It’s confusing, dynamic and has a perpetually shifting focus. So don’t feel bad if you’re struggling to keep up with the whole ‘Trump/Russia thing’. If it was a Netflix series there would be Reddit forums full of fans suggesting hidden meanings in the twist and turns, whilst choosing their favourite characters from an unreasonably long cast list.
The problem for many, is that they feel the same way about Trump/Russia (or ‘Stupid Watergate’ as John Oliver calls it), as I do about Game of Thrones. (I haven’t seen a single episode and everyone else is up to season 37 or something - don’t hate. It just feels too late for me to catch up now...)
But believe me, this season of the Trump/Russia saga is really too big to miss and there are rumours a finale is being written as we speak! So don’t miss out on the water cooler conversation.
What you need is the facts thus far. Not my opinion. Not what it “means for democracy and the USA”. Just the facts. So when the final episode airs, you can confidently contribute to the office gossip.
What's below is not theory, not speculation. Just the cold hard facts provided in indictments by the Justice Department, or stated in facts provided by Trump campaign members - or just indisputable facts of logic.
So here it goes.
The first clue came when emails belonging to John Podesta (chairman of Hillary Clinton’s election campaign) were hacked and distributed by Wikileaks. Intelligence agencies quickly determined it was the Russians who were responsible. Interestingly, the emails were released to the public hours after Trump’s infamous Access Hollywood tape was discovered (yep, the one where Trump trumpets about grabbing a girl by the pussy).
The timing meant the media moved on quickly from a scandal that could have occupied the news cycle for days.
Then, shortly after the election, it was revealed Russia had a military arm called the Internet Research Agency (or IRA). It’s role? To create thousands of fake Facebook and Twitter accounts in a bid to influence American politics. The IRA paid for ads from these fake accounts. Those ads reached 126 million people on Facebook and 20 million people on Instagram. They also propagated 10.4 million tweets and more than 1,000 YouTube videos, usually spreading ‘fake news’.
Russia’s spending per month on social media advertising was about $1.25million during this time...all in an effort to influence the election. The majority of these accounts, pages and Twitter bots were pro-Trump. But some were also from the left side of politics... the far left. They created fake Black Lives Matter groups calling for people to shoot police and militant LGBTQI groups that called for legalisation of paedophilia. They created a host of conspiracy sites and groups to manufacture entirely made-up news (e.g. - the Clintons were running a paedophile ring). All to cause alarm in, and radicalise conservatives, play on existing social divisions to create distrust in the institutions of the USA.
The owners of Facebook and Twitter, and each of the American intelligence agencies, agreed the Russians were meddling in the election on an unprecedented scale with the goal of getting Trump elected...but why?
Obama was provided with evidence of the meddling by the Russians and apparently “incontrovertible proof” that Putin himself had ordered it. He showed the intelligence to the highest ranking Republican senator, Mitch McConnell, and suggested the two make a joint public statement to inform voters. McConnell refused and, faced with the prospect of appearing to influence the election himself, Obama decided to keep the intelligence quiet until after the election.
What Trump Said
“I have no dealings with Russia."
Words that will become important later. Trump, Pence and everyone involved in Trump's campaign initially scoffed at suggestions they had anything to do with Russian meddling. Trump felt discussions regarding the Russian meddling de-legitimised his election victory and therefore talked down its impact.
What was noticed, however, was that throughout the campaign Trump spoke glowingly of Putin. This was unusual because official foreign policy from both sides of politics in the USA was that Russia was a hostile foreign power that had just invaded the Ukraine and played a role in shooting down a passenger aircraft. In response, Obama enacted crippling sanctions on Putin and here was Trump saying Putin was a “strong leader” and he hoped they would “get along”.
At one press conference, a young Russian woman working with the NRA asked Trump what he would do about Obama's sanctions. To the surprise of many commentators, Trump said he was inclined to lift the sanctions, a move that was not supported by anyone else. Also, remember this Russian woman, she becomes important later.
The National Security Adviser
A decorated three star general, Michael Flynn was one of the first respected military men to throw their support behind Trump on the campaign trail and was rewarded with the high post of National Security Adviser.
Within days of the election victory, Obama went public with the Russian interference allegation. In retaliation, he enacted even stiffer sanctions on Putin and removed a number of Russian diplomats from the USA. Strangely, Putin didn’t retaliate.
What we didn’t know then, was the moment Obama declared the sanctions, Flynn called the Russian ambassador and told him Russia shouldn’t react as the moment Trump was in power, the sanctions would be removed.
The phone call was being listened to by the FBI. Flynn then lied to the FBI (and the media) about the call. Eventually, as intelligence agencies pressured the White House, warning that General Flynn was compromised and had recently been paid about $300,000 by the Turkish government to push their own foreign policy agenda, Flynn was fired from his position.
Firing of the FBI Director
Enter stage left: James Comey, FBI Director. What happened here is a matter of he said/he said... but according to Comey, it was Trump who first asked him for his “loyalty” and then proffered; “I hope you can see your way clear to letting go, to letting Flynn go, he is a good guy.” Which Trump denies.
But consider this; Comey testified about this conversation to Congress whilst under oath, after Trump had publicly suggested (via tweet, of course) their conversation may have been recorded. A suggestion to which Comey replied “Lordy, I hope there are tapes”. As lying to Congress is a criminal offence, would he have lied knowing there might be evidence out there to contradict him? (Trump later admitted there were no tapes).
Days later, Trump fired Comey.
The Special Counsel
Understandably, people were outraged. Comey was the head of the agency that was investigating Russian meddling and had already uncovered one Trump campaign official (Flynn) who appeared to have undeclared links with the Russians. Inevitably, public outcry resulted in the creation of a Special Counsel, an independent investigation into any possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the election. It would be chaired by Robert Mueller III. A well respected man who was the head of the FBI for many years, during both the Bush and Obama presidencies.
Trump Tower Meeting
The Mueller investigation is notoriously leak proof. It wasn’t until the New York Times published a story about Trump’s own children and trusted advisors meeting with a Russian lawyer, that the public was privy to some of what Mueller and his team were looking into. The Times reported that on June 9, 2016 - while the election was in full swing - Donald Trump Jr., his son-in-law Jared Kushner and his campaign manager Paul Manafort (and a few others) met with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya. Veselnitskaya said openly she was attending as a representative of the Russian government.
When the story was first printed, Trump Jr claimed the meeting was held to discuss Russian policies around adoptions. The Times obtained emails that revealed the meeting had actually been arranged after Veselnitskaya promised “dirt on Clinton”, to which Trump Jr. replied “...if it’s what you say, I love it”.
No one knows what was discussed at the meeting and, despite there being evidence that Trump was in the building at the time of the meeting, he denies any knowledge of the meeting.
Yes, the guy I just mentioned was present at the Trump Tower meeting. You could pen a book about Manafort’s dodgy dealings with Russian-aligned dictators but we simply don’t have time. So I’ll just leave you with this. When Manafort signed-up to be Trump’s campaign manager, he did so for free. Coincidentally, he owed hundreds of thousands of dollars to a Russian oligarch at the time.
Manafort would eventually be charged with historic money laundering offences. During proceedings his defence team accidentally un-redacted one of the indictments, revealing that throughout the election campaign, Manafort had provided valuable internal polling data to the that same Russian oligarch, at the same time as the Russians were spending millions in carefully targeted social media campaigns designed to assist the Trump campaign. All a coincidence?
Michael Cohen and Trump Tower Moscow
Long time lawyer, ‘fixer’ and loyal friend to Trump, Michael Cohen was eventually charged with campaign finance violations, after it was revealed he paid-off a porn star who threatened to go public about her affair with Trump. Trump was named as an “unindicted co-conspirator” (a co-accused who hasn’t been charged). But that’s a whole other scandal.
The Cohen storyline got juicy when he flipped and became a witness for Mueller. Then he publicly revealed that throughout the election campaign, Trump was secretly pursuing a deal with the Russian government to build Europe’s tallest building in Moscow. The deal was to be funded by a Russian bank - a bank that just happened to be under the sanctions that Obama had put in place. If Trump wanted his tower built, he needed the sanctions gone.
Despite declarring “I have no dealings with Russia”, Trump later admitted the Trump Tower Moscow deal was negotiated throughout the campaign.
Do you recall the fortuitous timing of Podesta’s emails being dropped by Wikileaks? Just hours after the Access Hollywood tape? According to a Grand Jury indictment, it was Trump’s long-time advisor and friend Roger Stone who arranged it. Stone denies the allegation and has since been charged with lying to the FBI.
Let’s go back to the young Russian woman who was working for the NRA, who asked Trump about his view on Russian sanctions? That was Maria Butina, a Russian spy. She was charged by the FBI and has pleaded guilty to attempting to influence American politics.
A little out of chronological order but the focus has only really shifted to this now. The Trump campaign raise more than $105 million for his inauguration. More than twice that of any previous president. The problem is, no one knows where or how the money was spent (although it is clear that an excessive amount was dropped at Trump Hotels in Washington, invoices show ridiculously exorbitant rates).
It is illegal for foreigners to donate to an inauguration. However, this didn’t stop them. One man has been charged thus far with acting as a go-between for a foreigner who wanted to donate at least $50,000 to the inauguration. Who was the foreigner? The same Russian oligarch that Manafort provided internal polling to.
Congress has issued subpoenas to determine who else donated to the inauguration fund and how the hundreds of millions of dollars was spent.
Oh, and that Russian spy Maria Butina? She was at the inauguration too.
The investigation is ongoing and we don’t know what the Special Counsel knows. But we can deduce three plausible scenarios.
We would know a lot more if Trump released his tax returns as he promised he would, giving a clearer indication of how much money he actually has and where he gets it from. He is the first president in the modern era not to do so.
Scenario 1 - The Useful Idiot
That’s not me being mean, it's a well known espionage term. In this scenario, Putin identifies Trump as someone he prefers over Clinton. Clinton was Secretary of State when many of the Obama sanctions were put in place. Trump, on the other hand, repeatedly publicly declared his admiration for Putin, so why wouldn’t he want him to win?
The problem with this is you must declare the associations of Manafort, Flynn, and those at the Trump Tower meeting, as totally innocent in nature. It is not beyond the pale to believe the Trump Campaign was naive and lacked the understanding to realise the Russians were actively helping them. Perhaps they knew and just didn’t care?
But if all Russian interactions were innocent, why have they consistently lied about them?
Scenario 2 - Mutually Beneficial
It is now known that Trump stood to make millions if Russian sanctions were dropped. Putin desperately wanted them lifted and realised he and Trump had a shared interest. In this scenario, Putin intervened in the election to assist the Trump campaign, and through intermediaries like Manafort and Stone, they worked together to ensure maximum effectiveness.
Trump knew Putin was helping him win but no formal agreements were made. It was simply known that Trump in office would be mutually beneficial for both of them.
Scenario 3 - Trump is a Russian Agent
Seems far fetched, right? Let me clarify what this means. We all know Trump isn’t a fully blown ex-KGB spy, no one is suggesting that. What is more likely is that he has been ‘compromised’ and is therefore forced to work for the Russians.
Ex-British spy Christopher Steele was paid by both Republican and then Democrat opponents during the campaign to dig-up dirt about Trump. He produced The Steele Dossier and provided sordid allegations that Russian oligarchs had been using Trump for decades to illegally launder their money and, perhaps most significant, that Putin had a secret recording of Trump having sex with prostitutes whilst in Moscow (featuring some additional ‘water sports’).
The dossier was dismissed at the time as fanciful and outlandish. But, whilst a number of things in the dossier have been proven to be true, not a single aspect has been proven to be false.
With or without the infamous ‘Pee-Tape’, this scenario would explain why Trump has never publicly criticised Putin, appears to publicly side with Putin over his own intelligence agencies when questioned about Russian meddling, and has repeatedly made foreign policy decisions that were directly beneficial to the Russians - often to the shock of his own White House staff and in contradiction to long held US foreign policy.
Furthermore, in an extraordinary move for an American president, he often meets with Putin alone, without any other Americans in the room, by his own insistence. Obviously, we have no idea what they discuss.
So which scenario will turn out to be true? It could be any of them or somewhere in between. We simply don’t know what Robert Mueller knows yet. There are rumours Donald Trump Jr. could be the next charged with ‘lying to Congress’ about his meetings with Russians, or maybe Trump will find a way to have the whole investigation shut down before we learn the whole truth.
In the meantime, I am staying glued to the TV, to Twitter, and Facebook because this is truly the greatest story of our generation.
I will do my best to update this article as new evidence comes to hand!