Many people still have little understanding of what the "Trump-Russia" scandal is about.
The meeting Donald Trump Jr arranged, in order to receive compromising information from the Russian government about his father's political opponent, is often discussed out of context of the rest of the contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Prior to that meeting, in 2015, a Trump associate named Felix Sater had written an e-mail to Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, predicting that building a Trump Tower in Moscow would help him become president. “Buddy our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it,” Sater wrote in an e-mail. “I will get all of Putin's team to buy in on this, I will manage this process.” This was the context in which the Trump Tower meeting took place.
The meeting at which Jeff Sessions discussed what kind of policies Russia could expect from the Trump administration with the Russian ambassador is also part of that context.
Some Americans 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 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 links 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 a 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.
In 2014, Eric Trump told a golf reporter that the family's golf courses were financed by Russian investors. And in 2008, Donald Trump Jr. told a group of investors: "In terms of high-end product influx into the US, Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets; say in Dubai, and certainly with our project in SoHo and anywhere in New York. We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia."
2. The second thing to know is that suspicious links between the Trump campaign and Putin's Russia were identified well before the election.
In July, one of Trump's named foreign policy advisers -- a man named Carter Page, whom the FBI was already monitoring due to his previous contacts with Russian intelligence -- traveled to Moscow and gave a very pro-Russian foreign policy speech. The FBI had obtained a warrant targeting Carter Page on the grounds that it had probable cause to believe Page was acting as an agent of a foreign power.
In August we learned that Trump's campaign manager Paul Manafort's name appeared in a secret ledger for a pro-Putin political party in Ukraine with $12.7 million next to it. That revelation led to his resignation. Later we learned that Manafort had been employed by a Russian oligarch starting in 2004 and continuing through 2015 "doing work that often dovetailed with Russian political interests not only in Ukraine, but also in Georgia and Montenegro." He offered his former employer private briefings on the status of the campaign, through a a Russian intermediary suspected of ties with Russian military intelligence, and sought approval from the oligarch of his work for Trump. U.S. intelligence reportedly intercepted Russian agents bragging about their close relationship with Manafort. They likewise intercepted conversations between Manafort and Russian individuals, having obtained a FISA warrant against him in an investigation that dates back to 2014, and resumed after Manafort left Trump's campaign.
In August, Manafort seemed to quote Russian propaganda about a supposed "attack" on the Incirlik NATO base an attack which never happened. In October, Trump also seemed to quote Russian propaganda, in referring to "Sidney Blumenthal" as the author of some commentary on Benghazi which was actually written by someone else.
On October 31st, 2016, Slate revealed that a server owned by the Trump organization was communicating with the Russian Bank "Alfa Bank" in ways that were hard to explain without some other communication channel being involved as well. As of March 10, 2017, CNN reported that the FBI was still investigating this server.
While it wasn't made public at the time, we now know intelligence agencies picked up Russians talking about undermining Clinton before WikiLeaks started releasing material, and picked up Russians bragging about their influence over Manafort and Michael Flynn. US intelligence agencies picked up Russians discussing Trump and his associates as early as spring of 2015
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."
That Russians were attempting to hack state voter registration databases and the DNC (among other targets) was certainly known well before the election as well. The cybersecurity firm Crowdstrike was watching in real time while the Russian hackers were in the DNC system sabotaging Trump's opponent well before the WikiLeaks releases. This led the Director of National Intelligence to announce, on October 7, 2016: "The U.S. Intelligence Community (USIC) is confident that the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from US persons and institutions, including from US political organizations."
3. The third important thing to know is that the Trump campaign was in contact with Russian officials and their associates throughout the campaign and transition period. At least 18 calls and e-mails have been reported, and that is not counting various meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak which were initially 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 Adviser Michael Flynn was paid tens of thousands of dollars by Russia's propaganda network RT to appear with Putin. Other lobbyists for Russian interests met with the Trump campaign as well. During the transition period Kushner also met with Vnesheconombank, "Putin's private slush fund", who also helped finance Trump Tower Toronto.
And on top of to those 18 calls and e-mails, those meetings with lobbyists, and that RT sponsored visit, we now know about:
- Trump lawyer Michael Cohen contacting the Russian Press Secretary in 2015 while trying to develop a Trump Tower in Moscow
- The meeting at which Jeff Sessions discussed what kind of policies Russia could expect
- The meeting Donald Trump Jr arranged
- The meeting between Manafort and a Russian associate who may be ex-military intelligence, along with extensive e-mails
- The Republican contractor named Peter Smith contacting hackers about Clinton-related files
- Trump adviser Roger Stone talking to Guccifer 2.0
- A Republican operative named Andrew Nevins receiving documents from Guccifer 2.0.
- Kushner's attempt to establish covert communications with Moscow
- A meeting in the Seychelles between Trump and Putin representatives
- ...which was set up by Trump campaign through the United Arab Emirates royal family
- The call where Michael Flynn discussed the prospects for lifting sanctions on Russia
As a reminder, Flynn then misrepresented his discussions, and when Sally Yates warned the Trump administration that the Russians could blackmail Flynn because of the lies, Trump fired her instead of Flynn (Flynn resigned when his problems became public. It was later revealed he had also been paid by Turkey, among others -- and changed military policy to be more favorable to Turkey.)
Finally, further contact, and evidence that Trump views Putin as an ally with a shared worldview came after he was in office. The White House has made efforts to remove sanctions, return seized Russian compounds, share top secret intelligence, accept Russia's terms on Syria, and set up a back channel that could not be monitored by US Intelligence agencies. Preet Bharara, Sally Yates, and James Comey, all of whom were responsible for investigations of Russian espionage and/or criminal activities, were fired. 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 disclosed highly sensitive information, without the permission of the country from which it had come, to the Russian ambassador and foreign minister. And Trump spoke privately with Putin himself at a dinner during the G20 summit with no American witnesses or readout of their conversation.
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. 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."
According to a report in Politico: "During the first days of the annexation of Crimea, Ukrainian soldiers were bombarded with demoralizing text messages such as, 'Soldier you are just a raw meat for your commanders.'" And now, according to the same report: "Russia is one of several foreign powers using social media lures to gather intelligence on the U.S. military." Along with these social media operations, "The same Russian military hacking group that breached the Democratic National Committee, 'Fancy Bear,' was also responsible for publicly posting stolen Army data online while posing as supporters of the Islamic State in 2015, according to the findings of one cybersecurity firm. And the hacking group’s most common target for phishing attacks in the West has been military personnel, with service members’ spouses making up another prominent target demographic, according to another cybersecurity firm."
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) Suspicious links between the Trump campaign and Putin's Russia were identified well before the election.
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.
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.