Even after the release of the redacted Mueller Report, many people have questions about the role of Russia in the 2016 elections in the US. In particular, the interactions Russian individuals had with Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, George Papadopoulos, and Michael Cohen which led to their indictments and guilty pleas are still subjects of debate. The indictments of Roger Stone, agents of Russia's GRU and thirteen Russians working for the "Internet Research Agency" are “ongoing matters” about which information was redacted in the report, but on which public reporting still sheds light. There is so much news and discussion, those answers can be hard to find. The mission of this page is to make it easier. The links below are consistent with the information in the Mueller report and offer additional details.
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.
Putin himself was asked at a press conference if he wanted Trump to win. He said, "Yes, I did, because he was the one who wanted to normalize relations with Russia.”
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." These conclusions were confirmed by the (Republican led) Senate Intelligence Committee in 2018.
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 lift sanctions on Russia including especially the Magnitsky Act, and accept Russia's terms for ending the war in Syria. He had reason to hope for an American-brokered pro-Russia "peace plan" for Ukraine. Additional Russian foreign policy goals he might have hoped to advance include reducing American support for NATO, distancing the US from European allies, preventing environmental accords from hurting Russian oil and gas exports, and breaking up any trade deals and treaties which disadvantage Russia.
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. (Russia reportedly also hacked the RNC, but did not release any material they accessed.) Russia also worked to obtain financial records which could be used against US political figures.
Hackers apparently based in Russia also targeted election systems in at least 21 states. Later reports put the number at 39, and a 2019 joint intelligence bulletin stated that based on newer information, “the FBI and DHS assess that Russian government cyber actors probably conducted research and reconnaissance against all US states’ election networks leading up to the 2016 Presidential elections." 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, Illinois, and Florida. The NBC story reports that only Illinois was aware of the breaches through its own investigations. The Mueller report said that Russian hacking operations “enabled the G.R.U. to gain access to the network of at least one Florida county government,” and Florida Senator Marco Rubio confirmed that the hackers “were ‘in a position’ to change voter roll data.” 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 different protests (including armed protests), sold merchandise, paid for activists' travel, and attempted to incite violence. They campaigned for African American voters to boycott elections or follow the wrong voting procedures.
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 offered "free counseling to people with sexual addiction." Anyone who accepted that offer would be giving Russian operatives material for blackmail.
The trolls 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." Other accounts pretended to be local news sources for other American cities. Russian accounts re-tweeted Donald Trump's Twitter account 470,000 times. The FBI and FEC are investigating the possibility that Russians funneled money to the National Rifle Association to support its political activities (which were closely linked to those of the Trump campaign). 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.”
The indictment of Elena Alekseevna Khusyaynova revealed the kinds of instructions the Russian “trolls” received from their managers, including: “"Brand McCain as an old geezer who has lost it and who long ago belonged in a home for the elderly,” "expose Marco Rubio as a fake conservative who is a traitor to Republican values," and calling Paul Ryan a “complete and absolute nobody incapable of any decisiveness.” As they criticized these Republican figures, the Russians also praised some politicians on the American left, promoting both Jill Stein and Bernie Sanders as alternatives to Hillary Clinton. In terms of policy the trolls were instructed to echo Trump campaign talking points: "Characterize the position of Californian sanctuary cities along with the position of the entire California administration as absolutely and completely treacherous and disgusting," and "Emphasize that all illegal voters must be kept away from the ballot boxes at distances 'beyond artillery firing range.' ... Remind that the majority of the 'blue states' have no VOTER IDs, which suggests that large-scale falsifications are bound to be happening there."
To further these goals, at the height of the campaign the Internet Research Agency had a budget of $1.25 million per month. It was part of a larger effort known as “Project Lakhta” whose budget between January 2016 and June 2018 was allegedly $35 million (covering activities directed at the US, Russia, the European Union, and Ukraine.) According to the indictment of the Internet Research Agency, 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 has been convicted of selling them some bank account information. (Pinedo said that he's been threatened since pleading guilty: "I've been told that if I ever leave the country, the Russians will poison me.”)
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?
Evidence for this conclusion is disclosed in the indictment of 11 Russian GRU agents for hacking into and disseminating information from American political campaigns. The indictment includes not only the names of the agents, but details of the software they used, the fake accounts they set up and bitcoin transactions they used to pay for hosting, times and dates of file transfers, and even search terms the conspirators looked up in preparing to release documents and attempting to hack unfamiliar systems.
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.
British intelligence agencies also intercepted traffic controlled by Russian agencies, around Easter of 2016. They noticed that it appeared to have originated in the computer servers of the Democratic National Committee, and warned the NSA.
In 2018, the Daily Beast reported that the self-proclaimed hacker "Guccifer 2.0" had used a Moscow 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 has 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."
Other targets of the attacks (including some associated with the Republican Party, like Marco Rubio, and Lindsey Graham) 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 suggested that about 4 percent of President Barack Obama's 2012 supporters were dissuaded from voting for Clinton in 2016 by belief in fake news stories. 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 access to analytics data from hacking the DNC servers. According to Senate Intelligence Committee testimony, “they 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." Facebook has confirmed that some of the advertising purchased by Russian accounts targeted voters in Michigan and Wisconsin. There is some evidence indicating that Facebook can influence behavior by changing what users perceive as normal among their peers.
Researcher Kathleen Hall Jamieson has found that, apart from the activity on social media, the release of hacked e-mails also influenced conventional media coverage and even the questions asked at presidential debates. And a fake document was planted by Russian intelligence which purported to show that Attorney General Loretta Lynch had made compromising statements about the investigation into Clinton’s use of a personal email account. Fear of this fake document leaking and being believed is part of what led FBI Director James Comey to make announcements about the status of that investigation without Lynch’s authorization. The dramatic effect of those announcements on pre-election polls is thus also in part an indirect effect of Russian interference.
Is there any evidence that Trump or his campaign colluded with Russia?
Yes. “Collusion” is not a legally defined term, but in the sense that the campaign was cooperating with Russian individuals and had non-public knowledge of Russian government activities, there was “collusion.” The Mueller Report documented the following facts (quoted from an article at The Moscow Project which includes page numbers and screenshots of the relevant parts of the report.)
Trump knew about Russia’s interference and asked Manafort to keep him “updated” on WikiLeaks.
Trump’s campaign chairman discussed the campaign’s strategy for winning Democratic votes in midwestern states and continuously shared polling data with a Russian intelligence agent.
The Trump Campaign developed a whole campaign plan based on their knowledge that more WikiLeaks releases were coming.
Rick Gates, who served as the Deputy Chairman of the Trump Campaign, believed that Konstantin Kalimnik was a “spy,” but the campaign continued to work with him.
Russian intelligence gave Roger Stone the Democrats’ turnout model for the “entire presidential campaign.”
Trump directed his campaign to get Clinton emails in an effort that included outreach to Russia.
The campaign made extensive use of hacked materials in 2016, and will not say if it would use hacked materials in the 2020 campaign.
Additional public evidence (which is further discussed in the Mueller report) can be arranged into categories relating to specific people, which we lay out below.
1.) Papadopoulos: George Papadopoulos admitted in his guilty plea that his Russian-government-connected contact "told defendant Papadopoulos about the 'thousands of emails'" Russia had hacked from the Clinton campaign "on or about April 26, 2016, when defendant Papadopoulos had been a foreign policy adviser to the Campaign for over a month." According to indictments by the Special Counsel's office, Russian military intelligence was still accessing data from the DNC servers when Papadopoulos was approached, and no hacked emails would be leaked publicly until two months later.
2.) Sater: In 2015, a Trump associate named Felix Sater wrote an e-mail to Trump's lawyer 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."
3.) Cohen. Michael Cohen pled guilty to lying to Congress about a Trump Organization real estate project in Moscow, for which Cohen was trying to get financing during the campaign, with the knowledge of Donald Trump. He and Felix Sater planned to give a $50 million penthouse in the building to Vladimir Putin when it was complete. The project was never developed, however, a shell company set up by Michael Cohen received payments of more than $1 million from an investment firm in New York connected to Viktor Vekselberg, a Russian oligarch.
4.) Manafort: Paul Manafort had to resign as campaign manager when it was revealed he was getting cash payments from a pro-Putin party in Ukraine. He shared presidential campaign polling data with a contact connected to Russian intelligence and asked that it be passed on to two financiers of that pro-Putin party. He sought approval of his work for Trump from a Russian oligarch and offered that same Russian oligarch briefings on the Presidential campaign. And Manafort attended the Trump Tower meeting with Donald Trump Jr.
5.) Donald Trump Jr: Donald Trump Jr. accepted a meeting he was told was "part of Russia and its government's support" for his father. Then kept quiet for a year about what was discussed and who else was there, even as his Russian contacts followed up on their discussions.
6.) Flynn: Russian hackers discussed how to send hacked emails to Michael Flynn. Flynn’s associate Peter Smith had been looking to buy any emails hackers may have obtained from Hillary Clinton. Flynn himself was paid $67,000 by Russians during the campaign and attended a public dinner event with Vladimir Putin. During the presidential transition and while serving as National Security Adviser, Flynn backed a U.S.-Russian plan to build nuclear reactors across the Middle East. Flynn remained in office for 18 days even after the White House was warned that Flynn could be blackmailed by Russia because they could threaten to expose his lies (acknowledged in his guilty plea) about what he discussed with them during the transition.
7.) Stone: According to his indictment by the Special Counsel: “After the July 22, 2016 release of stolen DNC emails by [WikiLeaks], [Steve Bannon] was directed to contact [Roger] Stone about any additional releases and what other damaging information [WikiLeaks] had regarding the Clinton Campaign. Stone thereafter told the Trump Campaign about potential future releases of damaging material by [WikiLeaks].” Stone knew about some of these future releases because of an email he received from someone who was in touch with Julian Assange. In addition, Stone appears to have been in direct contact with WikiLeaks/Julian Assange himself. According to Michael Cohen, Stone called Trump to say there would be a "massive dump" of emails within a couple of days that would embarrass the Clinton campaign. Cohen said Mr Trump responded along the lines of "wouldn't that be great." Stone also admits he was in contact with Guccifer2.0 (who was a Russian agent). Finally, Stone also received stolen DCCC data from Guccifer2.0 through a Republican operative named Andrew Nevins.
8.) Nix and Bannon: While Cambridge Analytica served as closely linked consultants to the Trump campaign, their CEO Alexander Nix offered to help WikiLeaks sort through the emails taken by Russian hackers from the DNC servers. Cambridge Analytica had previously been led by Steve Bannon, and had direct links to Russia. It "used Russian researchers to gather its data, (and) openly shared information" with entities linked to the Russian intelligence agency FSB. At the same time, it “tested US voter opinion on Putin’s leadership, and hired hackers from Russia.“ In 2014 under Bannon, Cambridge Analytica harvested Facebook data from at least 87 million users and left sensitive voter-targeting algorithms unprotected online, where it could be accessed by anyone including foreign agents. Nix was caught on video offering services exploiting bribes, ex-spies, fake IDs and sex workers to influence political campaigns.
9.) 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 -- and the others included Russians as well. As information contradicting his testimony has come out, it now appears that Prince lied to Congress about the nature of those meetings.
10.) Sessions: Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak reported to his superiors that he was discussing substantive policy issues with Jeff Sessions in April, 2016. The two met again at the Republican National convention, where the Trump campaign successfully pushed to modify the party's platform, to remove language about arming Ukrainians.
11.) Butina: A Russian graduate student named Maria Butina has been arrested and charged with conspiracy to "infiltrate organizations active in U.S. politics in an effort to advance the interests of the Russian Federation.” Butina was taking orders from a Russian official named Alexander Torshin. At an National Rifle Association convention in Kentucky in May 2016, Torshin spoke to Donald Trump Jr. (The FBI reportedly has obtained wiretaps of the discussions leading up that meeting.) Torshin claims to have met with the future president himself in 2015 in Nashville. And at a speech in July 2015, Trump took a question from Maria Butina from stage, telling her the U.S. would not need sanctions on Russia when he was president.
Further information about each person on this list can be found at our "Details" page.
Other relevant evidence:
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 101 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. Viktor Vekselberg (who routed $1 million to Michael Cohen) and Natalia Veselnitskaya (who met with Donald Trump Jr at Trump Tower) attended Trump's inauguration, while wealthy Russian donors attended private parties with the president afterward. Manafort associate Sam Patten confessed to helping a Ukrainian oligarch illegally donate to the inaugural fund and attending the inauguration with him.
Counting Guccifer 2.0, Evgeny Shmykov (who was Felix Sater's contact in the Russian finance industry), Rinat Akhmetshin, 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. Since taking office, Trump has spoken privately with Putin himself on multiple occasions with no American witnesses or readout of their conversation. It happened happened at the Helsinki summit, the outcomes of which were widely seen as showing deference by the US president to the Russian President.
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." The White House has refused to endorse legislation which would increase election security.
Is there evidence that Trump or his campaign did anything illegal, related to the Russian activities?
Yes. The following six members of the Trump campaign have been convicted or indicted in court of crimes relating to Russia.
Senior Campaign Foreign Policy Advisor George Papadopoulos
Former US National Security Advisor for the Trump administration Michael Flynn
Deputy Campaign Manager Rick Gates
Campaign Chairman Paul Manafort
Donald Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen.
Campaign Advisor Roger Stone
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).
Michael Flynn, like Papadopoulos, 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.
The "conspiracy against the United States" charge to which Rick Gates pled guilty involved hiding money from Putin crony Viktor Yanukovych. He also pled guilty 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 money Manafort was convicted of hiding from the IRS also came in part from Viktor Yanukovych as well as Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska and from figures associated with Russian organized crime. Manafort was convicted on five counts of tax fraud, two counts of bank fraud, and one count of hiding foreign bank accounts. In addition he pled guilty to one count of conspiracy against the United States (related to his foreign lobbying work), and one count of conspiracy to obstruct justice (related to attempted witness tampering). Other charges were dropped subject to his full cooperation with the special counsel investigation.
Two of Manafort's associates have also been indicted: Sam Patten and Konstantin Killimnik. Patten has pled guilty to acting as an unregistered foreign agent, and Killimnik faces charges of witness tampering. In Patten’s guilty plea he acknowledged helping a foreign national donate to the Trump Inaugural Committee. According to the Wall Street Journal: a “criminal probe by the Manhattan U.S. attorney’s office, which is in its early stages, also is examining whether some of the committee’s top donors gave money in exchange for access to the incoming Trump administration, policy concessions or to influence official administration positions […] Giving money in exchange for political favors could run afoul of federal corruption laws. Diverting funds from the organization, which was registered as a nonprofit, could also violate federal law.” The attorneys general of New Jersey and Washington DC have also issued subpoenas to the Inaugural Committee.
Michael Cohen pled guilty to lying to Congress about a Trump Organization real estate project in Moscow that Cohen was trying to develop during the 2016 presidential campaign. (In accordance with the wishes of President Trump). According to documents filed with his guilty plea, “The Moscow Project was discussed multiple times within the Company and did not end in January 2016” and “Cohen agreed to travel to Russia in connection with the Moscow Project and took steps in contemplation of Individual 1's [Donald Trump] possible travel to Russia.” He also pled guilty to campaign finance violations involving a illegal payments from a company he formed. This illegal activity was directed by Donald Trump. It relates to the Russia investigation in that the same company later received a million dollars indirectly from Russian oligarch Victor Vekselberg. Cohen has cooperated with the Russia investigation. He has been sentenced to 3 years in prison.
Roger Stone has been indicted for lying to Congress about his communications with Julian Assange and WikiLeaks (and with intermediaries who were in contact with them) about the emails that organization had received from Russian hackers. He is also accused of witness tampering and obstruction of congress relating to his refusal to turn over evidence of these communications (or admit that it existed) and witness tampering, relating to his attempts to convince other witnesses to give false testimony matching his own.
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 servers, 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, which is now entering the discovery phase. Subpoenas have been served.
Crimes of “collusion” which could potentially be charged in the future:
The Brookings Institution has issued a report which describing the US laws which would likely have been violated by any acts of collusion with Russian “Active Measures.” The Mueller report concluded that the incidents it discussed did not constitute violations of these laws due to a lack of criminal intent on the part of the participants. However, the report also mentions that it found evidence of crimes outside the jurisdiction of the special counsel, and issued a total of 14 referrals to other law enforcement organizations for further investigations which could potentially lead to prosecutions. There has been public reporting on only two of those referrals.
Relatedly, the FBI and FEC are reportedly investigating whether Russian nationals donated money to the National Rifle Association or to conservative PACs. The NRA and the Trump campaign had messaging and media strategies which may have been illegally coordinated even if no Russian money was involved.
There are several more categories of crimes which are indirectly related.
Other crimes which could potentially be charged in the future:
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, and as numerous other people connected to the Trump campaign may have done in other congressional hearings. In all of these cases, the apparent lies concerned contacts individuals in question had with Russian officials or with WikiLeaks. 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.
Other members of the campaign (including possibly President Trump himself) may, like Gates and Manafort, eventually be charged with money laundering, tax fraud, or other types of fraud, or acting as unregistered agents of foreign governments or illegal lobbying. The public knows only enough to suggest that a thorough investigation is needed, on these matters. Likewise, we do not yet have enough information to know whether the reported intention to offer a $50 million property in the planned Trump Tower Moscow to Vladimir Putin was a violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (which bans bribes to foreign officials) but it certainly could be, and warrants investigation.
Plans by Michael Flynn, Jared Kushner, and Steve Bannon to transfer nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia and other middle eastern countries, with the involvement of a Russian company currently under U.S. sanctions to manufacture nuclear equipment, may violate the Atomic Energy Act, which requires that Congress approve any transfer of nuclear technology to a foreign country. A House Oversight Committee report states that a senior director at the National Security Council (NSC), Derek Harvey, "reportedly ignored ... warnings and insisted that the decision to transfer nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia had already been made."
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. The Mueller report lays out detailed evidence on the subject of Obstruction of Justice. We discuss the evidence for that possible charge in its own section, below.
Is there evidence that Trump obstructed justice?
The second volume of the Mueller report discusses much of the evidence which is presented below in detail, and with analysis of the ways in which the laws about obstruction of justice apply to these facts. The Special Counsel “determined not to apply an approach that could potentially result in a judgment that the President committed crimes” because “The Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) has issued an opinion finding that ‘the indictment or criminal prosecution of a sitting President would impermissibly undermine the capacity of the executive branch to perform its constitutionally assigned functions" in violation of "the constitutional separation of powers.’“ There are ethical and legal reasons for prosecutors to avoid directly accusing someone of a crime for which they cannot be indicted or tried. However, prosecutors in the office of the special counsel did tell associates in private that they “had sufficient evidence to seek criminal charges against President Donald Trump for obstruction of justice […] had it not been for the unique nature of the case.”
In addition, over 800 former DOJ prosecutors have signed an open letter stating that “the conduct of President Trump described in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report would, in the case of any other person not covered by the Office of Legal Counsel policy against indicting a sitting President, result in multiple felony charges for obstruction of justice. “
The obstruction investigation arose from a public act: Trump firing FBI Director James Comey would be illegal obstruction of justice, if he did so with the intention of interfering with an investigation.
Even before the Mueller report, the public had seen quite a bit of evidence which revealed 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.” (This resulted in a special counsel investigation covering not only the possibility of obstruction of justice, but also a counterintelligence investigation into the possibility that the president was wittingly or unwittingly serving Russian interests.)
A confidential White House memorandum explicitly states that when Trump pressured Comey to go easy on Michael Flynn, he had just been told by two of his top aides that Flynn was under criminal 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 Coats, 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.
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. The Prevezon money laundering case which Preet Bharara had been pursuing (against clients represented by the Russian lawyer who met with the Trump campaign) was abruptly settled. 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.
Other people linked to the Russia investigation have been threatened with the removal of their security clearances. He has publicly considered offering pardons to people who might otherwise testify against him in return for immunity.
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.
More recently, the firing of Jeff Sessions (who was recused from overseeing the Russia investigation) and attempt to appoint Matt Whitaker as acting attorney general may also constitute obstruction, if Whitaker was expected to report information about the activities of the Mueller probe to Trump, or use his authority to interfere with indictments or plea deals of Trump associates, or attempt to defund the investigation to prevent it from uncovering illegal activities.
Separately from firing people, one can interfere with an investigation by lying to investigators. President Trump reportedly told special counsel Robert Mueller that to the best of his recollection Roger Stone did not tell him about WikiLeaks, nor was he told about the 2016 Trump Tower meeting between his son, campaign officials and a Russian lawyer promising dirt on Hillary Clinton. This is contradicted by Michael Cohen’s testimony to the House Oversight Committee. If these reports and Cohen’s testimony are accurate, then Trump may be guilty of perjury, which is another form of obstruction of justice.
Moreover, Michael Cohen has testified that he lied to Congress in accordance with President Trump’s wishes. ”"At the same time I was actively negotiating in Russia for him," Cohen testified, "he would look me in the eye and tell me there's no business in Russia and then go out and lie to the American people by saying the same thing. In his way, he was telling me to lie. He wanted me to lie.” Cohen apologized for his false statements to Congress, which he claimed were "reviewed and edited" by Mr Trump's lawyers. .Persuading a person to commit perjury is obstruction of justice. An attorney who said he was speaking with President Donald Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani reassured Michael Cohen in an April 2018 email that Cohen could "sleep well tonight" because he had "friends in high places.”
Furthermore, Trump's lawyers have acknowledged that he 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. Though this statement was not given under oath, the fact that the account he gave was less than full and complete indicates that he was not fully cooperating with the investigation, which is more evidence establishing the “corrupt intent” which is required for obstruction of justice.
Is there any connection between "Active Measures" in the UK and the US?
Yes. One of Russia's key goals is breaking up the European Union. Russia used Twitter bots as a part of a social media influence campaign to sway the Brexit vote, just as they did in the 2016 US presidential election.
Cambridge Analytica (which appropriated Facebook account details from some 87 million users without their permission in 2014) also played role in both the 2016 presidential election in the US and the campaign for a British exit from the European Union, "Brexit." Cambridge Analytica boasted of having “vast amounts of data” to support the "Brexit" campaign. The role of Cambridge Analytica in the 2016 US elections and its links to Russia are described in the "evidence of collusion" section above, and on the “Details” page at greater length.
E-mails, dating October of 2015, show that Steve Bannon, who was then the vice-president of Cambridge Analytica and would later become Donald Trump’s campaign manager, was “in the loop on discussions taking place at the time between his company and the leaders of Leave.EU” which was campaigning for the UK to leave the European Union. Leave.EU appears to have been enlisting Cambridge Analytica for help in soliciting donations from Americans, which is against UK law.
Two British political operatives who were prominent in the "Leave" campaign and their associates met at least 11 times with the Russian embassy in London. One of them, Arron Banks, was in contact with Cambridge Analytica and was offered investment opportunities by Russia. He now faces a criminal inquiry. Around the same time that they were meeting with the Russian ambassador, Banks and his associate 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, Nigel Farage, 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 had been illegally funneled to Cambridge Analytica. A draft report from the UK Electoral Commission concludes that this violated UK law. Two people associated with this transaction have been referred to police, with one of them also fined £20,000 by the Electoral Commission. The "Leave.EU" group fronted by Nigel Farage was fined £70,000 for overspending which included payments to a US-based campaign strategy firm, and funding from unreported loans from Arron Banks.
Is Russia planning to interfere in future elections?
Experts say yes. In fact it appears they already are. “We recognize that our adversaries are going to keep adapting and upping their game,” Christopher A. Wray, the F.B.I. director appointed by Trump, has said. “So we are very much viewing 2018 as just kind of a dress rehearsal for the big show in 2020.”
Social media and propaganda
In the US, as early March, 2017, observers saw "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.
A Justice Department indictment states that between January and June of 2018, the same Russian group which was responsible for social media propaganda in 2016 spent roughly $60,000 for Facebook ads, $6,000 for Instagram ads, and $18,000 for bloggers and Twitter accounts. Some examples of those 2018 ads were displayed in the indictment.
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." In June of 2018, Russian bots and trolls targeted Democratic voters on Twitter with the hashtag "#WalkAway" Similar coordinated influence campaign efforts have been detected by Facebook and removed from that platform. (Some Russian accounts detected by Facebook did not target Americans.) Between Sept 2018 and Feb 2019, three online video channels designed to appeal to millennials collected tens of millions of views on Facebook. The pages pushing the videos did not disclose that they were backed by the Russian government. Most Twitter accounts linked to 2016 disinformation were still active in late 2018.
Twitter and Facebook say that they removed thousands of accounts tied to various foreign governments that sought to spread disinformation in the run-up to the 2018 midterm elections, but investigators say that “in virtually every U.S. state, more than a fifth of those posting about the elections on Twitter in the weeks before Election Day were robots” whose origin often couldn’t be determined. A Politico review of social media data in early 2019 found a “coordinated barrage” of attacks on Sens. Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke.
U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed that both Russia and China plan to interfere in the 2020 presidential election. As of early 2019, some Russia-linked media and social media had started weighing in on 2020 US presidential contenders. The New York Times reported that “Some intelligence officials believe Russia intends to raise questions in the aftermath of future elections about irregularities or purported fraud to undermine faith in the result. During the midterm elections, Cyber Command conducted an operation to temporarily take offline the most prominent Russian troll farm to keep its operatives from mounting a disinformation operation during voting or vote counting.”
Most states have not taken all recommended measures to protect voting systems. Sources say that county voter registration systems in Florida were penetrated in 2018, though the scale of the attacks appears limited compared to 2016.
Hans Kierstead and David Min, who were candidates in California's 2018 Democratic primaries, both reported that campaign computer systems had been hacked. Emails being stored on a cloud service for the National Republican Campaign Committee were accessed by an intruder believed to be a “foreign operator.”
These attacks have not been definitely linked to Russia. However, the Democratic National Committee does attribute to Russia an unsuccessful attempt to hack Into its computer network days after the 2018 midterms.
A Microsoft executive has said the same Russian intelligence agency charged with hacking Democrats’ emails in 2016 targeted at least two or three candidates running for election in 2018, including Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill. Microsoft has also said that it detected and seized websites linked to the G.R.U. which were meant to look like they belonged to conservative American think tanks that have broken with President Trump on policy toward Russia. Some 29 million Facebook accounts were accessed by unknown hackers in September, 2018.
There has also been a 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.
Other countries’ elections
The same report says that the Japanese security researchers who discovered those sites “dressed up to look like the U.S. Senate’s internal email system", 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."
Russian hackers have 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. In 2018, unknown hackers published personal data including mobile numbers and addresses of politicians (belonging to every Germany political party except the anti-immigrant party AfD) as well as personal data such as credit-card details, bills and even chats with family members. Russian hackers targeted European government systems with spear phishing attacks ahead of the 2019 EU parliament elections.
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.
There are likely non-electoral “cyber“ attacks still to come as well. There is some evidence that protests in France and refugee movements in Honduras have been partly manipulated by hackers and trolls. In Nov 2018, Attackers suspected of working for the Russian government masqueraded as a US State Department official in an attempt to infect dozens of organizations in government, military, defense contracting, media, and other industries, according to security researchers.
The Wall Street Journal reported that a Russian computer virus called "Crashoverride" in 2016 "took out electricity in Ukraine’s capital […] 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. These kinds of attacks exist at the border of cyberspace and physical space: they are caused by hacking but have physical consequences. Similarly there is a great deal of evidence that Russia was plotting cyber sabotage of a Swiss defense laboratory which was analyzing the nerve agent used to physically poison a former Russian agent in Britain. (For other apparent attacks, the mechanism still is not fully understood.)
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.
Since hacking, disinformation, and influence campaign techniques have proved successful, it is unlikely Russia will be the only country to use them, going forward. Disinformation, propaganda, and cyberwarfare are going to be threats to democratic governments around the world for the forseeable future.