Many people still have little understanding of what the "Trump-Russia" scandal is about. Some are still confused about the evidence linking Russia to the hacking of the Democratic National Committee (as well as some of Trump's other rivals: the Senate campaign of Republican Marco Rubio was also targeted).
These Americans may think the rest of the uproar has something to do with an unverified "dossier" accusing Trump of being compromised by Russia and may suspect there's something fishy about the way FBI Director James Comey was fired while trying to investigate Russia's role in the election, but many do not know the details.
There is a lot more to the story, and we briefly summarize the four most important points here. Clicking on the hyperlinks here will bring you to the sources of the information on which each claim is based.
1. The first important thing to know is that Donald Trump has web of connections to Russian oligarchs and other wealthy people from the former Soviet Union. The story of how he bought a property in Florida for $41 million and sold it to Dmitry Ryobolovlev for $95 million is a good entry point for understanding what kinds of financial relationships this includes -- but there is much more. His involvement with a hotel in Azerbaijan and with Russian real estate buyers in New York and Florida give a flavor of the extent of these involvements. This Dutch documentary discusses some of his most important relationships with Russian and Kazakh real estate developers in New York in detail.
2. The second important thing to know is that the Trump campaign was in contact with Russian officials and their associates throughout the campaign. At least 18 calls and e-mails have been reported, and that is not counting the meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak which were not listed on Attorney General Jeff Sessions' or Trump advisor (and son in law) Jared Kushner's security clearance forms. In addition to these contacts, we know that former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was paid tens of thousands of dollars by Russia's propaganda network RT to appear with Putin (and paid by Turkey as well -- he later changed military policy to be more favorable to Turkey.) We also know that when Sally Yates warned the Trump administration that the Russians could blackmail Flynn because of his lies, Trump fired her instead of Flynn (Flynn resigned when his problems became public.)
That count of calls and e-mails also does not include contacts during the transition period. We now know that during this period Michael Flynn discussed the prospects for lifting sanctions on Russia with the Russian ambassador (in possible violation of the Logan Act) and that he lied about these discussions afterward. Also during the transition period, Jared Kushner attempted to establish covert communications with Moscow using the secure communications facilities of the Russian embassy. These communications would have been subject to surveillance by Russian, but not American, intelligence operatives. Kushner also met with Vnesheconombank, "Putin's private slush fund", who also helped finance Trump Tower Toronto.
3. The third thing to know is that these suspicious links between the Trump campaign and Putin's Russia were identified well before the election. For instanced, we knew that Trump's campaign manager Paul Manafort's name appeared in a secret ledger for a pro-Putin political party in Ukraine with $12 million next to it. That revelation led to his resignation. We also knew that the cybersecurity firm Crowdstrike was watching in real time while the Russian hackers were in the DNC system sabotaging Trump's opponent, again, well before the Wikileaks releases.
While it wasn't made public at the time, we now know intelligence agencies picked up Russians talking about undermining Clinton well before Wikileaks started releasing stuff, and picked up Russians bragging about their influence over Manafort and Flynn.
But during the campaign, the primary reason for suspicion was the fact that Trump's anti-NATO rhetoric is everything Putin has dreamed of for years. Trump praised Putin repeatedly and brushed off the fact that Russia had invaded their neighbor, Ukraine, in 2014. Russia is desperate to end the resulting sanctions. We also knew that Trump got language about arming the anti-Russia forces in Ukraine taken out of the Republican platform at the convention. And Trump's approach to the conflict in Syria ignored the ways in which Russia helped to created the Syrian refugee crisis by supporting embattled Syrian president Bashar al Assad. By August, these unusual positions were enough to lead a former CIA Director to write in the New York TImes that he suspected "Mr. Putin had recruited Mr. Trump as an unwitting agent of the Russian Federation."
Further evidence that Trump views Putin as an ally with a shared worldview came after he was in office, when he disclosed highly sensitive information, without the permission of the country from which it had come, to the Russian ambassador and foreign minister.
4. The final and perhaps most important thing to understand, is how sophisticated Russia's disinformation capabilities are these days. Releasing hacked information and sponsoring propaganda campaigns and supporting conspiracy theories in other countries is a standard tactic for Russia. In fact, a Russian general has said that the role of non-military measures like hacking, disinformation, and propaganda in achieving Russia's political and strategic goals "has grown, and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons in their effectiveness." Russia in fact has a long history with these tactics, but the digital age has made them much more effective.
While there are of course many questions remaining to be answered -- some of them listed on the "questions and answers" page of this site -- a great deal of important information has been published and officially acknowledged which is not yet widely known to the public. It is important to the future of the United States that as many people as possible educate themselves and help to educate others about the facts described here. They provide vital context for any revelations which are yet to come.
1) Donald Trump has web of connections to Russian oligarchs and other wealthy people from the former Soviet Union.
2) The Trump campaign was in contact with Russian officials and their associates throughout the campaign and transition -- and attempted to conceal some of those contacts.
3) Suspicious links between the Trump campaign and Putin's Russia were identified well before the election.
4) Hacking, disinformation, and propaganda have always had a role in achieving Russia's political goals, but in the digital age that role has become much larger, and possibly eclipsed military action in importance to Russia's strategies.