As promised, I will keep updating this regularly with new developments. I’ve been tracking this story for two months now! Having payed close attention to every major development for these two months, I believe there are a few things we can identify as established, reasonably surmised, and some open questions.
- Russian interests systematically interfered in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election. The consistent thrust of this interference was to boost Trump as a candidate, and harm the candidacy of Clinton.
- This interference effort involved senior intelligence officials and business leaders close to Putin, and was in some fashion approved of and directed by him.
- There is an unusual density of business and personal contacts with Russian interests among several key people in Trump’s campaign and/or administration. You don’t see a similar density of contacts with other nations equally (or more) important to the U.S..
- The contacts of several of these Trump confidants with Russia involved things that are illegal, either in initial commission or subsequent denial. Carter Page, Jeff Sessions, Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, and Roger Stone certainly seem to be in this camp. Felix Sater, Jared Kushner, and Michael Cohen may well be.
- Despite denials and disavowals, Trump has years-worth of history of praising Putin and seeking contact with him.
- Despite denials and disavowals, Trump has years-worth of extensive involvement with Russian businesses and financiers, many of which are part of Putin’s inner circle, and some of whom have ties to Russian organized crime.
- Since so many Trump confidants had senior Russian ties, and since senior Russian interests were so actively working to interfere in the election, these Russian interests would almost certainly have made use of these Trump contacts in some fashion.
- Were any of Trump’s confidants aware of Russian election interference efforts, either during the election or afterwards, and thus liable for not exposing them?
- Or, even worse, were any of Trump’s confidants active, knowing participants in these efforts?
- If so, was Trump aware of it, either during or afterwards, and thus liable for not exposing it?
- Or, even worse, was Trump himself an an active, knowing participant in these efforts?
That’s where we are so far. Below is the original text of my entries since 2/21, with new content from the last week highlighted in blue. And if the trifling 8,500 some-odd words below isn’t enough for you, Political Wire has produced a complete timeline of Trump-Russia affairs dating back to the 80s that currently runs over 160 pages!
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.
- It was reported on 3/29/17 that FBI Director James Comey sought to publish an op-ed in Summer 2016 summer about Russian efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election, but was discouraged from doing so by the Obama White House. In a White House meeting in June or July, Comey reportedly brought with him a draft of the proposed op-ed and presented it to top administration officials, including former Secretary of State John Kerry and former Attorney General Loretta Lynch. White House officials at the time ultimately rejected the idea, deciding instead that any effort to make information about Russian election meddling public should be coordinated between multiple federal agencies, according to the report.
- On 4/6/17 it was reported by the New York Times that then CIA-director John Brennan was so concerned about increasing evidence of Russia’s election meddling that he began a series of urgent, individual briefings for eight top members of Congress in August 2016. At that time the CIA already had a high degree of confidence that Russian activity was explicitly aimed at benefiting Trump and defeating Clinton. THE FBI was less certain of this, thinking it was possible that the Russian aim was just to generally disrupt the election. By late 2016, the FBI, CIA and other intelligence agencies were all in agreement that it was highly likely that the Russian aim was specifically to help Trump.
- 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. CNN put together a timeline of over 80 Trump statements praising Putin or boasting about his relationship with him going back to 2013.
- 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.
- Along these same lines, Reuters reported on 3/17/17 that at least 63 individuals with Russian passports or addresses have bought at least $98.4 million worth of property in seven Trump-branded luxury towers in southern Florida. The buyers include politically connected businessmen, such as a former executive in a Moscow-based state-run construction firm that works on military and intelligence facilities, the founder of a St. Petersburg investment bank and the co-founder of a conglomerate with interests in banking, property and electronics as well as individuals from the second and third tiers of Russian power.
- As part of his dealings with Russian financial interests, USA Today reported on 3/28/17 that the President and his companies have been linked to at least 10 wealthy former Soviet businessmen with alleged ties to criminal organizations or money laundering. This is according to a review of court cases, government and legal documents and an interview with a former federal prosecutor.
- 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.
- Veteran journalist Howard Blum has written a March 2017 article for Vanity Fair revealing in detail the story of how Steele went about putting together the information in his dossier. It’s well worth a read for those interested in this story, and fans of long-form journalism in general.
- 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 one indication of the general regard for his work, the FBI was revealed on 2/28/17 to have been about to hire Steele to further help with their investigation into Russian interference and possible Trump campaign ties. This wasn’t considered a necessary endorsement of all of his findings, but rather respect for the quality of his work. The plan was scrapped after the memos began to circulate and became controversial.
- In December 2016, the Russian government sold a 19.5% share of the state oil company, Rosneft. 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 Rosneft 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 Rosneft 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 Rosneft. 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 Rosneft vastly more profitable.
- President Trump’s personal lawyer and a former business associate met privately in New York City in January 2017 with a member of the Ukrainian parliament to discuss a peace plan for that country that could give Russia long-term control over territory it seized in 2014 and lead to the lifting of sanctions against Moscow. The meeting with Andrii V. Artemenko, the Ukrainian politician, involved Michael Cohen, a Trump Organization lawyer since 2007, and Felix Sater, a former business partner who worked on real estate projects with Trump’s company.
- 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.. On 3/10/17 the Joint Chiefs-of-Staff confirmed that Russia has deployed new missiles in violation of the treaty.
- 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.
- Republican Senator Susan Collins made public calls on 2/22/17 for Flynn to testify to the Senate Intelligence Committee as part of its ongoing investigation into Russian influence.
- 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.
- On 3/2/17, former Trump campaign foreign policy advisor Carter Page reversed himself on multiple prior denials about having had any official contact, and revealed that he had, in fact, met with Russian Ambassador Kislyak during the Republican convention in Cleveland in 2016. These meetings also involved national security advisers to the Trump campaign J.D. Gordon & Walhid Fares. Gordon told CNN that he, Page, & Fares stressed to the Russian envoy that Trump would like to improve relations with Russia. Gordon added that at no time did any inappropriate talk come up about colluding with the Russians to aid the Trump campaign.
- It was revealed on 3/7/17 that Page also made a trip to Moscow in July 2016, which he had first cleared with then-Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. A few weeks before he traveled to Moscow to give a July 7 speech, Page asked J.D. Gordon, his supervisor on the campaign’s National Security Advisory Committee, for permission to make the trip, and Gordon strongly advised against it. Page then emailed Lewandowski and spokeswoman Hope Hicks asking for formal approval, and was told by Lewandowski that he could make the trip, but not as an official representative of the campaign. Lewandowski claims that he does not specifically remember the e-mail, but does not dispute the accuracy of the story.
- On 4/3/17, it was revealed that Page also had meetings with Russian intelligence agents in 2013. Page met with a Russian intelligence operative named Victor Podobnyy, who was later charged by the US government alongside two others for acting as unregistered agents of a foreign government. The charges, filed in January 2015, came after federal investigators busted a Russian spy ring that was seeking information on US sanctions as well as efforts to develop alternative energy. Page is an energy consultant who has worked for, among other clients, the Russian state energy company Gazprom. Podobnyy had apparently been seeking to recruit Page, but ultimately received nothing more than publicly available documents from him.
- On 4/11/17, the Washington Post reported that the FBI obtained a secret FISA court order in the Summer of 2016 to monitor Page’s communications as part of an investigation into possible links between Russia and the campaign. The FBI and the Justice Department obtained the warrant targeting Carter Page’s communications after convincing a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge that there was probable cause to believe Page was acting as an agent of a foreign power, in this case Russia, according to officials.
- It was revealed on 3/2/17 that President Donald Trump’s senior aide (and son-in-law) Jared Kushner and ousted adviser Michael Flynn met with the Russian ambassador to the United States at a time when the Trump administration’s relationship with the Russians was under close scrutiny. Kushner and Flynn sat down in December at Trump Tower with Kislyak for what they described as an “introductory meeting” and “kind of an inconsequential hello.” Trump had previously maintained after the initial Flynn meeting revelations that he had not ordered, or known about, any meetings Flynn had with Kislyak.
- Also on 3/2/17, it was revealed that Attorney General Jeff Sessions met twice with Ambassador Kislyak during the campaign. At the time of the meetings (June and September 2016) he was a U.S. Senator, and an active supporter of the Trump campaign. In his Senate confirmation hearings for the AG position, Sessions had previously indicated that he was not aware of any trump-campaign surrogates who had met with Russian officials, and that he had no such contacts himself. Post-revelation, Sessions maintains that he did not consider the conversations relevant to the lawmakers’ questions and did not remember in detail what he discussed with Kislyak. He has, however, now recused himself from any Justice Department investigations that may arise over Russian campaign interference or Trump campaign ties to Russia. Trump has stated that, while he does not think Sessions did anything wrong, he was not aware of any of Sessions’ meetings with Kislyak.
- On 3/4/17 it was reported that Alex Oronov, a Ukrainian businessman and longtime associate of Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, had died at the age of 68. Further details on the death have not been released, but it has been established that Oronov was the person who organized the above-mentioned January meeting with Ukranian politican Andrii V. Artemenko, Cohen, and Trump associate Felix Sater to map out a plan for lifting sanctions on Russia over its interference with the Ukraine.
- A March 7th story revealed that Trump himself met Ambassador Kislyak at a VIP reception in Washington D.C. in April 2016. There is no indication that it was more than an inconsequential meet and greet, but it contradicts previous statements Trump has made about never having had any such meeting.
- The House Intelligence Committee announced that it will hold its first hearings on Russian election interference on March 20th, 2017. Invited to testify are: FBI Director James Comey, National Security Agency head Adm. Mike Rogers, former CIA director John Brennan, former national intelligence director James Clapper, former acting attorney general Sally Yates and two senior officials from the cybersecurity firm that first put the finger on the Russians for the breach of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). While former NSA head Michael Flynn is not on the list, it was Yates who first informed the administration of his lying about pre-inauguration meetings with the Russian Ambassador, shortly before the President fired her.
- In addition to the Intelligence Committee hearings, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham has announced that his Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism will hold hearings on Russian election interference. Graham is doing this in partnership with Democratic Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. The bi-partisan nature of the probe and Graham’s longstanding status as a Trump critic could make this probe much less prone to partisan pressure to protect the President than the Senate Intelligence Committee’s.
- It was revealed on 3/10/17 that Roger Stone, one of the four Trump campaign-related figures the FBI is known to be investigating for their Russian ties, had been in communication with the hacker responsible for providing the DNC files released by Wikileaks. Stone’s claim is that these August 2016 tweets with Guciffer 2.0 were casual communications praising him after the fact for the hacks, and that Stone had no indication that, as intelligence agencies have subsequently determined, the cyberattacks were arranged by Russian security forces. However, Stone’s tweets in the days after raised questions about whether he knew in advance that emails from Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, would be imminently published by WikiLeaks. “Trust me, it will soon the Podesta’s time in the barrel. #CrookedHillary,” Stone tweeted on August 21. And it has subsequently emerged that, despite at first saying it was only a handful of August tweets Stone in fact was in contact with Guciffer 16 times during the campaign season.
- Michael Flynn, the former NSA head who resigned due to still-being-investigated contacts with the Russian ambassador, was revealed on 3/15/17 to have received more than $67,000 in payments from Russian firms for various services during the 2016 election season. One of the companies Flynn had received payments from was revealed on 3/17/17 to be on a Pentagon watch list of “unsuitable” companies for U.S. parties to have transactions with.
- Roger Stone and Carter Page indicated on 3/24/17 that they want to testify before the House Intelligence Committee to refute allegations and clear up lingering suspicions. The Senate Intelligence Committee, for its part, looks like they want to talk to Stone too, as they already ordered him on 3/19/17 to retain all Russia-related documents.
- The Senate Intelligence Committee has also indicated that they would like to interview Trump’s son-in-law and key adviser Jared Kushner about 2016 meetings with Sergei Gorkov, chairman of Russian state development bank Vnesheconombank (VEB). Gorkov is a former member of the FSB, the Russian state security agency that is the inheritor of the KGB, and a close confidant of Vladimir Putin. VEB, for its part, is under sanctions over Russia’s incursion into the Ukraine. The New York Times reported on 4/6/17 that Kushner had failed to disclose these contacts as required when applying for top-security clearance in connection with his work with the Trump administration.
- In response to unfolding news about Manafort (see “Looking Probable” below), Trump spokesman Sean Spicer used a press conference to claim that Manafort had only limited involvement with the campaign for a limited period of time. Manafort was first hired for delegate management in March 2016, was promoted in May to campaign chairman and chief strategist, and after campaign manager Corey Lewandowski was fired in June, was widely seen as the campaign’s top official until power shifted in August to Steve Bannon and Kellyanne Conway.
- Manafort on 4/12/17 announced that he would register with the Justice Department as a foreign agent for the past work he had done. He maintained that the work he was registering for was not done on behalf of Russia, and concluded before he joined the Trump campaign. This announcement came the same day as the AP reported that $1.2 million of payments received by Manafort’s consulting firm do match transactions from the “Black ledger” that a Ukrainian lawmaker has indicated should be investigated for money laundering (see “looking probable” section below for more on this).
It was also reported on 4/12/17 that on 8/19/16, the day he stepped down from Trump’s presidential campaign amidst controversy over his Ukraine ties, Manafort filed papers creating a shell company. This company soon received $13 million in loans from two businesses with ties to Mr. Trump, including one that partners with a Ukrainian-born billionaire and another led by a Trump economic adviser. The loans appear to have been part of an attempt to deal with debt related to Manafort’s real estate holdings.
- While Manafort has not played an active role with the Trump campaign or administration since August 2016, his decade-long business associate Rick Gates remains entrenched in the president’s operation. Gates is part of a four-person task force working on defending the President’s agenda. As recently as last week, he was at the White House to meet with officials as part of that work.
- The first Congressional hearings on Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible Trump ties to Russia, conducted by the House Intelligence Committee, opened on Monday 3/20/17 with testimony from FBI director James Comey and NSA Director Mike Rogers. Among the highlights:
- Comey disclosed not only that the bureau is investigating Russian meddling in the campaign but that it is also looking at what relationship the Trump campaign might have had to that meddling.
- Comey further disclosed that certain figures connected to the Trump campaign have been under investigation since July 2016. This news came as a surprise to several key Trump supporters. Citing the need to protect the ongoing investigation, Comey declined to identify the specific figures in question, though it is widely believed Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort, Carter Page, and Roger Stone are among them.
- There is no evidence Russian actions interfered in the 2016 vote totals themselves.
- Following the testimony, Republican co-chair of the committee Devin Nunes (R-CA) revealed on 3/22/17 that he had received information indicating that U.S. intelligence agencies, in the course of investigating foreign targets, had collected surveillance involving members of the Trump transition team. When he received this information, apparently at a White House meeting from an unidentified source, Nunes did not share it with fellow committee members or even mention it to them, and instead made a public announcement about it. This has raised questions about his impartiality in chairing the investigation, and led to renewed calls for an independent counsel and/or Nunes to recuse himself. A March 24th poll by Quinnipiac University indicates that 2/3 of Americans support having an independent special prosecutor. 65% agreed that the Russian investigation is important. Nunes, meanwhile, made it clear that he has no intention of stepping down.
- While not willing to step down, Nunes was willing on 3/29/17 to cancel a hearing on Russia where former acting Attorney General Sally Yates was to testify. This followed the Trump administration voicing objections to him about her planned testimony. Yates briefly led the Justice Department while Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ confirmation was pending, but was fired by Trump after she refused to defend in court his initial travel ban executive order. After she was fired, it was revealed that Yates had notified the White House that then-national security adviser Michael Flynn had not properly explained his contact with the Russian ambassador. The Washington Post reported that the Justice Department told Yates that her testimony would have to be seriously limited because of executive privilege, which she disputed.
- Subsequent reporting revealed that Nunes went to a secure National Security Council facility on the grounds of the White House and reviewed intelligence reports, with the assistance of Ezra Cohen-Watnick, senior director for intelligence at the National Security Council, and Michael Ellis, national security lawyer at the White House Counsel’s Office. Ellis is a former Nunes staffer, and Donald Trump had recently personally overruled H.R. McMaster, his national security adviser, to keep Cohen-Watnick in his position. The following morning, without informing any other members of the House Intelligence Committee about what he had learned, Nunes went back to the White House and briefed the President on those reports. He held press conferences, one at the Capitol and one outside the West Wing, before and after his meeting with Trump. In the controversy following these revelations, Nunes recused himself from further leadership of the House Intelligence Committee hearings on 4/6/17. Rep. Mike Conaway (R-Texas) will temporarily take over the committee’s investigation.
The documents Nunes referenced involved Obama NSA director Susan Rice requesting the “unmasking” of the identities of US individuals’ involved in intelligence surveillance aimed at Russian targets. Some of these individuals apparently included members of Trump’s transition team. This led to Trump and some Republican officials alleging that Rice broke the law by requesting the “unmasking”. In fact, the practice in general is not unusual or illegal. CNN reported on 4/12/17 that, after a review of the specific intelligence reports obtained by Nunes, both Republican and Democratic lawmakers and aides have so far found no evidence that Obama administration officials did anything unusual or illegal.
- The Senate Intelligence Committee began its hearings 3/31/17. Among the highlights from the first two days of testimony:
- Marco Rubio’s campaign was also targeted by hackers with Russian IP addresses during the 2016 election.
- Former FBI agent and cybersecurity expert Clinton Watts further revealed that all the major Republican candidates were targeted.
- Such cyber-targeting continued even after the election, including attacks against Rubio on the first day of hearings, and coordinated social media attacks against Paul Ryan over recent weeks.
National Security Agency Director Keith Alexander and FireEye chief executive Kevin Mandia, a pair of cybersecurity experts, described how Russian agents and upwards of 1,000 paid Internet trolls working out of a facility in Russia pushed “fake news” during the election.
- Senate Committee members of both parties also took pains to differentiate themselves from the increasingly politicized House hearings, promising an unbiased and bipartisan approach.
- Connected to the Senate hearings, it was revealed by NBC on 3/31/17 that officials in the Obama administration compiled a list of classified documents related to the probe into Russian interference in the presidential election and gave it to senior members on the Senate Intelligence Committee in January. Sources indicate this was done “to share it with those on the Hill who could lawfully see the documents” and make it “harder to bury” the documents.
- Michael Flynn offered to testify to the FBI and the Senate Intelligence Committee in exchange for immunity. The Intelligence Committee declined the offer, at least for the moment, on 3/31/17. Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) did indicate that Flynn would be a potential witness before the committee. The FBI also does not seem to be interested.
- On 4/1/17 it was reported that Flynn disclosed receiving payments of at least $5,000 for a speaking engagement with the Kremlin-funded English language network RT (which the intelligence community believes was heavily involved in the Russian campaign influence efforts). Flynn didn’t originally include the payment when he first filed required ethics forms in January. The RT payment and two others from companies with Russian ties (cybersecurity firm Kaspersky Government Security Solutions and Volga-Dnepr Airlines) are listed in amended financial disclosure forms Flynn delivered to the White House on 3/31/17, more than a month after he stepped down from his NSA post.
- Russian media criticisms of the Trump administration escalated in mid-April, a further indication that Russia may be souring on Trump. This follows tougher words against Russia’s role in Syria, and a re-affirmation of U.S. ties with NATO, and is a switch from very pro-Trump messaging leading up to and following the 2016 election. State media’s messaging is widely believed to follow Putin’s wishes. In an amusing footnote, Russian media announced on 4/19/17 that the government plans to investigate American media outlets to determine whether they illegally influenced the Kremlin’s 2016 parliamentary elections.
- On the other hand, per reporting from 4/21/17, the Trump team remains interested in brokering a deal on the Ukraine that could end sanctions against Russia. The administration is expected to appoint a special envoy for directly communicating with Vladislav Surkov, a top aide to Putin. The envoy’s job would involve negotiating with Surkov over ending the three-year-old conflict in eastern Ukraine, which began when Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine and backed pro-Russian separatists in the country.
- Exxon Mobil would also like better relations. The Wall Street Journal reported on 4/19/17 that Exxon Mobil asked the Treasury Department in recent months for a waiver to drill for oil alongside Russian state oil company Rosneft. The drilling would take place in the Black Sea, an area covered by sanctions instituted by the United States to prevent certain business dealings in retaliation for Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was Exxon Mobil’s CEO in 2012 when he struck the joint venture deal, worth hundreds of billions of dollars, with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Tillerson has since recused himself from all government matters involving Exxon, sold his stock in the firm, and is placing shares he would have received over the next decade into an independent trust.
- On the investigation front, the Trump administration missed a (self-imposed) 4/20/17 deadline to release a report on Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election. Trump had announced via tweet in January, amidst the initial public revelation of the Steele memos, “My people will have a full report on hacking within 90 days!” In fact, no work toward producing such a report seems to have occurred. Rep. Adam Schiff, ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, said in a written statement it was “deeply distressing” that the president would “not only miss this deadline, but that the work has not even begun.”
- A report that was issued on 4/20/17 (by Reuters) revealed that a Russian government think tank controlled by Vladimir Putin developed a plan to swing the 2016 U.S. presidential election. According to three current and four former U.S. officials, a document prepared by the Moscow-based Russian Institute for Strategic Studies in June recommended the Kremlin launch a propaganda campaign on social media and Russian state-backed global news outlets to encourage U.S. voters to elect a president who would take a softer line toward Russia. A second institute document, drafted in October, warned that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was likely to win the election. For that reason, it argued, it was better for Russia to end its pro-Trump propaganda and instead intensify its messaging about voter fraud to undermine the U.S. electoral system’s legitimacy and damage Clinton’s reputation in an effort to undermine her presidency.
- 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.
- 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.
- It was reported on 2/22/17 that White House press secretary Sean Spicer arranged calls between outside officials and reporters to dispute media reports that officials in Trump’s presidential campaign had contacts with Russia intelligence officials before the election. Spicer reportedly connected officials including CIA Director Mike Pompeo and Senate Select Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr with reporters from The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. During the calls, journalists were told the story wasn’t true but weren’t given details.
- The New York Times reported on 3/1/7 that American allies, including the British and the Dutch, had provided information describing meetings in European cities between Russian officials — and others close to Russia’s president, Vladimir V. Putin — and associates of President-elect Trump, according to three former American officials who requested anonymity in discussing classified intelligence. Separately, American intelligence agencies had intercepted communications of Russian officials, some of them within the Kremlin, discussing contacts with Mr. Trump’s associates.
- The Guardian further reported on 4/13/17 that Britain’s spy agencies played a crucial role in alerting their counterparts in Washington to contacts between members of Donald Trump’s campaign team and Russian intelligence operatives. They first became aware in late 2015 of suspicious “interactions” between figures connected to Trump and known or suspected Russian agents, a source close to UK intelligence said. This intelligence was passed to the US as part of a routine exchange of information. Over the next six months, until summer 2016, a number of western agencies shared further information on contacts between Trump’s inner circle and Russians.
- A purported cyberhack of the daughter of political consultant Paul Manafort suggests that he was the victim of a blackmail attempt while he was serving as Donald Trump’s presidential campaign chairman last summer.The undated communications, which are allegedly from the iPhone of Manafort’s daughter, include a text that appears to come from a Ukrainian parliamentarian named Serhiy Leshchenko, seeking to reach her father, in which he claims to have politically damaging information about both Manafort and Trump.
- While Manafort’s reponse to the initial hack claim was that the messages were “obviously fake”, a further body of thousands of text messages from Manafort’s daughters has been released by hacktivists, and has the appearance, both in volume and detail, of being genuine. In the messages, Manafort’s family expressed misgivings about the political consultant’s work for both Russia-aligned Ukrainian strongman Viktor Yanukovych and Donald Trump. The texts, posted on a darknet website run by a hacktivist collective, appear to show Manafort’s family fretting about the ethics, safety and consequences of his work for Yanukovych. And they reveal that Manafort’s two daughters regarded their father’s emergence as a key player on Trump’s presidential campaign with a mixture of pride and embarrassment.
- The Washington Post reported on 3/21/17 that Manafort is being accused of laundering money from the party of Ukraine’s Kremlin-backed former president, citing documents from a Ukraine lawmaker. Using documents found following the revolution in 2014, Serhiy Leshchenko alleges that Manafort paid himself $750,000 out of the party’s slush fund by forging invoices in a ledger to Belize.
- AP further reported on 3/22/17 that Manafort had secretly worked for a Russian billionaire with a plan to “greatly benefit the Putin Government”. Manafort proposed in a confidential strategy plan pitched to aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska as early as June 2005 that he would influence politics, business dealings and news coverage inside the United States, Europe and former Soviet republics to benefit President Vladimir Putin’s government.
- The New York Daily News reported on 3/28/17 that Manafort, has engaged in a series of puzzling real estate deals in New York City over the past 11 years that resemble transactions often used for money-laundering. These transactions total several million dollars, and follow a pattern used by money launderers: buying properties with all cash through shell companies, then using the properties to obtain “clean” money through bank loans.
- The Washington Post reported on 4/3/17 that the United Arab Emirates arranged a meeting in January between Blackwater founder Erik Prince and a Russian close to President Vladimir Putin as part of an apparent effort to establish a back-channel line of communication between Moscow and President-elect Donald Trump, according to U.S., European and Arab officials. The meeting took place around Jan. 11 in the Seychelles islands in the Indian Ocean. Though the full agenda remains unclear, the UAE agreed to broker the meeting to explore whether Russia could be persuaded to curtail its relationship with Iran, including in Syria, a Trump administration objective that would be likely to require major concessions to Moscow on U.S. sanctions. Though Prince had no formal role with the Trump campaign, he was an avid supporter who contributed $250,000 to Trump’s campaign, the national party and a pro-Trump super PAC led by GOP mega-donor (and Steve Bannon backer) Rebekah Mercer. Prince’s sister Betsy DeVos serves as education secretary in the Trump administration. U.S. officials said the FBI has been scrutinizing the Seychelles meeting as part of its probe of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
- One open question is what, if anything, the legal ramifications of various Trump associates’ Russia ties might be. Unseemly contact with an unsavory regime, after all, is not a crime as such. Vox has published an article that lays out the three broad categories of activity that might involve actual legal infractions: violation of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, failing to comply with the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), and making false statements to federal investigators. All of them are felonies and carry the potential penalty of prison time. While everyone Left and Right likes to use “treason” to describe the activities of their opponent de jour (see: Clinton, Hillary, Benghazi, for all of the Right for all of 2016), the Vox piece notes that being guilty of treason would mean that someone from Trump’s team would have to have been aiding a country or group that was legally at war with the US. Russia isn’t. Per Carlton Larson, a law professor at the University of California Davis, “Formally, we’re at peace with Russia, so even the most outrageous assistance to Russia or benefit to Russia wouldn’t count as treason.”
- It was reported by the New Yorker on 4/18/17 that the White House sought information to support President Trump’s unsubstantiated claim that former President Obama had tapped his phone. “The White House said, ‘We are going to mobilize to find something to justify the President’s tweet that he was being surveilled,’ ” an intelligence source told Ryan Lizza, the author of the story, after reportedly “talking to people in the intelligence community.” Lizza’s story also casts doubt on claims that former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice targeted members of Trump’s transition team caught up in foreign surveillance. “There’s absolutely nothing there,” one source told Lizza. “Trump names remain masked in the documents, and Rice would not have been able to know in all cases that she was asking the NSA to unmask the names of Trump officials.”
Unconfirmed (use with extreme caution)
- Putin’s Chief Strategist, Alexander Dugin, has become the intellectual hero of Alt-Right “Traditionalists” around the world. There are many contacts between Dugin and his supporters and the U.S. Alt Right movement, Trump chief strategist Steve Bannon and Breitbart.com, as well as more “traditional” Conservative organizations. Dugin has also influenced rightist movements throughout Europe, including the backers of the “Brexit” withdrawal of the UK from the European Union.
- The Steele Dossier has been published in full by Buzzfeed. 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.
- Security experts reviewing data patterns possibly related to election interference found that a Trump business server was in regular communication with servers belonging to a Russian bank throughout the campaign. This server connection to Alfa Bank was most active during Business hours in New York and Moscow, indicating some kind of direct communication between parties vs. passive ad serving or something of the like. It also appears to have had particular spikes of activity involving Denial of Service (DNS) attacks during key moments in the campaign.
- The blogger behind Patribiotics has put forth a speculative, but at least well-cited theory based on allegations that Alfa Bank and Dimitry Firtash, a Russian agent of influence, own Cambridge Analytica, the data targeting company used by Trump’s campaign, and its parent, self-described “global election management agency” SCL. The theory further alleges that Cambridge Analytica and SCL used Facebook data illegally stolen by a Russian spy working at Cambridge to build a target database of propaganda. In the closing days of the election, the Russian state hacked into the voter rolls of the United States. Russian intelligence did this in order that they could provide this information to Alfa Bank in order to use Cambridge Analytica’s targeting to precisely target voters and tip them to Trump. Paul Manafort, who has financial ties to Alfa Bank and Firtash, was involved in this effort.
- Five days before the election, the private plane of Putin government-connected Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev was parked next to Trump’s plane on the tarmac in Charlotte, NC. Trump spokesmen claim that they did not meet then, and have in fact never met, despite the fact that Trump sold a Palm Beach mansion to the Russian fertilizer magnate for $95 million in 2008. This is one of several times Ryoblev’s plane has been at an airport in close proximity to a Trump visit, and it should also be noted that Ryoblev’s chief aide is a former contributor to the London division of Trump Chief Strategist Steve Bannon’s Breitbart.com.
- 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.
- I am extremely leery of “death lists” such as mysterious deaths associated with the JFK assassination, the Clinton “death list” etc. They tend to lump together genuine puzzlers with things that really aren’t that suspicious, have only a tangential relationship, and ignore the many not dead people also involved. But I will pass on this list of eight figures associated with the Steele dossier who have died. Some of these are not easy to directly relate to anything in particular, but others, like the deaths of Erovinkin & Oronov which are discussed in the “Confirmed” section above, are extremely interesting in terms of details and timing. I report, you decide.
- A Twitter user has put together a timeline of Attorney General Session’s contacts with Russian Ambassador Kisylak and statements by Russian officials during the October 2016 G20 summit that seems to show correspondences between positive changes in attitude toward U.S. relations by the Russian officials and Sessions’ meetings.
- Columnist and reporter Seth Abramson (Huffington Post, Dallas Morning News, Seattle Times, Washington Post) has used Twitter to lay out a detailed theory on the Russia-Trump connection. It involves then-Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and son-in-law Jared Kushner arranging meetings in the Mayflower Hotel in April 2016 (at the same event mentioned in the section above where Trump now admits he did briefly meet Ambassador Kislyak) that involved Trump, Sessions, Kislyak, and the ambassadors of several countries involved in the Rosneft financial transaction mentioned in the Steele Dossier.
CNN reported on 3/23/17 that the FBI has information that indicates associates of President Donald Trump communicated with suspected Russian operatives to possibly coordinate the release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The FBI is said to now be reviewing that information, which includes human intelligence, travel, business and phone records and accounts of in-person meetings, according to those U.S. officials. The information is raising the suspicions of FBI counterintelligence investigators that the coordination may have taken place, though officials cautioned that the information was not conclusive and that the investigation is ongoing.
- WhoWhatWhy, an online news magazine founded by former Village Voice reporters and editors, has issued a 6,500 word expose alleging that the FBI cannot reveal the details of Trump’s contacts with Russia because doing so would jeopardize a long-running, ultra-sensitive operation targeting organized crime figures tied to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and to Trump.
- A Russian accused of hacking has been detained in Spain on 4/10/17 at the request of American authorities. Such arrests aren’t unusual — American authorities typically try to nab Russian cybercrime suspects abroad because of the difficulty involved in extraditing them from Russia — but Pyotr Levashov’s arrest drew immediate attention after his wife told Russia’s RT broadcaster he was linked to America’s 2016 election hacking. There has been no further confirmation of this so far.
- Towards the end of a 4/13/17 article by the Guardian describing foreign intelligence agencies alerting the U.S. intelligence community to Trump campaign ties with Russia, there is the statement: ‘One source suggested the official investigation was making progress. “They now have specific concrete and corroborative evidence of collusion,” the source said. “This is between people in the Trump campaign and agents of [Russian] influence relating to the use of hacked material.”’ The source is unidentified and further details were not provided, so this needs to be treated with extreme caution. but, given The Guardian’s track record and journalistic quality, it shouldn’t be discounted either.