The Russia Investigations, Explained
In January 2017, the United States intelligence community released a sobering report concluding with “high confidence” that Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to influence the 2016 presidential election. The aim of this effort, the report found, was “to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.” Putin and the Russian government, the intelligence agencies said, “developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”
Russia’s involvement in the election — and whether any associates of President Trump played a role — is now the focus of multiple investigations in Washington. Committees in both the House and the Senate have opened fact-finding probes, and although Congress cannot bring charges, it would have the ability to vote on impeachment if lawmakers were to uncover wrongdoing by President Trump. House intelligence committee Republicans announced in mid-March that they had found no evidence of collusion.
At the Justice Department, the special counsel investigation being led by former FBI director Robert Mueller has already brought charges against four individuals connected to the Trump campaign and 13 Russian nationals. President Trump, for his part, has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing or collusion, and called the investigations into Russian meddling a “witch hunt.” The president nearly fired Mueller last June, according to The New York Times, but held off after the White House counsel threatened to resign rather than carry out the order. (The president dismissed the account as “fake news.”)
As the investigations continue to unfold, here is a brief look at where each one stands:
The Mueller Investigation
WHAT’S THE FOCUS?
Mueller’s probe focuses on Russian attempts to disrupt the 2016 election; possible coordination between associates of President Trump and Russia; and whether financial crimes have been committed by any of the president’s associates. In June, following the firing of former FBI director James Comey, The Washington Post reported that the special counsel investigation had also expanded to include an examination of whether President Trump attempted to obstruct justice.
Mueller has obtained thousands of emails from the Trump transition team and interviewed at least two dozen current and former Trump advisers, including President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, White House communications director Hope Hicks, former press secretary Sean Spicer and former chief of staff Reince Priebus. Mueller’s team has subpoenaed Trump’s former chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, to testify before a grand jury, according to The New York Times, and it has spoken with President Trump’s attorneys about interviewing the president, but no date has been set yet, according to NBC News. It is unclear how long the investigation will continue, but so far, Mueller has indicted 18 individuals:
On Feb. 16, 2018 the special counsel indicted 13 Russian nationals and three companies with using fraud and deceit to interfere in the 2016 election, creating hundreds of social media accounts that falsely appeared to be operated by Americans.
Starting in 2014, defendants stole American identities, bought online political advertisements and used social media platforms to post disparaging information about several political candidates, according to the indictment. They intended “to communicate derogatory information about Hillary Clinton, to denigrate other candidates such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and to support Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump,” according to the indictment. Defendants created themed Facebook and Instagram pages focused on issues like immigration and the Black Lives Matter movement, and by 2016, many of these groups had attracted hundreds of thousands of followers.
Without revealing their Russian identities, several defendants “communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump campaign and with other political activists to seek to coordinate political activities.” Among the organizations named in the indictment was the Internet Research Agency, a notorious Russian troll farm that engages in “information warfare against the United States of America.”
In mid-March, the Treasury Department announced financial sanctions against Russian nationals and organizations indicted by Mueller, including the Internet Research Agency, for attempting to interfere in the U.S. election. Two Russian intelligence agencies were also among the groups targeted.
Paul Manafort and Rick Gates
In October, Mueller has brought charges against Trump’s onetime campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and his former business partner, Rick Gates, on counts related to money laundering, tax evasion and foreign lobbying. Prosecutors allege that Manafort laundered more than $18 million from income he made while lobbying for a pro-Russia political party in Ukraine. Manafort put the proceeds in overseas accounts and “used his hidden overseas wealth to enjoy a lavish lifestyle in the United States, without paying taxes on that income,” according to the indictment.
Prosecutors also charged Manafort and Gates for failing to register as foreign agents while participating in lobbying activities.
Manafort, who along with Gates pleaded not guilty, is now challenging his indictment in a federal lawsuit against Mueller, the Justice Department and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein for prosecuting him for business practices that his attorneys called unrelated to Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling. The lawsuit calls Mueller’s investigation of Manafort “arbitrary” and capricious” and alleges that Mueller has exceeded his jurisdiction.
On February 22, Mueller filed a new 32-count against Manafort and Gates on charges that included bank fraud and filing false tax returns. The next day, Gates, who had pleaded not guilty to Mueller’s original charges, pleaded guilty to conspiring to defraud the United States and to lying to the FBI about a March 2013 meeting between Manafort and an unnamed member of congress. According to court documents, Gates falsely told investigators that Manafort told him that Ukraine had not been discussed at the meeting, when in fact Gates later worked with Manafort to prepare a report for Ukraine’s leadership on “the pertinent Ukraine discussions that Manafort represented had taken place at the meeting.”
Papadopoulos, a former foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about a conversation he had with a professor with alleged connections to the Russian government who told Papadopoulos that Russians had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails.” The professor met Papadopoulos in Italy in March 2016, and according to court documents filed by the special counsel, took an interest in him “because of his status with the Campaign.” The professor later introduced Papadopoulos to someone connected to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and a woman Papadopoulos believed to be a relative of Putin, according to documents filed in federal court.
The documents do not say whether Papadopoulos mentioned the Clinton emails to the Trump campaign, but they note that Papadopoulos consulted with senior campaign staff about trying to arrange a meeting between Trump and Russian officials. When Papadopoulos emailed a campaign supervisor and members of the foreign policy team about a potential meeting, the supervisor responded that he would “work it through the campaign.” The official added, “Great work.”
Papadopoulos, who has been cooperating with Mueller since his arrest in July 2017, originally told investigators that the professor was “a nothing” and that they had met before he joined the campaign. He faces up to five years in prison.
Former national security adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty in December to lying to the FBI about his communications with former Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the presidential transition.
According to court filings, on the same day that former President Barack Obama announced sanctions against Russia for interfering in the election, Flynn called a “senior official” on the presidential transition team to discuss contacting the ambassador about the sanctions. Flynn spoke to Kislyak “immediately” after his call, court records show, asking the ambassador to “not escalate the situation.” Kislyak told Flynn that “Russia had chosen to moderate its response to those sanctions” in response to his request, though Russia has denied being influenced by Flynn.
Flynn escaped other potential charges, such as failing to register as a foreign agent for lobbying work done on behalf of Turkey, and has agreed to cooperate with Mueller under a plea agreement in which he could be sentenced up to six months in prison and fined as much as $9,500.
Alex van der Zwaan
Alex van der Zwaan pleaded guilty on Feb. 20, 2018 to one charge of making false statements to the FBI. Court documents filed by the special counsel office alleged that van der Zwaan, the son-in-law of one of Russia’s wealthiest men, misrepresented details about his communications with Rick Gates, who was indicted alongside former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort in October 2017, and a second person who went unnamed.
The allegations focus on van der Zwaan’s work at a law firm working on behalf of the Ukraine Ministry of Justice in 2012. At the time, the law firm was preparing a report on the trial of former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. Court documents state that van der Zwaan falsely told federal investigators that he last communicated with Gates in August 2016 in an “innocuous text message,” and that he last communicated with the unnamed person in 2014.
But prosecutors allege that he spoke to both of them about the report in September 2016. They also said he lied about not knowing why an email between him and the unnamed person was not given to Mueller’s office when he had actually deleted that email. On April 3, Zwaan was sentenced to 30 days in prison and fined $20,000 for lying to investigators.
WHAT’S THE FOCUS?
The main investigation in the House is being led by the intelligence committee, which has examined possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian officials, Russian meddling in the election and leaks of classified information. On March 12, over objections by Democrats that not all evidence had been gathered, Republicans on the committee announced that they had found no evidence of collusion. Rep. K. Michael Conaway (R-TX), who is leading the investigation, said that he hopes to declassify a 150-page report on the investigation’s findings.
“The bottom line: The Russians did commit active measures against our election in ’16, and we think they will do that in the future,” Conaway said, adding, “We disagree with the narrative that they were trying to help Trump.”
At least two other committees have also looked into Russian involvement in the 2016 election: The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee has examined payments from Russian-related entities in 2015 to Michael Flynn, and the judiciary committee has heard testimony from Attorney General Jeff Sessions on the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russian officials.
KEY MOMENTS FROM THE INTEL COMMITTEE INVESTIGATION
March 20, 2017: Former FBI director James Comey confirms for the first time that the FBI is investigating Russian meddling in the election and possible coordination with the Trump campaign. He also says he had no evidence to support President Trump’s claim that the Obama administration had tapped phones in Trump Tower.
May 23, 2017: While former CIA director John Brennan tells the committee he does not know whether collusion occurred between Russia and the Trump campaign, he speaks at length about his concerns. “I encountered and am aware of information and intelligence that revealed contacts and interactions between Russian officials and U.S. persons involved in the Trump campaign that I was concerned about because of known Russian efforts to suborn such individuals,” Brennan says. “It raised questions in my mind about whether Russia was able to gain the cooperation of those individuals.”
June 21, 2017: Former Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson is asked to explain why the Obama White House waited until October 2017 to formally accuse Russia of interfering in the election. Describing the politicized climate at the time, he says the Obama administration was “very concerned that we not be perceived as taking sides in the election” and of “taking steps to delegitimize the election process.”
November 2, 2017: In closed-door testimony, Carter Page, a former foreign policy adviser for the Trump campaign, tells lawmakers that he met with Russian government officials during a July 2016 trip to Moscow. Page’s testimony contradicts statements he had previously given to the media in which he said he had not met with Russian officials during the visit or sidestepped the question by saying he met with “mostly scholars,” The New York Times reports.
December 6, 2017: The president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., is questioned behind closed doors about contacts he had with Russians during the campaign. He speaks about a June 2016 meeting held with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower after he was told the attorney could provide damaging information about Hillary Clinton. (The meeting was first reported by The New York Times.) Kushner and Manafort also attended the meeting. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) tells The Washington Post that Trump Jr. told the committee that he spoke to his father and an attorney about the meeting several days later, but declined to describe that conversation to lawmakers, citing attorney-client privilege.
February 2: President Trump authorized the release of a previously classified intelligence committee memo written by its GOP majority that alleged that the FBI and the Justice Department abused their authority when seeking to surveil Carter Page, a former Trump campaign advisor. The memo accuses senior officials of approving surveillance applications that included information from Christopher Steele, a former British spy who compiled a dossier of allegations against then-candidate Donald Trump. It said that the applications had not disclosed that Steele’s research had been financed by the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign. The FBI had warned against the memo’s release, citing “grave concerns” about its accuracy.
WHAT’S THE FOCUS?
The Senate Intelligence Committee is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election — including possible links between Russia and the Trump campaign, and the campaign of Green Party candidate Jill Stein. The committee has also looked into how Russia’s interference relates to what U.S. intelligence officials have described as a larger campaign to conduct cyberattacks against the U.S. and spread fake news. A separate probe by the judiciary committee into election meddling has included questions about obstruction of justice raised after the Comey firing.
KEY MOMENTS FROM THE SENATE
June 7, 2017: Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and National Security Agency Director Michael Rogers are asked by the intelligence committee about their interactions with President Trump, including whether Coats had ever been asked to intervene in the Russia investigation. FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe is asked whether he had talked to Comey about his conversations with President Trump, while Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein is asked about a statement he had made in an earlier closed session regarding Comey’s firing. Coats, Rogers, Rosenstein and McCabe all decline to discuss the specifics of these conversations.
June 8, 2017: Comey tells the intelligence committee that President Trump had urged him to drop the FBI investigation into Flynn, an account the White House has refuted. Comey says he was fired “in some way to change, or the endeavor was to change, the way the Russia investigation was being conducted.” He also acknowledges that he began taking notes following his conversations with Trump because he was “concerned the president might lie about the nature of our meeting.”
July 24, 2017: Jared Kushner is questioned in a closed session with the intelligence committee. Before the meeting, he releases an 11-page statement in which he says, “I did not collude, nor know of anyone else in the campaign who colluded, with any foreign government.” But he says he had contacts with Russians and confirms that during a December 2016 meeting at Trump Tower with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, he sought to establish a secure communications line with Moscow to discuss U.S. policy on Syria.
July 25, 2017: Paul Manafort testifies in a closed session before the intelligence committee about the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower. He provides investigators with notes he took during that meeting, according to the New York Times.
September 7, 2017: Trump Jr. is interviewed by the judiciary committee for five hours about his Trump Tower meeting with the Russian attorney with potentially damaging information about Hillary Clinton. “To the extent they had information concerning the fitness, character or qualifications of a presidential candidate, I believed that I should at least hear them out,” he said in prepared remarks to the committee.
NBC News reported in December that the lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, told the committee that Trump Jr. asked her if she had evidence of illegal donations made to the Clinton Foundation. Veselnitskaya told the committee that she did not work for the Russian government and that she wanted to meet in order to get the Trump campaign to assess the Magnitsky Act, a 2012 law that sanctions Russian officials suspected of committing human rights abuses.
October 18, 2017: Attorney General Jeff Sessions declines to disclose to the judiciary committee details about conversations he had with President Trump before the Comey firing. (Sessions similarly declined to disclose details about his conversations with Trump before the Senate intelligence committee in June.) Sessions was also asked about testimony from his Senate confirmation hearing, during which he said he did not communicate with Russian officials during the Trump campaign. (After his confirmation hearing, The Washington Post reported that Sessions had met twice with the Russian ambassador during 2016 — Sessions recused himself from the Russia inquiry as a result).
November 16, 2017: The judiciary committee releases a letter saying that Kushner failed to hand over a document about a “Russian backdoor overture” and that he had not disclosed an email from September 2016 he was sent about WikiLeaks, as well as communications with a former head of the Russian-American Chamber of Commerce that were forwarded to him.
December 18: The Green Party’s 2016 presidential nominee, Jill Stein, releases a statement confirming that the intelligence committee has asked her to provide documents relating to interference in the election. Committee chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) says the committee initially meant “to look at the possible connections of any campaign and Russians. Now maybe everybody interpreted that to limit it to the Trump administration. That was never the intent.”
Editor’s note: This post was updated on April 4, 2018 to include details about the sentencing of Alex van der Zwaan.