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Links between Trump associates and Russian officials

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The FBI and several congressional committees have been investigating links between Russian officials and individuals related to U.S. President Donald Trump as part of their investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections. Some of Trump's campaign members, business partners and administration nominees have been subjected to intense scrutiny following intelligence reports on such Russian interference. The investigations have revealed that many of them have various types of links to Russian officials, business people, banks, and Russian intelligence agencies. Several investigations are underway to determine whether Trump or any of his associates have had improper dealings during their contacts with Russian officials.[1][2][3][4]

Investigations were started by the FBI,[5] the Senate Intelligence Committee[6] and the House Intelligence Committee.[7] In May 2017, former FBI Director Robert Mueller was appointed as special counsel in the FBI's investigation.[8]

Overview

There has been intensive media scrutiny of Trump's relationship to Russia.[9][10] During the campaign, Trump repeatedly praised Russian president Vladimir Putin as a strong leader, leading to jokes about their "bromance".[11][12] Several Trump advisers, including former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and former campaign manager Paul Manafort, have been connected to Russian or Ukrainian officials.[13][14] Russian agents were overheard during the campaign saying they could use Manafort and Flynn to influence Trump.[15] Members of Trump's campaign and later his White House staff, particularly Flynn and Jared Kushner, were in contact with Russian government officials both before and after the November election,[16] including some contacts which they initially did not disclose.[17] As of May 2017, the FBI is investigating several alleged links between Trump associates and representatives of the Russian government.[18] British and Dutch intelligence services have given information to their United States counterparts 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.[19]

The Wall Street Journal reported that U.S. intelligence agencies monitoring Russian espionage found Kremlin officials discussing Trump's associates in the spring of 2015. At the time, U.S. intelligence analysts were reportedly confused, but not alarmed, by these intercepted conversations. In July 2017, these conversations were re-examined in light of a recently disclosed meeting with Donald Trump Jr. and Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya.[20][21]

The New York Times reported that multiple Trump associates, including Manafort and other members of his campaign, had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials during 2016, although officials said that so far, they do 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.[22] Flynn and now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions subsequently confirmed the contacts after having initially denied them.[19] 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.[23]

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.

In particular, Kislyak has met with several Trump campaign members, transition team 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;[24] several of these denials turned out to be false.[25] The Trump administration reportedly asked the FBI for help in countering news reports about alleged contacts with Russia.[26]

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."[27]

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 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.[28] 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.[29][30]

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.[1] 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.[2] Former FBI Director James Comey, who was dismissed from his position in June 2017, subsequently testified under oath as follows: "In one conversation, Trump suggested that if there were some ‘satellite’ associates of his who did something wrong, it would be good to find that out.”[31]

Trump administration members

Michael Flynn

National Security Advisor Michael 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 Kislyak. Flynn had earlier acknowledged speaking to Kislyak but denied discussing the sanctions.[32][33]

On March 2, 2017, The New York Times reported that Kislyak met with Flynn and Kushner in December 2016 to establish a line of communication with the Trump administration.[34] 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.[35][30]

In December 2015, Flynn was paid $45,000 by Russia Today, a Kremlin-supported television channel, for delivering a talk in Moscow, and Russia provided him a 3-day, all-expenses-paid trip.[36] As a retired military intelligence officer, Flynn was required to obtain prior permission from the Defense Department and the State Department before receiving any money from foreign governments; Flynn apparently did not seek that approval before the RT speech.[37] 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.[38] Glenn A. Fine, the acting Defense Department Inspector General, has confirmed he is investigating Flynn.[36]

On May 31, 2017, the House Intelligence Committee served Flynn with subpoenas for testimony, and production of personal documents and business records.[39][40]

Jared Kushner

The special counsel is investigating Kushner's finances, as well as his meetings with Russian banker Sergey Gorkov and Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.[41]

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". 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.[42]

According to U.S. officials, investigators believe that Kushner has important information regarding the FBI investigation.[43] In mid-December 2016, when Trump "was openly feuding with American intelligence agencies", Kushner met for thirty minutes with Russian banker, Sergey N. Gorkov, "whose financial institution was deeply intertwined with Russian intelligence" and is "under sanction by the United States". By late May 2017, the meeting had "come under increasing scrutiny" by the Senate Intelligence Committee as "current and former American officials" said that "it may have been part of an effort by Mr. Kushner to establish a direct line to Mr. Putin outside established diplomatic channels".[29][44]

George Papadopoulos

In March 2016, George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy adviser on the Trump campaign, sent an email to seven campaign officials with the subject line "Meeting with Russian Leadership - Including Putin", offering to set up "a meeting between us and the Russian leadership to discuss US-Russia ties under President Trump". Trump campaign advisers Sam Clovis and Charles Kubic objected to this proposed meeting.[45] In May 2016, Ivan Timofeev, an official for the Russian International Affairs Council, emailed Papadopoulos about setting up a meeting with Trump and Russian officials in Moscow. Papadopoulos forwarded the email to Paul Manafort, who responded, "We need someone to communicate that [Trump] is not doing these trips."[46]

Anthony Scaramucci

Anthony Scaramucci, a Trump campaign member who was appointed White House Communications Director in July 2017, discussed joint investments between his firm and a sanctioned Russian government fund. Scaramucci met with Kirill Dmitriev, head of the Russian Direct Investment Fund, a $10 billion state investment vehicle under US government sanctions. Scaramucci confirmed the meeting took place, saying he had "long known" Dmitriev, and criticized American sanctions as ineffective.[47] In June 2017, CNN published a story about an alleged Congressional investigation into Scaramucci's relationship with the fund. However, the story was quickly retracted as "not solid enough to publish as-is", causing three CNN employees to resign.[48]

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".[49] 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.[50] In such investigations, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has served as the Acting Attorney General.

Rex Tillerson

Former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, who was appointed Secretary of State by President Trump, has close ties to Russia and Vladimir Putin. He managed the Russia account of ExxonMobil, and was appointed Exxon CEO in 2006 largely on the strength of his Russian relationships. In 2011, Tillerson struck a major deal with Russia and its state-owned oil company Rosneft, giving ExxonMobil access to oil resources in the Russian Arctic. In recognition, Tillerson was awarded the Russian Order of Friendship, Russia's highest decoration for foreign citizens. Tillerson has known Putin since his work in Russia during the 1990s, and according to John Hamre, "he has had more interactive time with Vladimir Putin than probably any other American with the exception of Henry Kissinger".[51][52][53]

Trump campaign members

Michael R. Caputo

Republican public relations and media consultant Michael R. Caputo worked for Gazprom in Russia, and later as an adviser on the Trump campaign. Caputo lived in Russia from 1994 to 2000, employed by Gazprom-Media, and at the end of this period he contracted with Gazprom to do public relations oriented towards raising Vladimir Putin's support level in the U.S.[54][55][56] He returned to the U.S., where his former mentor Roger Stone convinced him to move to Miami Beach, Florida where Caputo founded a media advising company. Caputo moved back to Europe in 2007 while advising a politician's campaign for parliament in Ukraine.[57] Caputo worked as the campaign manager for Carl Paladino's 2010 run to be Governor of New York state.[58][59] Caputo was put in charge of the Trump campaign's communications for the New York state Republican primary from approximately November 2015 to April 2016, then left the campaign in the summer of 2016. In an inquiry by the House Intelligence Committee as part of their investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election, he denied having ties to the Russian government while working on the Trump campaign.[60][61]

Rick Gates

Rick Gates, a longtime business partner and protege of Paul Manafort, was a senior member of the Trump campaign. He continued to work for Trump after Manafort's resignation and Trump's election as president, but in March 2017, was forced to resign from a pro-Trump lobbying group due to questions about his Russia ties. Gates worked with Manafort to promote Viktor Yanukovych and pro-Russian factions in Ukraine. Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska was also the biggest investor in Davis Manafort, a lobbying and investment firm that employed Gates.[62][63][64]

Paul Manafort

On February 14, 2017, The New York Times reported that Manafort had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials during 2016. Manafort said he did not knowingly meet any Russian intelligence officials.[22] Intercepted communications during the campaign show that Russian officials believed they could use Manafort to influence Trump.[65] On June 2, 2017, special counsel Robert Mueller assumed the criminal probe into Manafort,[66] which predates the 2016 election and the counterintelligence probe that in July 2016 began investigating possible collusion between Moscow and associates of Trump. Manafort was forced to resign as Trump campaign chairman in August 2016 amid questions over his business dealings in Ukraine years earlier.[66] On September 18, 2017, CNN reported that the FBI wiretapped Manafort from 2014 until an unspecified period in 2016 and again from the fall of 2016 until early 2017, pursuant to two separate Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) court orders. It has not been confirmed that Trump's conversations with Manafort were intercepted as part of this surveillance. CNN also confirmed that "Mueller's team ... has been provided details of these communications."[67]

Carter Page

In a March 2016 interview, Trump identified Carter Page, who had previously been an investment banker in Moscow, as a foreign policy adviser to his campaign.[68] Page became a foreign policy advisor to Trump in the summer of 2016. During the investigation into the Russian interference in the 2016 elections, Page's past contacts with Russians came to public attention.[69] 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.[70] Page later said that he provided only "basic immaterial information and publicly available research documents" to Podobnyy.[69] 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.[69] 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.[69]

Page was dropped from the team after reports that he was under investigation by federal authorities over his Russian connections.[71] The FBI and the Justice Department obtained a 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.[68]

In February 2017, Page 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.[72][73] On March 9, 2017, Hope Hicks, a Trump spokesperson, distanced the campaign from Page, stating that Page was an "informal foreign policy adviser" who did "not speak for Mr. Trump or the campaign."[74] In September 2017, Page filed a defamation lawsuit against the media company Oath Inc. for its outlets' reporting of his alleged meetings with Russian officials.[75]

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.[76] Stone is suspected of having inside knowledge of these hacks, 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.[77] Stone denies this, claiming he was actually referring to reports of Podesta's own ties to Russia.[78] 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.[79] Instead, Stone has "clarified ... that the two have a mutual journalist friend."[78]

Stone is under FBI investigation over possible criminal collusion between key figures in the Trump campaign and Russia during the 2016 election.[80][28]

Donald Trump Jr.

On June 9, 2016, Trump campaign chairman Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort had a meeting with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya after being promised information about Hillary Clinton. Trump Jr. told The New York Times the meeting was about the Magnitsky Act.[81] However, emails proposing the meeting did not mention the Magnitsky Act and instead promised "documents and information that would incriminate Hillary" as "part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump", to which Donald Trump Jr. responded "if it's what you say I love it".[82][83]

Trump business partners

Michael Cohen

On May 30, 2017, as the inquiries into alleged Russian meddling in the US election expanded, both the House and Senate congressional panels asked President Donald Trump's personal lawyer who is one of Trump's closest confidants, Michael Cohen,[84] to "provide information and testimony" about any communications he had with people connected to the Kremlin.[85][84]

On May 31, 2017, the House Intelligence Committee served Cohen with subpoenas for testimony, and production of personal documents and business records.[86][87]

Trump supporters

Nigel Farage

On June 1, 2017, The Guardian reported that Nigel Farage, former leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party and one of the first non-American political figures to meet Trump following the election, was a person of interest in the FBI investigation, which Farage denied. Farage has previously met the Russian ambassador to the United Kingdom Alexander Yakovenko, Roger Stone and Julian Assange, and The Guardian's source was quoted saying "If you triangulate Russia, WikiLeaks, Assange and Trump associates the person who comes up with the most hits is Nigel Farage".[88]

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. He appears to have close ties to Trump's chief strategist Stephen Bannon[citation needed]. 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.[89]

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 and that no Trump transition people were directly involved. A second official said that the meeting was about "Middle East policy, to cover Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Iran", not Russia.[90]

Prince's spokesperson said, "Erik had no role on the transition team, this is a complete fabrication. The meeting had nothing to do with President Trump. Why is the so called under resourced intelligence community, messing around with surveillance of American citizens when they should be hunting terrorists?". A senior Trump administration official called the story of a Trump-Putin back-channel "ridiculous."[91]

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.[92] 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.[93] 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,[94] which involved multiple in-person meetings between Russian government officials and individuals working for Trump.[95][96] The dossier also claimed that the Kremlin's goal had been to "encourage splits and divisions in the Western alliance".[92]

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".[97] Following CNN's report, BuzzFeed then published a 35-page dossier that it said was the basis of the briefing.[98] 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.[99] Trump denounced the unverified claims as false, saying that it was "disgraceful" for U.S. intelligence agencies to report them.[100][101]

On March 30, 2017, Paul Wood of BBC News revealed that the FBI was using the dossier as a roadmap for its investigation.[102] 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.[103]

See also

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Further reading

External links

  • "Joint Statement from the Department Of Homeland Security and Office of the Director of National Intelligence on Election Security", October 7, 2016
  • Trump Assails Congressional Probes of His Campaign's Links to Russia, VOA News
  • Here's what we know so far about Team Trump's ties to Russian interests, The Washington Post
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