The threat Russian interference poses to American democracy didn’t end with Donald Trump’s election. The Trump administration has repeatedly delivered on the promises that led Russia to support his campaign in the first place, pursuing a pro-Putin agenda, weakening transatlantic alliances, acting as a chaos agent, and undermining democratic institutions at every turn.
Scrutiny of Trump and his campaign’s ties to Russia has not quelled the president’s public and private pursuit of better relations with the Kremlin. During the transition, members of Trump’s team continued secretly meeting and conversing with representatives of the Russian government, even coordinating strategies to counter the Obama administration’s policies toward Russia. Meanwhile, Trump has repeatedly demonstrated his affinity toward Russian President Vladimir Putin in both his rhetoric and his actions, even as the Kremlin has continued its campaign of asymmetrical aggression.
Russia wasted no time celebrating the election’s results. Members of Russia’s parliament applauded when Trump’s victory was announced. The next day, a senior Russian official acknowledged what Trump and his team would continue denying for months: There had been many connections between the Trump campaign and representatives of the Kremlin. “There were contacts,” said Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister; “We are doing this and have been doing this during the election campaign. Obviously, we know most of the people from his entourage … I cannot say that all of them, but quite a few have been staying in touch with Russian representatives.”
Those contacts continued throughout the transition period. On December 1 or 2, 2016, Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and Trump’s pick for National Security Adviser Michael Flynn secretly met with the Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak in Trump Tower. (The White House only disclosed the meeting the following March, when Kushner refiled his security-clearance paperwork due to massive omissions on his first submission.) In May 2017, The Washington Post reported the purpose of the meeting: Kushner, Flynn, and Kislyak discussed “setting up a secret and secure communications channel between Trump’s transition team and the Kremlin, using Russian diplomatic facilities in an apparent move to shield their pre-inauguration discussions from monitoring” by US intelligence. The White House did not comment on the details of the report, but said the meeting was typical by diplomatic standards. But as a former Justice Department employee wrote in Politico, establishing a back-channel with an adversary, with the specific intent of circumventing the American diplomatic and intelligence apparatus, not only was a major breach of protocol but also raised questions of whether Kushner and Flynn had illegally acted to benefit a foreign government.
Kislyak then reportedly arranged for Kushner to meet with Sergei Gorkov, the head of the sanctioned Russian state-run bank Vnesheconombank and a close adviser to Putin. Accounts of the meeting, which Kushner failed to disclose until months later, differed significantly. The White House claimed the meeting was a standard diplomatic affair; VEB, however, said Gorkov and Kushner discussed Kushner’s real-estate company. The conflicting explanations highlight a major concern about the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia: Several high-ranking members of Trump’s team, including Kushner and the president himself, have violated longstanding norms of financial divestment and disclosure by holding onto their private businesses in office. Kushner especially came into office reportedly deep in debt and desperately seeking a bailout for his floundering real-estate empire, making him uniquely vulnerable to conflicts of interest and potentially even compromising him financially. (Kushner’s conflicts of interest and meetings with Russia-linked figures are reportedly part of the reason he never received permanent security clearance.)
Around the same time, and as erstwhile campaign aide Carter Page headed to Moscow again for meetings with senior Russian officials, the U.S. intelligence community was preparing its report on Russian interference. On December 9, The Washington Post reported that a secret CIA assessment concluded that “Russia intervened in the 2016 election to help Donald Trump win the presidency, rather than just to undermine confidence in the US electoral system.” Trump’s transition team, fresh off multiple secret meetings with high-ranking Russian officials, responded by challenging the credibility of the entire intelligence community: “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” the transition team said in a statement.
The biggest controversy surrounding Trump’s transition team involved Flynn’s phone calls with Kislyak. On December 29, 2016, President Barack Obama announced that, in response to Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, the United States was sanctioning five Russian entities and four individuals and expelling 35 Russian operatives.
Over the next several hours, Flynn, at the time in the Dominican Republic, and Kislyak had five phone conversations about the sanctions; between their calls, Flynn called Trump’s transition team headquarters at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida. The next morning, the Russian government announced it would not retaliate for the sanctions; three hours later, Trump tweeted praising Putin:
Great move on delay (by V. Putin) – I always knew he was very smart!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 30, 2016
Flynn’s phone calls with Kislyak remained secret for two weeks. On January 12, 2017, The Washington Post first reported the conversations had happened, along with statements from the Trump transition team asserting that the calls began before the Obama administration announced its sanctions and that the pair did not discuss the topic. The Trump transition team even sent high-ranking officials such as Vice President-elect Mike Pence and future Chief of Staff Reince Priebus to repeat the assertion on national television.
The Trump transition team’s actions began catching up to them shortly after Trump took office. Just two days after becoming National Security Adviser, Flynn lied to the FBI about the subject of his calls with Kislyak. After the interview, the acting Attorney General Sally Yates approached the White House Counsel Don McGahn to warn him that she believed Flynn was compromised.
The administration’s story fell apart on February 9, 2017, when The Washington Post reported that Flynn and Kislyak did discuss sanctions and that the phone calls “were interpreted by some senior U.S. officials as an inappropriate and potentially illegal signal to the Kremlin that it could expect a reprieve from” sanctions. Four days later, Flynn resigned, ostensibly pushed out for lying to Pence about his communications with Kislyak. (Flynn ultimately pleaded guilty to Special Counsel Robert Mueller in December 2017 for lying to the FBI about the conversations and about another, previously undisclosed conversation in which Flynn and Kislyak coordinated votes on a U.S. resolution critical of Israeli settlements in Palestine. His son, Michael Flynn Jr., has tweeted that his father did not lie to Pence, apparently confirming a tweet in which Trump appeared to say he fired Flynn for lying to the FBI.)
Flynn was also involved in another effort to undermine American sanctions on Russia during the transition. In early 2017, Felix Sater and Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen attempted to facilitate discussions between Flynn and the pro-Kremlin Ukrainian politician Andriy Artemenko. According to The New York Times, Artemenko approached Sater with a “peace plan” for Ukraine and Russia in which Ukraine would vote to lease Crimea to Russia; in return, the U.S. would lift the sanctions it had placed on Russia in the aftermath of the 2014 invasion of Ukraine. Sater passed the plan to Cohen, who delivered it to Flynn. Cohen, Sater, and Artemenko have all acknowledged their roles in the plan; it is unclear whether Flynn considered the proposal, and he resigned without implementing or commenting on it.
Before Trump took office, there was one more secret meeting with a representative for the Kremlin. On or around January 11, Erik Prince, the founder of the mercenary firm Blackwater and an unofficial adviser to Trump, met in the Seychelles with Kirill Dmitriev, the head of the sanctioned Russian Direct Investment Fund. According to The Washington Post, Prince “presented himself as an unofficial envoy for Trump” in a meeting intended “to establish a back channel between the incoming administration and the Kremlin.” Prince initially claimed the meeting was unplanned and had nothing to do with his relationship to Trump; however, The Washington Post has since reported that Mueller has evidence of the meeting’s purpose.
The Trump administration began working to pay back Russia for its investments minutes after Trump became president. During Trump’s inaugural address, Flynn reportedly texted an associate that sanctions against Russia would be “ripped up” as part of a deal to build nuclear power plants in the Middle East. The “Middle East Marshall Plan,” developed by two companies Flynn advised prior to becoming National Security Adviser, would require cooperation between companies in the US and Europe and sanctioned Russian entities, and would therefore provide cover for the Trump administration’s efforts to remove sanctions on Russia. It remains unknown whether the Trump administration seriously considered the proposal, although as of this writing the administration is reportedly pushing to build power plants in the Middle East.
According to The Daily Beast, in the early days of Trump’s presidency, the administration also considered withdrawing troops from Eastern Europe to please Putin. A National Security Council staffer reportedly suggested in February 2017 that the U.S. move troops from Russia’s borders as part of a broader strategy proposal to “refram[e] our interests within the context of a new relationship with Russia.” The administration did not act on the suggestion.
Despite their reported early efforts to do so, the Trump administration has not undone sanctions the Obama administration placed on Russia. However, they have repeatedly undermined attempts to impose new measures to punish Russia’s attacks on the U.S. and other countries.
In July 2017, Congress passed a bill imposing new sanctions on Russia and restricting the White House’s ability to remove existing sanctions. In retaliation, Putin ordered the US to drastically cut its diplomatic staff in Moscow—a decision Trump praised, saying it would save the country money. Trump, facing veto-proof majorities in both houses of Congress (419-3 in the House and 98-2 in the Senate), signed the bill in August 2017, but released a signing statement calling the law unconstitutional.
Since then, the Trump administration has repeatedly demonstrated it has no desire to enforce the sanctions. First, the administration ignored the October 1, 2017, deadline for providing guidance on implementing the sanctions, ultimately doing so on October 26. In the intervening weeks, the State Department scrapped the office whose job it is to coordinate and enforce sanctions policy.
Then, when it came time to enact the legislation in January 2018, the administration again abdicated its responsibility. The bill has three main components: First, the State Department is supposed to impose new sanctions on the Russian defense and intelligence sector; second, the Treasury department is supposed to identify Russian oligarchs and government-linked figures on whom new restrictions will be placed; and third, the Treasury is supposed to release a report on the potential impact of additional sanctions on Russian sovereign debt.
The administration capitulated on all three fronts. Despite warnings from several government officials, including then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, that Russia was continuing to meddle in foreign elections, the State Department announced on January 29 that the administration considered sanctioning the Russian government unnecessary to deter further meddling. Meanwhile, the list of oligarchs and Kremlin-linked individuals the Treasury Department published was quickly revealed to have been copied from a Forbes list of Russian billionaires and the Kremlin’s own website, creating a document so all-encompassing as to be effectively useless. The Guardian subsequently reported that the list was a replacement for a more carefully-cultivated list that had been previously drafted. Finally, the sovereign debt report concluded that contagion from potential future sanctions on Russian sovereign debt was too dangerous for the US to ever impose new sanctions. Even when the administration did announce new sanctions in March, they almost exclusively targeted individuals who were already under sanction or indictment, rendering them effectively useless.
The White House has only continued to sabotage attempts to sanction the Russian government. On April 6, the Treasury Department announced wider-ranging sanctions that quickly showed the desired effect of hurting Russia’s economy. Though the sanctions were initially presented as the first in a series of steps, and even described as such by UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, the administration soon announced it had no intention to roll out additional measures; the decision appears to have rejuvenated Russia’s economy, counteracting the sanctions’ intended effects. After the government expelled 60 Russian diplomats in retribution for the Kremlin’s alleged attempt to assassinate a former Russian spy in the United Kingdom, Trump reportedly fumed that the response was too harsh and would worsen relations with Russia. And the Treasury Department has reportedly given the aluminum magnate (and long-time associate of Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort) Oleg Deripaska a reprieve from the sanctions on him and his company.
In Praise of Putin
Another major pattern of Trump’s presidency has been the contrast between his praise of Putin and his apparent rejection of transatlantic alliances. Trump has repeatedly insulted Western leaders and questioned the value of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization; meanwhile, he refrained from criticizing Putin until more than a year into his first term. On May 25, 2017, while speaking at NATO’s annual summit in Brussels, Belgium, Trump failed to reaffirm the U.S.’s commitment to the treaty’s Article 5, which asserts that an attack against one member organization is an attack on all of its members and is one of the cornerstones of North Atlantic Alliance. After the summit, Politico reported that a previous draft of Trump’s speech did reaffirm Article 5, but the sentence was deleted at the last minute without the knowledge of Trump’s national security team.
Trump eventually did reaffirm the U.S.’s commitment to Article 5 in a speech in Poland on July 6, 2017, only to again demonstrate his preference for Putin the next day at the G-20 summit in Germany. During the summit, Trump had at least two meetings with Putin, lasting for at least three hours, without any U.S. diplomatic staff present. The administration failed to disclose one of these meetings, which occurred during a dinner for all the world leaders at the summit. Trump responded to reports about the conversations on Twitter:
Fake News story of secret dinner with Putin is “sick.” All G 20 leaders, and spouses, were invited by the Chancellor of Germany. Press knew!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 19, 2017
According to The Washington Post, however, while other world leaders noticed Trump’s conversations with Putin, the press did not learn of the conversation for several days.
In December 2017, Trump exchanged two calls with Putin that reinforced concerns about Trump’s pro-Putin stance. On December 14, Trump called Putin to thank him for “acknowledging America’s strong economic performance in [Putin’s] annual press conference.” Three days later, Putin returned the favor, calling Trump to thank him for an intelligence tip that helped prevent a terrorist attack in St. Petersburg.
And in March of 2018, despite explicit instructions from his national security staff not to do so, Trump called Putin to congratulate the Russian president on winning an election that international observers described as “characterized by restrictions on fundamental freedoms [and a] lack of genuine competition.” The Kremlin subsequently revealed that Trump invited Putin to a White House summit during the conversation. Meanwhile, Trump avoided mentioning Russian interference in the 2016 election or the ongoing international incident involving the Russian government’s alleged attempted assassination of a former Russian intelligence agent on British soil. Trump later tweeted that he congratulated rather than criticized Putin because “getting along with Russia (and others) is a good thing,” a sentiment he echoed in a press conference with Baltic leaders.
I called President Putin of Russia to congratulate him on his election victory (in past, Obama called him also). The Fake News Media is crazed because they wanted me to excoriate him. They are wrong! Getting along with Russia (and others) is a good thing, not a bad thing…….
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 21, 2018
Trump has also benefited Putin through his continual attempts to undermine the American intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia meddled in the 2016 election. During his first year in office, Trump repeatedly publicly expressed his doubts that Russia interfered, at one point citing Putin’s personal assurances that the Kremlin had not done so. Behind-the-scenes reports contend that he remains privately skeptic about the origin of the hacks.
The ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia has become one of the most persistent stories among his administration’s many scandals. What began as a probe under FBI Director James Comey into the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 election has evolved into a wide-ranging investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into everything from Trump’s business history to the vehicles through which foreign governments secretly inject money into American politics.
The Early Months
As Trump’s inauguration neared, the investigation into his campaign and transition team accelerated. On January 6, the Intelligence Community briefed Trump on its report regarding Russian interference in election. The declassified report, released the same day, was the first public assessment to assert that Russia “developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump” and sought not only to undermine Clinton’s campaign but also to actively support Trump’s candidacy.
Then, on January 10, CNN reported that the Intelligence Community had briefed the president-elect on the contents of the Steele dossier; that night, BuzzFeed published the document. Trump responded almost immediately:
FAKE NEWS – A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 11, 2017
Cohen, who the dossier alleges traveled to Prague to facilitate collusion with Russia, also responded, calling the dossier “ridiculous on so many levels” and denying the allegations. He initially sued BuzzFeed and Fusion GPS, which financed the dossier, for libel, but dropped the suit amid reports that Mueller has evidence that Cohen did travel to Prague in 2016. (Since the dossier’s release, other individuals named in the document, including Page and Trump’s body guard Keith Schiller, have also denied its allegations.) The next day, at his only press conference during the transition, Trump vehemently denied the contents of the dossier, attacking its claims regarding Russian kompromat and calling CNN “fake news” and BuzzFeed a “failing pile of garbage.” Trump did acknowledge during the press conference that Russia had hacked the DNC and John Podesta’s emails, but added, “I think we also get hacked by other countries and other people.”
By the time Trump took office, the investigation was widening. On January 19, the day before his inauguration, The New York Times reported that American intelligence agencies were examining “intercepted communications and financial transactions as part of a broad investigation into possible links between Russian officials and associates” of Trump. Officials who spoke to The New York Times reportedly identified Page, Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, and Roger Stone as among the Americans under investigation.
The FBI began interviewing members of the Trump administration and campaign during Trump’s first week in office. On January 24, 2017, the FBI interviewed Flynn about his conversations with Kislyak; two days later, Yates warned McGahn that she believed Flynn was potentially compromised. On January 27, the FBI interviewed George Papadopoulos about his contacts with the Maltese professor Joseph Mifsud. Both Papadopoulos and Flynn have pleaded guilty for lying to the FBI in these conversations.
Almost immediately, Trump tried to stymie the investigation. Having already asked FBI Director Comey during the transition to publicly announce that Trump was not under investigation, Trump asked him to do so again on January 27. The same day, Trump fired Yates, reportedly for refusing to enforce his unconstitutional travel ban. After Flynn resigned, Trump reportedly met with Comey and pressured him to drop the agency’s investigation into Flynn, saying, “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
Meanwhile, Attorney General Jeff Sessions began coming under fire for his remarks about the Trump campaign’s contacts with Kremlin-linked individuals. Asked about the topic during his confirmation hearing on January 10, 2017, Sessions had said, “I am not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.” After he was confirmed on February 8, 2017, multiple outlets reported that Sessions not only knew of the campaign’s Russian contacts but had in fact personally met three times with Ambassador Kislyak. Shortly after his confirmation, Sessions announced that, due to his involvement with the Trump campaign, he would be recusing himself from the Justice Department’s investigation into Russian interference.
Trump has repeatedly fulminated about Sessions’ recusal. According to The New York Times, before Sessions recused himself, Trump instructed McGahn to lobby Sessions not to do so. Trump has subsequently attacked Sessions publicly on multiple occasions, calling his attorney general “beleaguered” and telling The New York Times that, had he known Sessions would not be able to participate in the investigation, Trump would never have appointed him to the position.
Investigation and Obstruction
As the investigation has proceeded, so have Trump’s attempts to derail it, with increasing help from congressional Republicans. On March 4, Trump claimed on Twitter that, during the election, President Obama surveilled Trump’s campaign:
Terrible! Just found out that Obama had my “wires tapped” in Trump Tower just before the victory. Nothing found. This is McCarthyism!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 4, 2017
How low has President Obama gone to tapp my phones during the very sacred election process. This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 4, 2017
For two weeks, the Trump administration scrambled to defend the baseless accusation. As Obama administration officials dismissed the claim, Press Secretary Sean Spicer asserted that, because the words “wires tapped” were in quotes in the initial tweet, Trump was referring not to actual wiretapping but to general surveillance. Spicer also alleged the Obama administration had asked the British intelligence agency GCHQ to spy on Trump’s campaign, which GCHQ called “utterly ridiculous” and “nonsense.”
On March 21, Devin Nunes, the Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, mounted his own effort to legitimize Trump’s accusation. That day, Nunes reportedly received a communication on his phone and took an Uber to the White House to review intelligence reports alleging that Trump and his associates had been “incidentally swept up” in legal foreign surveillance by American spy agencies. Nunes claimed the data showed that Obama administration national security officials, including National Security Adviser Susan Rice and CIA Director John Brennan, had improperly “unmasked,” or requested the identities of, Trump associates whose communications had been intercepted. Nunes’ sources have since been revealed to include two White House lawyers and a National Security Council staffer.
The next day, Nunes informed Speaker of the House Paul Ryan of the intelligence about Trump and his associates being intercepted in foreign surveillance. After holding a press conference, Nunes went to the White House to “brief Trump on his findings” (which Nunes received from the White House in the first place); Trump later said Nunes “somewhat” vindicated his claims that Obama wiretapped Trump Tower.
On March 23, however, Nunes held another press conference in which he lied about the source of the intelligence, saying, “The president didn’t invite me over, I called down there and invited myself because I thought he needed to understand what I say and he needed to get that information.” The statement was false, as Nunes had received the intelligence from the White House in the first place. Facing an ethics investigation into his handling of sensitive material, Nunes announced on April 6 that he would be recusing himself from his committee’s investigation into Russia.
The investigation reached a turning point in May 2017. On May 3, Comey testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia was responsible for the DNC hack. Having confirmed in previous testimony in March that the FBI was carrying out a counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign, Comey refused to comment on the bureau’s investigation into the Trump campaign. He also reportedly asked the Justice Department that week for additional staff to accelerate the probe.
Trump then made his most brazen move to undermine the investigation. According to The New York Times, on May 5, 2017, an aide for the Justice Department began asking congressional staffers for damaging information on the FBI Director. Then, on May 9, Trump abruptly fired Comey.
The administration’s initial justification was a letter from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein reviewing the FBI’s handling of the investigation into Clinton’s private email server. The letter, which argued that the FBI, and Comey especially, was unnecessarily harsh in its treatment of Clinton, directly contradicted Trump’s repeated calls for Clinton to face criminal prosecution over the matter.
The official explanation fell apart as Trump repeatedly admitted he fired Comey to impede the Russia investigation. On May 10, the day after firing Comey, Trump met privately in the Oval Office with Kislyak and the Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, to whom he described the former FBI Director as “crazy, a real nut job” and bragged that firing Comey had “taken off” the “great pressure” the investigation had created. On May 11, Trump told NBC’s Lester Holt he had planned to fire Comey over “this Russia thing” regardless of Rosenstein’s conclusion. (Rosenstein later confirmed in a closed-door Senate briefing that he knew Trump intended to fire Comey before writing the letter.)
That same day, The New York Times reported that Trump had asked Comey three times to publicly announce that the FBI was not investigating Trump, and that Comey had prepared detailed memos describing their interactions. In response, Trump implied he had recorded the conversations:
James Comey better hope that there are no “tapes” of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 12, 2017
It wasn’t until more than a month later, two weeks after Comey testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee about the meetings, that Trump admitted that he had not, in fact, recorded their conversations. He has since insisted, without any evidence, that Comey should face prosecution for leaking classified information and lying to Congress, claims the White House has yet to retract.
In April 2018, Comey’s memos became public; the identity of who leaked the memos remains unknown. In the documents, Comey described the conversations as largely monologues from Trump in which he repeatedly cycled back, unprompted, to talk about the Russia investigation. Along with the details that had previously been leaked to the press, the memos note that Trump repeatedly brought up the allegation in the Steele dossier that the Russian government obtained kompromat during his 2013 trip to Moscow, and claimed he could not have consorted with prostitutes because he did not stay in the city overnight. This claim (which Trump denies having made in the first place) was quickly debunked, as flight records, other individuals present, and contemporaneous social-media posts all confirm he was in Moscow for almost two full days.
The Mueller Investigation
Trump’s decision to fire Comey quickly backfired. Eight days later, amid calls for an independent investigation free from the possibility of presidential interference, Rosenstein appointed the former FBI Director Robert Mueller III as Special Counsel. (Comey later testified that he decided to leak the memos about his meetings with Trump specifically to ensure that a Special Counsel would be appointed.)
Congressional Republicans initially praised the appointment. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he “had a lot of confidence in Bob Mueller;” Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said he “welcome[d Mueller’s] role at the Department of Justice;” and Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) said he saw the Russia investigation “as a positive thing, especially having Bob Mueller involved. It brings a lot of public credibility to whatever process they go through.”
As the investigation has proceeded, Republicans have become more critical of Mueller and the Justice Department. In November 2017, three Republican lawmakers introduced a bill calling for Mueller to step down, alleging he could not be impartial due to his history at the FBI and relationship with Comey. Further criticism came in December 2017, when it was revealed that two FBI agents who had worked on Mueller’s team had criticized Trump in private texts, sparking allegations that, although the agents were no longer on Mueller’s team and criticized Democratic officials as well, the investigation was compromised. Moreover, despite multiple indictments from the Mueller investigation (listed below), the first—and so far only—criminal charges recommended by either the House or the Senate’s investigations were against Steele, alleging he lied to the FBI about his contacts with the media.
Republicans’ most blatant attempt to undermine Mueller came, again, from Nunes. In January 2018, Republican staff on the House Intelligence Committee prepared a memo claiming the FBI mishandled an application for a warrant to surveil Carter Page. The FBI, they alleged, failed to disclose to a foreign intelligence surveillance court that Steele received funding from political sources, and that the investigation into the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia wouldn’t exist without the dossier. Therefore, they claimed, the whole investigation was illegitimate. Republican politicians—along with WikiLeaks, Russian bots and trolls, and conservative commentators such as Sean Hannity—began calling upon Congress and the White House to “#releasethememo.” Over objections from congressional Democrats, the Department of Justice, and even some elected Republicans, the House GOP soon voted to send the memo to the White House, which quickly declassified the information.
The memo’s central claim, that the DOJ had not revealed that Steele had received funding from political sources, fell apart when it was subsequently revealed that the DOJ had, in fact, disclosed the origin of the dossier’s funding. (Nunes later admitted he overlooked the information because it was in a footnote.) Moreover, the memo’s final paragraph contradicted the whole purported reason for the memo, acknowledging that the FBI began investigating after Papadopoulos told an Australian diplomat about his conversations with Mifsud. And the revelation that the court renewed the FBI’s warrant to surveil Page multiple times demonstrated not Justice Department overreach but that courts had sufficient reason to believe Page was a Russian asset to continue the surveillance.
House Democrats, meanwhile, prepared their own memo rebutting Nunes’. After the White House at first blocked the memo’s publication, the House released the memo on February 24, 2018. Along with disputing many of Nunes’ assertions, the Democratic memo revealed that the FBI interviewed Carter Page in March 2016, the month he joined Trump’s campaign.
On March 12, House Republicans voted to conclude their investigation, claiming they had not only found no evidence of collusion but that there was not even evidence that Russia had supported Trump. In response, Democrats on the committee released a report detailing the many gaps in the investigation; a Moscow Project analysis of the report determined that the committee failed to interview or received insufficient information from participants in 81 percent of the meetings between the Trump campaign and transition team and Russia-linked individuals. The final report the committee published on April 27 only reinforced the Republicans’ complicity in Trump’s cover-up, going so far as to suggest repealing the Logan Act, the 200-year-old law banning freelance foreign policy of the kind Flynn conducted during the transition.
Trump, too, has repeatedly tried to undermine or even end Mueller’s investigation. Publicly, he has told The New York Times Mueller should not be allowed to scrutinize Trump’s finances, and that investigating the Trump Organization would be a “violation.” After months of calling the investigation a “witch hunt” on Twitter, Trump tweeted criticizing Mueller by name for the first time on March 18, just days after The New York Times reported that Mueller had subpoenaed documents from the Trump Organization. Trump has also said he believes the investigation makes the U.S. look “very bad” and bragged about his “complete power to pardon.” Trump’s public fulmination also may have led to the early departure of the FBI’s Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, whom the Department of Justice ultimately fired less than two days before his planned retirement.
Privately, Trump has reportedly attempted to fire Mueller twice, in June and December 2017. The first time, Trump backed off the decision when the White House Counsel Don McGahn threatened to quit; the second time, Trump reportedly changed his mind when he learned that the story prompting his decision, that Mueller was investigating the Trump Organization’s deals with Deutsche Bank, was inaccurate. Trump also reportedly planned to fire Rosenstein, who oversees the Special Counsel investigation, in April 2018, only to change his mind when Rosenstein assured Trump he was a subject, but not a target, of the investigation.
WHERE WE ARE NOW
Despite the continual efforts to discredit Mueller’s investigation, the results show the legitimacy of his efforts. His team has interviewed a slew of Trump associates, current and former administration members, and campaign officials, including Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller, Sean Spicer, Reince Priebus, and Jeff Sessions, as well as Comey, Steele, and the Russian lobbyist and alleged former counterintelligence official Rinat Akhmetshin; agents have also raided the homes of Manafort and Trump’s lawyer Michael Cohen and questioned Russian oligarchs flying into U.S. airports. As of this writing, Mueller has indicted 19 individuals and three corporations and obtained five guilty pleas, the details of which are as follows:
- On October 5, 2017, Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russian-linked individuals during the campaign. Papadopoulos pursued these contacts with the intention of connecting the Trump team to Russian government officials.
- On October 27, 2017, Mueller indicted Manafort and his deputy and senior Trump aide Rick Gates on charges of conspiracy against the United States for their work with pro-Russian parties in Ukraine. Manafort and Gates were indicted on twelve charges, including counts of conspiracy and money laundering stemming from their work for pro-Russian Ukrainian politicians. Both men pleaded not guilty and were placed under house arrest. After Mueller filed new charges on February 22, 2018, Gates pleaded guilty.
- On December 1, 2017, Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Kislyak.
- On February 16, 2018, Mueller indicted 13 Russian individuals and three Russian entities, including the Internet Research Agency, for embarking on an “information warfare” scheme to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. The counts include conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and bank fraud, and aggravated identity theft. The special counsel also charged an individual by the name of Richard Pinedo with identity fraud, to which he pleaded guilty. Pinedo sold bank-account numbers used by unknown individuals to set up accounts with “a large digital payments company.” The indictment of the Internet Research Agency LLC indicated that it used social media to influence sentiment regarding presidential candidates; Pinedo’s efforts appear to be related to this information-warfare campaign.
- On February 20, 2018, the London-based lawyer Alex van der Zwaan pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his relationship with Manafort and Gates. On April 3, van der Zwaan was sentenced to serve 30 days in jail and pay a $20,000 fine.
Mueller and his team have reportedly demonstrated increasing interest in Trump’s finances, including by subpoenaing documents from the Trump Organization. Mueller is reportedly investigating a variety of subjects, including: whether Trump’s decision to fire Comey, criticism of the FBI, and attempts to cover up information about his campaign’s interactions with Russian individuals constitute obstruction of justice; whether there was coordination between the Trump campaign’s digital operations and the Russian social-media campaign supporting Trump; and if Russia helped finance the Trump campaign through means such as donations to the NRA.
In the process, the investigation has highlighted not only how Russia interfered in the 2016 election but also the structural vulnerabilities that made the United States susceptible to that operation. The probe has, for instance, exposed how unregulated social-media platforms can become potent tools for influence operations run not only by foreign governments but also by domestic dark-money groups, and brought new attention to the lax disclosure laws, especially in the real-estate sector, that facilitate corruption in the U.S. and abroad.
Finally, the Russia investigation has demonstrated the United States’ ongoing vulnerability to cyberattacks, a glaring flaw the Trump administration has done nothing to address. While Trump continues to ignore the problem, publicly express his desire for better relations with Russia, and call Mueller’s investigation a “witch hunt,” members of his own administration have begun sounding the alarm that the Kremlin and other bad actors will continue attempting to interfere in America’s elections.
It is increasingly clear that the president of the United States is compromised by his relationship to Russia; the only question is how deep that relationship goes. The Russia investigation, then, continues to grow more important by the day, sounding the alarm for one of the greatest threats to American democracy in the country’s history.