On January 6, 2017, the US intelligence community released its unclassified official report on Russian hacking in the 2016 presidential campaign, in which 17 agencies unanimously asserted that Russian President Vladimir Putin had personally “ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election” with the specific aim of electing Donald Trump. What was then a shocking and unprecedented assertion has since become common knowledge: that President Trump benefited from the support of two campaigns, one operating out of Trump Tower and the other out of the Kremlin.
What has also become clear is that there was no bright line separating the two campaigns. Throughout the 2016 election, members of Trump’s inner circle had secret conversations and meetings with numerous Kremlin-linked individuals, often discussing matters of campaign strategy and shared policy goals. Though much about these contacts remains unknown, the evidence is overwhelming that the Trump campaign and the Russian government actively colluded to achieve their goal of installing Trump in the White House.
The Primaries: Laying the Groundwork
By the time Trump announced his candidacy on June 24, 2015, the US intelligence community was already aware of the Kremlin’s interest in Trump. According to The Wall Street Journal, in spring 2015, “US spy agencies captured Russian government officials discussing associates of Mr. Trump, including Mr. [Paul] Manafort,” who would later serve as the second of Trump’s three campaign managers. In late 2015, U.K. intelligence agencies also reportedly spotted suspicious “interactions” between people in Trump’s orbit and Kremlin-linked individuals during “routine surveillance of Russian intelligence assets.”
That Russia was in contact with Trump associates so early is especially notable considering that, at that point, the Trump campaign was reportedly largely a family affair. According to Forbes, when reporters visited the headquarters in Trump Tower in November 2015, “there was literally nothing there. No people—and no desks or chairs of computers awaiting the arrival of staffers. Just campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, spokesperson Hope Hicks, and a strategy that centered on Trump making headline-grabbing statements.”
Around the same time, Russia reportedly began the cyberattacks that would prove central to its influence campaign. According to the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike, the Russian hacking group Cozy Bear began its first phishing operation targeting the Democratic National Committee that summer; by September, the FBI knew of the attack and informed the DNC that Russian hackers had “compromised at least one computer.”
One early contact between Trump’s inner circle and the Kremlin involved Trump’s business. The Trump Organization signed a letter of intent to license its name for a Trump Tower Moscow in October 2015. The next month, Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen—one of the few individuals involved with the campaign from the very beginning—and Cohen’s longtime friend, the Russian-American real-estate developer Felix Sater, discussed the deal in the context of the election. On November 3, Sater, who has ties to Russian organized crime and the Kremlin, said the project would offer a chance for Trump to demonstrate his business acumen to the public. Sater then bragged he could “get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected … Buddy our boy can become President of the USA and we can engineer it.” In January 2016, Cohen reportedly emailed Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov to request help with the project. (Peskov has said that he received the email, but did not respond, and the project ultimately fell through in January 2016.)
The first few months of 2016 saw Trump’s campaign build both momentum and connections to Russia. In February, Reuters reported that the retired general Michael Flynn, who in December 2015 sat next to Putin at RT’s annual gala in Moscow, was advising Trump. On March 21, in an interview with the editorial board of The Washington Post, Trump named his foreign policy team, led by then-Senator Jeff Sessions and including Carter Page and George Papadopoulos. At the time, the announcement drew attention because few people had heard of Page and Papadopoulos; both have since become important figures in the Russia investigation. Finally, on March 28, Paul Manafort, a long-time political operative who spent a decade working for a pro-Putin party in Ukraine, joined the campaign as an unpaid adviser.
During the same period, Russia reportedly escalated its hacking campaign. Having already penetrated the DNC, Russian hackers reportedly launched another phishing expedition targeting Democratic operatives on March 10, 2016. It was during this round of attacks that, on March 19, 2016, Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta received the phishing email that would provide Russian hackers with access to his account and the emails they would later publish through WikiLeaks—a known cut-out for Russian intelligence—in the final month of the campaign. (Podesta is the founder of the Center for American Progress Action Fund.)
Between March and the Republican National Convention in July 2016, at least five individuals from the Trump campaign reportedly communicated with Kremlin officials or allies. According to the guilty plea he signed in October 2017, George Papadopoulos met for the first of at least three times with Joseph Mifsud, a Maltese professor and reported Russian intelligence asset, on March 14, 2016. Mifsud later told Papadopoulos Russia had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails” and introduced him to a woman identified in Papadopoulos’s plea agreement as “the Female Russian National” (who Mifsud claimed was Putin’s niece). Papadopoulos informed multiple senior campaign officials, including Lewandowski and Stephen Miller, about the meeting.
On April 11, Manafort reportedly emailed his former deputy Konstantin Kilimnik, starting a conversation in which Manafort appeared to offer to set up private briefings for the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. On April 27, Sessions met with the Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., where, later that day, Trump gave a foreign policy address calling for warmer relations with Russia. In late May, Donald Trump, Jr., met with Aleksander Torshin, the deputy head of Russia’s central bank and a leading member of Putin’s United Russia Party, at an NRA convention in Louisville, Kentucky. And in June, the Trump campaign aide Rick Dearborn fielded an email offering to set up a meeting between Trump and Putin.
The most famous meeting between the two campaigns took place on June 9, 2016. The roots of the meeting go back to July 2015, one month after Trump announced his candidacy. That month, Rob Goldstone, a music producer and publicist who first become acquainted with the Trumps during the Miss Universe Pageant in 2013, emailed Trump’s assistant asking whether Trump “would welcome a meeting with President Putin.” According to The Washington Post, “there is no indication that Trump or his assistant followed up on Goldstone’s offer,” and Goldstone’s attorney declined to comment.
Goldstone had more success when, on June 3, 2016, he sent an email to Don Jr. with the subject line “Russia – Clinton – private and confidential” in which he offered to set up a meeting regarding “official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary [Clinton] and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to [Trump] 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.” On June 7, 2016, the pair set up the meeting for June 9.
The meeting occurred on June 9, 2016, at 4 p.m. in Trump Tower. Attending on behalf of the Trump campaign were Trump Jr., Kushner, and Manafort; representing Russian interests were Goldstone, the lawyer and Magnitsky Act opponent Natalia Veselnitskaya, the real-estate executive and suspected money launderer Irakly Kaveladze, and the lobbyist and former counterintelligence officer Rinat Akhmetshin, along with a translator. According to the Trump campaign, the group discussed “adoptions,” believed to be code for the discussion of the American sanctions bill known as the Magnitsky Act because Putin’s response to the Magnitsky Act was to ban America adoptions of sick and disabled Russian orphans.
Taken together, these contacts demonstrate the overlap between the two campaigns to elect Donald Trump. By the end of June, at least eight individuals involved with the Trump campaign—George Papadopoulos, Jeff Sessions, Michael Cohen, Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, Donald Trump Jr., Michael Flynn, and Rick Dearborn—reportedly had contacts or meetings with at least 13 Kremlin-linked individuals—Josef Mifsud, the “Female Russian National,” Sergei Kislyak, Felix Sater, Michael Cohen, Rob Goldstone, Natalia Veselnitskaya, Rinat Akhmetshin, Irakly Kaveladze, Konstantin Kilimnik, Aleksander Torshin, Vladimir Putin, the individual who emailed Rick Dearborn, and potentially Oleg Deripaska.
Over the same period, at least eight countries reportedly passed information about Russia’s attempts to interfere in the 2016 election to American intelligence agencies. According to The New York Times, the FBI launched its investigation into the matter after Papadopoulos drunkenly mentioned his meetings with Mifsud to the Australian ambassador to the United Kingdom, who passed the information back to his government, which passed it to the US intelligence community. Other countries sharing intelligence reportedly included the United Kingdom, Germany, Estonia, Poland, France, the Netherlands, and “one of the Baltic States,” which reportedly gave CIA Director John Brennan “a tape recording of a conversation about money from the Kremlin going into the US presidential campaign” in April 2016.
Meanwhile, in June, the former MI6 agent Christopher Steele began compiling his dossier on the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, which appears to allude to some of the contacts that were not yet public knowledge. In his first report, Steele wrote that two sources, one a “senior Russian Foreign Ministry figure” and another “a close associate of TRUMP who had organized and managed his recent trips to Moscow,” told him that “the Kremlin had been feeding TRUMP and his team valuable intelligence on his opponents, including the Democratic presidential candidate Hillary CLINTON.” Steele also noted that “the Kremlin’s cultivation operation on TRUMP also had comprised offering him various lucrative real estate development business deals in Russia,” but that the offers did not pan out.
July: Quid Pro Quo At the Convention?
July saw more meetings and contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia, and marked a turning point not only because Trump officially secured the Republican nomination for president but also because Russia began to implement its digital strategy.
On July 7, Carter Page traveled to Moscow to speak at the New Economic School in Moscow. According to Page’s own congressional testimony, after the speech, Page met with Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich and the head of investor relations at the state-owned oil giant Rosneft; the next day, he emailed another of Trump’s advisers, J.D. Gordon, about “incredible insights and outreach … from a few Russian legislators and senior members of the presidential administration here.” Page later testified that he communicated with multiple Trump campaign officials, including Gordon, campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, and spokeswoman Hope Hicks, to receive approval for his trip.
Page’s Moscow trip features prominently in the Steele dossier. According to Steele, the Russian officials with whom Page met “raised with PAGE the issues of future bilateral energy cooperation and prospects for an associated move to lift Ukraine-related Western sanctions against Russia,” to which Page “reacted positively… but had been generally non-committal in response.” The dossier also says the Rosneft executives with whom Page met offered him “the brokerage of up to a 19 per cent (privatized) stake in Rosneft in return” for lifting sanctions, and that Page “confirmed that were TRUMP elected US president, then sanctions on Russia would be lifted.”
A week later, during the debates over the GOP’s official platform, the Trump campaign reportedly requested a change that represented a major divergence from Republican norms—and that seemed to manifest the campaign’s pro-Russia stance. Prior to the 2016 election, many Republican politicians harshly criticized the Obama administration for its response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, arguing that the US should begin providing lethal-weapons assistance to Ukraine to assist in repelling Russian forces. Language calling upon the government to do so was reportedly included in a draft of the official GOP platform.
But during the debates over the platform, which lasted from July 11 to July 15, 2016, that language was softened, from offering “lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine’s Armed Forces” to merely calling for “appropriate assistance.” The Washington Post reported that the platform committee made the change at the behest of J.D. Gordon, a long-time Republican operative and Trump campaign aide.
Initially, the Trump campaign dissembled about the change. Speaking on “Meet the Press” on July 31, Trump’s then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort said the change “absolutely did not come from the Trump campaign.” The same day, Trump told ABC that his campaign was behind the change, but denied having been personally involved in the decision. Gordon, too, offered conflicting accounts, disputing that he played a role before acknowledging he had pushed the platform committee to change the language.
Since then, it has become clearer that the Trump campaign was behind the change. Page, who had just returned from Moscow, reportedly emailed Gordon and other campaign advisers praising their work on changing the amendment, and several other Republican operatives involved in the platform committee have since corroborated reports that Gordon led the effort to change the platform. Gordon was also one of three members of the Trump campaign, along with Sessions and Page, to reportedly meet with Russian ambassador Kislyak at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on July 20.
After the RNC, Russia began implementing one of the major planks of its digital strategy. On July 22, WikiLeaks published the first of what would become a steady stream of emails it had stolen from Democratic operatives, revealing messages acquired from the Democratic National Committee’s servers. The leak seemed orchestrated to disrupt the Democratic National Convention, which began three days later in Philadelphia. The leak included emails from the committee’s chairwoman, Florida congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and other operatives in which they seemed dismissive toward Senator Bernie Sanders’s candidacy. The emails fueled outrage among Sanders supporters who felt the national Democratic party had unduly influenced the primary process toward Hillary Clinton, leading to protests during the convention and Wasserman Schultz’s resignation.
By the convention’s end, consensus was growing that Russia was behind the leaked emails. On July 26, US intel sources told The New York Times that “they now have ‘high confidence’ that the Russian government was behind the theft of emails and documents from the Democratic National Committee,” although they had not yet determined whether the hacks were “intended as fairly routine cyberespionage … or as part of an effort to manipulate the 2016 presidential election.”
Trump not only cast doubt on the intelligence community’s assessment but called upon Russia to do more. In a July 27 press conference, Trump said blaming Russia was “a total deflection,” adding, “it’s probably China, or it could be somebody sitting in his bed.” He then urged Russia to hack into Clinton’s email account: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he said, referring to the ongoing scandal regarding Clinton’s private email server; “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.” Though the campaign claimed the comment was a joke, Trump doubled down the next morning, tweeting, “If Russia or any other country or person has Hillary Clinton’s 33,000 illegally deleted emails, perhaps they should share them with the FBI!”
The General: The Depths of Collusion
Individuals associated with the Trump campaign reportedly continued to interact with Kremlin-linked individuals throughout the final months of the campaign. As of November 13, 2017, The Washington Post tallied 31 contacts and 19 meetings between the two groups. Additionally, despite having access to the intelligence community’s growing consensus that Russia was trying to interfere in the election, Trump continued to question whether Russia was behind the hacks, including during all three presidential debates and in a September 8 interview with Russia’s state-run propaganda channel RT.
Meanwhile, Russia escalated its campaign on Trump’s behalf, often in ways that strongly resembled the Trump team’s own strategies. Many of Russia’s tactics, including stealing and leaking private communications and attempting to hack private companies, are illegal; others, such as funding armies of online bots and trolls, fall significantly outside of mainstream American political tactics, whether due to their dishonesty or the costs they would entail.
Russia’s most obvious contribution to Trump’s campaign was its opposition research: From July 22 on, WikiLeaks published a steady stream of emails stolen from Democratic and Clinton campaign operatives. Trump eagerly embraced WikiLeaks during the campaign, publicly mentioning the website 164 times in the final month of the campaign alone.
Even at the time, there was evidence that people in Trump’s orbit had advance knowledge of WikiLeaks’ plans. Roger Stone, a Republican operative with a reputation as a “dirty trickster” and a long history of informally advising Trump, publicly stated multiple times in August that he was in contact with not only WikiLeaks and its founder Julian Assange but also the Russian hacker who claimed credit for stealing the emails. One of Stone’s statements that especially stands out came on August 21, when Stone tweeted, “Trust me, it will soon [be] Podesta’s time in the barrel.” The tweet seemed to presage WikiLeaks’ publication of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s emails, which even Podesta himself did not know had been hacked until WikiLeaks began to leak them.
Reporting since the election has revealed others associated with the Trump campaign also communicated with WikiLeaks or Russian hackers during the campaign. The closest to Trump was his son, Don Jr., who received a Direct Message from WikiLeaks on Twitter on September 20. The two exchanged several messages during the final month of the campaign, including one in which WikiLeaks suggested Trump contest the results of the election if he lost. An employee at Cambridge Analytica, the data firm Jared Kushner hired to run the campaign’s digital operations, also reportedly contacted WikiLeaks in June 2016 about assisting with the dissemination of the hacked emails (Assange has said that the company received, but rejected, the offer). Additionally, the Republican donor Peter Smith told The Wall Street Journal in June 2017 that he had independently organized a team trying to establish contact with Russian hackers to attain Clinton’s emails during the campaign. Finally, George Papadopoulos apparently knew before anybody else that Russia had its hands on the Clinton campaign’s emails, having heard about them from Mifsud in April.
The clearest evidence that WikiLeaks and Russia were working on Trump’s behalf came on October 7, 2016. That afternoon, at 4:03 p.m., The Washington Post published the explosive “Access Hollywood” tape, behind-the-scenes footage from 2005 in which Trump bragged about groping women without their consent. Just 29 minutes later, WikiLeaks began publishing the contents of Podesta’s email inbox. Whether there was explicit coordination between the Trump campaign and WikiLeaks remains unknown. Nevertheless, the move seemed to belie some level of cooperation: It is hard to imagine WikiLeaks timing the release on a Friday afternoon right after the biggest bombshell of the campaign unless the organization was actively trying to distract from The Washington Post’s story.
The Kremlin also contributed broader messaging support. As the intelligence community’s January 6, 2017 report documents, Russia used networks of online bots and trolls, as well as state-run media like RT America and Sputnik, to aggressively promote Trump’s candidacy from almost the moment he announced he would be running. Russian bots and trolls allegedly helped tilt the online discourse in a pro-Trump direction throughout the election (and, even as social networks try to combat their influence, reportedly retain the ability to steer conversations through hashtags and trending topics).
To supplement its online campaign, the Kremlin also reportedly purchased advertisements on social-media platforms, including Facebook and Twitter. Though Facebook initially denied that its platform had been used to spread disinformation, it later revealed that Kremlin-linked companies spent at least $150,000 on promoted posts during the election, prompting a cascade of revelations showing how Russian-produced content across a variety of social networks reached millions of users. While most of the content was confined to the internet, some of the ads promoted real-world events, including an anti-refugee rally in an Idaho town where Breitbart falsely claimed the local government was covering up a horrific crime spree by Muslim refugees.
The resemblance between the Kremlin’s campaign and the official Trump campaign’s online strategies goes beyond mutual support for Trump. The Russian companies purchasing advertisements reportedly used targeting techniques that strongly resemble those Cambridge Analytica frequently touts. (Cambridge Analytica has denied allegations that it colluded with Russian actors.) In the weeks leading up to the election, both reportedly heavily targeted the midwestern states that ultimately proved essential for Trump’s victory, despite political analysts’ doubts he could win there. Both also allegedly specifically aimed to depress turnout for Clinton among voters who supported Sanders in the primary by resurfacing wedge issues like the Trans-Pacific Partnership and, in the Kremlin’s case, by promoting Sanders and the Green Party candidate Jill Stein. Members of Trump’s digital-operations team even bragged about their turnout-suppressing campaign mere days before the election.
These similarities raise the possibility that the campaigns shared not only a superficial strategy but also underlying data behind the decisions. The sophistication of Russia’s social-media campaign suggests that they had inside help: Not only did the Kremlin reportedly mirror and amplify the Trump campaign uncannily well, it also displayed a level of insight far above what could be expected from a foreign observer (it was, after all, above that of most domestic analysts). Indeed, Steele noted in July 2016 that there was an “extensive conspiracy between campaign team and Kremlin,” with “exchange of information established in both directions.”
Beyond the contacts between individuals linked to the two campaigns, they may have been able to trade information without having to meet face to face, or even exchange emails. On October 31, 2016, the journalist Franklin Foer wrote in Slate about a mysterious online connection between the Trump campaign and a Russian bank. According to Foer, a cybersecurity expert noticed in late July that a Trump Organization server appeared to be communicating with one at Alfa Bank, a Russian financial institution with links to the Kremlin. Though some experts suggested the communication could be spam, none was found to have been transferred between the two servers. In March 2017, CNN reported that the FBI and cybersecurity experts “continue to examine” the connection; however, it remains a mystery why the servers were communicating and what, if any, information they exchanged.
Finally, the Kremlin attacked actual voting infrastructure. According to a top-secret NSA report obtained by The Intercept, by the end of September 2016, Russian hackers attempted to hack into voting infrastructure in 21 states, as well as the election-systems vendor VR Systems. The hackers then reportedly sent a second round of malware on October 31 or November 1, one week before the election. Though it remains unknown how successful these attacks were, NPR has reported that, on election day, several North Carolina precincts using software from VR Systems incurred technical difficulties that led to significant delays.
Collusion in Plain Sight
The evidence for collusion between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin is overwhelming. Much of it was in plain sight well before the election: Russia illegally hacked prominent Democrats’ email accounts, then strategically published the information through a known cut-out to damage Trump’s opponent. The Trump campaign, which had apparent foreknowledge of the leaks, relied heavily on the information to make its case, especially in the contest’s final month. Meanwhile, Russia mobilized online armies of bots and trolls to promote Trump’s candidacy, all while he continually denied receiving their support.
There was also likely collusion behind closed doors. Most of the dozens of contacts between the two campaigns remained secret until well after the election; so did many of the details of the Russian government’s online efforts to tip the election in Trump’s favor. As Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation continues, it is likely that information will continue to emerge painting a more detailed picture about how, and why, the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government against American democracy—and what the consequences of that conspiracy will be.