What we know about U.S. investigations into Russia and possible ties to Trump’s campaign
Questions about President Donald Trump’s ties to Russia and links between his associates and the Kremlin have persisted since the early days of the 2016 election. Here’s a comprehensive timeline of everything we know about the U.S. investigations of Trump’s possible connections to Russia and Moscow’s efforts to undermine democracy in America.
The government began its investigation into Russia’s role in the U.S. presidential election last spring. It’s unclear exactly when the probe was launched that year, but six agencies were involved from the start: the FBI, CIA, Justice Department, National Security Agency, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Treasury Department. According to a BBC report, the investigation began after the CIA obtained a recording showing the Russian government planned to disrupt the election.
Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence agent, gave the FBI information alleging the Russian government was in contact with Trump’s campaign. Steele’s report also alleged that the Trump campaign had cooperated with Russia as the country hacked the emails of the Democratic National Committee and top Clinton campaign aides. Steele claimed he got the information while compiling opposition research on Trump for Republican and Democratic clients.
Steele also gave the FBI more information on Trump’s ties with Russia in September. The information indicated that Trump’s campaign knew as early as June that Russia was orchestrating a hacking operation to influence the election. Last month, Buzzfeed published Steele’s findings, with a disclaimer that the information was unverified. The dossier claimed that Russia possessed compromising information about Trump’s business ties in the country and his activities on a trip to Moscow.
Steele’s report also claimed that the “Russian regime has been cultivating, supporting and assisting TRUMP for at least five years” in an effort to sow “divisions in western alliance.” The summary noted that Russia had “compromised” Trump “sufficiently to be able to blackmail him.” U.S. and foreign intelligence agencies are reportedly working to verify the claims in Steele’s dossier, but so far the most damning charges remain unverified.
In an extraordinary joint statement on Oct. 7, the Department of Homeland Security and Office of the Director of National Intelligence said the U.S. intelligence community believed Russia was behind a hacking operation “to interfere with the U.S. election process.” The agencies added: “We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.”
On Oct. 15, the FBI got a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to obtain records relating to Russia’s effort to influence the election, according to the BBC. Two weeks later, on Nov. 1, NBC reported that the FBI had started a “preliminary inquiry” into the foreign business dealings of Paul Manafort, who had served briefly as Trump’s campaign manager before stepping down. Manafort resigned in August over news reports of his business connections in Russia, and his work as a consultant for a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine. Manafort has defended his foreign business dealings. He told the New York Times this month that he “never knowingly spoke to Russian intelligence officers.”
President Barack Obama ordered the U.S. intelligence community to review Russia’s hacking operation on Dec. 9, and produce a public report before his term ended. Three days later, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) announced the Senate would launch an investigation as well.
“The Russians are not our friends,” McConnell said.
McConnell’s announcement came on the same day that House and Senate lawmakers from both parties called for an investigation into the matter.
On Dec. 29, the Obama administration sanctioned Russia after determining based on intelligence evidence that the country hacked the Democratic Party in an effort to influence the U.S. election. The Obama administration expelled 35 Russian intelligence officials from the U.S., and closed clandestine Russian intelligence-gathering facilities in New York and Maryland.
Mr. Obama also signed an executive order sanctioning nine individuals and groups for election-related hacking. He said his administration would take other actions against Russia, some of which would not be made public. Obama said the actions were a “response to the Russian government’s aggressive harassment of U.S. officials and cyber operations aimed at the U.S. election.”
According to news reports that emerged weeks later, shortly before they were announced, incoming national security adviser Michael Flynn discussed the sanctions with Sergey Kislyak, Russia’s ambassador to the United States. U.S. intelligence agencies intercepted the communications. Flynn later told Vice President Mike Pence that he had not discussed the sanctions, setting off the chain of events that led to his resignation.
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a declassified version of its report to Obama on Russia’s role in the election. The report concluded with “high confidence” — intelligence community speak for virtual certainty — that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the hacking operation in an effort to hurt Clinton’s campaign and help elect Trump. The report also found that the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence service, gave the information it obtained from the DNC and Clinton campaign’s emails to WikiLeaks.
The leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee announced that the panel would conduct an inquiry into Russia’s role in the election. In a joint statement issued on Jan. 13, Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-Va.) said the U.S. intelligence community’s October 2016 report, which concluded that Russia had meddled in the election, “raised profound concerns.”
Burr and Warner said the panel’s investigation would include a review of the U.S. intelligence assessment released last October, and an inquiry into “any intelligence regarding links between Russia and individuals associated with political campaigns.” The senators also said they planned to hold hearings, and interview current and former administration officials. The announcement also said the committee would potentially issue subpoenas “if necessary to compel testimony.”
Vice President Mike Pence said in interviews on Face the Nation and Fox News Sunday that Flynn did not discuss the U.S. sanctions against Russia in conversations with Kislyak before Trump took office. (Subsequent reporting suggests that Pence made the assertion based on what Flynn had told him about the conversations). One week later, in his first full press briefing on Jan. 23, White House press secretary Sean Spicer also said the sanctions hadn’t come up in Flynn’s phone calls with the Russian ambassador.
Under the Logan Act, it’s illegal for private citizens to correspond with foreign governments or officials to try and influence foreign policy. Flynn was a top foreign policy adviser to Trump during the campaign, and the national security adviser-designate during the transition. But he remained a private citizen until formally taking over as national security adviser after Trump was sworn in as president.
The FBI interviewed Flynn about the phone calls “just days” after he took office as national security adviser in late January, according to a report by the New York Times. The Times reported that U.S. intelligence agencies recorded the phone calls between Flynn and Kislyak, as part of their routine surveillance of Kislyak and other Russian officials.
According to the Times report, Sally Yates, the acting attorney general, contacted White House counsel Don McGahn on Jan. 26 and told him there was a disparity between what Flynn had said in his call with Kislyak and the claim from administration officials that sanctions had not been discussed.
The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism announced it was launching a separate probe into Russia’s election hacking. Chairman Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Ranking Member Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) said in a joint statement: “Our goal is simple – to the fullest extent possible we want to shine a light on Russian activities to undermine democracy.”
The Washington Post published an explosive story showing Flynn had talked about the sanctions in his calls with the Russian ambassador. The Post’s reporting also said that Flynn’s communication with Kislyak started before Trump won the election on Nov. 8. The story noted that Flynn’s calls also raised questions inside the Obama administration over whether he violated the law.
Michael Flynn resigned. In his resignation letter, Flynn wrote: “I inadvertently briefed the Vice President Elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian Ambassador.” Flynn said he apologized to Pence and Trump. But Flynn also defended his actions, saying that “such calls are standard practice,” and he did not admit to any wrongdoing.
Sean Spicer said in a press briefing that Trump learned of Flynn’s phone calls two weeks before his resignation. The Vice President’s office said Pence found out about the true content of the calls — and the fact that Flynn misled him — through reading about it in media reports, roughly 14 days after Trump found out.
According to a New York Times story published the same day, U.S. intelligence agencies intercepted communications between several people associated with Trump or his campaign and Russian government officials during the election.
Trump defended Flynn’s actions in a lengthy news conference at the White House. When asked if any officials with his campaign had communicated with Russia during the election, Trump said, “nobody that I know of.” Trump also called news reports about his campaign’s ties to Russia “fake news,” and claimed that he did not have any connections to the country. “Russia is a ruse. I have nothing to do with Russia. Haven’t made a phone call to Russia in years,” Trump said.
FBI Director James Comey met with the Senate Intelligence Committee panel investigating Russia’s role in the 2016 election. The briefing was not open to the press, and few details from the meeting emerged. Afterwards, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) told Politico that he and Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) were trying to ensure that the investigation does not “default to a partisan food fight that doesn’t serve the public interest.”
The Washington Post reported that Attorney General Jeff Sessions met with Kislyak, Russia’s U.S. ambassador, last September, when Sessions was a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a top national security adviser on Donald Trump’s campaign. The Post also reported that Sessions spoke briefly with Kislyak during the Republican National Convention in July. The reporting appeared to contradict Sessions’ written and oral testimony at his confirmation hearings, when he said he did not have contact with Russian officials during the 2016 election.
A Justice Department spokesperson said Wednesday night that Sessions met with ambassadors from many countries last year, including Russia, as part of his work as a member of the Armed Services Committee.
In a statement, Sessions said: “I have never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign. I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false.”
As news of Sessions’ meetings with Kislyak broke, it raised questions about Department of Justice and FBI investigations into Russia’s involvement in the U.S. election.
On Thursday, a growing chorus of House and Senate Democrats called on Sessions to resign from his position atop the agencies tasked with investigating Russia’s election interference.
“Sessions is not fit to serve as the top law enforcement officer of our country and must resign. There must be an independent, bipartisan, outside commission to investigate the Trump political, personal and financial connections to the Russians,” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said in a statement.
Republicans on Thursday stopped short of calling for Sessions’ resignation. But some GOP lawmakers said Sessions should recuse himself from the federal investigations into Russia.
“AG Sessions should clarify his testimony and recuse himself,” House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), wrote on Twitter.
Correction: A second reference to Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina identified him as a Democrat. Burr is a Republican.