The rest of this site exists to lay out the facts. This page exists to attempt to explain them. It will be up to the courts to determine if the explanations offered here are correct.
First, we review some of the most important facts that need to be explained...
1.) Papadopoulos: George Papadopoulos admitted in his guilty plea that his Russian contact "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."
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. A shell company set up by Michael Cohen received payments in 2017 of about $500,000 from Columbus Nova, an investment firm in New York whose biggest client is a company controlled by Viktor Vekselberg, a Russian oligarch. And Fox News reports that Cohen wrote to Putin's press secretary requesting assistance with a real estate deal. He was also involved in delivering a very pro-Russia "peace plan" for Ukraine and has business relationships in Ukraine. Finally, according to McClatchy he "secretly made a late-summer trip to Prague during the 2016 presidential campaign" -- which he had denied doing when he was alleged to have met a Russian contact there.
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 sought approval of his work for Trump from a Russian oligarch. He was later indicted.
5.) 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 Flynn, who was paid $67,000 during the campaign and attended a public dinner event with Vladimir Putin. 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 about what he discussed with them during the transition, until the story became public.
7.) Stone: Roger Stone admits he was in contact with Guccifer2.0 (who was a Russian agent) and WikiLeaks/Julian Assange. He knew about upcoming releases of stolen documents. He received stolen DCCC data from Guccifer2.0 through a Republican operative named Andrew Nevins.
8.) Nix and Bannon: While Cambridge Analytica served as consultants working for the Trump campaign and (closely linked to it) 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. Nix was caught on video offering services exploiting bribes, ex-spies, fake IDs and sex workers to influence political campaigns.
9.) Prince: Erik Prince attended a series of meetings in the Sechelles islands, including at least one with a Putin linked financier. Some of the same parties attended a meeting Prince arranged in Trump Tower with Donald Trump Jr. 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 51 contacts when e-mail exchanges and phone calls are included as well.
10.) Sessions: Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak reported to his superiors that he was discussing substantive policy issues with Jeff Sessions in April, 2016. The Trump campaign successfully pushed to modify the party's platform, to remove language about arming Ukrainians.
And in light of those facts, a plausible worst case scenario...
The Trump campaign could have implicitly or explicitly promised Putin that Trump would:
1) Turn his back on NATO and withhold aid from Ukraine
2) Distance the US from European allies, especially German Chancellor Angela Merkel
3) Take the United States out of the Paris accord (Russia is a major oil and gas exporter)
4) Withdraw from trade deals which disadvantage Russia
5) Weaken the US government by fostering political division within the US
6) End the economic sanctions on Russia
Putin could have promised in return to help him win the presidency and help him financially by:
1) Hacking into Democratic Party servers and leaking the results
2) Sending millions of fake news stories about Hillary Clinton to targeted voters
3) Tapping into voter registration databases
4) Helping clear the way to build a Trump Tower in Moscow as well as financing other projects
5) Helping Trump repay his debts to foreign banks
6) Not revealing any incriminating information he may have had on Trump
It would seem likely that, in this scenario the policy concessions were negotiated by Sessions, Flynn, JD Gordon, and Paul Manafort.
The financial and political benefits recieved in return would likely have been negotiated by Sater, Kushner, Page, and again Manafort. Any actual cooperation between the Russian efforts to influence the election and the Trump campaign seems likely to have gone through Cambridge Analytica and WikiLeaks.
We lay out this explanation so as to be clear about the frightening scenario which seems very possible based on available evidence. That possibility should be enough to motivate Americans to take this issue very seriously, and support investigations. We do not claim that there is definitive proof that this is what happened, at this point. But it is consistent with the evidence we do have and cannot at this point be ruled out.
Below we link to some alternative explanations. The first are the explanations put forward by the Trump campaign and administration members who have been accused of collusion:
Trump lawyers say no income from Russia, with exceptions CBS (May 12th, 2017)
Trump Lawyer ‘Vehemently’ Denies Russian Collusion New York Times (August 30th, 2017)
Jared Kushner's statement on Russia to congressional committees CNN (July 24, 2017)
One year into the FBI's Russia investigation, Mueller is on the Trump money trail by Evan Perez, Pamela Brown and Shimon Prokupecz at CNN (Aug. 3, 2017) (Includes statements by representatives of Carter Page, Roger Stone, Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, and Donald Trump)
Next some plausible explanations which, while they may involve some wrongdoing, are not as dramatic as the one outlined above.
Seven Theories of the Case: What Do We Really Know about L’Affaire Russe and What Could it All Mean? By Jane Chong, Quinta Jurecic, Benjamin Wittes at Lawfare (May 1, 2017)
The Innocent Explanation, Part #1 by Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo (March 3, 2017)
Obama’s CIA chief just offered a Trump-Russia quote for the ages by Yochi Dreazen reporting on the testimony of John Brennan at Vox (May 23, 2017)
Trump Jr.’s Russia meeting sure sounds like a Russian intelligence operation by Rolf Mowatt-Larssen at the Washington Post (July 14, 2017)
An ex-CIA officer: the Trump Jr. meeting shows how the Russians exploit intelligence targets by Sean Illing interviewing Glenn Carle at Vox (Jul 14, 2017)
Trump's shady and inept campaign team was a perfect target for Putin's spies by Zack Beauchamp at Vox (Nov 1, 2017)
Was the Trump Campaign Full of Spies or Just Idiots? by Marcy Wheeler for Vice (Feb 26 2018)
What did Trump know, and when did he know it? by Philip Bump at the Washington Post (Feb. 26, 2018) "Was Trump told that the Russians were trying to help him, perhaps even told about specific actions or information, and did nothing?"
Why The Trump/Russia ‘Skeptics’ Are Wrong by Joshua Marshall at Talking Points Memo (Feb. 21, 2018) "Corrupt transactions are often tacit. You’re helping me. I’m helping you. It’s a good thing for both sides. No need to complicate it."
For Russia, Trump Was a Vehicle, Not a Target by Clint Watts for the New York Times (Apr 3, 2018) "In Trump and his campaign, Mr. Putin spotted a golden opportunity — an easily ingratiated celebrity motivated by fame and fortune, a foreign policy novice surrounded by unscreened opportunists open to manipulation and unaware of Russia’s long run game of subversion."
Another explanation has been put forward by a hacker who was tried in Russia for breaking into bank records. He confesses to the DNC hacking under the direction of the FSB, but distances himself from the Kremlin. It is unlikely the confession letter would have been leaked without Kremlin approval.
Putin Ordered Theft of Clinton's Emails from DNC, Russian Hacker Confesses by Cristina Maza at Newsweek (Dec. 12, 2017)
And finally, a couple of more in depth looks at that scariest scenario:
Oh, Wait. Maybe It Was Collusion. By John Sipher and Steve Hall at the New York Times (Aug. 2, 2017)
We’re Back to Manafort by Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo (Aug. 4th, 2017)
The Art of the (Trump and Putin) Deal by Robert Reich (July 11, 2017)
Russian Leverage Over Trump Is Not Just a Theory. It’s Now Fact by Jonathan Chait (May 8, 2018)