For a long time, there have been questions surrounding President Trump's relationship with Russia during the presidential election. It has become fodder for jokes and inappropriate murals. It has even alarmed some Republicans in Congress.
The plot thickened earlier this week when Michael Flynn resigned from his position as National Security Advisor after it was revealed that he had discussed the sanctions imposed on Russia by former President Obama during a phone conversation with a Russian ambassador. Flynn was asked to tender his resignation when it became clear that he had misled Vice President Mike Pence (and the public) about the nature of those talks.
Then, on Tuesday, February 14, The New York Times published a report claiming that Trump's campaign aides were in constant contact with Russian intelligence officials during the election. What was discussed during those conversations has not been made public, but the Times' story supports the findings of intelligence agencies — that Russia did, in fact, influence the U.S. presidential election.
Trump has said that the allegations regarding Russian intervention in the election is "fake news," a point he repeated during a press conference yesterday.
So, what do we actually know about this whole mess?
Well, there are various incidents pertaining to Russia and the Trump administration that appear to be separate, but which are also interconnected. Ahead, a simple guide to what we know, what we don't know, and why you should care.
What We Know
On the election:
A declassified C.I.A. and N.S.A. report published in early January concluded that Russian President Vladimir Putin "ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election." The specific goal of said campaign was to harm Hillary Clinton’s "electability and potential presidency." The report goes on to say that, "Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump."
Russian officials accomplished this by releasing emails from allies of Hillary Clinton, i.e. the DNC, and Clinton campaign chair John Podesta. Hackers stole emails from them and turned them over to WikiLeaks. The leaks were designed to damage Clinton's candidacy.
At some point, Trump even encouraged Russia to intervene.
"I will tell you this, Russia: If you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing," he said during a press conference in late July. (His camp later backtracked on the comments, saying Trump was only asking other countries to turn over any information they potentially had on the topic of the controversial emails from Clinton's time as Secretary of State.)
In late December, Michael Flynn made a series of phone calls to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. That the conversations took place is not necessarily at issue; Flynn has had ties with Russia for a long time, and that relationship was widely known.
The problem is with the content of those conversations. In one of the calls with Kislyak, Flynn discussed the sanctions that had been imposed on Russia by President Obama after it was concluded that Russia had interfered with the election.
When news of that call broke in early January, the Trump administration admitted that the call had taken place, but denied that Flynn and Kislyak had discussed the sanctions. Both Vice President Mike Pence and Press Secretary Sean Spicer stated that the conversation was just a friendly exchange of holiday-related pleasantries.
However, on February 9, The Washington Post published a story that not only confirmed that the two men had discussed the sanctions, but also that FBI counterintelligence agents were currently investigating Flynn's communications with Kislyak.
The Post report also suggested that Flynn had lied to Pence personally about the nature of the conversations, which led the vice president to make repeated false statements to the press.
Flynn resigned from his position as National Security Advisor on Monday, February 13, after just 24 days on the job. During a press conference on Thursday, Trump said that he asked for Flynn's resignation because he had lied to Pence, and not because of what Flynn may have said in the calls. (He also called Flynn "a wonderful man" who "has been treated very, very unfairly by the media.")
On the dossier:
Trump has had business dealings in Russia for a long time, dating as far back as the Soviet Union era, when he tried to open a hotel in Moscow. He has spent a lot of time in the country. And that's where the controversial Steele dossier comes into play.
The dossier was compiled by Christopher Steele, a retired British intelligence officer who was originally hired to investigate Trump's ties to Russia as part of the "opposition research" that was being funded by a powerful Republican donor. (A practice that is very common in politics.)
Steele had a lot of experience in Russia and plenty of contacts, and he compiled dozens of reports over a period of several months, in which he detailed the information he obtained from his network. The unverified memos circulated in D.C. for months, and eventually made their way to members of Congress.
And then, just before Trump was set to take office, the F.B.I., C.I.A. and N.S.A. gave a classified report about the Russian efforts to influence the presidential election to President Obama, President-elect Trump, and a group of congressional leaders. In it, they attached a two-page summary of the dossier to the report.
The dossier (which was published in full by Buzzfeed in a move that was criticized by many) made waves in mid-January because it contained a lot of unverified, salacious allegations. Trump called the dossier "fake news" and "phony stuff" during a press conference held at the time.
However, some of the information has been confirmed by intelligence officials. They were able to verify that some of the conversations described in the dossier took place on the same days, in the same locations, and between the same individuals.
What We Don't Know
On the election:
It's unclear whether Trump himself or his closest allies knew about Russia's campaign to influence the election. The Times story published earlier this week said that the intelligence officials interviewed for the story had no evidence of cooperation between the president and his inner circle with the Russian government.
Trump has denied any involvement, saying that reports of a Russian intervention are merely an excuse devised by the Democratic party as a way to justify Clinton's loss.
Trump knew that the Department of Justice had concerns about Flynn's behavior and ties with Russia since late January. In fact, Sally Yates, the former acting attorney general who was fired by President Trump over her opposition to the travel and immigration ban, was the one who relayed this information to POTUS.
It's unclear why Trump decided to leave Mike Pence in the dark about the DOJ's concerns surrounding Flynn.
We also don't know if Flynn truly broke the law. If the case was that Flynn told the ambassador that Trump would roll back the sanctions once he assumed office, that could be hugely problematic. After all, that could look like the Trump administration was trying to let Russia off the hook for interfering in an American election, the outcome of which favored him. It would also suggest he was attempting to undermine the previous administration's policy while Obama was still in office.
Some people believe that this would also have been illegal: thanks to an obscure 18th-century law called the Logan Act, people who aren't part of the executive branch are prohibited from enacting foreign policy on behalf of the U.S. (Though it's important to note that no one has ever been prosecuted for breaking this law.)
On the dossier:
While we have seen the dossier, we don't know what, if any, of the information contained therein is true.
In addition to allegations of meetings between members of Trump's inner circle and Russian operatives to discuss the hacking of the Clinton campaign, the dossier made some scandalous accusations of a personal nature. It claims that while traveling to Russia, Trump engaged in certain sexual activities, and further, it states that the Russian government may have obtained video tapes of these activities that could have been used to bribe him. But there's no hard evidence.
Trump has categorically denied that there is any truth to the allegations contained in the dossier.
Why All Of This Matters
On the election:
Think of it this way: If a foreign government can radically alter the democratic process in the United States through malicious cyberactivity, what's to stop them from targeting other institutions, the national infrastructure, or even individual American citizens? It's a dangerous notion, and one that could set a troubling precedent for how the U.S. responds to a foreign power that successfully intervenes in our political process.
Never before has a U.S. National Security Advisor resigned from his post in under a month. The scandal not only perpetuates the crisis of legitimacy that has surrounded the Trump administration over its alleged ties with Russia, but it also merits the question of whether other senior officials could be compromised as a result of their relationship to a foreign government.
On the dossier:
As we said, there's no evidence that the allegations compiled by Steele are true. But the mere suggestion that a foreign government might have any basis to blackmail the American president is alarming. If Russia (or any other country) has compromising information on top-level government officials, there's no telling how it could affect U.S. policy, both foreign and domestic.
If that doesn't scare you, it should.