This part of the site is meant to provide information which is not directly related to Russia's intervention in the 2016 US election, or the evidence that the Trump campaign colluded in that effort. Rather, the information here serves as background and context. Click a statement below to go to the section which elaborates on that statement.
5) 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.
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 and has for many years. Foreign Policy Magazine summarizes:
“In 2004, Trump Hotels and Casino Resorts filed for bankruptcy with $1.8 billion dollars of debt. But Trump eventually made a comeback, and according to several sources with knowledge of Trump’s business, foreign money played a large role in reviving his fortunes, in particular investment by wealthy people from Russia and the former Soviet republics.”
After 2004 the Trump Organization business model largely relied on licensing the Trump name to real estate development projects in other countries often with financing from the former Soviet Union. Some of these projects were ethically and legally dubious. Investigative reporting by ProPublica and WNYC has revealed that Trump was routinely far more involved in these projects than he claimed.
The story of how he bought a property in Florida for $41 million and sold it to Russian Oligarch Dmitry Ryobolovlev for $95 million is a good entry point for understanding how these relationships appear to have benefited Trump -- but there are many more examples. Donald Trump’s involvement with a hotel in Azerbaijan and with Russian real estate buyers in New York and Florida give a flavor of the extent of those relationships. 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."
The Trump organization has sold a large number of properties to anonymous buyers of unknown nationality, especially in recent years. This pattern of behavior is often associated with money laundering. Banks which loaned Trump and his family large amounts of money have also been involved in Russian money laundering schemes.
In 2013 Trump conducted the Miss Universe pageant in Moscow and forged relationships with the Agalarov family. This led to a direct exchange of letters between Putin and Trump in 2013.
In 2015 and 2016, Trump was working to develop a “Trump Tower” in Moscow. Had it been built, he planned to give a $50 million penthouse there to Vladimir Putin. It was the most recent in a 30 year series of attempts to develop real estate projects in Russia.
Besides Ryobolovlev and the Agalarovs, Russian oligarchs with Trump connections uncovered since 2016 include Victor Vekselberg, whose Russian-American associates have donated to Trump allies' political campaigns and PACs and whose company is closely affiliated with one who paid $1 million to Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, Yevgeny V. Prigozhin, whose Internet Research Agency was spending $1.25 million per month at the height of the 2016 campaign, Roman Abramovich (whose wife is friends with Ivanka Trump) and Oleg Deripaska, to whom Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort offered briefings on the 2016 campaign. Ivanka’s social circle also includes Wendi Deng (once rumored to be dating Putin — a rumor she has denied).
The Trump campaign also has close connections with several Russia-linked Ukrainian oligarchs and politicians: Victor Pinchuk, Andrey Artemenko, Dmitry Firtash, and Viktor Yanukovych (who was convicted of treason in Ukraine after fleeing to 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 telling this part of the story, it is important to distinguish between what was publicly known during the campaign, and what was known by intelligence agencies at the time, and only became public afterward.
In December, 2015, Trump's future National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was known to have attended a dinner with Vladimir Putin (after privately meeting with the Russian ambassador at his home, a detail not disclosed at the time.) He also accepted paid speaking engagements from the state-run Russian media company RT, and consulting work from other Russian entities. He refused to disclose how much he had been paid, and was unapologetic.
That same month, Vladimir Putin publicly commented on Trump's candidacy (before he had won a single Republican primary), calling him colorful and talented. Trump praised Putin in return.
In July of 2016, 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 with Russian intelligence -- traveled to Moscow and gave a very pro-Russian foreign policy speech which included a line chiding the US for its “often-hypocritical focus on democratization, inequality, corruption and regime change.” This aroused a lot of public suspicion during the campaign.
Page later confirmed rumors that he met with members of Russia's presidential administration, and with the head of investor relations at the Russian state-owned oil giant Rosneft, during his trip to Moscow. He denied meeting Kremlin official Igor Diveykin and told the House Intelligence Committee during testimony that he had only briefly greeted Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich during his trip.
But later reporting revealed that Page sent the campaign a memo to say that he had spoken with Dvorkovich in a “private conversation” in which the deputy prime minister “expressed strong support for Mr. Trump.” He told members of the campaign that he would “send you guys a readout soon regarding some incredible insights and outreach I’ve received from a few Russian legislators and senior members” of the Russian government.
Page testified that he had discussed the trip with a Trump campaign adviser named Sam Clovis and other members of the campaign both before he went and after he returned. He told the House Intelligence Committee that he also discussed the trip with future attorney general Jeff Sessions. (Sessions has said he has no reason to doubt Mr. Page’s testimony but doesn’t recall the dinner at which Page says they spoke.) These details, and the roles of other members of the Trump campaign were not made public until after the election, however.
The US government presumably knows more than has been made public about what else Page may have been involved in during the run-up to the election. In October, after Page had left the Trump campaign (when in fact the Trump campaign was denying he had ever been part of it) we now know the FBI obtained a warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) allowing them to record Page's conversations with Russian intelligence targets. That FISA warrant was then renewed three times, meaning it had to be approved by four separate judges, and by justice department officials of both the Obama and Trump administrations. In order for a FISA warrant to be renewed, the government has to show that it is yielding foreign intelligence substantiating the original probable cause. A redacted version of that FISA warrant application has now been released, showing that the FBI believed "Page has been the subject of targeted recruitment by the Russian government.” So there is good reason to believe that more was known by law enforcement about Carter Page, before the election, than is known to the public even now. In addition, this was reportedly not the first FISA warrant against Page. He had been a target of counter-intelligence investigations and FISA warrants dating back to as early as 2013, when he claimed to be "an informal advisor to the staff of the Kremlin"
Returning to the subject of what the public knew before the election, however: we knew in July that Trump got language about arming the anti-Russia forces in Ukraine taken out of the Republican platform at the Republican National Convention. In his testimony, Carter Page congratulated members of the Trump campaign's foreign-policy team on July 14 for their "excellent work" on the "Ukraine amendment."The wording which had proposed sending lethal weapons to support the Ukrainian military was ultimately altered to say provide "appropriate assistance" before it was included in the party's official platform. This information was public at the time. But we did not know at the time that Carter Page, Jeff Sessions, and another Trump foreign policy adviser named JD Gordon, met with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the convention.
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, and his eventual indictment.
But the public has since 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, but for which Blumenthal had been credited in Russian media.
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, and the New Yorker concluded in October, 2018 that the activity of the server was still an “enigma” which could likely be resolved only by federal investigators with subpoena power.
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. The FBI investigation reportedly began in July, 2016, after an Australian diplomat named Alexander Downer passed information via the Australian government about contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. Specifically, George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, had told Downer that Russia had political dirt on Hillary Clinton. Papadopoulos had been informed that Moscow had thousands of stolen emails that would damage the Clinton campaign. This, rather than the Steele dossier, was the impetus for the FBI to launch its investigation of Trump's ties with Russia. The FBI kept this investigation secret until November 1, 2016, when a cautious statement to the New York Times emphasized that they had not yet reached any conclusions.
During the campaign, the primary public 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 observers noticed early in the campaign season that Putin's state-run media returned the favor. Trump brushed off the fact that Russia had invaded their neighbor, Ukraine, in 2014. (One of Trump's campaign advisers defended that invasion at the time.) Russia is desperate to end the resulting sanctions. And Trump's approach to the conflict in Syria ignored the ways in which Russia helped to create 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. Other countries have also tried to buy influence through the businesses of Trump associates.
A start up founded by Jared Kushner sought $100 million from the government of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Lobbyists for the Saudi government spent more than $270,000 at the Trump hotel in Washington DC. Meanwhile, Michael Flynn, Jared Kushner, and Steve Bannon made plans 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.)
While acting as a lobbyist and contractor for Saudi Arabia and UAE, Republican National Committee Finance Chair Elliot Broidy received more than $4 million dollars in US government contracts. He funneled more than $200,000 into (RNC Finance co-chair) Michael Cohen's bank accounts as well as donating $189,000 to the RNC. (Broidy has been accused of money laundering in another context.)
An Israeli company call PSY-Group formed a strategic partnership with Cambridge Analytica to try to win contracts from the US government. Representatives of that Israeli social media media influence company, as well as Elliot Broidy's business partner George Nader, attended a meeting with Donald Trump Jr. and Erik Prince in Trump Tower. Another company founded by PSY-Group’s owner conducted an analysis of how “cyber mercenaries” might shape American politics: “Disguised as ordinary citizens, these cyber-mercenaries are experts at sensationalizing and distorting political issues in a manner that appeals to common sense. Their objectives are not to convince explicitly, but rather subconsciously, by inserting a seed of doubt that leads to confusion and encourages fact-skepticism. Their ultimate targets are foreign governments, but their attacks are launched on proxy targets, ordinary citizens, chiefly ignorant, vulnerable, and uneducated populaces of a particular nation-state.”
Deputy Trump Campaign Manager Rick Gates solicited proposals from PSY-Group “to create fake online identities, to use social media manipulation and to gather intelligence to help defeat Republican primary race opponents and Hillary Clinton, according to interviews and copies of the proposals.” There is evidence that they actually did provide such services. After the election, PSY-Group was paid by George Nader. The wife of George Papadopoulos has said in an interview that Robert Mueller was investigating Papadopoulos as unregistered agent of Israel (though Papadopoulos was not charged with that crime.)
Another Israeli company, called Black Cube, sought "dirt" on the Obama administration officials who had negotiated the Iran nuclear deal, and are alleged to have been working on behalf of Donald Trump.
Officials from Israel, Saudia Arabia, and the UAE have repeatedly encouraged their American counterparts to consider ending the Ukraine-related sanctions in return for Putin’s help in removing Iranian forces from Syria. Those same countries have also been involved in meetings with the Trump transition team at which they “discussed a multi-pronged strategy for eroding, and eventually ending, the current Iranian regime—including economic, information, and military tactics for weakening the Tehran government.” Those meetings were attended by George Nader (acting on behalf of UAE), by Joel Zamel of PSY-Group, and by Saudi intelligence chief Gen. Ahmed al-Assiri, according to The Daily Beast. Attendees from the Trump transition team included Michael Flynn and Steve Bannon. Both the UAE and Saudi Arabia also hired the parent company of Cambridge Analytica to conduct a social media campaign against Qatar, and to test domestic policy proposals.
Meanwhile, Michael Cohen solicited $1 million from the government of Qatar, met with the Qatari Commerce Minister, and helped an American Trump donor seek investment from the Qatari sovereign wealth fund. A company partially owned by the Qatari government made a deal to help pay off the debts owed by Jared Kushner on is 666 Fifth Ave property. The government of Qatar has purchased four condos in Trump Tower for which it paid over $16 million. All of this has happened as the government of Qatar has sought the assistance of the US to end a blockade by Saudia Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
Companies linked to the Turkish government paid Michael Flynn $500,000 during the 2016 campaign, and Turkish officials met with Flynn to talk about turning over a Turkish dissident to the Turkish government. As National Security adviser, Flynn delayed the implementation of an anti-ISIS military plan which Turkey opposed. Two of Flynn’s business partners have been indicted for illegally acting as agents of the Turkish government. Flynn had other foreign clients as well.
Turkish bankers in New York trying to smuggle money to Iran in violation of sanctions hired Rudy Giuliani and Michael Mukasey (the latter also defended Russians in the Prevezon money laundering case, and Giuliani has other business relationships in the former Soviet Union.)
Michael Cohen was paid $400,000 to broker a meeting between Trump and the president of Ukraine, which needs US support to resist the invasion by Russia. As Ukraine sought missiles from the US, it stopped cooperating with the Mueller investigation.
After taking office Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross retained interested in a shipping company enmeshed in Vladimir Putin’s inner circle but also has assets linked to to the Russian-tied Bank of Cyprus and to the Chinese government.
President Trump himself also has assets which depend on loans from the Chinese government or approval of trademarks by the Chinese government, which make his concessions to China questionable.
The fact that people close to Trump have participated in transactions like these with foreign governments and their representatives, who are trying to influence American policy, suggests that they are generally open to approaches of this nature. This is important context for the Russia investigation because the 2017 declassified intelligence report says "Putin has had many positive experiences working with Western political leaders whose business interests made them more disposed to deal with Russia."
4. The fourth important thing to know is that the Trump campaign was in contact with Russian officials and their associates throughout the campaign and transition period. According to a CNN analysis, there were "at least 51 communications -- meetings, phone calls, email exchanges and more." A more recent analysis raises this estimate to 70. This includes 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.
Some of the additional contacts which have been reported include:
George Papadopoulos discussing the "thousands of e-mails" Russia had collected with his Russian contact on or about April 26, 2016, when he had been a foreign policy adviser to the Trump Campaign for over a month.
In Sept. 2015, a $150,000 donation from Ukrainian billionaire, Victor Pinchuk to the Donald J. Trump Foundation in exchange for a 20-minute appearance by Mr. Trump that month through a video link to a conference in Kiev.
Michael Flynn meeting with the Russian ambassador in Flynn's home and then with Vladimir Putin at a public event, in December 2015.
At an National Rifle Association convention in Kentucky in May 2016, Putin ally Alexander Torshin spoke to Donald Trump Jr. The FBI has reportedly obtained wiretaps of phone calls leading up to that meeting from the government of Spain, where Torshin was wanted for money laundering.. He claims to have met with the future president himself in 2015 in Nashville, where that year's NRA convention was held. In December 2015 his associates in Moscow hosted an NRA delegation which included Sherriff David Clarke, who worked for a Trump-supporting political action committee. At a speech in July 2015, Trump took a question from Torshin's associate Maria Butina from stage. The question was about sanctions on Russia. Trump publicly replied "I believe I would get along very nicely with Putin, OK? And I mean, where we have the strength. I don’t think you’d need the sanctions. I think we would get along very, very well.”
The meeting at which Jeff Sessions allegedly discussed policies Russia could expect
The email in which NRA activist Paul Erickson wrote to Sessions' former Chief of Staff, then working for the Trump campaign. “Putin is deadly serious about building a good relationship with Mr. Trump,. He wants to extend an invitation to Mr. Trump to visit him in the Kremlin before the election. Let’s talk through what has transpired and Senator Sessions’s advice on how to proceed.” Erickson was also involved in a relationship with Maria Butina, a Russian who has been arrested for acting as an unregistered foreign agent.
The Trump Tower meeting Donald Trump Jr arranged
A Trump adviser named Joseph Schmitz reported to the government that a client of his had discovered material that Schmitz believed might have been Clinton's missing 30,000 emails from her private e-mail server.
Trump adviser Roger Stone talking to Guccifer 2.0 (who was a Russian agent) and exchanging direct messages with WikiLeaks as well as having contact with them "through an intermediary" and possibly in person.
A Republican operative named Andrew Nevins receiving documents from Guccifer 2.0
Donald Trump Jr. flying to France to meet with a Syrian activist, who says she meets regularly with Russian officials, and her French husband, who nominated Russian President Vladimir Putin for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2016.
Kushner's attempt to establish covert communications with Moscow
A post-election meeting in the Seychelles between Trump representatives and Putin representatives (specifically Kirill Dmitriev, head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund)
The call where Michael Flynn discussed the prospects for lifting sanctions on Russia
Natalia Veselnitskaya reaching out after the election to follow up on her Trump Tower meeting.
Text messages between Emin Agalarov and Donald Trump Jr during the transition.
We are also learning more about a transition period meeting between Kushner and the head of Vnesheconombank, "Putin's private slush fund", who also helped finance Trump Tower Toronto. The Russian banker is accused of have held the meeting at Putin's behest. Kushner turned down a dinner invitation from another couple who claimed to carry a message from Putin.
The appearances of John Bolton at events sponsored by the Victor Pinchuk Foundation and in 2013 in videos for the group run by Alexander Torshin.
Shortly after Trump took office, Michael Flynn was also the recipient of a very Russia-friendly "peace plan" for Ukraine developed by a Ukrainian politician and delivered by Trump laywer Michael Cohen (who is married to a Ukrainian woman and has business interests in Ukraine) and business associate Felix Sater (who is a Russian-born American citizen).
5. 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 has also targeted the personal phones of NATO forces, including Americans. They targeted veterans and military personnel on social media. They also attempted to hack the Twitter accounts of up to 10,000 Defense Department employees. And they adapted a widely used anti-virus software to steal classified information including cyberdefence tools developed by the NSA.
Russia in fact has a long history with these tactics, but the digital age has made them much more effective. As described on our "Questions and Answers" page, Russian "trolls" bought ads (on social media), ran groups and pages, organized protests, sold merchandise, and paid for activists' travel. They studied the US political system. In the magazine "Foreign Policy," conservative writer Max Boot says "Russia Has Invented Social Media Blitzkrieg"
Russia has also been working to compromise western institutions like banks (via money laundering) and to buy influence in American politics through other political figures. This is a part of the same approach to exercising power through propaganda, corrupt deals, and espionage enabling blackmail and extortion of political leaders, rather than direct military conquest.
While there are of course many questions remaining to be answered, 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.