Why is President Trump’s campaign being investigated for potentially conspiring with the Russian attack on the 2016 election?
Because of something that happened early in 2016: Trump, a political newcomer who had never served in the military or held elective office, was criticized for his lack of experience and faced pressure to name the team that would advise him on national security and foreign policy. Once he did, people on it began to receive overtures from Russians or their agents.
One adviser, George Papadopoulos, was working overseas in London. He began to meet with foreigners who offered him “dirt” on Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, and “off the record” meetings between Trump or campaign officials and leaders in Russia. Papadopoulos communicated about these overtures to his bosses in the campaign. He also told an Australian diplomat about the Russian offers during a night of heavy drinking.
The Australian told his government, which told the United States, which prompted the FBI to begin a counterintelligence investigation about the Russian outreach in July 2016. That led the FBI to investigate a number of other people in the Trump campaign and to monitor other aspects of the Russian active measures campaign against the United States. The investigation continues to this day, led by Justice Department special counsel Robert Mueller.
Who else is involved?
There were a number of other electronic or personal contacts between people in the Trump campaign and Russians. Another junior adviser, Carter Page, traveled to Moscow and met with Russian officials. A senior adviser, then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, met with Russia’s then-ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak.
Other people in the Trump orbit had different connections to Moscow. Trump’s sometime campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and his vice chairman, Rick Gates, had spent years in the employ of a Ukrainian politician, Viktor Yanukovych, who was a loyal ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Yanukovych lives in Russia today after being forced from power.
Manafort continued to correspond with at least one person with ties to Russia’s intelligence agencies even after he was charged with conspiracy, money laundering and other alleged crimes. Manafort has pleaded not guilty to all his charges and says he expects to be acquitted.
Other contacts of note took place.
- In June of 2016, Donald Trump Jr. received, through a series of intermediaries, what was described as an offer of support from the Russian government. He agreed to host a delegation of Russians at Trump Tower to hear their pitch. Manafort and Trump Jr.’s brother-in-law, Jared Kushner, also attended. The contents of the meeting are disputed. President Trump has denied being aware at the time that the meeting happened, but people who served on the campaign have said they believe he was aware of it. It is illegal for American political campaigns to accept anything of value from foreigners.
- Trump Jr. communicated directly with WikiLeaks, which Russia’s intelligence agencies used to release the emails stolen via cyberattacks against American political targets. Other people in the Trump orbit communicated directly with WikiLeaks as well.
- Kushner and Trump’s national security adviser, Mike Flynn, met with Kislyak on Dec. 1, 2016, in New York. Then Kushner met with the head of a state-controlled Russian bank in New York on Dec. 13. Kushner says the meetings were relatively brief, uneventful contacts that had nothing to do with the active measures campaign and that he did nothing wrong.
- Flynn talked with Kislyak starting on Dec. 28 about punitive measures the outgoing Obama administration was imposing against Russia in retaliation for its interference campaign. Flynn communicated the wishes of the Trump transition team that Russia not respond with punitive measures of its own and escalate the situation. Instead, he called on Russia’s government to wait until Trump was in office. Russian President Vladimir Putin agreed and Trump praised him for his restraint.
- Flynn has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations during this period and is cooperating with the Russia investigation.
None of this proves that Trump or anyone in his campaign played an active role in the Russian interference campaign. Everyone involved insists they’ve done nothing wrong. And Trump campaigned in 2016 in part on the need to improve U.S. relations with Russia. He has continued to govern with the stated goal of forming a better relationship with Moscow.
What about the dossier?
As all this was taking place in 2016, a private intelligence firm in Washington also was paying a former British intelligence officer, Christopher Steele, to research Trump’s relationships in Russia. That work, which was underwritten by Democrats, yielded the dossier and its infamous allegations about Trump and Russia.
The dossier made sensational headlines when it appeared publicly in early 2017 but remains unverified. Read more about that here. The FBI has substantiated some of its contents but there is little detail about how much or which parts. If the dossier were somehow to be publicly authenticated, that could be highly significant. But if it were to be completely debunked, there still would be the other suggestions about potential collusion.