Following the indictments of Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, and George Papadopoulos, and others including thirteen Russians and three Russian companies, many people have questions about the role of Russia in the 2016 elections in the US. Many of those questions have already been answered on the record. But there is so much news and discussion, those answers can be hard to find. The mission of this page is to make it easier.
Did Russia tamper with any votes or the vote counting process?
Apparently not. The outgoing Obama administration insisted that the voting process was free of interference. Officials in the Obama White House later reported that they were very concerned about that possibility prior to election day, and that a big part of their response to Russia's activities was focused on preventing any vote tampering, including warning the Kremlin directly against such tampering over a modern-day “red phone” and in person at the 2016 G20 Summit.
According to the declassified intelligence report issued by the FBI, NSA, and CIA, while "Russian intelligence obtained and maintained access to elements of multiple US state or local electoral boards. DHS assesses that the types of systems Russian actors targeted or compromised were not involved in vote tallying." This was confirmed by a Senate Intelligence Committee investigation, which found that "In a small number of states, Russian-affiliated cyber actors were able to gain access to restricted elements of election infrastructure. In a small number of states, these cyber actors were in a position to, at a minimum, alter or delete voter registration data; however, they did not appear to be in a position to manipulate individual votes or aggregate vote totals."
As described in a report in Bloomberg Politics: "In Illinois, investigators found evidence that cyber intruders tried to delete or alter voter data." However, from the same article: "Even if the entire database had been deleted, it might not have affected the election [...] Counties upload records to the state, not the other way around, and no data moves from the database back to the counties, which run the elections."
A recount of the vote in Wisconsin found no evidence of tampering.
However, there is some reason to suspect that tampering with the software used in voter registration databases and e-poll books may have kept people in some counties from voting. Further investigation is needed to examine the evidence for and against this possibility.
What did Russia hope to accomplish?
According to testimony in the Senate Intelligence Committee hearings, "Russia certainly seeks to promote Western candidates sympathetic to their worldview and foreign policy objectives. But winning a single election is not their end goal. Russian Active Measures hope to topple democracies through the pursuit of five complementary objectives:
• Undermine citizen confidence in democratic governance
• Foment and exacerbate divisive political fractures
• Erode trust between citizens and elected officials and democratic institutions
• Popularize Russian policy agendas within foreign populations
• Create general distrust or confusion over information sources by blurring the lines between fact and fiction
From these objectives, the Kremlin can crumble democracies from the inside out creating political divisions resulting in two key milestones: 1) the dissolution of the European Union and 2) the break up of the North American Treaty Organization (NATO). Achieving these two victories against the West will allow Russia to reassert its power globally."
Before taking office Donald Trump called NATO "obsolete", and supported Britain's exit ("Brexit") from the EU. He also supported the French presidential candidate who wanted France to leave the European Union. Because of these positions among others, the Russian government preferred a Trump presidency.
The CIA, NSA, and FBI have said that "The Kremlin sought to advance its longstanding desire to undermine the US-led liberal democratic order, the promotion of which Putin and other senior Russian leaders view as a threat to Russia and Putin’s regime." In service of these goals, they say, "Putin and the Russian Government aspired to help President-elect Trump’s election chances when possible by discrediting Secretary Clinton and publicly contrasting her unfavorably to him."
In addition, the same declassified intelligence report states that: "Putin most likely wanted to discredit Secretary Clinton because he has publicly blamed her since 2011 for inciting mass protests against his regime in late 2011 and early 2012, and because he holds a grudge for comments he almost certainly saw as disparaging him."
Putin also had reason to believe that Trump would be more likely to end sanctions on Russia including especially the Magnitsky Act, and accept Russia's terms for ending the war in Syria.
Former CIA agent John Sipher believes "The attack against the 2016 U.S. presidential election is as much aimed at an internal Russian audience as at foreign rivals. The message to Russians is that Putin is a respected and feared force on the world stage and that they should stand in awe of his strength." The Atlantic's foreign policy correspondent, Julia Ioffe, believes that Putin is "really just a gambler who won big" and that "Putin’s fears of being deposed by the U.S.," which the U.S. did little to soothe, "Pushed him toward ever higher levels of antagonism. So has his political situation—the need to take ever larger foreign risks to shore up support at home, as the economy has struggled."
If they didn't tamper with votes, in what ways DID they interfere with the election?
From the declassified intelligence report: "The Kremlin’s campaign aimed at the US election featured disclosures of data obtained through Russian cyber operations; intrusions into US state and local electoral boards; and overt propaganda."
These "cyber operations" included "targets associated with both major US political parties. We assess Russian intelligence services collected against the US primary campaigns, think tanks, and lobbying groups they viewed as likely to shape future US policies. Some candidates for the House of Representatives were targeted. In July 2015, Russian intelligence gained access to Democratic National Committee (DNC) networks and maintained that access until at least June 2016." The DNC hired a security firm called CrowdStrike, who were able to watch the hackers in action. Stolen files, mostly e-mails sent or received by staffers for the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign, were released to the public through WikiLeaks and DC Leaks, and were released in batches, such that each new batch resulted in a new wave of news coverage.
Hackers apparently based in Russia also targeted election systems in at least 21 states and possibly as many as 39 states. Sources in the US intelligence community told NBC news that systems in seven states had been breached: Alaska, Arizona, California, Florida, Illinois, Texas and Wisconsin. The Senate Intelligence Committee investigation confirmed the targeting of at least 21 states and breaches in at least six. Details have been published about the breaches in Arizona and Illinois. The NBC story reports that only Illinois was aware of the breaches through its own investigations. (Arizona acknowledges an attack in June 2016, but the Arizona Secretary of State has denied that this was related the coordinated Russian hacking). The January 2017 intelligence report says none of the targeted systems were involved in tabulating votes, and this is confirmed by the sources for the more recent NBC story and by the Senate Intelligence Committee. Some systems were databases of voter registration and related information.
Experts have identified several possible motives for the voter-registration database hacking, including selling the data, casting doubt on the legitimacy of the election process (the declassified report mentions that "ProKremlin bloggers had prepared a Twitter campaign, #DemocracyRIP, on election night in anticipation of Secretary Clinton’s victory") probing for weaknesses to be used in future actions, and providing data to help Russian propaganda target Americans on social media. As mentioned above, it is also possible that another goal may have been to keep some people in some counties from voting, though it is not at all clear that this was successful, or even if it was attempted.
Finally, the declassified report describes significant social media operations. The Russian propaganda network RT (formerly "Russia Today"): "is making its social media operations a top priority.[...] Since its inception in 2005, RT videos received more than 800 million views on YouTube (1 million views per day), which is the highest among news outlets" - even higher than CNN's YouTube channel. Americans' access to English-language propaganda on Russian media is much greater than it was in the past, because of the internet.
But the report also says that Russia used fake social media accounts operated by paid "trolls" to spread divisive messages, and amplify stories from their propaganda operations: "Russia used trolls as well as RT as part of its influence efforts to denigrate Secretary Clinton. This effort amplified stories on scandals about Secretary Clinton and the role of WikiLeaks in the election campaign. The likely financier of the so-called Internet Research Agency of professional trolls located in Saint Petersburg is a close Putin ally with ties to Russian intelligence. A journalist who is a leading expert on the Internet Research Agency claimed that some social media accounts that appear to be tied to Russia’s professional trolls—because they previously were devoted to supporting Russian actions in Ukraine—started to advocate for President-elect Trump as early as December 2015."
That "likely financier" of the Internet Research Agency was one of thirteen Russians later indicted, along with the Internet Research Agency itself and its funding sources, for fraud and identity theft. The public now knows much more about the operations of that "troll farm" in St. Petersburg. The paid "trolls" bought carefully targeted ads on Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram, and even Pokemon Go. They made fake accounts on Reddit and Tumblr. They ran Facebook groups and pages purporting to be based in the US which organized over a hundred protests (including armed protests), sold merchandise, paid for activists' travel, and attempted to incite violence. They paid trainers to teach "self defense" classes, collected information on the students who attended, and encouraged the trainers 'to provide more “aggressive” lessons, including training in "offensive combat.'
They studied the US political system. They left comments on news stories. They operated a Twitter account called @Ten_GOP which billed itself as the “Unofficial Twitter account of Tennessee Republicans," and one called @TodayNYCity which claimed to be "New York City's local news on Twitter." They re-tweeted Donald Trump's Twitter account 470,000 times. The FBI and FEC are investigating the possibility that they funneled money to the National Rifle Association to support its political activities. A former employee has said “Our goal wasn’t to turn the Americans toward Russia. Our task was to set Americans against their own government: to provoke unrest and discontent, and to lower Obama’s support ratings.”
To further that goal, at the height of the campaign the Internet Research Agency had a budget of $1.25 million per month. According to the indictment it "employed hundreds of individuals for its online operations." Others traveled around the US organizing rallies and paying Americans to participate in them. To facilitate buying advertisements and creating social media content, they used stolen social security numbers and bank account numbers to create PayPal accounts. An American named Richard Pinedo, who sold them some bank account information, has also been indicted.
Facebook estimates that on their platform alone, Russian content may have reached up to 126 million users, about 40% of the US population. Approximately 1.4 million Twitter users followed accounts linked to Russia or the IRA, or else liked or re-tweeted their tweets. Twitter has calculated that in total Russia-linked accounts generated about 2.12 million automated, election-related tweets that collectively received about 455 million impressions within the first seven days of posting.
Among the groups Russia appears to have specially targeted on social media are veterans and military personnel. They also attempted to hack the Twitter accounts of up to 10,000 Defense Department employees and tweet using those identities - but these activities may be more related to disrupting the American military rather than the American political process.
How do we know Russia was involved in hacking the Democratic National Committee and Clinton campaign?
Dutch intelligence agencies were monitoring the Russian hacking group "Cozy Bear" as they broke into the DNC servers. The Dutch agents had access even to security cameras inside the Russian government building the hackers worked out of. The Dutch informed the American government of what they had seen.
In 2018, the Daily Beast reported that the self-proclaimed hacker "Guccifer 2.0" had used a Mowcow based IP address, and "Working off the IP address, U.S. investigators identified Guccifer 2.0 as a particular GRU officer working out of the agency’s headquarters on Grizodubovoy Street in Moscow."
Trump campaign adviser George Papadopolous then pled guilty to knowing (and lying about his knowledge) that the Russians had hacked "thousands of e-mails" from Trump's opponents as of April, 2016 -- long before any of the emails were released. The Australian government notified the FBI after Papadopolous discussed this knowledge with an Australian diplomat.
That information was not made public until more than a year after the election. However, other information confirming the identity of the hackers was public before. The cybersecurity company Crowdstrike was hired by the DNC and was able to watch the hackers in action before ejecting them from DNC systems. They recognized specific software tools from attacks on other Russian targets. Other analysts identified signs of a Cyrillic keyboard in the metadata of the leaks, the behavior of "Guccifer 2.0", malware which doesn't "call home" on Russian holidays, and bitly addressess created from the same account as attacks on other Russian targets.
After the election, the newspaper The Hill summarized some of the technical and geopolitical reasoning in "Five Reasons the Intel Community Believes Russia Interfered in the Election." The New York Times described the discovery of the hacking in "The Perfect Weapon: How Russian Cyberpower Invaded the U.S."
Enough detail is known now that prosecutors are considering bringing charges against specific Russians. Other targets of the attacks (including some associated with the Republican Party, like Marco Rubio) were linked only by Russian antipathy to them. The Associated Press has published a detailed account of who was hacked, and how.
Did Russian activities change the outcome of the election?
We will probably never know for sure.
Trump won Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by 0.2, 0.7 and 0.8 percentage points, respectively — by 10,704, 46,765 and 22,177 votes. Had he lost those three races, he would have lost the electoral college. These margins are small enough that all kinds of relatively small effects could in theory have changed the results one way or another.
While we cannot know for sure what reasons caused which voters to vote as they did, or to stay home, a few studies have tried to estimate the effect of the Russian social media operations. One study indicated that Obama voters who believed false stories about Clinton were more likely to vote for Trump or simply not vote. Two of the false stories the study asked about were noted in the declassified intelligence report to have been pushed by Russian propaganda during the campaign.
Another study by the National Bureau of Economic Research estimated that the activity of Twitter bots may explain 3.23% of the actual vote for Trump in the U.S. presidential race. Given the narrow margin, the authors conclude "the bots’ effect was likely marginal but possibly large enough to affect the outcomes."
We do know that "Russia had every ability to create fake social media accounts by mimicking profiles of voters in key election states and precincts in the 2016 election, and use a mix of bots and real people to push propaganda from state-controlled media outlets like Russia Today (RT) and Sputnik [...] Clinton Watts, a senior fellow at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at The George Washington University, said many social accounts during the election pushing questionable news looked just like real voters in states like Wisconsin and Michigan." (From a CBS report on Senate Intelligence Committee testimony.) And Facebook has confirmed that some of the advertising purchased by Russian accounts targeted voters in Michigan and Wisconsin.
Is there any evidence that Trump or his campaign colluded with Russia?
Yes. The evidence can be arranged into ten categories, which we outline below.
1.) George Papadopoulos. It is now a legally established fact that a Russia-connected contact (who has since gone missing) "told defendant Papadopoulos about the 'thousands of emails'" Russia had collected. This conversation took place in April 2016, well before the e-mails began to leak out, but a time when "when defendant Papadopoulos had been a foreign policy adviser to the [Trump] Campaign for over a month." (See timeline). It's unclear whether he told anyone else at that time. Neither Papadopoulos nor anyone else in the Trump campaign reported this information to US law enforcement, and Trump continued to publicly deny that Russia was involved in the hacking of the Democratic National Committee until after the election. The FBI investigation of Trump campaign connections to Russia was opened after Papadopoulos disclosed this knowledge to a foreign diplomat, who passed it on to the FBI.
Papadopoulos was also in contact with another Russia-linked businessman who copied Jared Kushner on some of his e-mails. Papadopoulos pushed for the campaign to reach out more directly to Russia, including offering to help set up a direct meeting between candidate Trump and Putin.
2.) Felix Sater. In 2015, a Russian-American Trump associate named Felix Sater had written an e-mail to Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, saying: “Buddy our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it [...] I will get all of Putins team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.” He was working to develop a Trump Tower in Moscow at the time, with funding from a Russian bank subject to US sanctions. One of the people he was working with was a former agent of Russian military intelligence (the GRU). (Sater now claims that he didn't really think Trump could get elected or that he could get Putin to help. He does not deny writing the e-mail.)
3.) Michael Cohen. A shell company set up by Michael Cohen received payments in 2017 of $1 million from Columbus Nova, an investment firm in New York whose biggest client is a company controlled by Viktor Vekselberg, a Russian oligarch. Cohen met with Vekselberg in Trump Tower shortly before the inauguration, discussing the incoming administration's Russia policy. Vekselberg then attended Trump's inauguration ceremony. The CEO of Columbus Nova, Vekselberg's cousin, Andrew Intrater, made a $250,000 donation to the Trump inauguration fund. Vekselberg's American business partner Len Blavatnik donated $6.35 million to GOP political action committees.
Though he was the president's personal attorney, with no role in government, Michael Cohen was also involved in delivering a very pro-Russia "peace plan" for Ukraine from a Ukrainian politician to National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. The "peace plan" was to have been promoted using funding from Vekselberg.
After receiving the email from Felix Sater mentioned above, Michael Cohen himself apparently did seek buy in on plans for a Trump tower in Moscow from a member of Putin's team. Fox News reports that he wrote to Putin's press secretary requesting assistance on the real estate deal. In November of 2015, Cohen also spoke on the phone (at Ivanka Trump's request) with a Russian athlete who offered to introduce Donald Trump to Putin to facilitate plans for the building.
Finally, according to McClatchy the Special Counsel has evidence that he "secretly made a late-summer trip to Prague during the 2016 presidential campaign" -- which he has categorically denied doing when alleged to have met a Russian contact there.
4.) Paul Manafort. Paul Manafort offered to provide briefings on the race to a Russian billionaire closely aligned with the Kremlin (his former employer, Oleg Deripaska) shortly before the Republican National Convention. He made the offer in e-mails addressed to a Russian intermediary (Konstantin Kilimnik) with ties with Russian military intelligence who had worked for Manafort and with whom Manafort had dinner in August, 2016. Emails from Manafort obtained by the Atlantic appear to indicate that he hoped to use his position as Trump's campaign manager to curry favor with Deripaska. Manafort has been charged with money laundering and acting as an unregistered foreign agent, as described below. A more detailed review of evidence of collusion associated with Manafort is available at this link.
5.) Donald Trump Jr. Trump’s son, Donald Trump, Jr, along with Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort, met with Russian operatives after being promised damaging information on Clinton. The e-mails coordinating the meeting said, "This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump." On these terms, the Trump campaign agreed to a meeting. And indeed, according to the New York Times, the Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, "had discussed the allegations with one of Russia’s most powerful officials, the prosecutor general, Yuri Y. Chaika," and admits to being an "informant" for his office. Among the other attendees of the meeting: Rinat Akhmetshin (a former Russian military intelligence officer who "once said there is no such thing as former”) and Ike Kevaladze (who had been accused of laundering $1.4 billion of Russian money.)
Natlia Veselnitskaya followed up after the meeting, and Donald Trump Jr. stayed in touch with the Russian acquaintances who had helped set up the meeting. He also attended a similar meeting with representatives of middle eastern countries (including George Nader).
Donald Trump Jr. also exchanged direct messages with WikiLeaks. They told him that cooperating with them was "strongly in his interest." He did not report these exchanges. He did tweet out a link they sent him, and asked around about the owners of a website they said they had hacked.
And he met, at the 2016 convention of the National Rifle Association, with Alexander Torshin. The FBI reportedly has obtained wiretaps of the discussions leading up that meeting from the Spanish government, which was investigating Torshin for money laundering.
6.) Michael Flynn. According to the Wall Street Journal there is evidence of "Russian hackers discussing how to obtain emails from Mrs. Clinton’s server and then transmit them to Mr. Flynn."
Flynn was paid $67,000 during the campaign by Russian interests, among his many foreign financial entanglements, and attended a public dinner event with Vladimir Putin. He and his son met with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, about a week before that event.
During the inauguration, Michael Flynn sent a text message to a colleague that they were "good to go" on plans to collaborate with Russia on a nuclear energy project in the Middle East which was being impeded by the sanctions against Russia.
Acting Attorney General Sally Yates testified that she warned the Trump administration that Michael Flynn could be blackmailed by Russia because they could threaten to expose his lies about what he discussed with them during the transition. However, Flynn remained in office for 18 days, until after these lies were exposed by the US media, despite the risk posed by having someone susceptible to Russian threats in such a sensitive position.
7.) Roger Stone. Trump adviser Roger Stone was in contact with Guccifer 2.0 via Twitter direct messages. Since Guccifer 2.0 was a Russian agent, Stone's direct communication with him about the e-mail hack constitutes a form of collusion with the Russian government.
Furthermore, after testifying to the House Intelligence Committee that he had no contacts with Russians, Stone revealed in June of 2018 that he had been approached by a Russian national offering to sell damaging information on Hillary Clinton (Stone claims he declined the offer.)
Stone is also known to have exchanged messages with WikiLeaks. A witness claims that Stone had learned as early as Spring 2016 that WikiLeaks had e-mails which would embarrass top Democrats. Former Trump adviser Sam Nunberg said that Stone told him that he had actually met with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, a detail which is supported by e-mails Stone sent. WikiLeaks, in turn, was also in contact with Guccifer 2.0. In a Sept. 18, 2016, message, Mr. Stone urged an acquaintance who knew Mr. Assange to ask the WikiLeaks founder for emails that he believed would hurt Clinton's campaign.
A Republican campaign worker named Andrew Nevins received Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee documents from Guccifer 2.0, some of which he posted publicly on his blog, and shared with Roger Stone.
Trump himself mentioned the WikiLeaks releases over a hundred times in the final weeks of the campaign. Trump called on Russia to release whatever they had from Hillary Clinton's server, even as he denied Russian involvement in the hacking of the DNC.
8.) Alexander Nix and Steve Bannon. Alexander Nix, the CEO of a company who acted as consultants for the Trump campaign, offered to help WikiLeaks sort through the emails taken by Russian hackers from the DNC servers in July of 2016. And a former employee of the company testified that it"used Russian researchers to gather its data, (and) openly shared information on 'rumor campaigns' and 'attitudinal inoculation'" with companies and executives linked to the Russian intelligence agency FSB. A director at the same company claimed to have channelled cryptocurrency payments and donations to WikiLeaks, and to have met with Julian Assange to discuss the American election in February, 2017.
That company, "Cambridge Analytica," was not just a contractor -- its leadership and funding were closely linked to the Trump campaign. Steve Bannon, Trump's campaign chief, had served as vice president and secretary of Cambridge Analytica from June 2014 to August 2016, when he resigned to take the position with Trump. He was also on its board of directors, and owned a stake in the company. As early as 2014, under Bannon's leadership, Cambridge Analytica was reportedly testing slogans which would eventually be used by the Trump campaign. They were working with Trump and his team before Trump even announced his candidacy (and former staffers are now working on the Trump 2020 campaign.) As consultants, Cambridge Analytica “ran all the digital campaign, the television campaign and our data informed all the strategy” for Trump, according to Nix.
Given these close links, there is not a clear distinction between Cambridge Analytica offering to help sort through hacked emails for distribution or sharing information with Russian entities, and the Trump campaign doing so. At the very least, Cambridge Analytica seem to have been attempting to take advantage of Russian efforts.
Cambridge Analytica also had some pre-existing links to Russia. They gave briefings on their political work to Moscow firm Lukoil, and the researcher who developed their crucial algorithm worked for St Petersburg university and was funded by the Russian government for his research into social media. Cambridge Analytica tested the popularity of Vladimir Putin among Americans in 2014, at the direction of Steve Bannon. An employee of Cambridge Analytica's parent company named Sam Patten had also worked for many years with Konstantin Kilimnik, the same suspected Russian spy that Paul Manafort met with.
And Cambridge Analytica boasted of having “vast amounts of data” to support the campaign for a British exit from the European Union, "Brexit." This is related to collusion with Russia in that one of Russia's key goals is breaking up the European Union. Two British political operatives who were prominent in the "Leave" campaign were in regular contact with the Russian ambassador in London. At the same time they were campaigning for, and meeting with, Donald Trump. They passed contact information for the Trump team to the Russian ambassador to the UK.) Another Brexit "Leave" campaigner met with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, and publicly thanked Steve Bannon for helping with the "Leave" campaign. Whistleblowers later revealed that some money from the Brexit "Leave" campaign may have been illegally funneled to Cambridge Analytica.
In 2018 it became public that four years earlier, Cambridge Analytica had harvested Facebook information from at least 87 million users (and likely many more) without their permission. This happened under Steve Bannon's leadership. They also left sensitive voter-targeting algorithms unprotected online, where it could be accessed by anyone including foreign agents.
Investigative reporters following up on these reports posed as potential clients and met with Alexander Nix, who offered them services exploiting bribes, ex-spies, fake IDs and sex workers to influence political campaigns.
9.) Erik Prince. An informal adviser to Trump’s transition team whose sister is education secretary Betsy De Vos, Erik Prince attended a secret meeting in the Seychelles with a Putin-linked Russian financier, which appears to have been one of a series of such meetings. As information contradicting his testimony has come out, it now appears that Prince lied to Congress about the nature of those meetings.
Erik Prince also arranged a meeting in Trump Tower Aug. 3, 2016 with foreign emissaries who offered to help the Trump campaign. George Nader attended the meeting and told Donald Trump Jr. that the princes who led Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were eager to help his father win election as president. Israeli social media specialist Joel Zamel also attended and offered social media campaign services; he was paid $2 million after the election by Nader.
10.) Jeff Sessions. Russia’s ambassador to Washington, Sergey Kislyak, told his superiors in Moscow in the spring of 2016 that he discussed campaign-related matters, including policy issues important to Moscow, with Jeff Sessions. (Sessions does not recall such a meeting.) In May of that year an N.R.A. activist named Paul Erickson wrote to Sessions' former chief of staff, who was then working in the Trump campaign, “Putin is deadly serious about building a good relationship with Mr. Trump. He wants to extend an invitation to Mr. Trump to visit him in the Kremlin before the election. Let’s talk through what has transpired and Senator Sessions’s advice on how to proceed.”
Later in the summer, at the Republican National Convention, Kislyak met with Sessions and two other Trump campaign advisers. (Sessions acknowledges that this meeting took place.) At that convention, the Trump campaign successfully pushed to modify the party's platform, to remove language about arming Ukrainians fighting against the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Finally in September, Sessions met with Kislyak again in Sessions' office. (Sessions acknowledges that this meeting took place as well. He denies any collusion with Kislyak at either of the meetings he acknowledges.)
At his confirmation hearing, Sessions had initially testified to Congress that he had not met with any Russians at all during the campaign. When the meetings with Kislyak were revealed, Sessions corrected his testimony and recused himself from oversight of the Russia investigation.
In total the Trump campaign and Trump transition team had an unusual amount of contact with Russian officials: at least 19 face to face meetings, and at least 70 contacts when e-mail exchanges and phone calls with Russian-government linked individuals are included as well. As described in the next section, several members of the Trump campaign and administration appear to have attempted to conceal those contacts: omitting them on security clearance forms, in Senate testimony, and in discussions with the FBI.
Counting Guccifer 2.0, and Felix Sater's contact in the Russian finance industry, and Rinat Akhmetshin, and Konstantin Kilimnik members of the campaign were in contact with at least four people believed to be agents or former agents of the the Russian military intelligence agency, the GRU.
Evidence of Trump's friendly attitude toward the Putin government includes his sharing highly of classified intelligence with Russian officials, and the significant efforts made by the White House to scale back sanctions on Russia, including long delay in implementing new sanctions passed by veto-proof majorities in Congress in response to the Russian election meddling (eventually implemented) and canceling additional sanctions already announced by the US Ambassador to the UN. The Trump White House has also made efforts to return seized Russian property, and accept Russia's terms in Syria. Trump advocated Russia's inclusion in the G7. He repeated the Russian claim that the Russian invasion of Ukraine was justified because everyone speaks Russian in Crimea. And a number of influential Russians were invited to Trump's inauguration, including Natalia Veselnitskya, the Russian lawyer who attended the meeting in Trump Tower with Donald Trump Jr.
After the election, Trump adviser K.T. McFarland expressed the opinion in email that, from Obama's point of view, the sanctions could make it much harder for Mr. Trump to ease tensions with Russia, “which has just thrown the U.S.A. election to him” and that the government might shortly release a report that "catches Russians red handed."
Is there evidence that Trump or his campaign did anything illegal, related to the Russian activities?
Crimes alleged in civil suits:
New York’s attorney general filed suit against President Trump alleging “persistently illegal conduct” and saying that Trump had repeatedly misused the Trump Foundation to pay off his businesses’ creditors. (That foundation received a $150,000 payment in 2015 from a Ukrainian billionaire.)
The Democratic National Committee has filed suit alleging violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act relating to the Russian hacking of their e-mail server, and other laws including racketeering and wiretapping.
In addition, law suits have been brought asserting that the Trump administration is in violation of the "emoluments clause" of the constitution, which forbids US government officials from accepting payments from foreign governments (including Russia.) The attorneys general of Maryland and the District of Columbia have been ruled to have standing to proceed with their suit.
Crimes to which members of the Trump campaign have pled Guilty:
Trump campaign Foreign Policy Adviser George Papadopoulos said he lied to the FBI about when he became aware that the Russian government had obtained "thousands of emails," which could be used to damage the campaign of Hillary Clinton. He had "stated multiple times that he learned that information prior to joining the Campaign" but in fact his Russia contact had "told defendant Papadopoulos about the 'thousands of emails' on or about April 26, 2016, when defendant Papadopoulos had been a foreign policy adviser to the Campaign for over a month." He pled guilty to a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1001 (False Statements).
Former National Security Adviser (and adviser to the Trump campaign) Michael Flynn has also pled guilty to a violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1001. While President Obama was still in office, Flynn spoke to the Russian ambassador, asking that Russia moderate its response to the Obama administration's ejection of thirty-five Russian diplomats. Those diplomats were being expelled in response to Russia's election interference, especially the hacking of the DNC, which was already widely known to be a Russian action. Flynn also asked that Russia support the Trump administration's position on a vote in the UN. When asked about this conversation by the FBI, he denied having made those requests. The FBI had evidence that he had made them, and Flynn pled guilty to lying to the FBI on two counts. Flynn has promised “full cooperation” in the special counsel’s Russia investigation and is reportedly prepared to testify about Donald Trump's role in these negotiations.
Deputy Campaign Manager Rick Gates has pled guilty to "Conspiracy Against the United States" and also to making false statements to the FBI as a part of a plea deal in which other charges against him were dropped, in return for his cooperation. The original charges against him are laid out below.
Charges to which members of the Trump campaign have pled Not Guilty:
The two members of the Trump campaign who were charged with crimes beyond making false statements to investigators are Paul Manafort and Rick Gates. Among the charges:
- Between at least 2006 and 2015, Manafort and Gates acted as unregistered agents of the Government of Ukraine, when it was run by a pro-Putin political party whose leader later fled to Russia.
-In order to hide Ukrainian payments from United States authorities, from approximately 2006 through at least 2016, Manafort and Gates laundered the money through scores of United States and foreign corporations, partnerships, and bank accounts.
- Manafort and his former employee Konstantin Kilimnik (a Russian citizen) have also been charged with obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice. The Justice Department cites evidence that they tried to influence testimony from witnesses about the extent to which they lobbied in the United States on behalf of their Ukrainian clients.
They are accused of continuing to hide evidence of their actions through 2017, and hiding that evidence from the Department of Justice and the Department of the Treasury is itself a crime, "Conspiracy against the United States." This is one of the charges to which Rick Gates pled guilty in return for his cooperation.
Crimes which could potentially be charged in the future:
The grand jury which indicted Flynn, Manafort, Gates, and Papadopoulous is still investigating related matters.
Given the charges which have already been filed, it seems very possible that other members of the Trump campaign may also be charged with "Conspiracy against the United States" if it can be shown that they interfered with a lawful government function by deceit or dishonest means - in other words, if there is evidence of a cover-up. Likewise, other members of the campaign (including possibly Trump himself) may eventually be charged with money laundering or acting as unregistered agents of foreign governments or illegal lobbying. Federal prosecutors in New York have been investigating Michael Cohen for bank fraud, campaign-finance violations, failing to register as a foreign agent, and failing to file as a lobbyist. The public knows only enough to suggest that a thorough investigation is needed, on these matters.
But also, there are several specific actions we know about which could be found to have violated the law, but have not yet resulted in subpoenas or indictments.
Security violations and lying to investigators: Lying on security clearance forms, as Jeff Sessions and Jared Kushner appear to have done, is against the law, and so is lying under oath, as Jeff Sessions is accused of doing in his confirmation hearing. In all of these cases, the apparent lies concerned whether the individuals in question had contact with Russian officials. We say they "appear to" have lied because, while we know the statements they made were false, making false statements is only a "lie" and illegal in these contexts if they knew that the statements were false. This is the part a court will need to decide. Jared Kushner's attempts to set up a covert communications channel to Moscow through the Russian embassy may violate laws against espionage.
Potential violations of election law: The meeting of Donald Trump, Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manfort with a Russian operative offering them information helpful to their campaign may be in violation of laws against conspiracy to commit election fraud, among others. In fact, if any American assisted a foreign campaign to influence American elections, that would violate election laws. The FBI and FEC are reportedly investigating whether Russian nationals donated money to the National Rifle Association or to conservative PACs to help Donald Trump win the presidency -- this would be a violation of campaign finance laws.
Fraud and corruption: Another possible charge might be conspiracy to violate the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. If Trump associates worked with Russian hackers to break into the Democratic National Committee servers or the emails of Hillary Clinton's campaign chairman, John Podesta, that would violate the law. Or they might be an accessory after the fact.
There is one more possible charge which relates to Trump and his associates' behavior in regard to those investigations, rather than any possible role in Russian illegal activities. It is possible that Trump or some of his aides may eventually be charged with "Obstruction of Justice" for attempting to interfere with those investigations, even if they are not charged with any of the underlying crimes mentioned above. We discuss the evidence for that possible charge in its own section, below.
Is there evidence that Trump obstructed justice?
Trump firing FBI Director James Comey would be illegal obstruction of justice, if he did so with the intention of interfering with an investigation. Whether Trump is formally accused of obstruction will depend on whether investigators can find evidence of what his intentions were. Both the Special Counsel and the Senate Judiciary Committee are currently investigating this possibility.
But the public has seen quite a bit of evidence already which reveals some of Trump's attitude toward the investigations into his relationship to Russia's activities. For instance, Trump admitted in an interview on NBC that frustration with the Russia probe was part of his motivation for the firing. He also told the Russian ambassador and foreign minister that "I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off" after firing Comey. And his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, said on Fox News that Trump "fired Comey because Comey would not, among other things, say that he wasn’t a target of the investigation.”
Trump might say that he was frustrated because he genuinely believed there was no crime to investigate. But he later indicated on Twitter that he knew Flynn was probably guilty of a federal crime when he said to Comey "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go". This would seem to show that he didn't believe the investigations as they related to Flynn were meritless.
The law applies to the president as much as to any American. This means that the president may not use the power of his office to interfere with a criminal investigation of his own actions - such interference is what is meant by "obstruction." The role of the Attorney General and the Justice Department is to enforce the laws, not to protect the president from law enforcement. However, Trump instructed the White House’s top lawyer to stop Jeff Sessions from recusing himself, and reportedly said he had expected Sessions to safeguard him. He later tried to intervene directly with Sessions: "Mr. Trump, who had told aides that he needed a loyalist overseeing the inquiry, berated Mr. Sessions and told him he should reverse his decision" to recuse himself according to the New York Times. This request was repeated.
Trump-appointed Director of National Intelligence, Dan Coates, and several Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee report that he told them he hoped their investigations would be over quickly. He asked the NSA director he appointed, Mike Rogers, to push back on public reports about the FBI investigation, and made the same request of James Comey, according to former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus. These requests to push back further suggests that he felt "pressure" from the investigations or the reporting about them, which would be a strong indication that he had motive to fire Comey in an attempt to end them.
A draft letter stating different motivations for the firing of Comey than the eventual written documentation is in the possession of the Special Counsel. This suggests that the firing may have been motivated by reasoning different than what was given publicly at the time.
And Trump reportedly dictated Donald Trump Jr's misleading statement, in response to the revelation about the meeting Donald Trump Jr. attended with representatives of Russian government interests. The fact that the account he gave was less than full and complete indicates that he was not fully cooperating with the investigation.
In addition to firing James Comey, Trump fired US Attorney Preet Bharara and Acting Attorney General Sally Yates. Both Yates and Bharara were involved in the Russia investigation, and Yates was fired shorty after she informed the White House that Flynn had lied to the vice president about the same phone call about which he lied to the FBI. Trump then personally interviewed candidates to replace Bharara, which would not normally be the president's role.
Trump also appears to have deliberately tried to discredit three FBI officials in particular: Andrew McCabe, Jim Rybicki, and James Baker. Those same three officials were identified by Comey in his congressional testimony as possible corroborating witnesses for his account of the events leading up to his firing. McCabe wrote a memo recording his conversation with the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein shortly after the firing. According to that memo, Rosenstein "said the president had originally asked him to reference Russia" in the document Trump used to justify the firing of Comey. McCabe himself was later fired, and said in a statement at the time, "I am being singled out and treated this way because of the role I played, the actions I took, and the events I witnessed in the aftermath of the firing of James Comey. The release of this report [leading to his firing] was accelerated only after my testimony to the House Intelligence Committee revealed that I would corroborate former Director Comey’s accounts of his discussions with the President." Baker and Rybicki have also left the FBI.
Finally, Trump apparently ordered the White House Counsel to fire Special Counsel Robert Mueller after he took over the investigation when FBI director James Comey was fired. Trump withdrew the order only after he was told that the White House Counsel would resign rather than carry it out. This seems to indicate that it was the investigation itself which bothered Trump, rather than the personal qualities or behavior of James Comey.
All of this could constitute evidence of intent to obstruct justice.
Is Russia planning to interfere in future elections?
There has already been one report of what the Associated Press describes as "a clutch of suspicious-looking websites dressed up to look like the U.S. Senate’s internal email system" associated with one of the same groups which hacked the servers of the Democratic National Committee.
The same report says that the Japanese security researchers who discovered those sites, according to AP, "used an identical technique to uncover a set of decoy websites apparently set up to harvest emails from the French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron’s campaign in April 2017. The sites’ discovery was followed two months later by a still-unexplained publication of private emails from several Macron staffers in the final days of the race."
Macron said:“During the campaign, Russia Today and Sputnik were agents of influence which on several occasions spread fake news about me personally and my campaign. [...] They behaved like organs of influence, of propaganda and of lying propaganda."
In May of 2018, a website called usareally.com appeared on the internet. According to cybersecurity researchers, "the website’s operators once worked out of the same office building in St. Petersburg, Russia, where the Kremlin-linked Internet Research Agency had its headquarters" and the site "carries content designed to foment racial division, harden feelings over immigration, gun control and police brutality, and undermine social cohesion."
Russian hackers have previously targeted Germany, breaking into German government computer systems and targeting memers of Angela Merkel's party in 2015 and 2016. Some of the same social media accounts that supported Trump also later attacked Angela Merkel.
Other countries across Western Europe are responding to cyberthreats, and eastern countries like Finland and Lithuania are subject to disinformation campaigns which are designed to undermine support there for resistance to Russian military conquests in the region.
In particular Russia has a pattern of targeting propaganda at military personnel, in Eastern European countries. As mentioned above, they now seem to be targeting American military personnel.
In the US, as recently as March, 2017, experts "observed possibly fake social media accounts discrediting Speaker of the House Paul Ryan [...] as the health care bill collapsed." And earlier that year accounts associated with the IRA lobbied against the nomination of Mitt Romney for Secretary of State.
There are likely non-electoral cyber attacks still to come as well. The Wall Street Journal reported that a Russian computer virus called "Crashoverride" in 2016 "took out electricity in Ukraine’s capital last year and could be repurposed to target U.S. systems." In 2014, the US government reported that the same hackers had targeted the networks of American power and water utilities, and in 2018 DHS reported that they had the ability to shut down some power systems. The ability of the US to respond to threats of this kind may be somewhat degraded since Russian hackers exploited a widely-used anti-virus program to steal many of the National Security Agency's cyber defense tools.
Disinformation, propaganda, and cyberwarfare are going to be threats to democratic governments around the world for the forseeable future.