The Russian government interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election in order to increase political instability in the United States and to damage Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign by bolstering the candidacy of Donald J. Trump, Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein. A January 2017 assessment by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) stated that Russian leadership favored presidential candidate Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton, and that Russian president Vladimir Putin personally ordered an "influence campaign" to harm Clinton's electoral chances and "undermine public faith in the US democratic process.":7
On October 7, 2016, the ODNI and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) jointly stated that the U.S. Intelligence Community was confident that the Russian Government directed recent hacking of e-mails with the intention of interfering with the U.S. election process. According to the ODNI′s January 6, 2017 report, the Russian military intelligence service (GRU) had hacked the servers of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the personal Google email account of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta and forwarded their contents to WikiLeaks.:ii-iii,2 Although Russian officials have repeatedly denied involvement in any DNC hacks or leaks, there is strong forensic evidence linking the DNC breach to known Russian operations. In January 2017, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified that Russia also interfered in the elections by disseminating fake news that was promoted on social media.
On October 31, 2016, President Barack Obama warned Putin via the "red phone" to stop interfering or face consequences. In December 2016, Obama ordered a report on hacking efforts aimed at U.S. elections since 2008, while U.S. Senators called for a bipartisan investigation. President-elect Donald Trump rejected claims of foreign interference and said that Democrats were reacting to their election loss. On December 29, 2016, the Obama Administration expelled 35 Russian diplomats, denied access to two Russia-owned compounds, and broadened existing sanctions on Russian entities and individuals.
Several investigations about Russian influence on the election have been underway: a counter-intelligence investigation by the FBI, hearings by the Senate Intelligence Committee and the House Intelligence Committee, and inquiries about possible links and financial ties between the Kremlin and Trump associates, notably targeting Paul Manafort, Carter Page and Roger Stone. On May 9, 2017, Trump dismissed FBI Director James Comey, citing in part dissatisfaction with the ongoing suspicions of his presidency because of "this Russia thing". On May 17, Deputy Attorney General, and Acting Attorney General for this investigation, Rod Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as Special Counsel to oversee the investigation.
In December 2016, two senior intelligence officials told U.S. news media[Note 1] that they were highly confident that Vladimir Putin personally directed the operation to interfere in the 2016 presidential election. They said Putin's motives were a vendetta against Hillary Clinton and the desire to foment global distrust of the U.S. They stated that Putin became personally involved after Russia accessed the DNC, because such an operation required high government approval. 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 thought he would ease economic sanctions. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest and Obama foreign policy advisor and speechwriter Ben Rhodes agreed with this assessment, with Rhodes saying operations of this magnitude required Putin's consent.
Russian officials have strongly denied the allegations every time they resurfaced. In June 2016, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied any connection of Russia to the DNC hacks, and in October Putin denounced American "hysteria" over "fictional, mythical problems". In December 2016, when ABC News reported that U.S. intelligence officials told the news agency that Putin was directly involved in the covert operation, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said he was "astonished" by this "nonsense".
In January 2017, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, 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:
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.:7
In June 2017, Putin told journalists that "patriotically minded" Russian hackers may have been responsible for the cyberattacks against the U.S. during the election campaign. Putin continued to deny any government involvement, stating, "We're not doing this on the state level."
As early as June 2016, the FBI sent a warning to states about "bad actors" probing state-elections systems to seek vulnerabilities. In September 2016, FBI Director James Comey testified before the House Judiciary Committee that the FBI was investigating Russian hackers attempting to disrupt the 2016 election and that federal investigators had detected hacker-related activities in state voter-registration databases, which independent assessments determined were soft targets for hackers. Comey stated there were multiple attempts to hack voter database registrations. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper attributed Russian hacking attempts to Vladimir Putin.
In August 2016, the FBI issued a nationwide "flash alert" warning state election officials about hacking attempts. 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. Federal investigators attributed these attempts to Russian government-sponsored hackers, and specifically to Russian intelligence agencies. Four of the intrusions into voter registration databases were successful, including intrusions into the Illinois and Arizona databases. Although the hackers did not appear to change or manipulate data, Illinois officials reported that information on up to 200,000 registered voters was stolen. The FBI and DHS increased their election-security coordination efforts with state officials as a result. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson reported that 18 states had requested voting-system security assistance from DHS. The department also offered risk assessments to the states, but just four states expressed interest, as the election was rapidly approaching. The reports of the database intrusions prompted alarm from Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, who wrote to the FBI saying foreign attempts to cast doubt on free and fair elections was a danger to democracy not seen since the Cold War.
On September 22, 2017, federal authorities notified the election officials of 21 states that their election systems had been targeted. Over a year after the initial warnings, this was the first official confirmation many state governments received that their states specifically had been targeted. However, top elections officials of the states of Wisconsin and California have rebutted the federal claim. California Secretary of State Alex Padilla stated that “California voters can further rest assured that the California Secretary of State elections infrastructure and websites were not hacked or breached by Russian cyber actors”. “Our notification from DHS last Friday was not only a year late, it also turned out to be bad information”.
In April 2017, Reuters cited several U.S. officials as saying that the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies (RISS), which had until January 2017 been headed by a retired SVR general Leonid Petrovich Reshetnikov, had developed a strategy to sway the U.S. election to Donald Trump; in October 2016, when a conclusion was made that Hillary Clinton was likely to win, the strategy was modified and aimed at undermining U.S. voters′ faith in the electoral system. The development of strategy was allegedly ordered by Putin and directed by former officers of Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). The Institute had been a part of the SVR until 2009, whereafter it has worked for the Russian Presidential Administration .
According to unidentified U.S. officials, the propaganda efforts began in March 2016. The first set of recommendations, issued in June 2016, reportedly 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 allegedly advocated messages about voter fraud in order to undermine the legitimacy of the U.S. electoral system and a Clinton presidency. RISS director Mikhail Fradkov and Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied the allegations.
Professor Philip N. Howard of the University of Oxford found that about one half of all news on Twitter directed at Michigan prior to the election was junk or fake. The other half came from real news sources. Criticized for failing to stop fake news from spreading on its platform during the 2016 election, Facebook, until May 2017 when it announced plans to hire 3,000 content reviewers, thought that the problem could be solved by engineering.
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. The authors wrote that disinformation spread from government-controlled outlets, RT and Sputnik to pro-Russian accounts on Twitter. Citing research by Adrian Chen, they compared Russian tactics during the 2016 U.S. election to Soviet Union Cold War strategies. They referenced the 1992 United States Information Agency report to the U.S. Congress, which warned about Russian propaganda called active measures. They wrote active measures were made easier with social media. Institute of International Relations Prague senior fellow and scholar on Russian intelligence, Mark Galeotti, agreed the Kremlin operations were a form of active measures. The Guardian wrote in November 2016 the most strident Internet promoters of Trump were paid Russian propagandists, estimating several thousand trolls involved.
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, and found that such accounts denigrated critics of Russian activities in Syria and propagated falsehoods about Clinton's health. Watts said the propaganda targeted the alt-right movement, the right wing, and fascist groups. Watts' findings cited Russian propaganda that exacerbated criticism of Clinton and support for Trump, via social media, Internet trolls, botnets, and websites denigrating Clinton.
In September 2017, Facebook told congressional investigators it had discovered that hundreds of fake accounts linked to a Russian troll farm had bought $100,000 in advertisements targeting the 2016 U.S. election audience. The ads, which ran between June 2015 and May 2017, primarily focused on divisive social issues; roughly 25% were geographically targeted. Facebook has also reportedly turned over information about the Russian-related ad buys to Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Approximately 3000 adverts were involved, and these were reportedly viewed by between four and five million Facebook users prior to the election. Facebook had previously denied that fake news on their platform had influenced the election and had insisted it was unaware of any Russian-financed advertisements but later admitted that about 126 million Americans may have seen posts published by Russia-based operatives. On November 1, 2017, the House Intelligence Committee released a sample of Facebook ads and pages that had been financially linked to the Internet Research Agency, a Russian company with ties to the Kremlin.
Pro-Russian hackers launched a series of cyberattacks over several days to disrupt the May 2014 Ukrainian presidential election, releasing hacked emails, attempting to alter vote tallies, and delaying the final result with distributed denial-of-service attacks. Malware that would have displayed a graphic declaring far-right candidate Dmytro Yarosh the electoral winner was removed from Ukraine's Central Election Commission less than an hour before polls closed. Despite this, Channel One Russia "reported that Mr. Yarosh had won and broadcast the fake graphic, citing the election commission's website, even though it had never appeared there." According to Peter Ordeshook: "These faked results were geared for a specific audience in order to feed the Russian narrative that has claimed from the start that ultra-nationalists and Nazis were behind the revolution in Ukraine." Sofacy malware used in the Central Election Commission hack was later found on the servers of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Ali Watkins recounted that, around the same time as "the dramatic Russian attempt to hack Ukrainian elections in 2014," the Obama administration "received a report that quoted a well-connected Russian source as saying that the Kremlin was building a disinformation arm that could be used to interfere in Western democracies."
The U.S. intelligence community, in a joint January 6, 2017, declassified report, stated that Russian President Vladimir Putin wished to retaliate against Hillary Clinton due to faulting her for 2011-2012 mass protests against him.:11 On March 20, 2017, FBI Director James Comey testified that Putin disliked Clinton and preferred her opponent. Putin repeatedly accused Clinton, who served as U.S. Secretary of State from 2009 to 2013, of interfering in Russia's internal affairs, and in December 2016, Clinton accused Putin of having a personal grudge against her. Michael McFaul, who was U.S. ambassador to Russia, said that the operation could be a retaliation by Putin against Clinton. According to Russian security expert Andrei Soldatov, "[The Kremlin] believes that with Clinton in the White House it will be almost impossible to lift sanctions against Russia. So it is a very important question for Putin personally. This is a question of national security."
John Podesta, Chairman of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, received an email on March 19, 2016 alerting him of a "compromise in the system." The Google alert prompted him to change his password "immediately" by clicking on a link. According to Podesta, an IT employee mistakenly told his assistant that the email was "legitimate", when in fact he meant to write "illegitimate." Upon clicking the phishing email, Russian hackers were able to access around 60,000 emails from Podesta's private account.
On October 7, 2016, less than an hour after The Washington Post released the Donald Trump and Billy Bush recording Access Hollywood tape, WikiLeaks announced on Twitter that it was in possession of 50,000 of Podesta's emails. It initially released 2,050 of these. The Clinton campaign did not confirm or deny the authenticity of the emails. Senior national spokesman for the Clinton campaign, Glen Caplin, said: "We are not going to confirm the authenticity of stolen documents released by Julian Assange [of WikiLeaks] who has made no secret of his desire to damage Hillary Clinton. Guccifer 2.0 has already proven the warnings of top national security officials that documents can be faked as part of a sophisticated Russian misinformation campaign." According to US intelligence officials, the hackers gave the email cache to WikiLeaks. The cache included emails containing transcripts of Clinton's paid speeches to Wall Street banks, controversial comments from staffers about Catholic voters, infighting among employees of the Clinton campaign, as well as potential Vice-Presidential picks for Clinton. On October 8, the US government formally accused Russia of hacking the DNC's computer networks to interfere in the 2016 US Presidential Election with the help of organizations like WikiLeaks. The Department Of Homeland Security and Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Election Security claimed in their joint statement, "The recent disclosures of alleged hacked e-mails on sites like DCLeaks.com and WikiLeaks and by the Guccifer 2.0 online persona are consistent with the methods and motivations of Russian-directed efforts." This was corroborated by a January 6, 2017 report released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), in conjunction with the CIA, the FBI, and the NSA. John Podesta, in an interview with Meet the Press on December 18, 2016, claimed that the FBI spoke to him only once regarding his hacked emails. When asked about when he was aware his emails had been taken, Podesta said, "In one of those DNC documents that appeared to me ... that might have came from my account. … So I wasn't sure. I didn't know what they had, what they didn't have. It wasn't until October 7 when [WikiLeaks' Julian] Assange ... started dumping them out and said they would all dump out, that's when I knew that they had the contents of my email account."
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. Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigned as DNC chairwoman following WikiLeaks releases suggesting collusion against Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign. At a news conference on July 27, 2016, Trump publicly called on Russia to hack and release Hillary Clinton's deleted emails from her private server during her tenure in the State Department.
Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing, I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press. — Donald J. Trump
Trump's comment was condemned by the press and political figures, including some Republicans; he replied that he had been speaking sarcastically. Several Democratic Senators said Trump's comments appeared to violate the Logan Act, and Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe added that Trump's call could be treasonous. 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. Podesta later blamed Russia. In April 2017, CIA Director Mike Pompeo stated WikiLeaks was a hostile intelligence agency aided by foreign states including Russia, and said that the U.S. Intelligence Community concluded that Russia's "propaganda outlet" RT, had conspired with WikiLeaks.
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.
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. The unit had been in development for 8 months prior to being scrapped. Titled the Counter-Disinformation Team, it would have been a reboot of the Active Measures Working Group set up by the Reagan Administration. It was created under the Bureau of International Information Programs. Work began in 2014, with the intention of countering propaganda from Russian sources such as TV network RT (formerly called Russia Today). A beta website was ready, and staff were hired by the U.S. State Department for the unit prior to its cancellation. 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. 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. U.S. Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Richard Stengel was the point person for the unit before it was canceled. Stengel had written in 2014 that RT was engaged in a disinformation campaign about Ukraine.
In June and July 2016, cybersecurity experts and firms, including CrowdStrike, Fidelis, FireEye, Mandiant, SecureWorks, Symantec 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, also known respectively as APT28 and APT29 / The Dukes. ThreatConnect also noted possible links between the DC Leaks project and Russian intelligence operations because of a similarity with Fancy Bear attack patterns. SecureWorks added that the actor group was operating from Russia on behalf of the Russian government.
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.
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. Concerned, Brennan gave classified briefings to U.S. Congress' "Gang of Eight" during late August and September 2016. 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. It was later revealed that the CIA had obtained intelligence from "sources inside the Russian government" that stated that Putin gave direct orders to disparage Clinton and help Trump.
On May 23, 2017, Brennan stated to the House Intelligence Committee that Russia "brazenly interfered" in the 2016 U.S. elections. He said that he first picked up on Russia's active meddling "last summer", and that he had on August 4, 2016 warned his counterpart at Russia's FSB intelligence agency, Alexander Bortnikov, against further interference.
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. In July 2016, consensus grew within the CIA that Russia had hacked the DNC. 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. On December 2, intelligence sources told CNN they had gained confidence that Russia's efforts were aimed at helping Trump win the election.
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. The agencies further stated that Russia had hacked the RNC as well, but did not leak information obtained from there. These assessments were based on evidence obtained before the election. According to an unnamed official, the intelligence community did not believe that Moscow's efforts altered the outcome of the election.
On December 30, 2017, The New York Times reported that in May 2016 the Donald Trump campaign foreign policy advisor, George Papadopoulos, had disclosed to Alexander Downer in Kensington Wine Rooms, a London wine bar, his inside knowledge of a large trove of Hillary Clinton emails that could potentially damage her presidential campaign, which in turn led to the opening of the FBI investigation into the Russian interference in the 2016 United States Presidential Election.
In June 2016, the FBI notified the Illinois Republican Party that some of its email accounts may have been hacked. In December 2016, an FBI official stated that Russian attempts to access the RNC server were unsuccessful. 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. On January 10, 2017, FBI Director James Comey told the Senate Intelligence Committee that Russia succeeded in "collecting some information from Republican-affiliated targets but did not leak it to the public".
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. 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. At the time, FBI officials thought Russia was motivated to undermine confidence in the U.S. political process rather than specifically support Trump. During a House Intelligence Committee hearing in early December, the CIA said it was certain of Russia's intent to help Trump. 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.
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". It gave new technical details regarding methods used by Russian intelligence services for affecting the U.S. election, government, political organizations and private sector.
The report included malware samples and other technical details as evidence that the Russian government had hacked the Democratic National Committee. Alongside the report, DHS published Internet Protocol addresses, malware, and files used by Russian hackers. An article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung discussed the difficulty of proof in matters of cybersecurity. One analyst told the Süddeutsche Zeitung that U.S. intelligence services could be keeping some information secret to protect their sources and analysis methods. Clapper later stated that the classified version contained "a lot of the substantiation that could not be put in the [public] report."
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. He said the investigation began in July 2016. Comey made the unusual decision to reveal the ongoing investigation to Congress, citing benefit to the public good. On October 7, 2016, Secretary Johnson and Director Clapper issued a joint statement that the intelligence community is confident the Russian Government directed the recent compromises of e-mails from U.S. persons and institutions, including from U.S. political organizations, and that the disclosures of alleged hacked e-mails on sites like DCLeaks.com and WikiLeaks are consistent with the Russian-directed efforts. The statement also noted that the Russians have used similar tactics and techniques across Europe and Eurasia to influence public opinion there. On December 29, 2016, DHS and FBI released a Joint Analysis Report (JAR) which further expands on that statement by providing details of the tools and infrastructure used by Russian intelligence services to compromise and exploit networks and infrastructure associated with the recent U.S. election, as well as a range of U.S. government, political and private sector entities.
On January 6, 2017, after briefing the president, the president-elect, and members of the Senate and House, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) released a de-classified version of the report on Russian activities. The report, produced by the CIA, the FBI, the NSA, and the ODNI, 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. The report contained no information about how the data was collected and provided no evidence underlying its conclusions. According to Clapper, the classified version contained "a lot of the substantiation that could not be put in the [public] report." 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. 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, their report did not have evidence of collusion. On May 14, 2017, in an interview with George Stephanopoulos, Clapper explained more about the state of evidence for or against any collusion, saying he was personally unaware of evidence of collusion but was also unaware of the existence of the formal investigation. In June 2017, E. W. Priestap, the assistant director of the FBI Counterintelligence Division, told the PBS Newshour program that Russian intelligence "used fake news and propaganda and they also used online amplifiers to spread the information to as many people as possible" during the election. In November 2017, Clapper explained that at the time of the Stephanopoulos interview, he did not know about the efforts of George Papadopoulos to set up meetings between Trump associates and Kremlin officials, nor about the meeting at Trump Tower between Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort and a Russian lawyer.
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. 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.
In testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 8, former FBI Director James Comey affirmed he had "no doubt" that Russia interfered in the 2016 election and that the interference was a hostile act. Concerning the motives of his dismissal, Comey stated:
|“||I take the president at his word that I was fired because of the Russia investigation. Something about the way I was conducting it, the president felt, created pressure on him he wanted to relieve.||”|
|— James Comey, |
Comey stated that, while he was director, Trump was not under investigation.
In January 2018, McClatchy DC Bureau reported that the FBI was investigating the possible funneling of illegal money by a top Russian banker, Aleksandr Torshin, through the National Rifle Association, which was then used to help Donald Trump win the presidency. Torshin is known to have close connections to both Russia's president Vladimir Putin and the NRA, and has been charged with money laundering in other countries. The NRA reported donating $30 million to the Trump campaign, three times what it spent on Mitt Romney in 2012, and spent more than any other independent group including the leading Trump superPAC. Sources with connections to the NRA have stated that the actual amount spent was much higher than the reported $30 million. The subunits within the organization which made the donations are not generally required to disclose their donors.
Maria Butina, a Russian right-wing gun activist who has served as a special assistant to Torshin and is currently attending university classes in Washington, was reportedly heard to claim both before and after the election that she was part of the Trump campaign's communications with Russia. In December 2017, The New York Times reported that during Trump's presidential transition an unnamed activist had contacted Rick Dearborn, executive director of the transition team, claiming in an email that he had close ties to the both NRA and Russia, and asking how a back-channel meeting between Trump and Putin could be set up. The email was later turned over to federal investigators as part of the inquiry into Russia's meddling in the presidential election.
Members of the U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee traveled to Ukraine and Poland in 2016 and learned about Russian operations to influence their elections. Senator Angus King said the problem frustrated both political parties. 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. Representatives in the U.S. Congress took action to monitor the national security of the United States by advancing legislation to monitor propaganda. 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. 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. Senate Intelligence Committee member Ron Wyden said frustration over covert Russian propaganda was bipartisan.
Republican U.S. Senators stated they planned to hold hearings and investigate Russian influence on the 2016 U.S. elections. By doing so they went against the preference of incoming Republican President-elect Trump, who downplayed Russian interference. Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain and Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr planned investigations of Russian cyberwarfare. U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker planned a 2017 investigation. Senator Lindsey Graham indicated he would conduct an investigation during the 115th Congress. On December 11, 2016, top-ranking bipartisan members of the U.S. Senate issued a joint statement responding to the intelligence assessments about Russia's influence on the election. 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.
Senator McCain called for a special select committee of the U.S. Senate to investigate Russian meddling in the election, and called election meddling an "act of war". Republican Senator and Intelligence Committee member James Lankford agreed that investigation into Russian influence on the elections should be cooperative between parties. Republican Senator Susan Collins said a bipartisan investigation should improve proactive cyber defense. Outgoing Senate Democratic Caucus leader Harry Reid said the FBI hid Russian interference to swing the election for Trump, and called for James Comey to resign.
On December 12, 2016, Senate Majority Leader Republican Mitch McConnell expressed confidence in U.S. intelligence. McConnell added that investigation of Russia's actions should be bipartisan and held by the Senate Intelligence
Committee. 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 the investigation.
On December 14, 2016, 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. 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.
On December 16, Burr denied that the CIA was acting on political motives and stated that intelligence employees held diverse perspectives. 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.
The Senate Intelligence Committee began work on its bipartisan inquiry on January 24, 2017. On May 25, 2017 a unanimous Senate Intelligence Committee voted to give both Chairmen of the Senate Intelligence Committee solo subpoena power. On May 26, 2017, Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) and Vice-Chairman Mark Warner (D-VA) issued a subpoena to the Trump campaign for all Russia-related documents, emails, and telephone records.
On December 18, 2017, the Washington Post reported that the Senate Intelligence Committee is looking at the presidential campaign of Green Party’s Jill Stein for potential “collusion with the Russians.”
On January 10, 2018, Senator Ben Cardin of the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee released, "Putin's Asymmetric Assault on Democracy in Russia and Europe: Implications for U.S. National Security." According to the report, the interference in the 2016 United States elections was a part of Putin’s “asymmetric assault on democracy” worldwide, including targeting elections in a number of countries, such as Britain, France and Germany, by "Moscow-sponsored hacking, internet trolling and financing for extremist political groups".
On January 29, 2018, Senator Mark Warner told Politico Magazine that the Senate Intelligence Committeelate last year received “extraordinarily important new documents” in its investigation of President Donald Trump and his campaign’s possible collusion with the 2016 Russian election hacking, opening up significant new lines of inquiry in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s probe of the president. This supports the reports that Robert S. Mueller III is newly focusing on computer crimes with his hiring of prosecutor, Ryan K. Dickey, of the DOJ's Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section.
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. 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. Schiff concluded Russian propaganda operations would continue against the U.S. after the election. 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.
Republican U.S. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan said external interference in U.S. elections was intolerable. 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. On December 12, 2016, Nunes emphasized that at the time he had only viewed circumstantial evidence Russia intended to assist Trump win. 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.
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. In February, General Michael 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.
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. On March 19, 2017, Schiff told Meet the Press that there was sufficient evidence to warrant further investigation. On March 22, 2017, Schiff stated that he had seen evidence of a higher standard than circumstantial regarding collusion. 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. Nunes was cleared of the accusation of disclosing classified information on Dec. 8, 2017
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. 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. Obama said Russian hacking stopped after his warning to Putin. 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. Obama emphasized the gravity of the situation by telling Putin: "International law, including the law for armed conflict, applies to actions in cyberspace."
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. 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. The intelligence analysis would cover malicious cyberwarfare occurring between the 2008 and 2016 elections. CNN reported that an unnamed senior administration official told them that the White House was confident Russia interfered in the election. The official said the order by President Obama would be a lessons learned report, with options including sanctions and covert cyber response against Russia.
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. Earnest contrasted Trump's comments on Twitter with the October 2016 conclusions of the U.S. Intelligence Community. 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. 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. Kerry stated the president's decision was deliberative and relied upon information cautiously weighed by the intelligence agencies. He said the president felt a need to warn the U.S. public and did.
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. He added that motive behind the Russian operation could better be determined after completion of the intelligence report he ordered. Obama emphasized that Russian efforts caused more harm to Clinton than to Trump during the campaign. At a press conference the following day, he highlighted his September 2016 admonition to Putin to cease engaging in cyberwarfare against the U.S. Obama explained that the U.S. did not publicly reciprocate against Russia's actions due to a fear such choices would appear partisan. President Obama minimized conflict between his administration and the Trump transition, stressing cyber warfare against the U.S. should be a bipartisan issue.
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.
On December 29, 2016, the U.S. government announced a series of punitive measures against Russia. The Obama administration imposed sanctions on four top officials of the GRU and declared persona non grata 35 Russian diplomats suspected of spying; they were ordered to leave the country within 72 hours.[Note 2] On December 30, two waterfront compounds used as retreats 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. Further sanctions against Russia were undertaken, both overt and covert. A White House statement said that cyberwarfare by Russia was geared to undermine U.S. trust in democracy and impact the election. President Obama said his decision was taken after previous warnings to Russia. In mid-July 2017, the Russian foreign ministry said the U.S. was refusing to issue visas to Russian diplomats to allow Moscow to replace the expelled personnel and get its embassy back up to full strength.
In June 2017, the Senate voted 98 to 2 for a bill that had been initially drafted in January by a bipartisan group of senators over Russia′s continued involvement in the wars in Ukraine and Syria and its meddling in the 2016 election that envisaged sanctions on Russia as well as Iran, and North Korea; the bill would expand the punitive measures previously imposed by executive orders and convert them into law. An identical bill was introduced by Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives in July and passed in the house on July 25, with 419 votes in favor and 3 against. On July 27, the bill was passed overwhelmingly by the Senate, which provoked Russia′s president Putin into pledging response to ″this kind of insolence towards our country″. On August 2, president Donald Trump signed the bill into law (the ″Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act″). Simultaneously, the president issued two separate, simultaneous statements. One of those said, ″While I favor tough measures to punish and deter aggressive and destabilizing behavior by Iran, North Korea, and Russia, this legislation is significantly flawed. In its haste to pass this legislation, the Congress included a number of clearly unconstitutional provisions″. The law forbids the president from lifting earlier sanctions without first consulting Congress, giving them time to reverse such a move. It targets Russia's defense industry by harming Russia's ability to export weapon, and allows the U.S. to sanction international companies that work to develop Russian energy resources. One of Trump′s statements noted that ″by limiting the Executive’s flexibility, this bill makes it harder for the United States to strike good deals for the American people, and will drive China, Russia, and North Korea much closer together.″ The proposed sanctions also caused harsh criticism and threats of retaliatory measure on the part of the European Union. On January 29, 2018, the Trump administration notified Congress saying that it would not impose additional sanctions on Russia under 2017 legislation designed to punish Moscow’s alleged meddling in the 2016 U.S. election. The administration insisted that the mere threat of the sanctions outlined in the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act would serve as a deterrent, and that implementing the sanctions would therefore be unnecessary.
On December 30, 2016, commenting on his eventual decision to refrain from retaliatory measures to actions by the U.S. on December 29, Putin released a published statement that his government, while reserving its legitimate right to respond adequately, would not take action at that time; 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 further steps for restoring Russian-American relations would be built on the basis of the policies developed by the Trump administration. In May 2017, Russian banker Andrey Kostin, an associate of President Vladimir Putin, said the Washington elite was purposefully disrupting the presidency of Donald Trump.
In mid-July 2017, the Russian foreign ministry noted that the staff of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow far exceeded the number of Russian embassy employees in Washington and indicated that the Russian government was considering retaliatory expulsion of more than 35 U.S. diplomats, thus evening out the number of the countries′ diplomats posted. As a response to the new sanctions against Moscow passed by Congress and measures imposed against the Russian diplomatic mission in the U.S. by the Obama administration, Russia′s foreign ministry demanded that the U.S. reduce its diplomatic and technical personnel in the Moscow embassy and its consulates in St Petersburg, Ekaterinburg and Vladivostok to 455 persons — the same as the number of Russian diplomats posted in the U.S. — by September 1 and the suspension of the use of a retreat compound and a storage facility in Moscow by August 1. On July 31, 2017, Russian president Vladimir Putin said that the decision had been taken by him personally and that the U.S. diplomatic mission must reduce their personnel by 755.
On May 9, 2017, Trump dismissed Comey, attributing his action to recommendations from United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. After he learned that Trump was about to fire Comey, Rosenstein submitted to Trump a memo critical of Comey's conduct in the investigation about Hillary Clinton's emails. 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. Trump later confirmed that he had intended to fire Comey regardless of any Justice Department recommendation. Trump himself also tied the firing to the Russia investigation in a televised interview, stating, "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.'"
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. 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, and to the dismissal of Sally Yates in January 2017. Near the end of James Comey's testimony to the senate intelligence committee on June 8, 2017, Comey stated "It's my judgment that I was fired because of the Russia investigation. I was fired in some way to change, or the endeavor was to change, the way the Russia investigation was being conducted."
According to a document, which was read to The New York Times by a U.S. official, while having a meeting Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak on May 10, 2017 in the Oval Office, president Donald Trump allegedly told the 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."
On May 17, 2017, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to direct FBI agents and Department of Justice prosecutors investigating election interference by Russia and related matters. As special counsel, Mueller has the power to issue subpoenas, hire staff members, request funding, and prosecute federal crimes in connection with his investigation.
Mueller assembled a legal team. Trump engaged several attorneys to represent and advise him, including his longtime personal attorney Marc Kasowitz as well as Jay Sekulow, Michael Bowe, and John M. Dowd. On August 3, 2017 The Wall Street Journal reported that Mueller was using a grand jury indicating a possible gain in intensity of the investigation.
There have been multiple reports that senior White House officials, and Trump himself, asked intelligence officials if they could intervene with the FBI to stop the investigation into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats later said he had "never felt pressured to intervene in the Russia investigation in any way".
According to a memo written by FBI Director James Comey, on February 14, 2017 Trump suggested Comey should "let go" the FBI investigation into Flynn. In testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee Comey said he "took it as a direction".
A few days after Comey's dismissal, the FBI reportedly widened its investigation to examine whether President Trump attempted to obstruct justice. Many FBI insiders believed the real reason Comey was fired was because he had refused to end the investigation into Russian connections to the election. In his June testimony Comey said that Trump never asked him to stop the Russia investigation. The special counsel's office took over the investigation. ABC News later clarified that the special counsel is gathering preliminary information about possible obstruction of justice, but a full-scale investigation has not yet been launched.
On October 30, 2017, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort surrendered to the FBI after being indicted on multiple charges. His business associate Rick Gates was also indicted and surrendered to the FBI. The pair were indicted on one count of conspiracy against the United States, one count of conspiracy to launder money, one count of being an unregistered agent of a foreign principal, one count of making false and misleading FARA statements, and one count of making false statements. Manafort was charged with four counts of failing to file reports of foreign bank and financial accounts while Gates was charged with three. All charges arise from their consulting work for a pro-Russian government in Ukraine and are unrelated to the campaign. According to The New York Times, it is widely believed that the charges against Manafort are intended to pressure him into becoming a cooperating witness about Russian interference in the 2016 election. In February 2018, the Los Angeles Times reported that Gates would plead guilty to fraud-related charges and that he had agreed to testify against Manafort.
Also on October 30 it was revealed that Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos had pleaded guilty earlier in the month to making a false statement to FBI investigators about his connections to Russia. In the first guilty plea of special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, George Papadopoulos admitted lying to the FBI about contact with Russian agents that offered the campaign 'thousands' of damaging emails about Clinton months before then candidate Donald Trump asked Russia to “find” Hillary Clinton's missing emails. According to the source, a Russian operative told a campaign aide 'the Russians had emails of Clinton'. The guilty plea was part of a plea bargain in which he agreed to cooperate with the government and "provide information regarding any and all matters as to which the Government deems relevant."
On February 16, 2018, a Federal grand jury in Washington, D.C., indicted 13 Russian nationals and 3 Russian entities on charges of conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to commit bank and wire fraud, and fraud with identification documents, in connection with the 2016 United States national elections. The 37-page indictment cites the illegal use of social media "to sow political discord, including actions that supported the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump and disparaged his opponent, Hillary Clinton." On the same day, Robert Mueller announced that Richard Pinedo had pleaded guilty to using the identities of other people in connection with unlawful activity.
In spring of 2015, U.S. intelligence agencies started overhearing conversations in which Russian government officials discussed associates of Donald Trump. 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. 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. As of March 2017, the FBI is investigating Russian involvement in the election, including alleged links between Trump's associates and the Russian government.
In particular, Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak has met several Trump campaign members and administration nominees; involved people dismissed those meetings as routine conversations in preparation for assuming the presidency. Trump's team has issued at least twenty denials concerning communications between his campaign and Russian officials; several of these denials turned out to be false. In the early months of 2017, Trump and other senior White House officials asked the Director of National Intelligence, the NSA director, the FBI director, and two chairs of congressional committees to publicly dispute the news reports about contacts between Trump associates and Russia.
In February 2016, retired Marine general Michael Flynn was named as an advisor to Trump's presidential campaign. Later that year, in phone calls intercepted by U.S. intelligence, Russian officials were overheard claiming that they had formed a strong relationship with Trump advisor Flynn and believed they would be able to use him to influence Trump and his team.
In December 2016 Flynn, then Trump's designated choice to be National Security Advisor, and Jared Kushner met with Russian ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak and requested him to set up a direct, encrypted line of communication so that they could communicate directly with the Kremlin without the knowledge of American intelligence agencies. No such channel was actually set up.
On December 29, 2016, the day that President Obama announced sanctions against Russia, Flynn discussed the sanctions with Kislyak, urging that Russia not retaliate. Flynn initially denied speaking to Kislyak, then acknowledged the conversation but denied discussing the sanctions.
Upon Trump's January 20, 2017 inauguration, he appointed Flynn his National Security Advisor. On January 24, Flynn was interviewed by the FBI. Two days later, acting Attorney General Sally Yates informed the White House that Flynn was "compromised" by the Russians and possibly open to blackmail. Flynn was forced to resign as national security advisor on February 13, 2017.
On December 1, 2017, Flynn pleaded guilty to a single felony count of making "false, fictitious and fraudulent statements" to the FBI about his conversations with Kislyak. His plea was part of a plea bargain with special counsel Robert Mueller, under which Flynn also agreed to cooperate with Mueller's investigation.
In March 2016 Donald Trump named George Papadopoulos, a young energy consultant, as a foreign policy advisor to his campaign. Shortly thereafter Papadopoulos was approached by Joseph Mifsud, a London-based professor with connections to high-ranking Russian officials. Mifsud told him the Russians had "dirt" on Hillary Clinton in the form of "thousands of emails" "apparently stolen in an effort to try to damage her campaign". The two met several times in March 2016. In May 2016 at a London wine bar, Papadopoulos told the top Australian diplomat to the United Kingdom, Alexander Downer, that Russia "had a dirt file on rival candidate Hillary Clinton in the form of hacked Democratic Party emails". After the DNC emails were published by Wikileaks in July, the Australian government told the FBI about Papadopoulos' revelation, leading the FBI to launch a counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign.
Papadopoulos' main activity during the campaign was attempting, unsuccessfully, to set up meetings between Russian officials (including Vladimir Putin) and Trump campaign officials (including Trump himself). In pursuit of this goal he communicated with multiple Trump campaign officials including Sam Clovis, Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, and Corey Lewandowski.
On January 27, 2017, Papadopoulos was interviewed by FBI agents. On July 27, he was arrested at Washington-Dulles International Airport, and he has since been cooperating with Special Counsel Robert Mueller in his investigation. On October 5, 2017, he pleaded guilty to one felony count of making false statements to FBI agents relating to contacts he had with agents of the Russian government while working for the Trump campaign. Papadopoulos's arrest and guilty plea became public on October 30, 2017, when court documents showing the guilty plea were unsealed.
In June 2016, Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner met with Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya, who was accompanied by some others, including Russian-American lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin, after Trump Jr. was informed that Veselnitskaya could supply the Trump campaign with incriminating information about Hillary Clinton such as her dealings with the Russians. The meeting was arranged following an email from British music publicist Rob Goldstone who was the manager of Emin Agalarov, son of Russian tycoon Aras Agalarov. In the email, Goldstone said that the information had come from the Russian government and "was part of a Russian government effort to help Donald Trump's presidential campaign". Trump Jr. replied with an e-mail saying "If it's what you say I love it especially later in the summer” and arranged the meeting. Trump Jr. went to the meeting expecting to receive information harmful to the Clinton campaign, but he said that none was forthcoming, and instead the conversation then turned to the Magnitsky Act and the adoption of Russian children.
The meeting was disclosed by the New York Times on July 8, 2017. On the same day, Donald Trump Jr. released a statement saying it had been a short introductory meeting focused on adoption of Russian children by Americans and “not a campaign issue”. Later that month the Washington Post revealed that Trump Jr.’s statement had been dictated by President Donald Trump, who had overruled his staff’s recommendation that the statement be transparent about the actual motivation for the meeting: the Russian government’s wish to help Trump’s campaign.
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 at the Republican convention and once in September 2016 in Sessions' Senate office. In his confirmation hearings, Sessions testified that he "did not have communications with the Russians". On March 2, 2017, after this denial was revealed to have been false, Sessions recused himself from matters relating to Russia's election interference and deferred to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.
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. Intercepted communications during the campaign show that Russian officials believed they could use Manafort to influence Trump.
Roger Stone, a former adviser to Donald Trump and business partner of Paul Manafort, stated that he had been in contact with Guccifer 2.0, a hacker persona believed to be a front for Russian intelligence operations, who had publicly claimed responsibility for at least one hack of the DNC. During the campaign, Stone had stated repeatedly and publicly that he had "actually communicated with Julian Assange"; he later denied having done so. In August 2016, Stone had cryptically tweeted "Trust me, it will soon [sic] the Podesta's time in the barrel" shortly after claiming to have been in contact with Wikileaks and before Wikileaks' release of the Podesta emails. Stone has denied having any advance knowledge of the Podesta e-mail hack or any connection to Russian intelligence, stating that his earlier tweet was actually referring to reports of the Podesta Group's own ties to Russia. Stone ultimately named Randy Credico, who had interviewed both Assange and Stone for a radio show, as his intermediary with Assange.
Oil industry consultant Carter Page had his communications monitored by the FBI under a FISA warrant during the summer of 2016, after he was suspected to act as an agent for Russia. Page told The Washington Post that he considered that to be "unjustified, politically motivated government surveillance". Page spoke with Kislyak during the 2016 Republican National Convention, acting as a foreign policy adviser to Donald Trump. In 2013 he had met with Viktor Podobnyy, then a junior attaché at the Russian Permanent Mission to the United Nations, at an energy conference, and provided him with documents on the U.S. energy industry. Podobnyy was later charged with spying, but was protected from prosecution by diplomatic immunity. The FBI interviewed Page in 2013 as part of an investigation into Podonyy's spy ring, but never accused Page of wrongdoing.
On January 11, 2017, UAE officials organized a meeting in the Seychelles between Erik Prince, the founder of the Blackwater security company and a Trump campaign donor, and an unnamed Russian "close to Vladimir Putin". They reportedly discussed a "back channel" between Trump and Putin along with Middle East policy, notably about Syria and Iran. U.S. officials told The Washington Post and NBC News that the FBI was investigating the meeting; the FBI refused to comment.
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 Ambassador Kislyak and Sergei Gorkov, the head of the Russian state-owned bank Vnesheconombank. Kushner's lawyers called the omissions "an error". Vnesheconombank has said the meeting was business-related, in connection with Kushner's management of Kushner Companies. However, the Trump administration provided a different explanation, saying it was a diplomatic meeting.
On May 30, 2017, both the House and Senate congressional panels asked President Trump's personal lawyer Michael Cohen to "provide information and testimony" about any communications that Cohen had with people connected to the Kremlin. In August 2017 it was reported that Cohen had attempted to contact Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov during the 2016 campaign, asking for help in advancing plans for a Trump Tower in Moscow.
In May 2017 longtime Republican operative Peter W. Smith confirmed to The Wall Street Journal that during the 2016 campaign he had been actively involved in trying to obtain emails he believed had been hacked from Hillary Clinton's computer server. In that quest he contacted several known hacker groups, including some Russian groups. He claimed he was working on behalf of Trump campaign advisor (later national security advisor) Michael Flynn and Flynn's son. At around the same time, there were intelligence reports that Russian hackers were trying to obtain Clinton's emails to pass to Flynn through an unnamed intermediary. Five of the hacker groups Smith contacted, including at least two Russian groups, claimed to have Clinton's emails. He was shown some information but was not convinced it was genuine, and suggested the hackers give it to Wikileaks instead. A document describing Smith's plans claimed that Flynn, Kellyanne Conway, Steve Bannon, and other campaign advisors were coordinating with him "to the extent permitted as an independent expenditure". The White House, a campaign official, Conway, and Bannon all denied any connection with Smith's effort. British blogger Matt Tait said Smith had contacted him - "curiously, around the same time Trump called for the Russians to get Hillary Clinton's missing emails" - to ask him to help authenticate any materials that might be forthcoming. Ten days after his interview with The Wall Street Journal, Smith committed suicide in a Minnesota hotel room, citing declining health.
Christopher Steele, a former MI6 agent, was hired by Fusion GPS to produce opposition research on Donald Trump. His reports were sold to Democrats, and included alleged kompromat that may make Trump vulnerable to blackmail from Russia. A 33-page compilation was leaked to the press in October 2016 but was not published by mainstream media who doubted the material's credibility. In December 2016, two more pages were added alleging efforts by Trump's lawyer to pay those who had hacked the DNC and arranging to cover up any evidence of their deeds. On January 5, 2017, U.S. intelligence agencies briefed President Obama and President-elect Trump on the existence of these documents. Eventually, the dossier was published in full by BuzzFeed on January 10.
On March 30, 2017, Paul Wood of BBC News revealed that the FBI was using the dossier as a roadmap for its investigation. 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.
A Quinnipiac University poll conducted January 5–9, 2017, showed that 55% of respondents believed that Russia interfered in the election. 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. As of February 2017 public-opinion polls showed a partisan split on the importance of Russia's involvement in the 2016 election. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 53 percent wanted a Congressional inquiry into communications in 2016 between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. Quinnipiac University found that 47 percent thought it was very important. A March 2017 poll conducted by the Associated Press and NORC found 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.
According to a Quinnipiac University poll conducted in late March and early April 2017, 68% of voters supported "an independent commission investigating the potential links between some of Donald Trump's campaign advisors and the Russian government". 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". An ABC News/Washington Post poll conducted in April 2017 found that 56 percent of respondents thought that Russia tried to influence the election.
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.
A June 2017 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that respondents were more likely to believe James Comey over Trump when it came to their differing accounts behind the reasons for Comey's dismissal. The survey reported that "forty-five percent of respondents said that they were more likely to believe Comey's version of events from his June 8 testimony to the U.S. Senate, versus 22% who were more likely to believe what Trump has said." The poll also found that the number of respondents disapproving of Trump's decision to fire Comey- 46%- was higher than when the same question was asked in May of the same year. 53% of respondents said that they believed that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election, however the number changes by party affiliation. 78% of Democrats said that they believed there was interference, versus 26% of Republicans who agreed. An NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist College poll conducted in late June 2017 found that 54% of respondents believed that Trump either did "something illegal" or "something unethical, but not illegal" in his dealings with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The poll reported that "seventy-three percent of Republicans say Trump himself has done nothing wrong" while 41% of Democrats believed that Trump did something that was illegal. In addition, 47% said that they thought Russia was a major threat to future U.S. elections. 13% of respondents said that Russia posed no threat at all.
A July 2017 ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 63% of respondents said that it "was inappropriate for Trump's son, son-in-law and campaign manager to have met with a Russian lawyer during the campaign." The poll also reported that six in ten overall who think that Russia tried to influence the election, with 72% saying that they thought that Trump benefited and that "67 percent thought that members of his campaign intentionally helped those efforts."
Polls conducted in August 2017 found widespread disapproval and distrust of Trump's handling of the investigation. A CNN/SSRS poll conducted in early August found that only 31% of respondents approved of Trump's handling of the matter. The poll also noted that 60% of adults "thought that it was a serious matter that should be fully investigated." On party lines, the poll found that 15% of Democrats and 56% of Republicans approved of Trump's handling of the matter. A Gallup poll from the same month found similar trends. The poll found that 25% of respondents said Trump acted illegally in dealings with the Russians. The poll found that 6% of Republicans and Republican-leaners thought that Trump did something illegal in his dealings with the Russians. A poll conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute found that 58% of respondents expressed a negative view of Russia, while 25% had a favorable view of the country. The poll also reported that around half of all respondents (48%) believed that "there is clear evidence that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to help the Trump campaign."
On December 15, 2016, Hillary Clinton gave a gratitude speech to her campaign donors in which she reflected on losing the election. She partially attributed her loss in the 2016 election to Russian meddling organized by Putin. 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. 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. During the third debate, Clinton stated that Putin favored Trump, "because he'd rather have a puppet as president of the United States". Clinton said that by personally attacking her through meddling in the election, Putin additionally took a strike at the American democratic system. 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. 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. 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.
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. 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. 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".
Prior to his presidential run, Donald Trump made statements to Fox News in 2014 in which he agreed with an assessment by then FBI director James Comey about hacking against the U.S. by Russia and China. Trump was played a clip of Comey from 60 Minutes discussing the dangers of cyber attacks. 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.
In September 2016, during the first presidential debate, Trump said he doubted whether anyone knew who hacked the DNC, and disputed Russian interference. During the second debate, Trump said there might not have been hacking at all, and questioned why accountability was placed on Russia.
During the third debate, Trump rejected Clinton's claim that Putin favored Trump. Trump's words "our country has no idea" and "I doubt it" were deeply shocking to the British because "all NATO allies" and "all of America's intelligence agencies" were "sure Russia was behind the hacking". Trump denied these conclusions "based on absolutely nothing.... That he would so aggressively fight to clear Putin and cast aspersions on all Western intelligence agencies, left the British officials slack-jawed."
After the election, Trump rejected the CIA analysis and asserted that the reports were politically motivated to deflect from the Democrats' electoral defeat. Trump's transition team said in a brief statement: "These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction." However, the intelligence analysts involved in monitoring Russian activities are different from those who assessed that Iraq had stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction, while post–Iraq War reforms have made it less likely for similar errors to reach the highest levels of the U.S. intelligence community. Trump dismissed reports of Russia's interference, calling them "ridiculous"; he placed blame on Democrats upset over election results for publicizing these reports, and cited Julian Assange's statement that "a 14-year-old kid could have hacked Podesta." 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.
On January 6, 2017, after meeting with members of U.S. intelligence agencies, Trump released a statement saying: cyberwarfare had no impact on the election and did not harm 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. Referring to the Office of Personnel Management data breach in 2015, Trump told The New York Times he was under a "political witch hunt", and wondered why there was no focus on China. Two days later, Reince Priebus reported that Trump had begun to acknowledge that "entities in Russia" were involved in the DNC leaks. 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.
On November 11, 2017, after meeting Vladimir Putin at a summit in Vietnam, Trump said, "I just asked him again. He said he absolutely did not meddle in our election. [...] Every time he sees me he says: ‘I didn’t do that,’ and I really believe that when he tells me that, he means it." Trump went on to contrast Putin's "very strongly, vehemently" spoken denials with the word of former intelligence officials who he termed as "political hacks": John Brennan, James Clapper, and the "liar" and "leaker" James Comey. A day later, when asked to clarify his comments, Trump said, "As to whether I believe it or not, I'm with our [intelligence] agencies, especially as currently constituted." Brennan and Clapper, appearing on CNN, expressed concern that Trump was "giving Putin a pass" and showing the Russian leader that "Donald Trump can be played by foreign leaders who are going to appeal to his ego and try to play upon his insecurities."
The CIA assessment, and Trump's dismissal of it, created an unprecedented rupture between the president-elect and the intelligence community. On December 11, 2016, U.S. intelligence officials responded to Trump's denunciation of their findings in a written statement, and expressed dismay that Trump disputed their conclusions as politically motivated or inaccurate. They wrote that intelligence officials were motivated to defend U.S. national security. On the same day, The Guardian reported that members of the intelligence community feared reprisals from Donald Trump once he takes office.
Former CIA director Michael Morell said foreign interference in U.S. elections was an existential threat. 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.
Former NSA director and CIA director Michael V. Hayden posited that Trump's antagonizing the Intelligence Community signaled the administration would rely less on intelligence for policy-making. 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. 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. Former NSA director Michael V. Hayden has stated that Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election is the "most successful covert influence operation in history."
In July 2016, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange stated he had not seen evidence linking Russia to the emails leaked from the DNC. In November 2016, Assange said Russia was not the source of John Podesta's hacked emails published by Wikileaks.
On December 10, 2016, ten electors, headed by Christine Pelosi, daughter of former United States Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), 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. Fifty-eight additional electors subsequently added their names to the letter, bringing the total to 68 electors from 17 different states. The Clinton campaign supported the call for a classified briefing for electors, with John Podesta saying electors "have a solemn responsibility under the Constitution." On December 16, 2016, the briefing request was denied.
The Russian government initially issued categorical denials of any involvement in the U.S. presidential election. Already in June 2016, in a statement to Reuters, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied any connection of Russian government bodies to the DNC hacks that had been blamed on Russia. When a new intelligence report surfaced in December 2016, Sergey Lavrov, Foreign Minister of Russia, rejected the accusations again. When ABC News wrote that Russian President Vladimir Putin was directly involved in the covert operation, Peskov called this report garbage. 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. The New Yorker cited an unnamed, pro-Kremlin Russian lawmaker who denied any Russian involvement, but then tried to justify any hypothetical Russian interference by accusing Washington of having engaged in long-term interference in Russian politics.
At the Valdai International Discussion Club forum in October 2016, Vladimir Putin denounced American "hysteria" over alleged Russian interference. 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. 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.
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"; experts speculated 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.
On June 1, 2017, Putin told journalists in St. Petersburg that "patriotically minded" Russian hackers could have been responsible for the cyberattacks against the U.S. during the 2016 campaign, while continuing to deny government involvement. Putin said that hackers "are like artists" stating: "If they are patriotically minded, they start making their contributions — which are right, from their point of view — to the fight against those who say bad things about Russia. Putin continued to deny Russian government involving, stating, "We're not doing this on the state level." Putin's comments echoed similar remarks that he had made earlier the same week to the French newspaper Le Figaro.
On September 19, 2017, at his Senate confirmation hearing, Jon Huntsman Jr., Trump's nominee for United States Ambassador to Russia, stated: "There is no question, underline no question, that the Russian government interfered in the U.S. election last year."
On October 19, 2017, CIA Director Mike Pompeo spoke at an event hosted by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. There he stated that the "intelligence community's assessment is that the Russian meddling that took place did not affect the outcome of the election". The statement was at odds with a report released in January by the Director of National Intelligence, which stated that the intelligence community did "not make an assessment of the impact that Russian activities had on the outcome of the 2016 election".
The next day, October 20, CIA agency spokesman Dean Boyd responded with a revision to Pompeo's remarks: "The intelligence assessment with regard to Russian election meddling has not changed, and the director did not intend to suggest that it had."
According to sources familiar with the process ... [a]n assessment of evidence and circumstances will be completed before a final decision is made to launch an investigation of the president of the United States regarding potential obstruction of justice.