You've been hearing a lot about Russia and the Trump campaign and the US presidential election.
Yes, what the eff is going on?
The FBI and CIA say that Russia did things like hack the DNC network and the Clinton campaign's emails. They then allegedly turned around and released the stolen docs to WikiLeaks, which released them to the press in slow drips. Russia also created armies of social media bots to spread fake news. But there is zero evidence that Russia manipulated voting machines on election day.
What happened then?
Ever since all of this came out, there have been investigations – and investigations into the investigations – trying to get to the bottom of what happened. And whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia while this was going on.
Tell me more about those investigations.
The FBI started looking into all this last summer. House and Senate Intelligence Committees have also been conducting their own investigations. And now there's a special counsel on the case. It’s going to take a looooong time before there are any real answers. Hint: years.
So who do I need to know?
Here are all the people at the center of this controversy...
Paul Manafort: Former Trump campaign manager. You know him as the guy who was charged with 12 counts – including money laundering and conspiracy against the US. He's accused of working as a foreign agent for a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine. And was apparently secretly paid millions for this. But didn’t report the cash money – or his work as a foreign agent – to the US. Manafort pleaded 'not guilty' and was put under house arrest.
Rick Gates: Manafort's former business associate and former deputy campaign manager for President Trump. You know him as the one sharing the same fate as Manafort. Gates was also indicted on charges like conspiracy against the US and money laundering. He worked with Manafort to promote a pro-Russia political party in Ukraine. And like Manafort, he pleaded not guilty and was placed under house arrest.
George Papadopoulos: Former foreign policy adviser for President Trump’s campaign. You know him as the one who tried to set up a meeting with Russian officials who claimed to have “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. And was charged with lying to the FBI about it. He pleaded guilty and seems to be cooperating with Mueller’s investigation.
Michael Flynn: Former national security adviser and retired three-star Army general. You know him as the one who was forced to step down after 20 days on the job after misleading the White House about his contacts with the Russian ambassador to the US. He's also in the hot seat for failing to register as a foreign lobbyist for Turkey while also serving as an adviser on the Trump campaign.
Michael Flynn Jr.: Michael Flynn’s son and chief of staff. You know him as the one who spread fake news like ‘Pizzagate’ while working for the Trump transition team. And then got fired for it. The FBI is reportedly looking into his work at his dad’s lobbying firm.
Jeff Sessions: Attorney General. You know him as the guy who, when asked during his confirmation hearings whether he met with the Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, didn’t mention that he had. He also thinks ambassadors "are pretty gossipy."
Jared Kushner: Senior adviser to President Trump, and his son-in-law. You know him as the guy who also met with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. And whose family business dealings have raised eyebrows about potential conflicts of interest while he’s in the White House. He also once got a bag of dirt from a Russian banker. Literally.
Donald Trump Jr.: Trump Organization Executive Vice President. You know him as President Trump’s son. And the one who met with Russians on the promise that he would receive damaging information about Hillary Clinton.
Carter Page: Former campaign adviser to President Trump. He also lived and worked in the energy sector in Moscow for three years. You know him as the guy that the FBI has had a warrant to spy on for allegedly acting as an agent for the Russian gov. He says that he got permission from former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski to travel to Moscow in July 2016 and give a speech there. But claims that the trip didn’t have anything to do with the campaign.
Sam Clovis: Ex-s enior White House adviser and former Trump campaign national co-chairman. You know him as the guy who knew George Papadopoulos was trying to collect promised "dirt" on Hillary Clinton. And OK’d his request to meet up with the Russians promising the dirt, though that meeting didn't end up happening. Clovis was up for a chief scientist position in Trump’s administration, but he pulled out of the running. He says he didn’t think he would get a fair shake during confirmation hearings in today’s “political climate.”
Erik Prince: Founder of private security firm Blackwater and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos's brother. You know him as the guy who apparently had a non-honeymoon meeting in the Seychelles with a close friend of Russian President Putin. This was allegedly to set up a “back channel” line of communication between Moscow and President Trump.
Robert Mueller: Special counsel at the Justice Department. You know him as the guy who’s leading the federal investigation into all this. He was one of the FBI's longest - serving directors, and worked with presidents from both parties.
James Comey: Former FBI director. You know him as the guy whose bureau was investigating both presidential candidates last year. He got criticism for giving public updates on the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server – but not disclosing the Trump investigation until March 2017.
Sergey Kislyak: Former Russian ambassador to the US. You know him as the guy whose calendar invites include former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and others from Team Trump. He also once trolled Carrie Bradshaw.
Christopher Steele: Former British spy. You know him as the man behind that dossier. Research firm Fusion GPS paid Steele to write the document. It includes claims about ties between the Trump campaign and Russia...and golden showers. Mueller reportedly interviewed Steele about the doc last year as part of the FBI’s investigation.
What exactly happened and when?
This goes way, way, way, way back. Get comfortable.
Paul Manafort, Trump's future campaign manager, allegedly agrees to help a Russian billionaire named Oleg Deripaska “greatly benefit the Putin Government” in the US. That includes by manipulating politics, business deals, and news coverage through lobbying campaigns and close relationships with journalists. Manafort and Deripaska allegedly work together until at least 2009. Deripaska also puts Manafort in touch with a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine.
Carter Page meets a Russian spy named Victor Podobnyy in NYC. Over the next few months, Page emails Podobnyy docs related to the energy biz. Podobnyy was posing as a diplomat, and it’s unclear whether Page realized he was a spy.
It comes out that Hillary Clinton used a personal email account connected to a private server while she was sec of state. The FBI will later open an investigation into whether she mishandled classified info by doing this. The controversy follows her throughout the campaign.
Retired Army General Michael Flynn is paid to give a speech at a gala for a Russian gov-backed TV network in Moscow. He also sits next to Russian President Putin at the dinner. He says the event was a “great learning opportunity.”
Manafort – the guy who was once paid to promote Russian interests in the US – joins Trump’s campaign team.
Trump Jr. agrees to meet with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer. Hours later, then-candidate Trump gives a speech promising to give details on Hillary's "corrupt dealings." Two days later, Trump Jr. and the Russian lawyer meet at Trump Tower.
After a loooonnnnng investigation into whether Clinton mishandled classified info while using a private email server as sec of state, FBI Director James Comey says he will not recommend charges against her. But she still can't shake it off, shake it off, on the campaign trail.
Around the same time, the FBI starts looking into whether Russia is interfering in the presidential election. And whether Trump’s campaign team is coordinating with Russia to help make this happen. This investigation isn’t made public until March 2017.
Carter Page, who is now on Trump's campaign team and who the FBI is investigating for potentially being a Russian spy (more on that later), gives a speech in Moscow where he says the US should be a little more friendly with Russia. He says he was there as a private citizen, not as a member of the Trump campaign.
The Republican National Convention aka the GOP's Coachella kicks off in Cleveland. Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the US, makes a cameo appearance. And meets with a few Trump campaign officials, including Page and Jeff Sessions. PS: schmoozing with political officials is basically an ambassador's job description, so meetings like this aren’t necessarily unusual.
But during this convention, Team Trump convinces the GOP to roll back its policies toward helping Ukraine -- a longtime US ally -- fight a pro-Russia separatist movement in the country. This is pretty much the only party platform issue the Trump campaign weighs in on.
Secret handwritten docs are found in Ukraine, showing Manafort was paid by the pro-Russian Ukrainian political party that ended up winning the presidential election there. It’s unclear if the docs are legit and if Manafort actually received that money. Investigators in Ukraine say the docs are part of their investigation into the party's illegal activities. A few days later, Manafort resigns as Trump's campaign manager.
Kislyak meets with then-senator Sessions at his office on Capitol Hill. Sessions later says this meeting was just a coffee date and not related to the Trump campaign. And that it wasn’t unusual for him to meet with ambassadors in his role on the Senate Armed Services Committee. The Washington Post later asks all 26 members of the committee whether they also ever met with Kislyak in 2016. The 20 who respond say 'nope.'
Less than two weeks to go until Election Day, Comey decides to send Congress a postcard saying the FBI is reviewing new evidence related to its investigation into Clinton's private email server. Thank Anthony Weiner.
Note: there's a thing called the Hatch Act, which means no federal agents can directly support one presidential candidate over the other. Then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) – and many other lawmakers – called out Comey for drawing new attention to Clinton's emails, while not releasing info on Trump's alleged ties to Russia. No one knew exactly what Reid was referring to at the time. Now, some people think he knew about the Russia investigation.
President Obama's administration officially accuses Russia of hacking into the DNC's emails and leaking them to Wikileaks.
FBI Director Comey says he's not going to recommend charges against Clinton in the email investigation...again.
Election day. Trump wins. A few days later, Clinton's team looks at what went wrong and decides Comey’s partly to blame for the surprising L.
President-elect Trump taps Flynn for the national security adviser role. That puts him in a position of knowing all kinds of sensitive information, and being the president’s go-to on all-things national security.
EARLY DECEMBER 2016
Kislyak, Flynn, and Jared Kushner get together at Trump Tower in NYC. The White House says this was to "establish a line of communication," and only lasted 20 minutes.
President Obama orders the intelligence community to review how Russia interfered in the election.
Both the CIA and FBI raise their hands to say publicly for the first time that Russia meddled with the election in part to put Trump in the White House.
President Obama says 'you've been very Vlad' and slaps Russia with some sanctions for meddling in the election.
On the same day, Flynn hotline blings Kislyak. He allegedly tells Kislyak ‘don’t worry about those sanctions’ and even suggests maybe getting rid of them. This is according to US intelligence agencies that were listening in on the ambassador's calls.
Note: At this point, Flynn is not officially national security adviser yet. So his convo with Kislyak about foreign policy is potentially illegal.
AROUND JANUARY 11
Erik Prince, founder of private security firm Blackwater, jets off to the Seychelles. It's not to honeymoon, but to meet with a Russian close to President Putin. At least one US official says this was reportedly for Prince to set up a "back channel" line of communication between Moscow and Trump. Prince's people say 'not true.'
An opinion piece in The Washington Post reports on Flynn's December phone call with Russian Ambassador Kislyak.
Press Secretary Sean Spicer said Flynn's phone call with Kislyak was just to schedule a phone call between President Trump and Russian President Putin.
VP Mike Pence goes on the record to say that he asked Flynn about that phone call and can confirm there was absolutely no talk of sanctions.
Sessions, who at this point is the nominee for Attorney General, gets grilled at his confirmation hearing about the Trump campaign's possible ties to Russia. He's asked if he had any contact with anyone connected to the Russian gov while working on Trump's campaign. He says no.
Inauguration Day. President-elect Trump raises his right hand and becomes President Trump.
Acting Attorney General Sally Yates warns the White House that Flynn is misleading them about his calls with Kislyak and could be vulnerable to blackmail by the Russians.
Unnamed US officials say 'guess what? Flynn spoke about sanctions against Russiain that phone call with Kislyak.' They say they know this because diplomats like Kislyak are routinely under surveillance. And Flynn's communication showed up in those intelligence reports.
Flynn hands in his two week's notice for misleading the White House about his phone call with Kislyak.
Trump has a private meeting with Comey. He apparently asks Comey to drop the FBI's investigation into Flynn's connections to Russia. Comey goes home and writes down the details of this meeting.
Sessions' past meetings with the Russian ambassador are made public. This raises eyebrows, since Sessions said at his confirmation hearing that he didn’t have any contact with Russians during the campaign.
Sessions recuses himself, meaning he officially steps away from any involvement in any Russia investigations that his department is handling.
President Trump tweets that former President Obama wiretapped his phones at Trump Tower during the election. He gives no evidence to back up this claim. This will later come into play when Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) – the head of the House Russia investigation – tries to give him an assist.
Comey testifies before Congress. He confirms that the FBI has been investigating the Trump campaign's possible ties to Russia since the summer of 2016. He also says there’s no evidence to support Trump's wiretapping claims. He'd know since that kind of snooping would go through the FBI.
Rep. Nunes, the guy in charge of the House’s investigation into whether Team Trump colluded with Russia, takes a surprise Uber trip to the White House.
Nunes says he’s seen reports that show intelligence agencies may have “incidentally” picked up conversations involving members of the Trump transition team. This was during routine surveillance of foreigners. He shared this information with the press before sharing it with the rest of his committee. Trump says he feels “somewhat” vindicated in his claim that the Obama administration was spying on his team.
Note: it is normal for US citizens to get tangled up in legal surveillance if they’re talking to foreigners that the intelligence community is spying on.
Flynn makes a comeback. He says he’s willing to testify in front of Congress about the Trump campaign's potential Russia collusion. But only in exchange for immunity aka protection from prosecution. So far...no takers.
On the same day, it comes out that Nunes allegedly got those intel reports showing incidental surveillance...from White House officials. Nunes' spokesperson said he was just at the White House to securely view those docs. But critics said 'looks like you were working with the Trump administration to give his wiretapping claims some street cred.'
Nunes recuses himself from the House Russia investigation he’s leading.
It's made public that the FBI’s been keeping an eye on Trump's former campaign adviser, Carter Page, since summer 2016. The feds allegedly got a warrant to spy on Page after convincing a judge there was reason to believe he was acting as an agent for the Russian government.
Remember those docs connected to Manafort? Psst...the one that shows he might've been paid millions for work with a pro-Russian political party. The AP reports that he received those payments after all.
After Flynn retired in 2014, he went on to work with the Russian and Turkish governments, accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments. These biz deals were previously reported. But it turns out, that work was not OK'd by the US military. So now the Pentagon is investigating whether Flynn broke the law.
Trump fires Comey, saying he damaged the FBI's reputation by mishandling the investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails. He says the decision is based on recommendations from Attorney General Jeff Sessions and the deputy attorney general. Supporters say Comey had lost trust within the bureau. Since Comey was also leading the FBI's Trump-Russia probe, critics compared his firing to that time President Nixon fired the Watergate special prosecutor.
Trump hosts Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov and Kislyak at the Oval Office. Days later, it's reported that Trump shared very sensitive intelligence with Lavrov and Kislyak during that meeting.
Remember the notes Comey wrote about his private meeting with Trump? The one where Trump asked Comey to drop the FBI's investigation into Flynn's connections to Russia? Word of it is leaked to the press. This raises a lot of questions as to whether Trump was trying to obstruct justice.
Former FBI Director Robert Mueller is appointed as special counsel overseeing the federal investigation into whether Trump's campaign colluded with Russia to sway the election. He'll have broad powers to lead the investigation – while still serving under the Justice Department's umbrella.
It comes out that Kushner is now a focus in the FBI's Russia investigation. He hasn't been accused of any wrongdoing, but the feds are especially interested in meetings he had last year with Kislyak and a Russian banker. He's believed to be the only White House official under the microscope.
Let's go back to December. Remember that meeting between Kushner, Kislyak, and Flynn at Trump Tower in NYC? Turns out during the meeting, Kushner floated the idea of creating a secret communications channel between Trump's transition team and the Russian government. This is according to officials who had seen transcripts of Russian communications.
The Justice Department charges Reality Winner, a federal contractor, with allegedly leaking classified docs to a news outlet. These docs allegedly show that – days before the election – Russian hackers tried to break into at least one US voting software supplier. There's no evidence that the hack actually impacted the election results.
Former FBI Director James Comey testifies to the Senate about those memos. He says that he wrote these memos because he worried Trump "might lie" about their convos. That he asked a friend to leak the contents of the memo about Flynn to the press, hoping that it would lead to a special counsel taking over the investigation (it did). That he interpreted Trump's suggestion to drop the Flynn investigation as a "direction." And that he believes Trump fired him because the Russia investigation "created pressure."
Remember that time Trump Jr. caught up with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower? Word of that meeting comes out. It was set up so that the Russian gov could give the Trump campaign some info on Hillary, as part of its "support for Mr. Trump." Kushner and Manafort were also there. We know this because Donnie posted the entire email exchange on Twitter.
At first, Don Jr. says the meeting was about a US-Russia adoption program. Then... never mind. Team Trump says meetings like this during a presidential campaign are normal. Critics say 'not so' and that it's potentially illegal for political campaigns to get help from foreigners.
Congress passes a bi-partisan sanctions bill against Russia for interfering in the election. They include an asterisk that says the president can't get rid of or dial down any of these sanctions without getting an OK from lawmakers first. Both the House and the Senate warned Trump that if he vetoed the bill, they would override him. So Trump signed on the dotted line. Moscow says the sanctions are 'nyet cool' and forced the US to cut hundreds of diplomatic staff in Russia as a response. Then in a diplomatic tit-for-tat, the US told Russia it's time to shut down three of its diplomatic offices in the US, including its consulate in San Francisco.
There are many, many questions that remain unanswered. The only thing that’s for sure at this point is this is a very tangled web.