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Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections

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ODNI declassified assessment of "Russian activities and intentions in recent U.S. elections"

The United States intelligence agencies have concluded that the Russian government interfered in the 2016 United States elections.[1][2][3] In January 2017, a U.S. intelligence community assessment expressed "high confidence" that Russia favored Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, and that Russian President Vladimir Putin personally ordered an "influence campaign" to denigrate and harm Clinton's electoral chances and potential presidency.[4] The report concluded that Russia used disinformation, data thefts, leaks, and social media trolls in an effort to give an advantage to Trump over Clinton, but did not target or compromise vote tallying.[1] These conclusions were reaffirmed by the lead intelligence officials in the Trump administration in May 2017.[5] Intelligence allies of the U.S. in Europe found communications between suspected Russian agents and the Trump campaign as early as 2015.[6]

On October 7, 2016,[7] the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) jointly stated that Russia hacked the Democratic National Committee (DNC) servers and Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta's personal email account and leaked their documents to WikiLeaks.[8][9] Several cybersecurity firms stated that the cyberattacks were committed by Russian intelligence groups Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear.[10] In October 2016, U.S. President Barack Obama used the red phone line to directly contact Putin and issue a warning to him regarding the cyber attacks.[11] Russian officials have repeatedly denied involvement in any DNC hacks or leaks.[12][13][14] In early January 2017, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified before a Senate committee that Russia's alleged meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign went beyond hacking, and included disinformation such as the dissemination of fake news often promoted on social media.[15]

Six federal agencies have also been investigating possible links and financial ties between the Kremlin and Trump's associates, including his son-in-law Jared Kushner and advisers Carter Page, Paul Manafort and Roger Stone.[16][17]

In early December 2016, Obama ordered a report on foreign interventions in the 2016 elections,[18] while U.S. Senators called for a bipartisan investigation.[19] President-elect Donald Trump initially rejected the report, saying that Democrats were reacting to their election loss,[20] and attacked the intelligence agencies in a transition team statement.[21] Senate Majority Leader Republican Mitch McConnell expressed confidence in U.S. intelligence and supported a bipartisan investigation,[22] which was started by the Senate Intelligence Committee on January 24, 2017.[23] On December 29, 2016, the U.S. expelled 35 Russian diplomats, denied access to two Russia-owned compounds, and broadened existing sanctions on Russian entities and individuals.[24] Russia did not retaliate.[25]

On March 20, 2017, FBI director James Comey testified to the House Intelligence Committee that the FBI had been conducting a counter-intelligence investigation about Russian interference since July 2016, including possible coordination between associates of Trump and Russia.[26][27] In a move that was widely criticized as an attempt to curtail the Russian investigation by the FBI, Trump dismissed Comey on May 9, 2017.[28] On May 17, 2017, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel in the FBI's Russian investigation.[29]


Russian involvement

Vladimir Putin involvement

shoulder height portrait of man in suit and tie with dyed thinning hair in his sixties
American intelligence officials stated that Russian President Vladimir Putin (pictured) personally controlled the covert operation.[30]

On December 14, 2016, NBC News reported that two senior intelligence officials were highly confident that Vladimir Putin personally directed the operation to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, citing new evidence obtained after the election from "diplomatic sources and spies working for U.S. allies".[31] They said Putin's motives started as a "vendetta" against Hillary Clinton, and grew into a desire to foment global distrust of the U.S.[31] Officials made similar statements to CBS News,[32] ABC News[33] and Reuters.[30] According to those statements, the operation began with a low-level effort to penetrate Democratic and Republican computer systems.[33] Putin became personally involved after Russia accessed the DNC,[33] and such an operation "had to be approved by top levels of the Russian government".[34] U.S. officials said that under Putin's direction, the goals evolved from criticizing American democracy to attacking Clinton, and by the fall of 2016 to directly help Trump's campaign, because "Putin believed he would be much friendlier to Russia, especially on the matter of economic sanctions".[30] White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest[35] and Obama foreign policy advisor and speechwriter Ben Rhodes agreed with this assessment, with Rhodes saying operations of this magnitude required Putin's consent.[30]

In January 2017, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence,[36] representing the work of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Security Agency (NSA), published the following assessment[4] in public, non-classified form. The FBI and CIA gave the assessment with high confidence and the NSA with moderate confidence.

We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia's goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. We have high confidence in these judgments.[4]

Russian Institute for Strategic Studies

three story modern beige office building, gray portico with writing, trees, natural setting
The Russian Institute for Strategic Studies began working for the Russian presidency after 2009.

Several U.S. officials said to Reuters that the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISS) had developed a strategy to influence the U.S. elections in a direction desirable for Russia.[37] The development of strategy was ordered by Putin and directed by former officers of Russian Foreign Intelligence Service. The Institute was a part of Russian SVR until 2009. It started working directly for the Russian Presidential Administration later.[38]

The propaganda efforts began in March 2016. The first set of recommendations, issued in June 2016, proposed that Russia must support a candidate for U.S. president more favorable to Russia than Obama had been via a social media campaign and through Russia-backed news outlets. The second report was written in October 2016 when a Clinton win appeared likely. It advocated messages about voter fraud in order to undermine the legitimacy of the U.S. electoral system and a Clinton presidency.[37] RISS director Mikhail Fradkov and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied the allegations.[39]

Social media and internet trolls

Clint Watts, Foreign Policy Research Institute fellow and senior fellow at the Center for Cyber and Homeland Security at George Washington University, and Andrew Weisburd reported for The Daily Beast in August 2016 that Russian propaganda fabricated articles were popularized by social media.[40] The authors wrote that disinformation spread from government-controlled outlets, RT and Sputnik to pro-Russian accounts on Twitter.[40] Citing research by Adrian Chen, they compared Russian tactics during the 2016 U.S. election to Soviet Union Cold War strategies.[40] They referenced the 1992 United States Information Agency report to the U.S. Congress, which warned about Russian propaganda called active measures.[40] They wrote active measures were made easier with social media.[40] Institute of International Relations Prague senior fellow and scholar on Russian intelligence, Mark Galeotti, agreed the Kremlin operations were a form of active measures.[41] The Guardian wrote in November 2016 the most strident Internet promoters of Trump were paid Russian propagandists, estimating several thousand trolls involved.[42]

blue field with white letters spelling "facebook"
Facebook could not identify the parties but it believes that malicious actors were marginally involved in false amplification of election stories. In April 2017, it said its findings do not contradict the ODNI report of January 2017.[43]

In a follow-up article, together with colleague J. M. Berger, Weisburd and Watts said they had monitored 7,000 pro-Trump social media accounts over a two-and-a-half year period,[44] and found that such accounts denigrated critics of Russian activities in Syria and propagated falsehoods about Clinton's health.[45] Watts said the propaganda targeted the alt-right movement, the right wing, and fascist groups.[46]

The Washington Post echoed Watts' findings that Russian propaganda exacerbated criticism of Clinton and support for Trump, via social media, Internet trolls, botnets, and websites denigrating Clinton.[47] Watts stated that Russia's goal was to "erode faith in the U.S. government".[47] The Post cited similarity with online propaganda methods previously researched by the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University and the RAND Corporation.[47]

Russian government's reaction

Foreign Minister of Russia Sergei Lavrov denied any involvement by Russia in the U.S. presidential election.[13]

The Russian government repeatedly denied any involvement in the U.S. presidential election. Already in June 2016, in a statement to Reuters, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov "completely ruled out"[12] any connection of Russian government bodies to the DNC hacks that had been blamed on Russia.[48] When a new intelligence report surfaced in December 2016, Sergei Lavrov, Foreign Minister of Russia, rejected the accusations again,[13] calling them "silly".[30] When ABC News wrote that Russian President Vladimir Putin was directly involved in the covert operation,[33] Peskov called this report "amusing rubbish that has no basis in fact".[49] On December 16, 2016, Peskov called on the U.S. government to cease discussion of the topic unless they provide evidence to back up their assertions.[50] According to The New Yorker, while "Russian officials on all levels have denied the hacking allegations", a pro-Kremlin MP justified them as a possible counterpunch to U.S. "meddling" in foreign elections via color revolutions.[51]

At the Valdai forum in October 2016, Vladimir Putin denounced American "hysteria" over accusations of Russian interference.[14] During his December 23 press conference, Putin deflected questions on the issue by accusing the U.S. Democratic Party of scapegoating Russia after losing the presidential election, saying they should "know how to lose with dignity". He also remarked that the Republicans won control of the House and Senate in state elections and wondered if Russia was deemed responsible for this as well.[52]

In early 2017, it was reported that there was a purge of suspected traitors underway in Russia′s intelligence apparatus that mainly targeted computer security professionals, the arrested men being charged "with treason in favor of the United States"; expert opinions were voiced that those arrested might have provided the U.S. government with information that allowed the U.S. intelligence officials to accuse Russia of using hackers to try influence the 2016 presidential election.[53][54][55][56]


Hostility between Putin and Clinton

The U.S. intelligence community, in a joint January 6, 2017, declassified report,[4] stated that Russian President Vladimir Putin "most likely wanted to discredit Secretary Hillary Clinton because he has publicly blamed her since 2011 for inciting mass protests against his regime in late 2011 and early 2012, and because he holds a grudge for comments he almost certainly saw as disparaging him." On March 20, 2017, FBI Director James Comey testified that Putin "hated Secretary Clinton so much that the flip side of that coin was he had a clear preference for the person running against the person he hated so much".

Russians protest against Putin's re-election in 2012. Putin accused Secretary of State Clinton of inciting 2011–13 Russian protests.[57][58]

Putin repeatedly accused Clinton, who served as U.S. Secretary of State from 2009 to 2013, of interfering in Russia's internal affairs,[59] and in December 2016, Clinton accused Putin of having a personal grudge against her.[60] Michael McFaul, who was U.S. ambassador to Russia, said that "[Putin] was very upset [with Clinton] and continued to be for the rest of the time that I was in government. One could speculate that this is his moment for payback."[58] In July 2016, NBC News reported that "Several former Obama administration officials said that when Clinton was secretary of state, she was by far the most aggressive and outspoken U.S. official when it came to countering Putin's efforts to consolidate his power domestically, and to expand his sphere of influence in the region and beyond. And when she left government, they say, Clinton became even more combative".[61]

According to Russian security expert and investigative journalist Andrei Soldatov, one of the reasons Russia tried to sway the U.S. presidential election is perceived antipathy between Clinton and the Russian government. Soldatov stated that according to Russia, the U.S. is "trying to interfere in our internal affairs, so why not try to do the same thing to them?"[62]

Email leaks

In June 2016, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) first stated that the Russian hacker groups Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear had penetrated their campaign servers and leaked information via the Guccifer 2.0 online persona.[48][63][64]

On July 22, 2016, WikiLeaks released approximately 20,000 emails sent from or received by DNC personnel.[65] Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigned as DNC chairwoman following WikiLeaks releases suggesting collusion against Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign.[66] A few days later, at a televised news conference, Trump invited Russia to hack and release Hillary Clinton's deleted emails from her private server during her tenure in the State Department, saying "Russia: If you're listening, I hope you're able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing".[67] He also tweeted: "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!"[68] Trump's comment was condemned by the press and political figures, including some Republicans;[69] he replied that he had been speaking sarcastically.[70] Several Democratic Senators said Trump's comments appeared to violate the Logan Act,[71][72] and Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe added that Trump's call "might even constitute treason".[73]

On October 7, 2016, WikiLeaks started releasing series of emails and documents sent from or received by Hillary Clinton campaign manager John Podesta, which continued on a daily basis until Election Day.[74] Podesta later blamed Russia for hacking into his email and claimed the leaks had "distorted" election results.[75] In April 2017, CIA Director Mike Pompeo stated: "It is time to call out WikiLeaks for what it really is—a non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia." Pompeo said that the U.S. Intelligence Community had concluded that Russia's "primary propaganda outlet", RT, had "actively collaborated" with WikiLeaks.[76]

U.S. Counter-Disinformation Team

The International Business Times reported that the United States Department of State planned to use a unit formed with the intention of combating disinformation from the Russian government, and that it was disbanded in September 2015 after department heads missed the scope of propaganda before the 2016 U.S. election.[77] The unit had been in development for 8 months prior to being scrapped.[77] Titled the Counter-Disinformation Team, it would have been a reboot of the Active Measures Working Group set up by the Reagan Administration.[78] It was created under the Bureau of International Information Programs.[78] Work began in 2014, with the intention of countering propaganda from Russian sources such as TV network RT (formerly called Russia Today).[78] A beta website was ready, and staff were hired by the U.S. State Department for the unit prior to its cancellation.[78] U.S. Intelligence officials explained to former National Security Agency analyst and counterintelligence officer John R. Schindler that the Obama Administration decided to cancel the unit, as they were afraid of antagonizing Russia.[78] A State Department representative told the International Business Times after being contacted regarding the closure of the unit, that the U.S. was disturbed by propaganda from Russia, and the strongest defense was sincere communication.[77] U.S. Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Richard Stengel was the point person for the unit before it was canceled.[78] Stengel had written in 2014 that RT was engaged in a disinformation campaign about Ukraine.[79]

Intrusions into state voter-registration systems

As early as June 2016, the FBI sent a warning to states about "bad actors" probing state-elections systems to seek vulnerabilities.[80] In September 2016, FBI Director James Comey testified before the House Judiciary Committee that the FBI was "looking 'very, very hard' at Russian hackers who may try to disrupt the U.S. election" and that federal investigators had detected hacked-related activities in state voter-registration databases,[81] which independent assessments determined were "extremely vulnerable to hacking."[82] Comey stated: "There have been a variety of scanning activities which is a preamble for potential intrusion activities as well as some attempted intrusions at voter database registrations beyond those we knew about in July and August."[80] He told Congress that the Bureau was looking into "just what mischief is Russia up to in connection with our election."[83] This statement echoed a comment by a U.S. intelligence official the previous month, who told NBC News that "there is serious concern" about Russian government-directed interference in the U.S. presidential election.[82] Earlier, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper attributed Russian hacking attempts to Vladimir Putin, stating that he was "'paranoid' about the potential for revolutions in Russia, 'and of course they see a U.S. conspiracy behind every bush, and ascribe far more impact than we're actually guilty of.'"[83]

In August 2016, the FBI issued a nationwide "flash alert" warning state election officials about hacking attempts.[82] In September 2016, U.S. Department of Homeland Security officials and the National Association of Secretaries of State reported that hackers had penetrated, or sought to penetrate, the voter-registration systems in more than 20 states over the previous few months.[81] Federal investigators attributed these attempts to Russian government-sponsored hackers,[80] and specifically to Russian intelligence agencies.[82] Four of the intrusions into voter registration databases were successful, including intrusions into the Illinois and Arizona databases.[83] Although the hackers did not appear to change or manipulate data,[81][80] Illinois officials reported that information on up to 200,000 registered voters was stolen.[82] The FBI and DHS increased their election-security coordination efforts with state officials as a result.[80][81] Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson reported that 18 states had requested voting-system security assistance from DHS.[80] The department also offered "more comprehensive, on-site risk and vulnerability" assessments to the states, but just four states expressed interest, as the election was rapidly approaching.[81] The reports of the database intrusions prompted alarm from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, who wrote to the FBI: "The prospect of a hostile government actively seeking to undermine our free and fair elections represents one of the gravest threats to our democracy since the Cold War."[83]

McCarthy–Ryan conversation about Trump being on Putin's payroll

In June 2016, a month before the Republican Party nominated Trump for president, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, after ending a meeting with Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman, said in a private conversation with his Republican colleagues that he thought "Putin pays Rohrabacher and Trump" (referring to Dana Rohrabacher). House Speaker Paul Ryan interjected to end the conversation and instructed those present to secrecy, stating: "No leaks...This is how we know we're a real family here."[84] The conversation took place a day after it was revealed that Russian operatives had hacked the DNC.[84]

The existence of the conversation was publicly revealed in May 2017, by The Washington Post, which obtained a recording of the conversation[84] and published a full transcript of the conversation.[85]

When asked for comment, spokesmen for both McCarthy and Ryan initially gave a categorical denial that the conversation had taken place, with the former calling the claim "absurd and false." However, after being informed that a recording of the conversation existed, the spokesmen changed tact and called the conversation "humor". At the time the conversation took place, several of those present laughed at McCarthy's comment but he responded by saying "swear to God". Evan McMullin, who was present at the conversation as the then-policy director for the House Republican Conference, confirmed its content, saying "It's true that Majority Leader McCarthy said that he thought candidate Trump was on the Kremlin's payroll. Speaker Ryan was concerned about that leaking."[84]

Cybersecurity analysis

In June and July 2016, cybersecurity experts and firms, including CrowdStrike,[86] Fidelis, Mandiant, SecureWorks[87] and ThreatConnect, stated the DNC email leaks were part of a series of cyberattacks on the DNC committed by two Russian intelligence groups, called Fancy Bear and Cozy Bear,[10][88] also known respectively as APT28 and APT29.[86][89] ThreatConnect also noted possible links between the DC Leaks project and Russian intelligence operations because of a similarity with Fancy Bear attack patterns.[90] Symantec and FireEye examined the data themselves and "endorsed Crowdstrike's conclusion that two particular hacking groups were the culprits: 'Fancy Bear' and 'The Dukes'". The latter is also known as APT29.[91]

In December 2016, Ars Technica IT editor Sean Gallagher reviewed the publicly available evidence, and wrote that attribution of the DNC hacks to Russian intelligence was based on clues from attack methods and similarity to other cases, as the hacking was tracked in real time since May 2016 by CrowdStrike's monitoring tools.[92] SecureWorks stated that the actor group was operating from Russia on behalf of the Russian government with "moderate" confidence level, defined as "credibly sourced and plausible but not of sufficient quality or corroborated sufficiently to warrant a higher level of confidence".[93]

U.S. intelligence analysis

GCHQ tips and CIA briefings to Congress

shoulder high portrait of man in his fifties or sixties standing in front of an American flag and the flag of the CIA
John O. Brennan, former director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency

In part because U.S. agencies cannot surveil U.S. citizens without a warrant, the U.S. was slow to recognize a pattern itself. From late 2015 until the summer of 2016, during routine surveillance of Russians, several countries discovered interactions between the Trump campaign and Moscow. The UK, Germany, Estonia, Poland, and Australia (and possibly the Netherlands and France) relayed their discoveries to the U.S.[6]

According to The Guardian because the materials were highly sensitive, Robert Hannigan, then the director of the UK's GCHQ, contacted CIA director John O. Brennan to give him information directly.[6] Concerned, Brennan gave classified briefings to the Gang of Eight (the leaders of the House and Senate, and the leaders of the House and Senate intelligence committees) during late August and September 2016.[94] Referring only to intelligence allies and not to specific sources, Brennan told the Gang of Eight that he had received evidence that Russia might be trying to help Trump win the U.S. election.[6]

On May 23 2017, Brennan stated to the House Intelligence Committee that Russia "brazenly interfered" in the 2016 US elections. He said that he first picked up on Russia's active meddling "last summer",[95] and that he had on August 4, 2016 warned his counterpart at Russia's FSB intelligence agency, Alexander Bortnikov, against further interference.[96]

October 2016 ODNI / DHS joint statement

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified about Russian attempts to influence the U.S. presidential race.

At the Aspen security conference in summer 2016, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said that Vladimir Putin wanted to retaliate against perceived U.S. intervention in Russian affairs with the 2011–13 Russian protests and the ousting of Viktor Yanukovych in the 2014 Ukraine crisis.[97] In July 2016, consensus grew within the CIA that Russia had hacked the DNC.[98]

In a joint statement on October 7, 2016, the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence expressed confidence that Russia had interfered in the presidential election by stealing emails from politicians and U.S. groups and publicizing the information.[8] On December 2, intelligence sources told CNN they had gained confidence that Russia's efforts were aimed at helping Trump win the election.[99]

December 2016 CIA report

On December 9, the CIA told U.S. legislators the U.S. Intelligence Community had concluded, in a consensus view, that Russia conducted operations to assist Donald Trump in winning the presidency, stating that "individuals with connections to the Russian government", previously known to the intelligence community, had given WikiLeaks hacked emails from the DNC and John Podesta.[100] The agencies further stated that Russia had hacked the RNC as well, but did not leak information obtained from there.[101] These assessments were based on evidence obtained before the election.[102] According to an unnamed official, the intelligence community did not believe that Moscow's efforts altered the outcome of the election.[103]

FBI inquiries

In June 2016, the FBI notified the Illinois Republican Party that some of its email accounts may have been hacked.[104] In December 2016, an FBI official stated that Russian attempts to access the RNC server were unsuccessful.[101] In an interview with George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, RNC chair Reince Priebus stated they communicated with the FBI when they learned about the DNC hacks, and a review determined their servers were secure.[105] On January 10, 2017, FBI Director James Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the FBI "did not develop any evidence that the Trump campaign or the current RNC was successfully hacked".[106] He added that Russia succeeded in "collecting some information from Republican-affiliated targets but did not leak it to the public".[106]

On July 25, 2016, the FBI announced that it would investigate the hack of the Democratic National Committee emails, following the publication on July 22 of a large number of the emails by WikiLeaks.[107][108]

On October 31, 2016, The New York Times stated that the FBI had been examining possible connections between the Trump campaign and Russia, but did not find any clear links.[109] At the time, FBI officials thought Russia was motivated to undermine confidence in the U.S. political process rather than specifically support Trump.[109]

During a House Intelligence Committee hearing in early December, the CIA said it was certain of Russia's intent to help Trump, but the FBI said "it's not clear that they have a specific goal or mix of related goals".[110] On December 16, 2016, CIA Director John O. Brennan sent a message to his staff saying he had spoken with FBI Director James Comey and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, and that all agreed with the CIA's conclusion that Russia interfered in the presidential election with the motive of supporting Donald Trump's candidacy.[111]

On March 20, 2017, during public testimony to the House Intelligence Committee, FBI director James Comey confirmed the existence of an FBI investigation into Russian interference and Russian links to the Trump campaign, including the question of whether there had been any coordination between the campaign and the Russians.[26] He said the investigation began in July 2016 and was "still in its early stages".[27] Comey made the unusual decision to reveal the ongoing investigation to Congress, citing benefit to the public good.[112]

December 2016 FBI / DHS Joint Analysis Report

On December 29, 2016, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) released an unclassified Joint Analysis Report titled "GRIZZLY STEPPE – Russian Malicious Cyber Activity".[89] It gave new technical details regarding methods used by Russian intelligence services for affecting the U.S. election, government, political organizations and private sector.[113][114]

The report included malware samples and other technical details as evidence that the Russian government had hacked the Democratic National Committee.[115] Alongside the report, DHS "released an extensive list of Internet Protocol addresses, computer files, malware code and other 'signatures' that it said the Russian hackers have used."[113] An article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung discussed the difficulty of proof in matters of cybersecurity. Persons quoted in the article told the paper that the unclassified evidence provided by the Joint Analysis Report did not provide proof of Russian culpability. One analyst told the Süddeutsche Zeitung that U.S. intelligence services could be keeping some information secret to protect their sources and analysis methods.[116]

In January 2017, former hacker Kevin Poulsen, writing for The Daily Beast, stated that while there is solid evidence of Russia's interference from other sources, the incompetence of the DHS report encouraged "Trump-friendly conspiracy theorists".[91] In another January, 2017 article, The Daily Beast stated that the report "was widely criticized by cybersecurity experts for being little more than a hodge-podge of random Internet Protocol addresses and code names for hacker gangs suspected of having ties to Moscow."[117]

January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment

On January 6, 2017, after briefing the president, the president-elect, and members of the Senate and House, U.S. intelligence agencies released a de-classified version[118] of the report on Russian activities. The report asserted that Russia had carried out a massive cyber operation ordered by Russian President Putin with the goal to sabotage the 2016 U.S. elections. The agencies concluded that Putin and the Russian government tried to help Trump win the election by discrediting Hillary Clinton and portraying her negatively relative to Trump, and that Russia had conducted a multipronged cyber campaign consisting of hacking and the extensive use of social media and trolls, as well as open propaganda on Russian-controlled news platforms.[119] A large part of the report was dedicated to criticizing Russian TV channel RT America, which it described as a "messaging tool" for the Kremlin.[120]

On March 5, 2017, James Clapper said, in an interview with Chuck Todd on Meet the Press that, regarding the January 2017 Intelligence Community Assessment, "We did not include any evidence in our report, and I say, 'our', that's N.S.A., F.B.I. and C.I.A., with my office, the Director of National Intelligence, that had anything, that had any reflection of collusion between members of the Trump campaign and the Russians. There was no evidence of that included in our report. … Whether there is more evidence that's become available since then, whether ongoing investigations will be revelatory, I don't know," adding "It is to everyone's interest to get to the bottom of this."[121]

On May 14, 2017, in an interview with George Stephanopoulos, Clapper explained more about the state of evidence for or against any collusion:

On January 6, "there was no evidence of any collusion included in that report, that's not to say there wasn't evidence. There could have been—might be, I don’t know—in the investigation. I did not know there was a formal investigation or they were addressing potential political collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians.... [A]t the time I left office,.. I had no evidence available to me that there was collusion. But that's not necessarily exculpatory, since I did not know the state of the investigation nor the content, what had been turned up in it."[122]

Investigation into financial flows

On January 18, 2017, McClatchy reported that an investigation into "how money may have moved from the Kremlin to covertly help Trump win" had been conducted over several months by six federal agencies: the FBI, the CIA, the NSA, the Justice Department, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network and representatives of the DNI.[16] The New York Times confirmed this investigation into Carter Page, Paul Manafort and Roger Stone on January 19, 2017, the eve of the presidential inauguration.[123]

Preservation of evidence

On March 1, 2017, The New York Times reported that, in the last days of the Obama administration, "there was a push to process as much raw intelligence as possible into analyses, and to keep the reports at a relatively low classification level to ensure as wide a readership as possible across the [American] government..." The information was filed in many locations within federal agencies as a precaution against future concealment or destruction of evidence in the event of any investigation.[124]

U.S. government response

U.S. Senate

Members of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee traveled to Ukraine and Poland in 2016 and learned about supposed Russian operations to influence their elections.[125] U.S. Senator Angus King said tactics used by Russia during the 2016 U.S. election were analogous to those used against other countries.[125] King said the problem frustrated both political parties.[126] On November 30, 2016, seven members of the committee asked President Obama to declassify and publicize more information on Russia's role in the U.S. election.[125][127] Representatives in the U.S. Congress took action to monitor the national security of the United States by advancing legislation to monitor propaganda.[128][129] On November 30, 2016, legislators approved a measure within the National Defense Authorization Act to ask the U.S. State Department to act against propaganda with an inter-agency panel.[128][129] The initiative was developed through a bipartisan bill, the Countering Foreign Propaganda and Disinformation Act, written by U.S. Senators Republican Rob Portman and Democrat Chris Murphy.[128] Senate Intelligence Committee member Ron Wyden said frustration over covert Russian propaganda was bipartisan.[128]

Republican U.S. Senators stated they planned to hold hearings and investigate alleged Russian influence on the 2016 U.S. elections.[130] By doing so they went against the preference of incoming Republican President-elect Trump, who downplayed Russian interference.[130] Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain and Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr planned investigations of Russian cyberwarfare.[130] U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker planned a 2017 investigation.[130] Senator Lindsey Graham indicated he would conduct an investigation during the 115th Congress.[130] On December 11, 2016, top-ranking bipartisan members of the U.S. Senate issued a joint statement responding to the intelligence assessments Russia influenced the election.[19] The two Republican signers were Senators Graham and McCain, both members of the Armed Services Committee; the two Democratic signers were incoming Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and Senator Jack Reed, the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee.[131][132][133] They said Russian interference was deeply troubling and a bipartisan concern.[134]

In a response to Trump's disregard for the U.S. intelligence assessments on Russia, McCain said: "The facts are there",[135] and called for a special select committee of the U.S. Senate to investigate Russian meddling in the election.[136] Republican Senator and Intelligence Committee member James Lankford agreed that investigation into Russian influence on the elections should be cooperative between parties.[137] According to McCain, Russia's meddling in the election was an "act of war".[138] Republican Senator Susan Collins said a bipartisan investigation should improve proactive cyber defense.[139] Outgoing Senate Democratic Caucus leader Harry Reid said the FBI covered up information about Russian interference in a bid to swing the election for Trump. Reid accused FBI Director James Comey of partisanship, and called for his resignation.[140]

Joint Statement on Committee Inquiry into Russian Intelligence Activities

On December 12, 2016, Senate Majority Leader Republican Mitch McConnell disagreed with Trump and expressed confidence in U.S. intelligence.[22] McConnell added that investigation of Russia's actions "cannot be a partisan issue" and that the Senate Intelligence Committee was "more than capable of conducting a complete review of this matter".[22] The next day, Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) and Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-VA) announced the scope of the committee's official inquiry. Senators McCain, Graham, Schumer, and Reed issued a joint bipartisan statement on December 18, urging McConnell to create a select committee tasked with undertaking a "comprehensive investigation of Russian interference" and developing "comprehensive recommendations and, as necessary, new legislation to modernize our nation's laws, governmental organization, and related practices to meet this challenge".[141]

In a December 14, 2016, interview with Wolf Blitzer on CNN, Graham said Russians hacked into his Senate campaign email, adding that the FBI contacted his campaign in August 2016 to notify them of the breach in security that occurred in June to his campaign vendor.[142][143] On December 15, Graham stated that in order for Trump's nominee for United States Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, to earn his confirmation vote, Tillerson would need to acknowledge his belief Russia interfered in the 2016 elections.[144] On December 16, Burr denied that the CIA was acting on political motives and stated that intelligence employees "come from all walks of life and hold views across the political spectrum".[111] The committee issued a release emphasizing they earnestly took into consideration the fact that both the Senate Majority and Minority Leaders were in agreement a bipartisan investigation should take place.[145]

The Senate Intelligence Committee began work on its bipartisan inquiry on January 24, 2017.[23] On May 25, 2017 a unanimous Senate Intelligence Committee voted to give both Chairmen of the Senate Intelligence Committee solo subpoena power.[146][147] On May 26, 2017, Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) and Vice-Chairman Mark Warner (D-VA) both signed off on a bi-partisan subpoena for all documents, emails, telephone records and anything else responsive to be turned over to the Senate Intelligence Committee.[148]

U.S. House of Representatives

U.S. Representative Adam Schiff, Ranking Member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, commented on Putin's aims, and said U.S. intelligence agencies were concerned with Russian propaganda.[97] Speaking about disinformation that appeared in Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and Poland, Schiff said there was an increase of the same behavior in the U.S.[97] Schiff concluded Russian propaganda operations would continue against the U.S. after the election.[97] He put forth a recommendation for a combined House and Senate investigation similar to the Joint Inquiry into Intelligence Community Activities before and after the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001.[149]

Republican U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said external interference in U.S. elections was intolerable.[150] Ryan said an investigation should be conducted by U.S. House Intelligence Committee chairman Representative Devin Nunes, and stated interference from Russia was troubling due to Putin's activities against the U.S.[151] On December 12, 2016, Nunes emphasized that at the time he had only viewed circumstantial evidence Russia intended to assist Trump win.[152] On December 14, Nunes requested a formal briefing to gain more information about assertions officials had revealed to the media; the DNI refused, citing the ongoing review ordered by President Obama.[153]

In January 2017, both the House and Senate intelligence committees launched investigations on the Russian meddling into the presidential election, including possible ties between Trump's campaign and Russia.[154] In February, General Michael T. Flynn, Trump's pick for National Security Advisor, resigned after it had been discovered that he had been in touch with the Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, discussing the possibility of lifting sanctions against Russia.[155]

On February 24, 2017, Republican Congressman Darrell Issa called for a special prosecutor to investigate whether Russia meddled with the U.S. election and was in contact with Trump's team during the presidential campaign, saying that it would be improper for Trump's appointee, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, to lead the investigation.[156][157] On February 27, 2017, Nunes said "As of right now, I don’t have any evidence of any phone calls. It doesn't mean they don't exist ... What I've been told by many folks is that there's nothing there."[158]

On March 19, 2017, Schiff told Meet the Press that, despite denials from intelligence officials, there was "circumstantial evidence of collusion" between the Russian government and the Trump campaign, as well as "direct evidence of deception". He added that "there is certainly enough for us to conduct an investigation."[159] On March 22, 2017, Schiff stated that he had seen "more than circumstantial evidence" of collusion between Trump associates and the Kremlin.[160]

On April 6, 2017, Nunes temporarily recused himself from the Russia investigation after the House Ethics Committee announced that it would investigate accusations against him that he had disclosed classified information without authorization. Representative Mike Conaway subsequently assumed control of the investigation.[161]

Obama administration

President Obama ordered the United States Intelligence Community to investigate election hacking attempts since 2008.[18]

U.S. President Obama and Vladimir Putin had a discussion about computer security issues in September 2016, which took place over the course of an hour and a half.[162] During the discussion, which took place as a side segment during the then-ongoing G20 summit in China, Obama made his views known on cyber security matters between the U.S. and Russia.[162] Obama said Russian hacking stopped after his warning to Putin.[163] One month after that discussion the email leaks from the DNC cyber attack had not ceased, and President Obama decided to contact Putin via the Moscow–Washington hotline, commonly known as the "red phone", on October 31, 2016.[11] Obama emphasized the gravity of the situation by telling Putin: "International law, including the law for armed conflict, applies to actions in cyberspace. We will hold Russia to those standards."[11]

On December 9, 2016, Obama ordered the U.S. Intelligence Community to investigate Russian interference in the election and report before he left office on January 20, 2017.[18] U.S. Homeland Security Advisor and chief counterterrorism advisor to the president Lisa Monaco announced the study, and said foreign intrusion into a U.S. election was unprecedented and would necessitate investigation by subsequent administrations.[164] The intelligence analysis would cover malicious cyberwarfare occurring between the 2008 and 2016 elections.[165][166] CNN reported that an unnamed senior administration official told them that the White House was confident Russia interfered in the election.[167] The official said the order by President Obama would be a lessons learned report, with options including sanctions and covert cyber response against Russia.[167]

On December 12, 2016, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest was critical of Trump's rejection of the idea that Russia used cyberattacks to influence the election.[168] Earnest contrasted Trump's comments on Twitter with the October 2016 conclusions of the U.S. Intelligence Community.[168] At a subsequent White House press conference on December 15, Earnest said Trump and the public were aware prior to the 2016 election of Russian interference efforts, calling these undisputed facts.[35] United States Secretary of State John Kerry spoke on December 15, 2016, about President Obama's decision to approve the October 2016 joint statement by the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.[30] Kerry stated the president's decision was deliberative and relied upon information cautiously weighed by the intelligence agencies.[30] He said the president felt a need to warn the U.S. public and did.[30]

In a December 15, 2016 interview by NPR journalist Steve Inskeep, Obama said the U.S. government would respond to Russia via overt and covert methods, in order to send an unambiguous symbol to the world that any such interference would have harsh consequences.[162] He added that motive behind the Russian operation could better be determined after completion of the intelligence report he ordered.[162] Obama emphasized that Russian efforts caused more harm to Clinton than to Trump during the campaign.[162] At a press conference the following day, he highlighted his September 2016 admonition to Putin to cease engaging in cyberwarfare against the U.S.[169] Obama explained that the U.S. did not publicly reciprocate against Russia's actions due to a fear such choices would appear partisan.[169] President Obama minimized conflict between his administration and the Trump transition, stressing cyber warfare against the U.S. should be a bipartisan issue.[170]

Sanctions imposed on Russia

 Executive Order 13694
Executive Order 13694, expelling Russian diplomats and enacting other retaliatory measures

On December 29, 2016, the U.S. government announced a series of punitive measures against Russia that were said to be "the biggest retaliatory move against Russian espionage since the Cold War" and "the strongest American response yet to a state-sponsored cyberattack".[171][172] Namely, the Obama administration imposed sanctions on four top officials of the GRU and declared persona non grata 35 Russian diplomats suspected of spying:[173][Note 1] they were ordered to leave the country within 72 hours. Further sanctions against Russia were announced, both overt and covert.[115][175][176] A White House statement said that "Russia's cyberactivities were intended to influence the election, erode faith in US democratic institutions, sow doubt about the integrity of our electoral process, and undermine confidence in the institutions of the US government."[177] President Obama said "these actions follow repeated private and public warnings that we have issued to the Russian government, and are a necessary and appropriate response to efforts to harm US interests in violation of established international norms of behavior."[178]

On December 30, two waterfront compounds used by families of Russian embassy personnel were shut down on orders of the U.S. government, citing spying activities: one in Upper Brookville, New York, on Long Island, and the other in Centreville, Maryland, on the Eastern Shore.[172][179][180] They had served as luxury retreats for various Russian diplomats over several decades.[181]

Russian response to sanctions

On December 30, 2016, commenting on his eventual decision to refrain from retaliatory measures, Russia′s president Vladimir Putin released a published statement that his government, while reserving its legitimate right to respond adequately to "the new unfriendly actions by the outgoing U.S. administration" undertaken to "further undermine U.S.–Russia relations", would not "stoop to the level of irresponsible 'kitchen' diplomacy"; he also invited all the children of the U.S. diplomats accredited in Russia to New Year's and Christmas celebrations at the Kremlin. The statement went on to say that Russia would take "further steps towards the restoration of Russian-American relations depending on the policy that the administration of President D. Trump conducts".[182][25][183]

2017 developments

Dismissal of FBI director James Comey

A brief letter on an 8.5x11 sheet of White House stationery with a colored seal at the top and large signature in marker
Trump's letter firing Comey (page 1 of 6 pictured)

On May 9, 2017, the Trump Administration dismissed Comey, attributing it to the recommendation of United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.[184] The White House said that Trump had acted on the recommendation of Rosenstein citing Comey's conduct in the investigation about Hillary Clinton's emails.[185] But Trump himself seemed to contradict the White House statements that he had acted because of the Clinton email issue identified by Rosenstein.[improper synthesis?] On May 11 he stated, "When I decided to [fire Comey], I said to myself, I said, 'You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story, it's an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.'"[186] In the same interview he said he had intended all along to fire Comey, regardless of any recommendations.[187] Also on May 11, a White House spokesperson directly tied the dismissal to the Russian investigations, saying the White House believed firing Comey was a step toward letting that probe "come to its conclusion with integrity".[188] Multiple FBI insiders said they believe the real reason Comey was fired was because he had refused to end the investigation into Russian connections to the election, and in fact had intensified his involvement with the investigation, receiving daily instead of weekly briefings on its progress.[28]

The dismissal came as a surprise to Comey and most of Washington, and was described as having "vast political ramifications" because of the Bureau's ongoing investigation into Russian activities in the 2016 election.[189] The termination was immediately controversial. It was compared to the Saturday Night Massacre, President Richard Nixon's termination of special prosecutor Archibald Cox, who had been investigating the Watergate scandal,[190][191] and to the dismissal of Sally Yates in January 2017. Many members of Congress expressed concern over the termination and argued that it would put the integrity of the Russia investigation into jeopardy.[192]

According to later reporting Trump had been talking to aides about firing Comey for at least a week before acting, and had asked Justice Department officials to come up with a rationale for dismissing him.[193][194] On May 8, 2017, he asked Sessions and Rosenstein to put in writing a case against Comey. They produced the next day a memo outlining his misconduct and a recommendation to dismiss him, upon which Trump acted immediately.[195] Trump had long questioned Comey's loyalty and judgment; he was reportedly frustrated that Comey had contradicted his claims that Obama had him wiretapped, and furious that Comey had "basically defended Hillary Clinton" in his recent Senate testimony. Trump also felt Comey was giving too much attention to the Russia probe and not to internal leaks within the government.[196][197] A few days before his dismissal, Comey had requested more personnel from the Justice Department to support the FBI probe into Russian interference.[198]

In the termination letter Trump stated that Comey had asserted "on three separate occasions that I am not under investigation".[199] Fact checkers reported that while they have no way of knowing what Comey may have told Trump privately, no such assertion is on the public record, and the White House declined to provide any more detail.[200]

White House attempts to influence the investigation

In May 2017 a February memo by James Comey was made public, describing an Oval Office conversation with Trump on February 14, 2017, in which Trump is described as attempting to persuade Comey to drop the FBI investigation into former National Security Advisor Michael T. Flynn.[201][202][203][204][205] The memo notes that Trump said, "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." Comey made no commitments to Trump on the subject.[203]

The New York Times reported that the memo, which is not classified, was part of a "paper trail" created by Comey to document "what he perceived as the president’s improper efforts to influence a continuing investigation".[203] Comey shared the memo with "a very small circle of people at the FBI and Justice Department."[206] Comey and other senior FBI officials saw Trump's remarks "as an effort to influence the investigation, but they decided that they would try to keep the conversation secret — even from the F.B.I. agents working on the Russia investigation — so the details of the conversation would not affect the investigation."[203] In May 2017, after Comey's dismissal, acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe testified before the Congress that "There has been no effort to impede our investigation to date."[201][203] According to a person who saw a copy of the memo, it is possible that McCabe was referring to the overall probe into possible collusion between the Trump's team and Russia.[203][207]

Two individuals who read the memo told The New York Times that "Comey created similar memos — including some that are classified — about every phone call and meeting he had with the president."[203][208] The Washington Post reported that two Comey associates who had seen Comey's memo described it as two pages long and highly detailed.[206] The New York Times noted that contemporaneous notes created by FBI agents are frequently relied upon "in court as credible evidence of conversations."[203]

Earlier, senior White House officials had reportedly asked intelligence officials if they could intervene to stop the FBI investigation into Michael Flynn.[209]

In February 2017 it was reported that White House officials had asked the FBI to issue a statement that there had been no contact between Trump associates and Russian intelligence sources during the 2016 campaign. The FBI did not make the requested statement, and observers noted that the request violated established procedures about contact between the White House and the FBI regarding pending investigations.[210]

After Comey revealed in March that the FBI was investigating the possibility of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, Trump reportedly asked Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats and Director of National Security ADM Michael S. Rogers to state publicly that the FBI's investigation had turned up no evidence of any collusion. Both Coats and Rogers believed that the request was inappropriate, though not illegal, and did not make the requested statement.[211] The two exchanged notes about the incident, and Rogers made a contemporary memo to document the request.[212]

Disclosure of classified information to Russia

Two men in their 70s wearing suits and ties shaking hands, standing in the White House Oval Office
President Trump meets with Lavrov (pictured) and Kislyak on May 10, 2017

According to a current and former government official, Trump discussed highly classified intelligence in a May 10, 2017 meeting in the Oval Office with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, providing details that could expose the source of the information and the manner in which it was collected.[213][214][215][216][217]

The intelligence was about an ISIL plot. A Middle Eastern ally had provided the intelligence which was not shared widely within the United States government or passed to other allies.[213] The incident was first reported by The Washington Post,[214] and confirmed by The New York Times[213] and Reuters.[215] The Times reports that "sharing the information without the express permission of the ally who provided it was a major breach of espionage etiquette, and could jeopardize a crucial intelligence-sharing relationship."[213] The White House, through National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster, issued a brief denial, saying that the story "as reported" was not correct, and denying that "intelligence sources or methods" were discussed.[215][218] In a Twitter post the following day, Trump admitted sharing "facts pertaining to terrorism and airline safety" stating that Russia is a key ally of the United States against terrorism.[219] Multiple sources, including conservative commentator Erick Erickson, have stated that the leaks were far worse than the current reports, and that similar incidents have happened in the past.[220]

During the same meeting, Trump told Russian officials that firing the F.B.I. director, James Comey, had relieved "great pressure" on him. He stated, "I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job," He continued, "I faced great pressure because of Russia. That's taken off." [221]

Aides privately defended the President, stating that he could not reveal information that would harm American allies as he did not know and was not interested in the details of intelligence gathering.[222]

Investigation by special counsel

Shoulder height portrait of man in his sixties wearing a suit and tie
Special counsel Mueller directed the FBI from 2001 to 2013.
Appointment of special counsel

On May 17, 2017, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel in its investigation. Mueller will direct FBI agents and Department of Justice prosecutors investigating election interference by Russia.[29][223][224] As special counsel, Mueller will have the power to issue subpoenas,[225] hire staff members, request funding, and prosecute federal crimes in connection with the election interference.[226]

On May 19, 2017 The Washington Post reported that a senior Trump administration adviser "close to the president" is a subject of investigation.[227][228] Subsequent to the May 19th story, The Washington Post and The New York Times reported that the individual that was being reported on was Jared Kushner and that he had sought to set up a covert channel of communications with the Kremlin via the Russian Ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak. Kushner's intent was to discuss matters directly with Vladimir Putin without the oversight United States Intelligence Community, using Russian encrypted channels.[229][230] On May 23, 2017, the U.S. Department of Justice ethics experts announced they had declared Mueller ethically able to function as special counsel.[231]

Links between the Trump campaign and Russian officials

As of March 2017, the FBI is investigating Russian involvement in the election, including alleged links between Trump's associates and the Russian government.[26] British and the Dutch intelligence have given information to United States intelligence about meetings in European cities between Russian officials, associates of Putin, and associates of then-President-elect Trump. American intelligence agencies also intercepted communications of Russian officials, some of them within the Kremlin, discussing contacts with Trump associates.[124] The New York Times reported that multiple Trump associates, including campaign chairman Paul Manafort and other members of his campaign, had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials during 2016, although officials said that so far, they did not have evidence that Trump's campaign had co-operated with the Russians to influence the election. Manafort said he did not knowingly meet any Russian intelligence officials.[232]

Chest height portrait of man in his sixties wearing a suit and tie
Russian diplomat Sergey Kislyak met with a number of U.S. officials.

Since July 2016 Donald Trump's team has issued at least twenty denials concerning communications between his campaign and Russian officials.[233] Several of these denials turned out to be false, as seven of Trump's associates or advisers (including Page) have had such contacts.[234] Michael Flynn and Jeff Sessions have subsequently confirmed the contacts after having initially denied them.[124] Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told CNN that the "electoral process" was not discussed during these meetings, and that the Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak had also met with "people working in think tanks advising Hillary or advising people working for Hillary" during the campaign.[235]

The Trump administration reportedly asked the FBI for help in countering news reports about alleged contacts with Russia. A White House communications aide contacted Senator Richard Burr and Representative Devin Nunes, who chair the Senate and House intelligence committees, to push back press reports. Both declined to answer questions.[236][237][238]

Former ambassadors Michael McFaul and John Beyrle have said they are "extremely troubled" by the evidence of Russian interference in the US election, and both support an independent investigation into the matter, but have dismissed as "preposterous" the allegations that Kislyak participated in it, particularly through his meetings with the Trump campaign: "Kislyak's job is to meet with government officials and campaign people," McFaul stated. "People should meet with the Russian ambassador and it's wrong to criminalize that or discourage it."[239]

Former Acting CIA Director Michael Morell stated in March 2017 that he had seen no evidence of collusion between Trump and the Kremlin. "On the question of the Trump campaign conspiring with the Russians here, there is smoke, but there is no fire, at all," Morell said.[240]

In a March 2017 interview, James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence under President Obama, said that at the time of the intelligence community's report on the issue in January 2017, there was no evidence of any collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives.[121]

Michael Flynn

National Security Advisor Michael T. Flynn was forced to resign on February 13, 2017, after it was revealed that on December 29, 2016, the day that Obama announced sanctions against Russia, Flynn had discussed the sanctions with Russian ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak. Flynn had earlier acknowledged speaking to Kislyak but denied discussing the sanctions.[241][242]

On March 2, 2017, The New York Times reported that Kislyak met with Flynn and Jared Kushner in December 2016 to establish a line of communication with the Trump administration.[243] In May 2017 it was further reported that at that December meeting, Kushner and Flynn asked the Russians to set up a direct, encrypted communications channel with Moscow, so that Flynn could speak directly to Russian military officials about Syria and other issues without the knowledge of American intelligence agencies. Kislyak was hesitant to allow Americans to have access to Russia's secure communications network, and no such channel was actually set up.[244][245]

In December 2015 Flynn was paid $45,000 by Russia Today for delivering a talk in Moscow, and he was provided an all expense paid 3 day trip paid by Russia.[246] Two months later, in February 2016 when he was applying for a renewal of his security clearance, he stated that he had received no income from foreign companies and had only “insubstantial contact” with foreign nationals.[247] Glenn A. Fine, the acting Defense Department Inspector General, has confirmed he is investigating Flynn.[246]

CNN reported that, during a phone call intercepted by American Intelligence, Russian officials claimed they had cultivated such a strong relationship with Flynn that they believed they could use him to influence Donald Trump and his team.[248]

Jared Kushner

In April 2017, it was reported that Donald Trump's son-in-law and senior advisor, Jared Kushner, on his application for top secret security clearance, failed to disclose numerous meetings with foreign officials, including Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak as well as Sergey Gorkov, the head of the Russian state-owned bank Vnesheconombank. Kushner's lawyers called the omissions "an error". The Senate Intelligence Committee investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election plans to question Kushner in connection with the meetings he had with these individuals.[249]

According to three officials who reviewed a letter sent to The Washington Post in December 2016, a meeting took place in Trump Tower on December 1 or 2 between Kushner, Kislyak, and Retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn. In the meeting, Kushner is alleged to have requested that a direct Russian-encrypted communications channel be set up to allow secret communication with Russia which would circumvent safeguards in place by the United States intelligence community. The goal would be to allow Flynn to speak directly to Russian military officials about Syria and other issues. No such communications channel was actually set up, according to the sources.[250] After the meeting, Kislyak sent a report of the meeting to the Kremlin, using what he thought were secure channels but in fact were intercepted by American intelligence. Kislyak was reportedly taken aback by the request and expressed concern of the security implications that would be at stake in having an American use secure communications between the Kremlin and diplomatic outposts.[251][245]

Paul Manafort

The New York Times reported that campaign chairman Paul Manafort had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials during 2016. Manafort said he did not knowingly meet any Russian intelligence officials.[203] Intercepted communications during the campaign show that Russian officials believed they could use Manafort to influence Trump.[252]

Carter Page

In February 2017, Carter Page, a former foreign policy adviser to Donald Trump stated that he had "no meetings" with Russian officials during 2016 but two days later said that he "did not deny" meeting with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Page's reversal occurred after the news reports that revealed that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had likewise met with Kislyak. In March 2017, Page was called on by the Senate Intelligence Committee investigating links between the Trump campaign and Russian government.[253][254]

During the investigation into the 2016 election interference, Page's past contacts with Russians came to public attention.[255] In 2013 Page met with Viktor Podobnyy, then a junior attaché at the Permanent Mission of the Russian Federation to the United Nations, at an energy conference, and provided him with documents on the U.S. energy industry.[256] Page later said that he provided only "basic immaterial information and publicly available research documents" to Podobnyy.[255] Podobnyy was later one of a group of three Russian men charged by the U.S. authorities for participation in a Russian spy ring; Podobnyy and one of the other men was protected by diplomatic immunity from prosecution; a third man, who was spying for the Russia under non-diplomatic cover, pleaded guilty to conspiring to act as an unregistered foreign agent and was sentenced to prison.[255] The men had attempted to recruit Page to work for the Russian SVR. The FBI interviewed Page in 2013 "as part of an investigation into the spy ring, but decided that he had not known the man was a spy", and never accused Page of wrongdoing.[255]

Page became a foreign policy advisor to Trump in the summer of 2016 but was dropped from the team after reports that he was under investigation by federal authorities over his Russian connections.[257] The FBI and the Justice Department obtained a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISA) warrant to monitor Page's communications during the summer of 2016, after they made the case that there was probable cause to think Page was acting as an agent of a foreign power (Russia). Page told The Washington Post that he considered that to be "unjustified, politically motivated government surveillance". The 90-day warrant was renewed at least once.[258]

Erik Prince

On April 3, 2017, The Washington Post reported that around January 11, nine days before Donald Trump's inauguration, Erik Prince, the founder of the Blackwater security company, secretly met with an unidentified Russian, who is close to Vladimir Putin, in the Seychelles. The Trump administration said that it was "not aware of any meetings" and said that Prince was not involved in the Trump campaign. According to U.S., European, and Arab officials, the meeting was arranged by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the purpose apparently was to establish a back-channel link between Trump and Putin. The UAE and Trump's associates reportedly tried to convince Russia to limit its support to Iran, including in Syria. Prince is the brother of Trump's pick for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, he was a major contributor to Trump's election campaign, and appears to have close ties to Trump's chief strategist Stephen Bannon. The Seychelles meeting took place after previous meetings in New York between Trump's associates and officials from Russia and the Emirates, when any official contacts between Trump administration and Russian agents were coming under close scrutiny from the press and the U.S. intelligence community. U.S. officials said that the FBI is investigating the Seychelles meeting. The FBI, however, refused to comment.[259]

Two intelligence officials confirmed to NBC News that the Seychelles meeting took place. One of them corroborated The Washington Post's account, but said that it is not clear whether the initiative to arrange a meeting came from the UAE or Trump's associates. A second official said that the meeting was about "Middle East policy, to cover Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Iran", not Russia.[260]

Jeff Sessions

In March 2017, it was revealed that while still a U.S. Senator, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, an early and prominent supporter of Trump's campaign, spoke twice with Russian ambassador Kislyak before the election – once in July 2016 and once in September 2016. At his January 10 confirmation hearing to become Attorney General, he stated that he was not aware of any contacts between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, adding that he "did not have communications with the Russians". On March 1, 2017, he said that his answer had not been misleading, stating that he "never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign".[261] On March 2, 2017, after meeting with senior career officials at the Justice Department, Sessions announced that he would recuse himself from any investigations into Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election.[262]

Roger Stone

Roger J. Stone Jr., a former adviser to Donald Trump and self-proclaimed political “dirty trickster”, admitted in March 2017 that during August 2016, he had been in contact with Guccifer 2.0, a hacker persona believed to be a front for Russian intelligence operations who has publicly claimed responsibility for at least one hack of the DNC.[263] Stone is suspected of having inside knowledge of these hacks, accurately predicting that it would soon be John Podesta's "time in the barrel" on Twitter, shortly prior to the Wikileaks release of the Podesta emails, a hacking incident now broadly understood to have been a significant contributing factor to Trump's 2016 election victory against then-expected winner Hillary Clinton.[264] Additionally, Stone has also reportedly stated privately to some Republican colleagues that he has "actually communicated with Julian Assange" on at least one occasion, although Stone and his two Attorneys have since denied this.[265]

Stone is presently under FBI scrutiny as the agency investigates the possibility that criminal collusion between key figures in the Trump campaign and the Russian Federation took place during the 2016 election.[266][250]

Steele dossier

On October 31, 2016, a week before the election, David Corn of Mother Jones magazine, reported that an unnamed former intelligence officer had produced a report (later referred to as a dossier) based on Russian sources and had turned it over to the FBI.[267] The officer, who was familiar to the FBI and was known for the quality of his past work, was later identified as Christopher Steele. The FBI found Steele and his information credible enough that it considered paying Steele to continue collecting information but the release of the document to the public stopped discussions between Steele and the FBI.[268] Corn said the main points in the unverified report were that Moscow had tried to cultivate Donald Trump for years; that it possessed compromising or potentially embarrassing material about him that could possibly be used to blackmail him; and that there had been a flow of information between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin,[269] which involved multiple in-person meetings between Russian government officials and individuals working for Trump.[270][271] The dossier also claimed that the Kremlin's goal had been to "encourage splits and divisions in the Western alliance".[267]

On January 10, 2017, CNN reported that classified documents presented to Obama and Trump the previous week included allegations that Russian operatives possess "compromising personal and financial information" about Trump. CNN stated that it would not publish specific details on the memos because they had not yet "independently corroborated the specific allegations".[272] Following CNN's report, BuzzFeed then published a 35-page dossier that it said was the basis of the briefing.[273] It included unverified claims that Russian operatives had worked with the Trump campaign to help him get elected. It also alleged that Russia had collected "embarrassing material" involving Trump that could be used to blackmail him.[274] Trump denounced the unverified claims as false, saying that it was "disgraceful" for U.S. intelligence agencies to report them.[275][276]

On March 30, 2017, Paul Wood of BBC News revealed that the FBI was using the dossier as a roadmap for its investigation.[277] On April 18, 2017, CNN reported that corroborated information from the dossier had been used as part of the basis for getting the FISA warrant to monitor former Trump foreign policy advisor Carter Page during the summer of 2016.[278]

Commentary and reactions

Public-opinion polls

A Quinnipiac University poll conducted January 5–9, 2017, showed that 55% of respondents believed that Russia interfered in the election, while 36% believed it did not and 10% were undecided.[279] According to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll conducted January 12–15, 51% of respondents said they believed Russia intervened in the election through hacking, but only 26% said that Trump would have lost the election had the hacking not occurred, with opinions largely split on partisan lines.[280]

As of February 2017 public-opinion polls showed a partisan split on the importance of Russia's involvement in the 2016 election.[281] An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 80 percent of Democrats, 55 percent of Independents, and 25 percent of Republicans, for a total of 53 percent, wanted a Congressional inquiry into the alleged communications in 2016 between the Trump presidential campaign and Russian government officials.[282] Quinnipiac University found that 47 percent thought it was very important (18 percent somewhat important, 12 percent not so important, and 20 percent not important).[283] A March 2017 poll conducted by the Associated Press and NORC found that about 62% of respondents say they are at least moderately concerned about the possibility that Trump or his campaign had inappropriate contacts with Russia during the 2016 campaign. The poll also found that "just over half" of respondents favor an independent investigation into the relationship.[284]

According to a Quinnipiac University poll conducted in late March and early April 2017, respondents were divided 44%–44% over the allegation that Trump campaign personnel colluded with Russia, although 64% of respondents said they were "very concerned" or "somewhat concerned" about this issue. In a wide partisan gap, 93% of Democrats felt very or somewhat concerned, while only 36% of Republicans expressed concern. The poll also found that 68% of voters supported "an independent commission investigating the potential links between some of Donald Trump's campaign advisors and the Russian government".[285]

An April 2017 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that respondents had little confidence in Congress's investigation into the Russian interference in the election. The poll reported that "some 73% of adults in the survey said that a nonpartisan, independent commission should look into Russia's involvement in the election, compared with 16% who said Congress should take the lead," while 61% of respondents said that they had little or no confidence in Congress to conduct a fair and impartial inquiry into Russia's involvement in the election.[286]

An ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted in April 2017 found that 56 percent of respondents thought that Russia tried to influence the election, while 39% thought that the "Trump campaign intentionally tried to assist such an effort". In a partisan gap, 60% of Democrats thought that Trump aides helped Russian efforts to influence the election, while only 18% of Republicans agreed.[287]

A May 2017 Monmouth University poll, conducted after the dismissal of James Comey, found that "nearly 6-in-10 Americans thought it was either very (40%) or somewhat (19%) likely that Comey was fired in order to slow down or stop the FBI investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible links with the Trump campaign." Like other recent opinion polls, a majority, 73%, said that the FBI investigation should continue. The poll also noted that 51% of the public said that they were concerned that Trump was too friendly with Russia. 45% of respondents were reportedly not concerned.[288]

A second May 2017 poll conducted after Comey's dismissal by Quinnipiac University reported significantly higher levels of unease than in previous polls. When asked if Trump was "abusing the powers of his office", 54% of voters said yes, compared to 43% who said no. The poll also asked respondents if they thought that "President Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey because President Trump had lost confidence in his ability to lead the FBI well, or that President Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey to disrupt the FBI investigation into potential coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russian government". 55% of the sample said that they thought Comey was fired to disrupt an investigation, compared with 36% who thought otherwise. [289]

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton said Vladimir Putin held a grudge against her due to her criticism of the 2011 Russian legislative election.[145]

On December 15, 2016, Hillary Clinton gave a gratitude speech to her campaign donors in which she reflected on Putin's motivations for the covert operation.[290] She partially attributed her loss in the 2016 election to Russian meddling organized by Putin.[291] Clinton said Putin had a personal grudge against her, and linked his feelings to her criticism of the 2011 Russian legislative election, adding that he felt she was responsible for fomenting the 2011–13 Russian protests.[145] She drew a specific connection from her 2011 assertions as U.S. Secretary of State that Putin rigged the elections that year, to his actions in the 2016 U.S. elections.[290] During the third debate, Clinton stated that Putin favored Trump, "because he'd rather have a puppet as president of the United States". Trump strongly rejected the claim. Clinton proceeded to describe how the Russians "engaged in cyberattacks against the United States of America, that you encouraged espionage against our people, that you are willing to spout the Putin line, sign up for his wish list, break up NATO, do whatever he wants to do, and that you continue to get help from him, because he has a very clear favorite in this race".[292] Clinton said that by personally attacking her through meddling in the election, Putin additionally took a strike at the American democratic system.[291] She said the cyber attacks were a larger issue than the effect on her own candidacy and called them an attempt to attack the national security of the United States.[145] Clinton noted she was unsuccessful in sufficiently publicizing to the media the cyber attacks against her campaign in the months leading up to the election.[290] She voiced her support for a proposal put forth by U.S. Senators from both parties, to set up an investigative panel to look into the matter akin to the 9/11 Commission.[290]

Republican National Committee

The RNC said there was no intrusion into its servers, while acknowledging email accounts of individual Republicans (including Colin Powell) were breached. Over 200 emails from Colin Powell were posted on the website DC Leaks.[101][293] Chief of staff-designate for Trump and outgoing RNC Chairman Reince Priebus appeared on Meet the Press on December 11, 2016, and discounted the CIA conclusions. Priebus said the FBI had investigated and found that RNC servers had not been hacked.[105] When asked by Chuck Todd whether Russia interfered in the election, Priebus stated that despite the conclusion of intelligence officials, he still didn't "know who did the hacking".[294]

Donald Trump

Trump's transition team dismissed the U.S. Intelligence community conclusions.

Prior to his presidential run, Donald Trump made statements to Fox News in 2014 in which he agreed with an assessment by FBI director James Comey about hacking against the U.S. by Russia and China.[295] Trump was played a clip of Comey from 60 Minutes discussing the dangers of cyber attacks.[295] Trump stated he agreed with the problem of cyber threats posed by China, and went on to emphasize there was a similar problem towards the U.S. posed by Russia: "No, I think he's 100% right, it's a big problem, and we have that problem also with Russia. You saw that over the weekend. Russia's doing the same thing."[295]

In September 2016, during the first presidential debate, Trump said he doubted whether anyone knew who hacked the DNC, and disputed Russian interference.[296] During the second debate, Trump said there might not have been hacking at all, and questioned why accountability was placed on Russia.[297] During the third debate, Trump rejected Clinton's claim that Putin favored Trump, "because he'd rather have a puppet as president of the United States".[292] After the election, Trump rejected the CIA analysis and asserted that the reports were politically motivated to deflect from the Democrats' electoral defeat.[20] Trump's transition team drew attention to prior errors emanating from the CIA,[21] namely stating: "These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction."[101] The intelligence analysts involved in monitoring Russian activities are most likely different from those who assessed that Iraq had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction.[298] Responding to The Washington Post, Trump dismissed reports of Russia's interference, calling them "ridiculous"; he placed blame on Democrats upset over election results for publicizing these reports,[299] and cited Julian Assange's statement that "a 14-year-old kid could have hacked Podesta."[300]

After Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats and announced further sanctions on Russia, Trump commended Putin for refraining from retaliatory measures against the United States until the Trump administration would lay out its policy towards Russia.[301]

Excerpt of Trump's press conference on January 11, 2017, discussing the issue.

On January 6, 2017, after meeting with members of U.S. intelligence agencies, Trump released a statement saying:

"While Russia, China, other countries, outside groups and people are consistently trying to break through the cyber infrastructure of our governmental institutions, businesses and organizations including the Democrat National Committee, there was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election including the fact that there was no tampering whatsoever with voting machines."

In the same statement, he vowed to form a national cybersecurity task force to prepare an anti-hacking plan within 90 days of taking office.[302]

Referring to the Office of Personnel Management data breach in 2015, Trump told The New York Times: "China, relatively recently, hacked 20 million government names. How come nobody even talks about that? This is a political witch hunt."[303]

Two days later, Reince Priebus reported that Trump had begun to acknowledge that "entities in Russia" were involved in the DNC leaks.[304] On January 11, 2017, Trump conceded that Russia was probably the source of the leaks, although he also said it could have been another country.[305][306]

Julian Assange (WikiLeaks)

In July 2016, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange said he had not seen evidence emails leaked from the DNC were traceable to Russia.[307] In November 2016, Assange said Russia was not the source of John Podesta's hacked emails published by Wikileaks.[308] On January 3, 2017, he said that a "14-year-old kid could have hacked Podesta’s emails."[309]

On January 6, 2017, Reuters reported on a secret briefing given to Barack Obama by U.S. intelligence agencies on January 5, and scheduled to be shown to Trump a few days later. According to this assessment, the CIA had identified specific Russian officials who provided hacked e-mails to WikiLeaks, following "a circuitous route" from Russia's military intelligence services (GRU) to third parties and then WikiLeaks, thus enabling WikiLeaks to claim that the Russian government was not the source of the material.[310]

Electoral College

On December 10, ten electors, headed by Christine Pelosi, wrote an open letter to the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper demanding an intelligence briefing on investigations into foreign intervention in the presidential election.[311][312] Fifty-eight additional electors subsequently added their names to the letter,[312] bringing the total to 68 electors from 17 different states.[313] The Clinton campaign supported the call for a classified briefing for electors, with John Podesta saying: "Electors have a solemn responsibility under the Constitution and we support their efforts to have their questions addressed."[314]

On December 16, the briefing request was denied.[315]

Intelligence community

Current members

The CIA assessment, and Trump's dismissal of it, created an unprecedented rupture between the president-elect and the intelligence community.[316][317][318] On December 11, 2016, U.S. intelligence officials responded to Trump's denunciation of its findings in a written statement, and expressed dismay Trump disputed their conclusions as politically motivated or inaccurate. They wrote that intelligence officials were motivated to defend U.S. national security.[316] On the same day, The Guardian reported that members of the intelligence community feared reprisals from Donald Trump once he takes office. Questioned by The Guardian, two serving intelligence officers said they had not heard such concerns internally, one of them "noted that civil-service laws prevented Trump from launching a purge", while unnamed former officers stated that "retaliation by Trump [was] all but a certainty".[319]

Former members

Former CIA director Michael Morell said foreign interference in U.S. elections was an existential threat and called it the "political equivalent" of the September 11 attacks.[320] Former CIA spokesman George E. Little condemned Trump for dismissing the CIA assessment, saying that the president-elect's atypical response was disgraceful and denigrated the courage of those who serve in the CIA at risk to their own lives.[321] Former NSA director and CIA director Michael V. Hayden said that Trump's antagonizing the Intelligence Community was problematic and signaled that the new administration was less likely to use intelligence "to create the basis, and set the boundaries, for rational policy choices".[322]

Independent presidential candidate and former CIA intelligence officer Evan McMullin criticized the Republican leadership for failing to respond adequately to Russia's meddling in the election process, "for fear of hurting Trump's chances".[323] McMullin said Republican politicians were aware that publicly revealed information about Russia's interference was likely the tip of the iceberg relative to the actual threat.[323]

See also


  1. ^ In 2001, the U.S. government expelled 51 Russian diplomats out of the country in retaliation for Moscow’s alleged recruitment of FBI special agent Robert Hanssen[174]


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Further reading

External links