on Oct. 27 with money laundering, conspiracy and tax charges in a 12-count indictment that says he used $18 million in laundered funds to support a “lavish lifestyle.” He received more than $17 million for his work with Ukraine’s pro-Russian Party of Regions in 2012-2013 and, according to corporate records, took as much as $52.8 million in loans from companies controlled by Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska.
- 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.
8. Is Trump himself being investigated?
He keeps saying no, though most indications point to yes. At the least, he opened himself up to allegations of obstruction of justice by firing Comey as FBI director and saying that, in doing so, he’d considered "this Russia thing." Comey maintains that, months before he was fired, Trump had asked him to shut down the investigation of Flynn. ("I never asked Comey to stop investigating Flynn," Trump tweeted.) Plus, Mueller’s investigation goes well beyond the 2016 campaign. Bloomberg News reported on July 20 that the 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.
9. Why 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.
10. 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." Since then, he’s called the concern about Russian involvement "fake news put out by the media," a "ruse" and a "scam." In November, he said he believed Putin was sincere in denying Russian meddling in the 2016 election. The next day, Trump said he stands with U.S. intelligence agencies on the matter.
The Reference Shelf
- After Flynn, where does Mueller’s probe go next?
- The prospect of Flynn cooperating with Mueller is dangerous for Trump.
- Charging Flynn might protect Mueller’s job, Bloomberg View columnist Noah Feldman writes.
- 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.
- 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.