Take 5 minutes, read this and you’ll understand the whole Trump-Russia controversy

President Donald Trump meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7, 2017.
President Donald Trump meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, on July 7, 2017. (Evan Vucci / AP)

Don’t feel bad if you’re mystified by what’s going on with the Trump-Russia investigations. There’s a blizzard of misinformation out there. But if you read this, which will be updated as the case progresses, you'll have a grip.

Q. What’s being investigated?


A. Any connections between the Russian government and people connected with Donald Trump’s presidential campaign that may have constituted a Russian attempt to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election.

Q. Who’s investigating?


A. There are separate Republican-led inquiries in the House and the Senate, but the primary investigation is being done independently by special counsel Robert Mueller, a former FBI director under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Q. Why are they investigating?

A. U.S. intelligence services such as the CIA and NSA agree that the Russians meddled in the election by hacking into computers and spreading false reports on social media, a belief underscored by a grand jury indictment Friday. Many suspect that Russian hackers stole the Democrats’ emails that the websites WikiLeaks and DCLeaks released during the campaign.

Q. Is Donald Trump directly under investigation?


A. He says he was assured by James Comey, then FBI director, that he was not under investigation. But the last assurance came March 30, 2017, and it’s unclear whether that’s still true.

Q. If Mueller thought Trump was guilty of a crime, could he charge him?

A. It’s murky. Some legal scholars say Trump, as president, would be immune from certain charges. And even if Trump were charged with a federal crime, he could pardon himself. If the House impeached Trump, however, he could not pardon himself on those charges and would face a Senate trial that could remove him from office.

Q. What’s the status of the Mueller investigation?

A. It’s in full gear. On Friday, former Trump campaign official Rick Gates, a longtime business partner of Trump’s ex-campaign chairman Paul Manafort, pleaded guilty to conspiracy and recently lying to the FBI about a meeting involving a U.S. congressman in 2013. As a condition of his plea, Gates entered into a cooperation agreement with Mueller. Manafort still stands accused of financial improprieties and conspiracy against the United States involving a Ukrainian political party linked to Vladimir Putin, and still denies the charges.

Earlier in February, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein announced indictments against 13 Russians and several Russian organizations, including a “troll farm” called the Internet Research Agency, accusing them of meddling in the election in favor of Trump. Those indictments did not name anyone from the Trump campaign, and there is no allegation in the indictment that any American was a knowing participant. Before the indictments were announced, former Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. Both are believed to be cooperating in the investigation.

Additionally, a Dutch lawyer and son-in-law of a Russian billionaire has pleaded guilty to lying to investigators about his communications with Gates. A California man has pleaded guilty to identity fraud charges for selling bank account numbers used to create false identities. Other Trump-related figures have been interrogated, and Mueller is reportedly negotiating to question Trump under oath.

Q. Wasn’t Mueller’s focus supposed to be Russia and Trump? Why is he investigating Manafort’s finances unrelated to the Trump campaign?

A. In addition to Russian interference, Mueller can probe any matters that “may arise directly from the investigation.” Special inquiries like this can go well beyond the initial focus. The investigation that led to Bill Clinton’s impeachment is a good example. That initially had nothing to do with Monica Lewinsky, instead focusing on a real estate deal known as Whitewater.

Q. Why is Trump denouncing the leadership of the Justice Department and FBI?

A. Trump-appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions told Congress in January 2017 that he “did not have communications with the Russians” — an assertion quickly proven false. Under fire, Sessions recused himself from involvement in the FBI investigation of Russian meddling. In May, Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, with the White House initially saying he was fired over his handling of the bureau’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails. But within days, Trump admitted the real reason was Comey’s Russia probe. Then Rosenstein appointed Mueller as a special counsel, saying an independent probe was necessary. Trump has been furious at Sessions for recusing himself, believing he should have stayed involved and protected the president. He is also angry at Rosenstein for launching an independent investigation.

Q. Trump has denied collusion. What is collusion?

A. It’s defined as secret cooperation or conspiracy. But even if there was collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, there’s no specific law against that. The indicted Russians face charges of conspiracy to defraud the U.S. through election interference. If any Americans were knowingly involved in such a conspiracy — and none have been accused so far — they could face similar charges.

Q. Why do some Trump critics suspect collusion?

A. Facebook says at least 150 million Americans saw social media posts covertly placed by Russia before the election; many were anti-Clinton. Twitter has acknowledged that fake accounts, known as “bots,” touting pro-Trump material have been connected to a Russian hacker group. Critics of Trump want to know whether that disinformation was coordinated with Trump’s campaign. Also, Trump has lavished praise on Putin despite the election meddling. And both Sessions and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner failed repeatedly to promptly disclose meetings with Russian officials. A particular focus of suspicion is a Russian lawyer’s June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower with Donald Trump Jr., Manafort and Kushner. Emails show that the meeting was set up after Trump Jr. was offered damaging information about Hillary Clinton, but Trump Jr. originally said the purpose of the meeting was to discuss adoption policy. No dirt on Clinton was provided at the meeting, Trump Jr. says.

Q. Why are Trump’s detractors talking about obstruction of justice?

A. Critics of Trump believe the president’s alleged request for Comey to go easy on Flynn and his later firing of Comey were part of a pattern of conduct designed to obstruct justice. In addition, some say the Trumps’ explanation of the Trump Tower meeting constituted an attempted cover-up. Sources have told the New York Times that the president helped craft Trump Jr.’s initial misleading message to the Times saying the meeting was about adoption policy. Mueller reportedly wants to ask the president about that. It should be noted that it’s not against the law to lie to the news media. Unfortunately, people do that all the time.


Q. What is the Steele Dossier?


A. During the 2016 presidential race, Fusion GPS, a company founded by former Wall Street Journal reporters, was hired by a conservative website to conduct research on Trump. The firm was later paid through a law firm indirectly by both the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee to continue the work on Trump. Fusion subcontracted with Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer. He compiled a dossier about Trump’s ties with Russia, and he eventually shared his findings with the FBI. There is evidence to support a few aspects of the dossier, but much of it is unconfirmed publicly. One unproven allegation suggests the Russians have compromising details about Trump’s stay in a Moscow hotel room. Google for that if you want — we won’t repeat it here because there’s no indication it’s true.

Q. Why are Trump supporters complaining about the dossier?

A. Trump has called the Russia probe a "witch hunt," and his supporters consider the dossier to be a Democratic-funded set of false allegations that was improperly used as an excuse for FBI scrutiny of the Trump campaign. The dossier was cited when the FBI successfully went to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court for a warrant to spy on Carter Page, a Trump adviser with ties to Russia. Rep. Devin Nunes, the Republican chair of the House Intelligence Committee, wrote a memo saying that the FISA court was not told about the Democratic funding of the Steele Dossier, but his Democratic counterpart on the committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, said in a memo released Saturday that the FISA court was informed that "politically motivated" Americans hired Steele in an apparent effort to discredit Trump. While Nunes called the Steele dossier an "essential part" of the FISA application, Schiff said there was substantial evidence unrelated to Steele.

Q. Why does Hillary Clinton keep getting brought into this?

A. Trump supporters say pro-Clinton FBI officials gave her a pass when they investigated her mishandling of sensitive communications via her private email server. Clinton was admonished, but not criminally charged. Trump backers also say these pro-Clinton FBI officials unfairly targeted Trump. As evidence, they cite anti-Trump texts between a government lawyer and the senior FBI agent who led the Clinton emails investigation. The two anti-Trump texters, who were having a romantic affair, were kicked off the Trump-Russia investigation over the summer after Mueller learned of their texts. Those who think FBI officials are biased in favor of Clinton also note that the FBI deputy director’s wife got campaign funds from a Clinton-connected group. Democrats say the accusations of pro-Clinton bias are cynical efforts to discredit the Mueller probe.

Q. Could Trump fire Mueller and end the investigation?

A. The New York Times reported that Trump wanted to fire Mueller in June 2017, but White House counsel Don McGahn threatened to quit and Trump backed off. The mechanism for any such firing is complicated. A federal regulation states that a person who appoints a special counsel can fire that person for “good cause.” Theoretically, Trump could order Rosenstein to fire Mueller. If Rosenstein refused, Trump could fire the deputy attorney general and find someone else in the chain of command who would do it. Or, alternatively, he could rescind the federal regulation and fire Mueller himself. Any such action would set off a crisis unparalleled in American history, with some believing Trump was putting himself above the rule of law.

Q. Is that everything?

A. Hardly. There are many other subplots, including Trump ally Roger Stone’s contact with a hacker, a mysterious Illinoisan seeking dirt on Clinton, CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s meeting with Russian spies, secret negotiations to buy back stolen NSA files and Kushner’s lack of a security clearance. Keep reading.

Sources: New York Times; Washington Post; PolitiFact; factcheck.org; npr.com; cnn.com; Chicago Tribune

mjacob@chicagotribune.com, @MarkJacob16

charjohnson@chicagotribune.com, @Charliemagne


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