Among my various ventures into activism since the election, I joined an online group where each member takes ownership of two issues. This group is based on the theory that nobody can be continuously engaged on all issues all the time. So, for our adopted issues, we each update the group on new information, issue action calls when appropriate, etc.
As an election wonk, one of my adopted issues is the midterm elections. The other I’ve chosen is keeping track of developments regarding Russian interference in the 2016 election and Trump official contacts with Russia. Being a Cold War kid from Reagan’s 80s Cold War relapse and a lifelong fan of spy fact and fiction, it was perhaps inevitable.
The good news is that I’ll be sharing my work not just with my group, but also with all of you! Below I’ve gathered some of the major news items relating to Russian interference/Russian contact, complete with links, arranged roughly chronologically, and sorted into “confirmed”, “probable” and “read this at your own risk” categories.
I have endeavored to provide sources from reliable journalistic outlets for the most part. Based on everything I read putting this together, I am developing some firm suspicions, and will share those, along with updates, along the way. But for now, to quote a well-known not always reliable journalistic outlet: I report, you decide.
- Evidence first emerged in July 2016 that Russian hackers were the source of the massive dump of hacked e-mails from the DNC and several other Democratic campaign-related organizations released shortly before the Democratic Convention.
- Trump’s former campaign chair Paul Manafort was confirmed in August 2016 to have had former Ukranian-President Viktor Yanukovych as a consulting client. Manafort’s firm received over $12 million in payments from Yanukovych’s political party between 2007 and 2012. Yanukovych has close ties to Russia, and his push for Russian ties and alleged role in Russian incursions in the Ukraine was part of the impetus for his ouster as President following popular demonstrations. The status of Manafort’s communications with Russia are under FBI investigation.
- Some sources believe Manafort was behind the watering down of a plank to the Republican platform calling for U.S. support in arming the Ukraine. The plank had been introduced to the foreign policy sub-committee by a Texas delegate who was a Reagan-administration appointee and an observer in the Ukraine’s first free elections in 1998. It was then weakened to include only “non-lethal support” was under pressure from two pro-Trump delegates who were in cell phone communication with someone after saying they had to call to talk to “Mr. Trump.”.
The New York Times has reported that, in addition to Manafort, three other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election. American law enforcement and intelligence agencies intercepted the communications around the same time they were discovering evidence that Russia was trying to disrupt the presidential election by hacking into the Democratic National Committee. The intelligence agencies then sought to learn whether the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians on the hacking or other efforts to influence the election. Investigations into Manafort and the other three (Michael Flynn, Carter Page, and Roger Stone) are ongoing, but so far have not uncovered evidence of such cooperation.
- Despite his July 2016 campaign trail denials that he had any contact with Putin, several year’s worth of statements by Trump, including a 2013 video of him describing his strong personal relationship with Putin, have emerged.
- It is also known that, while Trump’s claim that he has “zero investments in Russia” is technically true, Russian financiers are heavily involved in backing many of Trump’s investments in other countries. Many of these financiers are closely tied to Putin and the circle of oligarchs that form his base of support.
- Christopher Steele, a former MI6 official posted in Russia in the 90s, produced a 35-page dossier detailing allegations of improper contacts between Trump and Russian officials. The research behind the memo originally began in September 2015 as part of opposition research by Republican opponents of Trump. Steele was hired by the firm doing the research, Fusion GPS , in June 2016 after Russian interference allegations surfaced. It was subsequently continued in the Fall with Democratic clients paying Fusion GPS for the research. The dossier is composed of multiple several page memos written between June and December 2016. Pieces of it had circulated among several news organizations, intelligence agencies, and senior officials including John McCain. An intelligence briefing on the memo was shared with President-elect Trump and President Obama in early January 2017. Multiple sources in British intelligence describe Steele as an experienced and professional asset, whose work was usually of very high quality.
- It is important to note that some details in the memos have been proven incorrect, most prominently a meeting between Trump lawyer Michael Cohen and a Russian official in Prague. The news organizations that were in possession of the memos pre-election had not gone public with them because they could not confirm enough details to feel comfortable releasing them.
- In December 2016, the Russian government sold a 19.5% share of the state oil company, Roseneft. The sale was facilitated by finance companies in Qatar and Singapore, involves a Cayman Island holding-company, and the ultimate identity of the purchaser cannot be verified from public documents. The potential significance of this is that one of the allegations of the Steele memos is that Putin offered Trump a 19% share of Roseneft if he was elected and agreed to lift sanctions on Russia.
- Oleg Erovinkin, a former KGB official and key aide to Igor Sechin, the head of the Russian State Oil company Roseneft and prominent figure in the Steele memos, was found dead in Moscow on 12/26/16. Steele’s documents indicate one of his primary sources was a figure close to Sechin, and there is speculation that Erovinkin was that source. The death appears to be due to foul play.
- The U.S. intelligence community reiterated in December 2016 the October conclusion by 17 intelligence agencies that Russia was behind the hacking and leak of DNC e-mails embarrassing to the Clinton campaign. The December finding went beyond the October assessment, in identifying the hack as part of a more concerted Russian effort to influence the U.S. election, with the specific goal of electing Trump. Among the pieces of information bolstering this conclusion is the identity of the hackers who breached DNC servers and released private material from them, evidence that entities connected to the Russian government were bankrolling “troll farms” that spread fake news about Clinton, and high-level intelligence indicating that Putin was personally involved in deciding what information was leaked and how it was used.
- Russian media also announced that three senior officials of the FSB, the successor to the KGB, and a cyber-security contractor working with the FSB had been arrested and charged with treason on 1/28/17. Analysts believe that, given the timing, and the kinds of people involved, that this move likely has something to do with the U.S. intelligence finding on high-level Russian official participation in manipulating the U.S. election.
- A Trump associate with definite ties to Russia is now Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. As head of ExxonMobil, Tillerson was instrumental in negotiating billions of dollars worth of business with Roseneft. He was even been awarded the Order of Friendship by Vladimir Putin, one of the highest honors Russia gives to private citizens. Tillerson has also frequently spoken out in the past against the sanctions placed on Russia after its intervention in the Ukraine, perhaps not coincidentally because lifting those sanctions and pipeline access to the Ukraine, would make Exxon’s deal with Roseneft vastly more profitable.
- In a pre-Superbowl interview with Bill O’Reilly on 2/5/17, President Trump responded to O’Reilly’s questioning his support for the Putin regime given that Putin is a “killer” by saying, “There are a lot of killers. You think our country’s so innocent?” This echoes statements he made in response to similar questions from Joe Scarborough in December 2015: “I think our country does plenty of killing also, Joe, so you know. There’s a lot of stupidity going on in the world right now, a lot of killing, a lot of stupidity.” Many, including some Republicans, questioned this latest assertion of moral equivalence between the U.S. and the Putin regime. Meanwhile, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov demanded an apology from Fox.
- In his first official call with Putin on 2/9/17, Trump denounced the 2010 “New START” treaty that caps US and Russian missile numbers. Putin had previously shown interest in October 2016 in reconsidering several of its nuclear treaties with the U.S..
- Within the same 24-hour period as NSA advisor Michael Flynn’s 2/14/17 resignation due to questions about his pre-inauguration contacts with Russian officials, a Russian spy ship turned up off the shore of Connecticut, Russia conducted a cruise missile test in violation of treaties with the U.S., and Russian jets buzzed a U.S. Navy ship on the Black Sea.
- FBI Director James Comey met with the Senate Intelligence Committee on 2/17/17 to brief them on the FBI investigation into Russian election interference and possible Trump campaign ties to Russia. Both Democratic and Republican senators afterwards said they were reassured on the investigation. The Intelligence Committee subsequently sent formal requests on 2/20/17 to more than a dozen organizations, agencies and individuals, asking them to preserve all materials related to the Russia investigation. Besides the Intelligence Committee, the Armed Services Committee, and Foreign Relations Committee have also been holding hearings, though Intelligence is now taking the lead. Some Senators are satisfied with this, but others, including John McCain, have urged the creation of a bipartisan select committee or independent commission, which would be less under control of a single party.
- Meanwhile, the House is not so interested in doing investigations on Russian election interference, or on Michael Flynns’s Russian contacts. However, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, and Rep. Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee sent a letter on 2/15/17 that urged the Office of Government Ethics to investigate who leaked information about Flynn to the media.
- The Washington Post reported on 2/9/17 that NSA advisor Michael Flynn had several discussions before the inauguration with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak on lifting sanctions. Such pre-inaguaration contacts are strongly against protocol. Flynn had earlier denied that this occurred, and then, after nine different sources confirmed it, “indicated that while he had no recollection of discussing sanctions, he couldn’t be certain that the topic never came up.” In addition to the December conversations on sanctions, ongoing discussions between Kislyak and Flynn pre-date the election in November.
- While full details of Flynn’s discussions with Kislyak have not been confirmed, the FBI interviewed him in January because of their concerns, and as the story became public, and the denials he’d made to administration officials and they’d made on his behalf became increasingly embarrassing, Flynn resigned on 2/14/17. The timeline of Flynn’s contacts certainly makes it seem likely administration and Russian moves concerning sanctions were coordinated, or at least correlated. U.S. allies also seem to have intercepted some of Flynn’s communications and are conducting their own investigations of his Russian contacts, as well as those of other Trump business associates.
- CNN reported on 2/10/17 that several of the details of the Steele dossier have been confirmed by government investigators. Specifically, they are able to confirm that the dates and locations of many of the meetings between Russian officials mentioned in the dossier match actual movements of those officials.
- One of the Trump associates being investigated for Russian contacts during the campaign, former campaign foreign policy advisor Carter Page, maintained in a PBS interview on 2/15/17 that he had not had any meetings with Russian officials in the past year. The New York Times has reported, however, that he was in Moscow on 12/8/16, for what he described as meetings with “business leaders and thought leaders”. Page worked as in investment banker in Russia for several years in the 2000s, advising on major transactions involving energy-related state-owned companies.
- Shifts in Russian media coverage of Trump following Flynn’s resignation have led some to wonder if Russia is souring on Trump. Such media coverage is thought to usually takes its cues from Putin. This comes as Defense Secretary Mattis and Secretary of State Tillerson, and Vice President Mike pence have all made statements criticizing Russia and/or re-affirming support for NATO and Ukrainian independence.
Unconfirmed (use with extreme caution)
- The Steele Dossier has been published in full by the Blaze. As you’ll see above, some parts of it have been shown to be incorrect. And as you’ll also see above and below, other parts of it have been verified. You can find a link to the full document and a description of some of the controversy around it in the story here. As a still-uncorroborated source, I don’t plan to get into the gory details in this venue, but the gist of the document’s allegations are as follows:
- Russia has been cultivating ties with Trump for years.
- Part of this cultivation involves financial incentives promised to him should he become President and lift sanctions.
- Russian intelligence agencies also have compromising material on Trump that leaves him vulnerable to blackmail.
- There were extensive ties and cooperation between Trump campaign officials and Russian intelligence.
- The alleged but not confirmed to be from real-White House staff RoguePOTUS Twitter account alleged that House Speaker Paul Ryan and Ryan-ally White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus had insisted that Vice President Mike Pence sit in on Trump’s 1/28/17 informal first call with Vladimir Putin, despite Trump’s reluctance, over concerns that the Russian leader does indeed have compromising material on the President. Trump’s behavior during the call was said to increase those concerns.
- Business Insider detailed on 2/11/17 that the timing of contacts between Trump campaign officials and supporters, actions by the campaign, and actions by the Russian government appear to support several of the allegations in the Steele dossier.