What evidence is there, exactly, of collusion between advisers to Donald Trump and Russia during the 2016 campaign?
The president insists, naturally, that there is none — he tweeted Monday that there was “NO COLLUSION!”
But now, in the wake of a flurry of new activity in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference — including the indictment of two former Trump campaign advisers and the revelation that another has already pleaded guilty to charges — it’s worth revisiting what, exactly, we know on this central question.
Here’s what we currently know: There are three separate instances in which Trump advisers had discussions with people connected to the Russian government about potential Russian-provided dirt on Hillary Clinton. Still, it hasn’t yet been shown that any of these contacts evolved into anything concrete with participation from the Trump side.
But the sheer amount of circumstantial material, odd events, and links to Russia involving multiple actors from Donald Trump on down has long appeared strange and suspicious. The big picture is that there is a whole lot of smoke. Whether there is fire is the subject of Mueller’s investigation.
For now, though, let’s go through everything we actually know about the scandal, beginning with the most solid evidence of attempted collusion.
The most suggestive indicators of collusion during the campaign so far
There are three examples where there are at least some signs of specific collusion between Trump advisers and the Russian government.
First, there’s the admission from Trump foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos that, back in April 2016, a Russian government-connected source tipped him off that the Russian government had “dirt” on Clinton, consisting of “thousands of emails.”
Second, there’s the email thread and subsequent meeting in which Donald Trump Jr. agreed to take a meeting because he was told he’d get damaging information about Hillary Clinton that was coming from the Russian government.
Third, there are the reports that a GOP operative who contacted Russian hackers in search of Clinton’s deleted emails last fall suggested he was in contact with Michael Flynn, a Trump adviser, about his effort.
Importantly, though, we have no evidence at this point that any of these efforts proved to be successful — from what we know now, they could all fall into the category of what we might call “attempted collusion.”
Still, they suggest that Trump advisers were certainly willing to cooperate with Russian efforts to undermine Hillary Clinton, and they make one wonder what else these and other advisers may have done on that front.
1) George Papadopoulos’s contacts with a Russian government-tied professor: In March 2016, Papadopoulos, a consultant, was appointed a foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign. Soon afterward, he met a professor based in London whom he came to understand had ties to Russian government officials, he later admitted in a court filing. (The Washington Post identified this professor as Joseph Mifsud.)
After a few further contacts, Papadopoulos met the professor on April 26, 2016. There, the court filing says, the professor said “he had just returned from a trip to Moscow where he had met with high-level Russian government officials,” and that on that trip he’d “learned that the Russians had obtained ‘dirt’ on then-candidate Clinton.” This dirt was comprised of “thousands of emails,” Papadopoulos told the FBI. The court filing then describes Papadopoulos’s lengthy and ultimately unsuccessful efforts to set up a Trump trip to Russia during the campaign.
Earlier this year, Papadopoulos was arrested for making false statements about his contacts with Russians to the FBI, and then agreed to a plea deal. It appears he has then gone on to become a cooperating witness for Mueller’s team. Yet the court document revealing all this is silent about just what Papadopoulos did, if anything, with his tip about Clinton email “dirt.” So the question of whether he told anyone else in the Trump campaign about it, and whether that led to any further action or contacts on that topic, could be enormously important to the investigation going forward.
2) Donald Trump Jr.’s email thread and his meeting with Kushner, Manafort, and a Russian lawyer: In June 2016, Donald Trump Jr. received an email from Rob Goldstone, a British publicist who does work in Russia. Goldstone wrote that he was writing at the behest of Aras and Emin Agalarov, a father-son pair of real estate developers who do business with Russia and had worked with the Trumps on the 2013 Miss Universe pageant. (Emin is also a Russian pop star.)
In the email, Goldstone said that a Russian prosecutor had met with Aras and “offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful.” Crucially, he made clear that the information would be “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump — helped along by Aras and Emin.”
Trump Jr. responded enthusiastically — “if it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.” Goldstone then helped set up a phone call between Trump Jr. and Emin Agalarov, and later arranged a meeting between Trump Jr. and someone he calls “The Russian government attorney who is flying over from Moscow.” The president’s son invited Jared Kushner and then-campaign chair Paul Manafort to attend the meeting, and forwarded the email chain (with the subject line “Russia – Clinton – private and confidential”) to them both.
The meeting between the trio of Trump advisers and the Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, took place at Trump Tower on June 9, 2016.
All this — eventually disclosed in a series of New York Times reports and confirmed by Trump Jr.’s own email release — makes it quite clear that the president’s son was ready and willing to work with the Russian government to take down Hillary Clinton. And it’s hard to read these emails and not conclude that the top echelons of the Trump campaign were well aware of the Russian government’s support for Trump and willing to collaborate in the effort.
However, we don’t yet know if this meeting actually led to any kind of cooperation between the Trump campaign and Russia. And the parties involved — at least the ones who are commenting — are all denying that it did. Trump Jr. has stated that in the meeting, Veselnitskaya proved to have no useful information and quickly changed the subject to discuss other topics she had been lobbying on for years. He’s also said there was no follow-up afterward. So far, no evidence has yet emerged to contradict him.
3) A Republican operative who contacted Russian hackers suggested to people that he was working with Michael Flynn: Before the Trump Jr. emails and the Papadopoulos court document emerged, the strongest indication pointing toward possible collusion between a close Trump adviser and Russian entities came from a set of stories by Shane Harris of the Wall Street Journal.
Harris reported that Peter Smith, a Trump-supporting GOP operative and private equity executive, embarked on an effort to track down Hillary Clinton’s infamous 30,000 or so deleted emails during the fall of 2016 — and contacted Russian hackers to ask if they had them.
Smith was not part of Trump’s campaign. But according to sources interviewed by Harris, Smith told people working with him that he was coordinating with Michael Flynn, Trump’s main foreign policy adviser during the campaign (and eventual national security adviser).
While trying to recruit for the effort, Smith also distributed a document naming the Trump campaign as one of four groups involved, per the Journal.
Another piece of information pointing toward Flynn, Harris reported, was that US officials were aware of some intelligence that Russian hackers were at least discussing sending leaked emails to Flynn through a third party. He wrote:
Smith died this year, and Flynn hasn’t commented on these reports. Still, all of this is enough to raise serious questions about just what Flynn knew about this or any other attempted outreach to Russian hackers or other Russian entities.
But we don’t yet know if this led to any actual collusion implicating Flynn or anyone on the Trump team. It’s at least possible that Smith was just trying to make his effort seem important by name-dropping Flynn, rather than actually working closely with him. Furthermore, Smith’s efforts to find Clinton’s deleted emails appear to have failed, since the emails never surfaced.
Then there are many other curious statements, meetings, and contacts
All other allegations of collusion between Trump’s advisers and Russia are at this point theoretical, circumstantial, and/or unproven.
But there is a whole lot of circumstantial material that appears strange and suspicious here, involving multiple actors from Donald Trump on down. Let’s go through it:
Donald Trump: Trump has made no secret of the fact that he views the Russian government and its president, Vladimir Putin, far more favorably than the vast majority of American politicians do. As Vox’s Matt Yglesias writes, Trump’s policy positions on Russia-related issues (he’s skeptical of US NATO commitments and wants to loosen sanctions) and even his stated opinions of Putin as a person (he thinks he’s a strong leader) have long stood out as idiosyncratically positive.
Trump’s public statements on the topic of Russian hacking of Democrats’ emails have also been strange. On July 27, 2016, he said he doubted that Russia was behind the DNC hackings but that he hoped there would be more email releases to come.
“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 [Hillary Clinton] emails that are missing,” he said at a press conference. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press. Let’s see if that happens. That will be next.” It was not clear whether this was merely meant as a joke. But Trump didn’t end up holding another press conference for the rest of the campaign.
After Trump won, he continued to disparage the idea that Russia may have tried to help him out, claiming to disbelieve the consensus judgment of US intelligence agencies. Then, once in office, he took several actions that could be construed as trying to obstruct the federal investigation into the Russia matter. Specifically, the president:
- Repeatedly disparaged the investigation as a waste of time and taxpayer money
- Pulled then-FBI Director James Comey aside and asked him if he could “let” an investigation into fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn “go” (according to Comey’s later testimony, which Trump disputes)
- Asked Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats if he could get Comey to back off Flynn, according to a report from the Washington Post
- And then fired Comey in part because he didn’t like Comey’s handling of the Russia investigation, according to Trump’s own words (though his White House originally gave an entirely different explanation for the firing)
Trump also continued to fitfully fight for pro-Russia policies in office — often against the advice of his top foreign policy officials.
When the president gave a speech to NATO leaders abroad, he refused to affirm the US’s commitments to defend NATO members’ security even though a line doing so was initially included in his speech. (After much criticism, he did so a couple of weeks later.) He also reportedly sought to loosen sanctions on Russia early in his presidency, and his aides tried to water down a bipartisan congressional bill to toughen those sanctions — though they were unsuccessful.
However, it’s also worth noting that President Trump has taken other actions that the Russian government strongly dislikes — most notably, ordering a strike on Syrian government forces that are backed by Russia. The Trump administration also hasn’t actually managed to make any significant changes that lighten sanctions against Russia so far.
The Russian government:
- US intelligence agencies have concluded that Russian government–tied entities hacked and leaked emails from prominent Democrats, most notably the Democratic National Committee (whose emails were leaked online in July 2016, perfectly timed to cause dissension at the party’s convention) and Clinton campaign chair John Podesta (whose emails were posted by WikiLeaks in the final weeks of the election).
- Russian-tied hackers attempted to hack election-related computer systems in 21 states, according to a Homeland Security official’s testimony. It seems they did not change actual voting tallies, but this is troubling nonetheless.
- There was also an effort to help Trump online with Twitter bots and Facebook accounts connected to the Russian government, which involved promoting pro-Trump stories and sometimes fake news stories, according to a report from the director of national intelligence from January.
- A report by McClatchy’s Peter Stone and Greg Gordon suggests that investigators are also examining whether Russian cyber operatives targeted “certain voting jurisdictions in key states” — and whether anyone was helping them figure out which places to target.
Again, the big question is whether Trump or any of his advisers knew about any of these efforts or consulted on or participated in them in any way.
Michael Flynn: A retired lieutenant general and former Defense Intelligence Agency chief who had a falling-out with the Obama administration in 2013, Flynn left government and, over the past few years, developed contacts in Russia.
Specifically, he began regularly appearing on RT (the Russian government-linked television station) in 2015 and attended the network’s gala dinner in Moscow in December of that year. There, he sat next to Vladimir Putin and was paid a speaking fee of more than $33,000 for the trip. He