March 24 (UPI) — It’s the biggest question of Donald Trump‘s presidency: Did members of his campaign collude with the Russian government to sway the 2016 election?
U.S. intelligence agencies announced in October 2016 that they agree Moscow was responsible for hacking Democratic National Committee computers as well as those of other Democratic figures and organizations.
What role, if any, Trump or his associates played in the alleged interference has prompted four investigations — one by the FBI, one in the House and two in the Senate — which collectively Trump has labeled a “witch hunt.”
Attempts to answer the question have also prompted a new one — whether Trump has obstructed investigations into the matter.
Here are the key players and how they’re involved:
President Donald Trump
Trump has characterized allegations that his campaign colluded with Russian efforts to meddle in the election as a “witch hunt.”
Though he said he wasn’t involved in the DNC hacking, in July 2016, Trump said he hoped Russia would find 30,000 emails missing from Hillary Clinton’s private email server during her time as secretary of state.
“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he said during a press conference in Doral, Fla.
Trump later tweeted that if Russians did have the emails, they should share them with the FBI.
Clinton’s campaign accused Trump of actively encouraging “a foreign power to conduct espionage against his political opponent.” Trump said he was only joking.
Though he often praised Russian President Vladimir Putin during his campaign, Trump repeatedly denied meeting with him prior to their first official face-to-face at a G20 summit in Berlin in July 2017.
Prior to his campaign for president, Trump had numerous business dealings with Russian companies. About one-third of the units on the most expensive floors of Trump Tower in Manhattan were sold to people or companies connected to Russia and neighboring states by 2004.
Just before ground broke on the building, Russia defaulted on $40 billion in domestic debt, the ruble plummeted and many Russian millionaires invested in U.S. real estate as a safe place for their money.
Trump and his children have traveled to Russia a number of times for business deals, and though he applied for trademarks there, he never purchased any real estate or opened hotels in Russia. Trump and members of his press team have said he has no financial or business connections to the country.
“I was with the top-level people, both oligarchs and generals, and top of the government people. I can’t go further than that, but I will tell you that I met the top people, and the relationship was extraordinary,” he said.
Some members of Congress have questioned whether Trump obstructed the FBI’s Russia probe when he allegedly asked former director James Comey to drop the investigation into former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
Meanwhile, Trump’s personal lawyer dealing with the Russia investigation, John Dowd, unexpectedly resigned from his role in March 2018 after disagreements with the president.
Flynn became the first former Trump administration official to be charged in the special counsel probe on Dec. 1, 2017. He pleaded guilty to one count of making a false statement to the FBI regarding conversations he had with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
The plea could indicate Flynn is cooperating with the special counsel investigation.
Trump forced Flynn to resign as his national security adviser Feb. 13, 2017, for misleading Vice President Mike Pence about a meeting he had with Kislyak during the transition period.
In his resignation letter, Flynn said he may have discussed policy matters and potential sanctions by the Obama administration with Kislyak, topics he later told Pence were not discussed.
Trump said he only fired Flynn because of the lack of disclosure to Pence, and supported his national security adviser’s contacts with Russians during the transition. Comey testified in June that Trump implied he wanted the FBI to “let go” of its investigation into Flynn. Trump has denied the allegation.
In December 2015, Flynn sat at a table with Putin at a gala for Russia’s state-owned news outlet, RT, and made an appearance on the television network. He made $65,000 that year from companies linked to Russia, but omitted the payments on his security clearance renewal paperwork in January 2016.
In April, Flynn filed revised financial disclosure forms revealing payments from three Russian companies with ties to the Kremlin shortly before he joined the Trump campaign.
After initially invoking the Fifth Amendment, Flynn said he would comply with a Senate intelligence committee subpoena for personal and professional documents related to his dealings with Russia.
Trump fired Comey as director of the FBI on May 9, less than four years into his 10-year term. Trump initially said he fired him because of his conduct in the FBI investigation into Clinton’s emails.
Later, Trump attributed the dismissal to the active FBI investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russian efforts to sway the presidential election. Days before he was fired, Comey asked the Justice Department for more resources and staff for the investigation.
“When I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story,'” Trump said in an interview at the time.
On June 8, Comey testified before the Senate intelligence committee and said he wrote detailed memos after every discussion he had with Trump. Comey said that shortly after Trump fired Flynn, the president asked him to stop the Flynn investigation.
“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Comey testified that Trump said.
Comey said he didn’t interpret that to mean that Trump wanted the entire Russian investigation dropped.
Former Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from heading the Justice Department’s Russia investigation after it was revealed he didn’t disclose meeting with Kislyak twice while he was a senator and surrogate of the Trump campaign.
During his confirmation hearing on Jan. 10, 2017, Sessions said he was not aware of anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicating with the Russian government.
“I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn’t have — did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it,” he said.
Sessions later said his meetings were part of the normal course of duty for his job as a U.S. senator and he never discussed campaign-related matters. To avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, he stepped away from the investigation, a move Trump has since criticized.
“Jeff Sessions takes the job, gets into the job, recuses himself, which frankly I think is very unfair to the president,” Trump told The New York Times in July. “How do you take a job and then recuse yourself? If he would have recused himself before the job, I would have said, ‘Thanks, Jeff, but I’m not going to take you.’ It’s extremely unfair — and that’s a mild word — to the president.”
Sessions resigned as attorney general at Trump’s request in November 2018.
After Sessions’ recusal, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to lead the FBI investigation into Russia. In December 2019, the Department of Justice said the Mueller probe cost more than $25 million since it began in spring 2017.
Donald Trump Jr.
Most of the focus on the president’s oldest son’s involvement with Russia has been on his June 2016 meeting with a Kremlin-linked lawyer who said she had damaging information about Clinton.
Eight people attended that meeting, which started with an email from British music publicist Rob Goldstone to Trump Jr. In it, Goldstone offered to arrange a meeting between Trump Jr. and Natalia Veselnitskaya, whom he described as a “Russian government attorney.” Goldstone said she wanted to give Trump Jr. information about Clinton as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
Trump Jr. responded, “If it’s what you say, I love it, especially later in the summer.”
Trump Jr. later said Veselnitskaya made “vague” and “ambiguous” statements that “made no sense” related to alleged information she had that individuals connected to Russia were funding the Democratic National Committee in support of Clinton.
He said Veselnitskaya’s “true agenda” was to discuss the U.S. adoption of Russian children and the Magnitsky Act.
In addition to Trump Jr. and Veselnitskaya, six others were at the meeting: Goldstone; Ike Kaveladze, the vice president of a Russian real estate company; Paul Manafort; Jared Kushner; Rinat Akhmetshin, a Russian-American lobbyist who served in a counterintelligence unit of the former Soviet military; and Anatoli Samochornov, a former State Department employee acting as a translator for Veselnitskaya.
On Sept. 7, Trump Jr. had a private meeting with the Senate Committee on the Judiciary. He said he attended the Trump Tower meeting because Veselnitskaya promised “information concerning the fitness, character or qualifications of” Clinton.
Senior White House adviser and President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner said he met four times with Russian officials.
In December 2016, he met with Kislyak and Flynn at Trump Tower in Manhattan. The White House said they spoke about “potentially establishing a more open line of communication in the future.”
The same month, he also met with Sergey Gorkov head of Russian state investment bank Vnesheconombank.
On July 24, 2017, Kushner testified before the Senate intelligence committee that his meetings with Russians the year before were “proper” and not an attempt to collude with them to win the election.
Kushner has come under scrutiny for not disclosing the meetings on his SF-86 questionnaire, which he submitted as part of his security clearance. He said his assistant submitted the form before he had a chance to review it.
In March 2019, federal judges in two separate cases linked to the Mueller probe sentenced former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort to 7.5 years in prison.
On Sept. 14, 2018, he entered a plea agreement with the Mueller investigation, saying he would cooperate with prosecutors in his Washington, D.C., money laundering and foreign lobbying case. The arrangement came less than a month after a federal jury in Virginia found him guilty on eight counts in a bank fraud trial in a separate case linked to the Mueller probe.
The guilty plea averted a second trial. The D.C. indictment, filed in October 2017, charged Manafort with conspiracy, money laundering, tax fraud, failure to file reports of foreign financial assets, serving as an unregistered foreign agent and giving false and misleading statements under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Witness tampering charges were added in June 2018 and named an accomplice — Konstantin Kilimnik.
Prosecutors reduced the set of charges against Manafort on Sept. 14 from seven to two.
On the second indictment — filed in Virginia in February 2018 — a jury found him guilty on Aug. 21 of five tax fraud charges, one charge of hiding foreign bank accounts and two counts of bank fraud. The verdict came after four days of deliberations during which the panel of six men and six women indicated it had difficulty reaching a consensus on 10 counts. District Court Judge T.S. Ellis III declared a mistrial on those 10 charges.
The February 2018 indictment says Manafort and Gates passed the money they received from Ukraine through foreign bank accounts to conceal it from the Internal Revenue Service.
Manafort has been in jail since June 15, 2018, when a federal judge in Washington, D.C., revoked his $10 million bond in the first indictment he faced. U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson initially put him on house arrest after he pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Manafort resigned as Trump’s campaign chairman in August 2016 after The New York Times reported a Ukrainian government corruption probe found Manafort received nearly $13 million off the books from a pro-Russian Ukrainian political party. In June 2017, when Manafort registered as a foreign agent after the fact, he reported making more than $17 million from the Party of Regions.
Within the first month of Trump’s presidency, U.S. intelligence agencies said they were investigating intercepted phone calls between Manafort and Russian intelligence agents. Manafort said he didn’t realize they were intelligence agents.
Manafort also was one of eight people in attendance at a meeting between Trump Jr. and a Kremlin-linked Russian lawyer.
Manafort was scheduled to testify before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary in July 2017, but the committee dropped its subpoena after he spoke with members of the Senate intelligence committee and gave them documents on July 25.
On Jan. 3, 2018, Manafort sued the Department of Justice, saying Mueller didn’t have the authority to investigate his lobbying dealings in Ukraine. The Department of Justice asked for the suit to be dropped, saying Manafort misinterpreted Mueller’s appointment as allowing him to investigate crimes “uncovered for the very first time during his investigation.”
On May 15, 2018, a federal judge rejected Manafort’s suit.
They said he can prosecute crimes the Justice Department knew about.
Former Trump campaign aide Rick Gates, pleaded guilty Feb. 23, 2018, to two charges leveled against him by Mueller — lying to the FBI and defrauding the U.S. government. As part of the agreement, he said he would cooperate with the special counsel probe.
Gates is accused of transferring more than $3 million from offshore accounts.
Though Manafort was ousted from the Trump campaign in 2016, Gates stayed on and had a role in the president’s inaugural committee. He also was part of a lobbying group to help push Trump’s agenda, but he was forced out in April amid questions over his role in the Russia probe.
Gates faced a second indictment in February 2018 accusing him and Manafort of financial crimes.
Alex Van Der Zwaan
In April 2018, a federal judge sentenced prominent New York-based Dutch attorney Alex Van Der Zwaan to 30 days in prison after he pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. His was the first punishment related to the Mueller investigation.
The indictment from Mueller’s team accused him of making false statements regarding his work with a law firm on behalf of Ukraine’s Ministry of Justice in 2012 to prepare a report on the trial of Ukrainian politician Yulia Tymoshenko.
Van Der Zwaan also communicated with Gates and Manafort.
In addition to the prison sentence, the judge ordered van der Zwaan to pay a $20,000 fine and serve two months of supervised release.
George Papadopoulos, a former foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, pleaded guilty in October to lying to the FBI about his interactions with Russians linked to the Kremlin.
Court documents show Papadopoulos worked to create a relationship between the campaign and the Kremlin after Trump secured the Republican nomination.
Carter Page is an American oil industry consultant who served as a foreign policy adviser to Trump during his presidential campaign.
Various U.S. intelligence agencies, including the CIA, NSA and FBI, have investigated him for alleged contact he has had with Russian officials under U.S. sanctions. He distanced himself from the Trump campaign in September 2016 while under scrutiny.
In March 2017, before news of the FISA warrant became public, Page sent a letter to the Senate intelligence committee saying he may have been wiretapped during the time he spent at Trump Tower for the campaign.
A pair of dueling memos about the FISA warrant became the focus of attention for the House intelligence committee in January and February 2018. One written by the direction of committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., accuses top law enforcement officials of relying on an unsubstantiated dossier by former British spy Christopher Steel to get the FISA warrant. Trump OK’d the release of that memo in early February.
Trump declined to release another memo by ranking member Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., a rebuttal of the Nunes memo. The president said there were security concerns with some of the information in that memo.
Political consultant Roger Stone pleaded not guilty Jan. 29, 2019, to a seven-count indictment including charges of lying to the FBI, obstruction and witness tampering. The Mueller probe accused him of lying about his contact with WikiLeaks publisher Julian Assange during the 2016 campaign.
He previously said he communicated with WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange in order to obtain information on Clinton.
The Mueller team also said Stone attempted to intimidate Randy Credico, another witness interviewed in the probe.
Federal agents arrested him Jan. 25, 2019, at his Fort Lauderdale, Fla., home.
In March 2017, Stone also acknowledged communicating with Democratic National Committee hacker Guccifer 2.0, which U.S. intelligence agencies believe is a handle used by Russian intelligence.
He answered questions from staffers of the House intelligence committee Sept. 26, 2017, saying he was unaware WikiLeaks planned to publish Clinton’s emails. He said he only knew about it beforehand “by reading about it on Twitter.”
In February 2016, U.S. intelligence agencies said they were investigating whether Stone had any contact with Russian officials during the time he was involved in Trump’s campaign.
During his Sept. 26 interview, he said neither he nor anyone involved in the Trump campaign colluded with Russia.
On Dec. 12, 2018, a federal judge sentenced Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen to three years in prison after he pleaded guilty to nine charges, one of which stemmed from the Mueller probe. That charge — lying to Congress — stems from statements Cohen made to lawmakers about how much Trump knew about plans to build a Trump Tower in Moscow during his campaign.
Trump said multiple times he had no business dealings in Russia — and Cohen told lawmakers he never contacted anyone in Russia about the real estate project. The indictment said Cohen, in fact, spoke on the phone with a Russian intermediary for help with the development. Cohen also admitted to discussing the deal with Trump.
The other charges — separate from, but stemming from information uncovered by the Mueller probe — include five counts of tax evasion and one each of excessive campaign contribution, unlawful corporate contribution and making false statements to a bank.
The campaign finance charges stem from his involvement in making payments in 2016 to two women — Stormy Daniels, also known as Stephanie Clifford, and Karen McDougal — who claimed affairs with Trump. Prosecutors said they were intended “to influence the election from the shadows.”
The Russian president has repeatedly denied any government involvement in meddling in the U.S. election or hacking of political figures’ email accounts.
In July 2017, when he met with Trump for the first time, he again denied the accusations. During the 2016 campaign, Putin lauded Trump as a “really brilliant and talented person,” and Trump called Putin a “strong leader.”
The relationship between the two countries, though, has been strained over U.S. sanctions on Russia first imposed by the Obama administration and continued under Trump over alleged election meddling.
Sergey Kislyak served as the Russian ambassador to the United States from shortly before Barack Obama became president in 2008 until July 23. Meetings between Kislyak and members of Trump’s campaign team have come under scrutiny.
Trump forced Flynn to resign Feb. 13, 2017, for failing to disclose the nature of a meeting he had with the ambassador before Trump’s inauguration. Kislyak met twice with then-Sen. Sessions, who did not disclose the meetings during Senate confirmation hearings to become attorney general. Kushner also met with Kislyak in 2016 and did not disclose it to congressional and federal officials.
For his part, Kislyak said his interactions with Trump surrogates are part of his job as a diplomat — to make connections with political figures in the United States.
Status of investigations
On May 17, 2017, Rosenstein appointed special counsel Mueller to oversee the FBI’s investigation. The team also is considering whether Trump obstructed the FBI investigation into Flynn.
Mueller assembled a legal team that includes Andrew Weissman, who once ran the Justice Department’s fraud section, Deputy Solicitor General Michael Dreeben, Michael Bowe, John Dowd, and three partners from his former law firm, Aaron Zebley, Jeannie Rhee and James Quarles.
The team has the legal authority to issue subpoenas and can use its own discretion whether to inform members of the Trump administration about the investigation’s progress. Trump has the authority to fire Mueller, though senators have introduced at least two pieces of legislation to prevent that.
Mueller’s investigation issued its first charges on Oct 30, against Manafort and a former business associate, Gates. Flynn and Van Der Zwaan also have faced charges.
Additionally as part of the Mueller probe, Richard Pinedo of California pleaded guilty in February 2018 to identity fraud for providing online services to circumvent the security features of online payment processors. It allowed Russian nationals — accused of interference in the U.S. presidential election — to open 14 PayPal accounts with the stolen identities of people in the United States.
On Oct. 10, 2018, a federal judge sentenced Pinedo to six months in prison, six months of home confinement and 24 months of supervised release.
Pinedo’s guilty plea was connected to an indictment earlier that week of 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities. The defendants, posing as persons located inside the United States, created false personas and operated social media pages and groups designed to attract American audiences, the indictment said.
On July 13, 2018, the Justice Department announced indictments against 12 Russian intelligence officials stemming from the Mueller probe. The 12 officers in the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, were accused of being involved in a cyber attack against Democratic Party organizations as well as the presidential committee of Clinton.
The 29-page indictment outlines 12 counts, including alleged interference in the election, aggravated identity theft, money laundering, and computer access without authorization.
Rosenstein said two GRU groups were involved, one to “actively steal information” and “another to disseminate it.” Two online parties, named DC Leaks and Guccifer 2.0, were the personae by which the Russian hackers operated. Both were previously identified as non-Russian entities, but “were controlled by the Russian GRU.”
In December, 2019, the Department of Justice said the Mueller probe has cost more than $25 million since it began in the spring of 2017.
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the Senate Committee on the Judiciary are investigating Russian election meddling.
The intelligence committee heard testimony from Comey on his dismissal and interactions with Trump; has subpoenaed documents from Flynn; and has interviewed Manafort and Trump Jr.
On May 16, 2018, the panel issued a report saying it agreed Russia meddled in the 2016 election and that the effort was directed by Putin.
The judiciary committee in June announced it would investigate whether the Obama and Trump administrations improperly interfered with the FBI investigation into Russia.
There are been some disagreement between the two Senate committees on witnesses, and judiciary committee Chairman Chuck Grassley said he would consider subpoenaing Comey and other witnesses.
U.S. House of Representatives
The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence was the first body to conclude its investigation — determining in March 2018 that there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia prior to the 2016 election. The committee said it would release the final Republican-authored report on its findings after it is redacted of classified information.
Democrats said they do not sanction the report’s findings and vowed to continue the investigation.
On March 20, 2017, Comey told the committee there was a counterintelligence investigation into Trump. On Sept. 26, Stone said there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian state.
In Apri 2017, the committee’s chairman, Rep. Devin Nunes, said he would temporarily step aside from the panel’s Russia investigation after he gave wiretapping evidence to Trump before he shared it with panel members.
Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, took over the Russia investigation.
On July 12, Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., introduced articles of impeachment against Trump, though the measure attracted virtually no support, even among Democrats. It had one co-sponsor, Rep. Al Green, D-Texas.
Democrats have sought to tamp down talk of impeaching Trump for fear it would backfire among moderates and shift focus away from the ongoing investigations.
Sherman’s articles allege Trump obstructed justice by firing Comey after Comey refused to end an investigation into Flynn at Trump’s behest.