The ongoing and developing links between Russia and the Trump campaign team seems to be evolving on a daily basis. We’ve tried to write a concise summary of what we (the public) can currently be sure has happened.
1 Someone is fighting cyber-warfare in support of the Russian state and military
In February 2015 The Moscow Times, a newspaper critical of Putin, had their website shut down by hackers twice in a space of months. A malware tool named BlackEnergy was used against Ukraine in 2014 and Georgia in 2008, both at times of military conflict with the Russian army. A group of hackers known as the ‘Sandworm Team’ hacked Nato, EU and Ukranian governments among other bodies between 2009 and 2014, using software written in Russian. This team pursued intelligence rather than financial information – suggesting they were an intelligence agency rather than criminals. A November 2015 attack on the US State Department used similar methods to the Russian attacks.
Though there’s no definitive proof that these hackers are working in cooperation with the Russian government, it’s the most likely conclusion.
2 The DNC was hacked and secrets were leaked
Through 2015 and 2016 the Democratic Party’s computer systems were hacked several times, with intelligence agencies having “high confidence” that Russia was behind them. The GOP was not hacked in similar ways (at least to public knowledge). Given that a database containing information on nearly 200 million voters was later shared on a publicly available location, it’s unlikely that the GOP had higher security standards. It’s more likely that the DNC were targeted and the GOP were not, or that the hackers found GOP secrets and decided not to leak them. Similarly in May only one of two sides of the French election were hacked and had embarrassing secrets leaked.
The candidate with policies most friendly to Vladimir Putin and Russia (Marie Le Pen) was left untouched.
3 Trump requested Russia share stolen secrets
Speaking from the campaign podium in July, Trump asked Russia to interfere in the American election, saying “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.”
Like much of what Trump and the alt-right say, the defence is that he didn’t really mean it, that he was just saying it for the lulz. He may not have known more than was in the public domain, but he did ask Russia to interfere in American democracy.
4 Trump has dismissed accusations against Russia
Trump has repeatedly dismissed claims of Russian interference, blaming “somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds”, and even claiming that the DNC were behind hacks that resulted in their embarrassing secrets being shared.
Though his behaviour is suspicious, this doesn’t necessarily mean he was working with the hackers. Trump’s factually unsupported claim that he would have won the popular vote were it not for illegally cast votes and the time he shared an electoral map with reporters show that he has a narcissistic sore point about the credit for his victory being given to someone else. Despite his suspicious behaviour he may not have been working with Russian hackers.
Trump has so many character flaws that it’s difficult to say which one is in play at any particular time.
5 Trump has extensive Russian business links
In 2016 Trump claimed to have “ZERO investments in Russia”. In 2008 Donald Jr. claimed that Russian investors make a “disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets”.
Over the decades – even before the fall of the Berlin Wall – Trump has repeatedly tried to make real estate deals work in Moscow. He’s gathered contacts during that time (even taking the Miss Universe contest to Moscow), and claimed during one trip that “almost all of the oligarchs were in the room”.
He has proven himself to be a fantasist on occasion, however. He once claimed that “I got to know him [Putin] very well because we were both on 60 Minutes, we were stablemates,” despite the segments being filmed on different continents.
Donald Trump casually tells easily provable lies in pursuit of whatever is in his immediate self-interest at that time, which makes it hard to untangle the truth. However, he is known to have ties to Russian investors in properties around the globe, (some with links to organised crime) and Trump trademarks in Russia were renewed last year, some of them on the day of the American election.
6 Manafort and Flynn have links to Russia
After General Mike Flynn was fired from the Pentagon (Colin Powell’s contact told him that Flynn was abusive to staff and worked against orders; Flynn also infamously had an unsubstantiated belief in what subordinates called “Flynn facts”) Mike Flynn set up Flynn Intel Group, working with Turkey and Russia among others. He repeatedly worked with Russia Today and may have violated the Emoluments clause of the Constitution – former military officers have to receive consent from Congress before receiving payment from foreign governments.
Flynn – who is rumoured to hold a grudge against Obama – sought out a Republican to support in 2016, with Trump being one of five candidates he advised.
Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort made millions helping various politicians rise to power – most of them friendly to Putin. The most notable Manafort client was Viktor Yanukovych, who Manafort taught western media management skills, helping him become President of Ukraine. Ukraine alone paid Manafort at least $12.7m between 2007 and 2012, on a ledger that the FBI are currently investigating. After the Russian annexation of Crimea, Manafort continued to help pro-Russia candidates gain power in Ukraine. His daughter Andrea has described the family fortune as “blood money”.
Manafort brought several members of his Ukrainian team to support Trump – presumably importing any pro-Russian biases they held.
7 There’s been repeated unofficial contact between the Trump team and Russia
During the transition period, Mike Flynn was under investigation because of his unregistered work as a lobbyist for Turkey. Given that he recommended that the US take a policy against arming Syrian Kurds – also Turkey’s national policy – there’s room to ask what motivated Flynn’s advice. This is why contact with foreign governments must be declared.
There were at least 18 undeclared meetings between members of the Trump team and Russian officials, including the Russian ambassador to the US. These include contact between Flynn and the Russian ambassador, which seems to have included discussing dropping sanctions introduced by Obama in response to further cyber-attacks. This led to Flynn’s firing, supposedly because he had misled Mike Pence over the extent of his contact.
The 18 meetings don’t seem to include last June’s meeting between Donald Trump Junior, Manafort and Ivanka Trump’s husband Jared Kushner. Junior admits that he hoped to discuss embarrassing information on Clinton, which the Russians could only have gotten as the result of hacking. In his own words Junior has admitted to trying to conspire with a foreign state against his own. Even George W Bush’s ethics lawyer Richard Painter has said “This is treason”.
It’s possible that Manafort and Kushner had no idea of the nature of the meeting before they arrived – it was at Trump Tower, so they wouldn’t be going out of their way to get there. Whether that’s true or not, it’s certainly what their lawyers will currently be advising them to claim. Given his own self-incriminating statement, Junior’s only plausible defence against the charge of treason is that he was too stupid to realise what he was doing was wrong.
Less than half an hour after the meeting is believed to have ended, Trump senior tweeted about Clinton’s emails in response to her now infamous “delete your account” tweet. Although (contrary to reports) Trump had previously tweeted on the subject, the fact that he reacted to a two-hour old tweet immediately after the Russian meeting ended raises the possibility that he was briefed.
8 Trump admires Putin…and other authoritarians
Donald Trump has repeatedly praised Putin, saying that “in that system, he’s been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader.”
Trump’s admiration is foolish – the Russian economy has been increasingly shambolic under Putin with wages below those in Serbia and Romania, and a 40% fall in GDP in 2015 – twenty times faster than America’s fall in GDP at the depth of the 2008 recession.
But Trump’s praise might be genuine admiration for Putin’s dictatorial style of leadership. He’s also praised Kim, Erdogan, El-Sisi and Duterte.
The style of leadership that sinks the nation’s economy while enriching the leader and his cronies may be one that Trump aspires to.
9 Russia has an advanced propaganda network
For years Russians at 55 Savushkina Street in St Petersburg were paid to pretend to be ordinary Ukranians, whose opinions overlapped with Russian foreign policy. There’s no definitive link between them and the Russian government, but it’s probably more likely that the Russian state is involved rather than someone financing this scheme out of ‘patriotism’. The building was firebombed just weeks before Trump was elected, giving a plausible excuse for the destruction of any relevant records.
In October Trump quoted a story from Russian state-owned Sputnik to support attacks on Clinton, a story which misrepresented a journalist’s words as being from a Clinton advisor.
General Mike Flynn has been a regular contributor to Russia Today, where Julian Assange hosted a programme. During the election Russian state propaganda was clearly biased towards Trump over Clinton, which should be a reason for Trump to treat praise from Putin with caution. But there’s been little sign of this.
Last September Trump told Matt Lauer that “when he calls me brilliant, I’ll take the compliment, OK? The fact is, look, it’s not going to get him anywhere. I’m a negotiator.”
Trump has publicly accepted Putin’s claim not to be behind cyber-attacks on Trump’s opponents and the American state, despite the Russian state being the very strong prime suspects for this crime, with no solid suspect anywhere near as close. And yet Donald Trump has consistently believed the word of Putin over US intelligence analysts.
Given how he’s railed against the idea of a critical press, Trump may secretly approve of the fact that dozens of journalists have been killed or gone missing during Putin’s reign. It may just be poor judgment (Trump has also promoted stories by InfoWars) but, at best Trump is extremely gullible when it comes to trusting Putin and Russian propaganda, and very easily manipulated.
10 Someone tried to hack into US voter rolls
Hackers broke into VR Systems, a Florida-based voting software contractor in the days before the November election. (This is the story which Reality Winner leaked).
Illinois saw attempts to alter voter databases in similar hacks, and in total it appears that there were attempts to hack voter databases in 39 of 50 states.
11 Mitch McConnell is a partisan opportunist
In the final months of the campaign Obama sought to build a cross-party consensus before going public, to avoid the appearance that he was inventing allegations to help Clinton. Despite being in receipt of the same intelligence as Obama, Mitch McConnell insisted on a softening of the language the intelligence community wanted, and threatened to attack any more strongly worded official announcements as partisan politics.
This left Obama in a genuine moral dilemma – had he informed the voters of what the FBI and CIA believed, then the backlash could have made it look like he, rather than McConnell, was the one acting opportunistically.
Of course there’s no evidence to suggest that McConnell was working with Russia, but he chose to look away, to not take the allegations seriously. McConnell put his party’s interests above his nation’s.
12 So is Paul Ryan
On June 15th last year senior Republicans, including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Congressman Kevin McCarthy talked briefly about the appearance that Putin was helping Trump, before Ryan swore the people there to secrecy. A GOP spokesperson initially denied this meeting, before being told that the Washington Pot had an audio recording.
Whether Ryan believed what he was saying or not, it’s clear that – like McConnell – he wasn’t interested in taking a very serious issue seriously.
13 Putin is a manipulator
To understand the facts, we have to look at them in the correct light. The commonly-held view that Putin is trying to control the White House and America makes no sense, given that Russia have done nothing to prevent America pulling out of the Paris Agreement (which Russia remain committed to).
If Putin were either a friend or puppetmaster of Trump, he would have advised him not to withdraw from the Agreement. Aside from the scientific reasons, it was always likely to make America look foolish. And because of America’s federal structure, at least some of the states were always likely to go around the White House and commit themselves to upholding their part of their agreement, undermining the White House’s sense of leadership. It remains more plausible that this is Russia’s current goal – not to control the White House and American policy, but to isolate and divide the country.
14 The ‘kompromat’ may be a bluff
At the weekend, Ivanka Trump sat in for her father during discussions between G20 leaders. You may have seen photographic proof of this (inset) but you probably weren’t aware that it was taken by a Russian bureaucrat – Svetlana Lukash – who shared it on her own social media. Is it just coincidence that a Russian put photographic proof into the public domain?
There are reports that Russia’s initial aim was merely to undermine the legitimacy of Clinton’s presidency in the eyes of the American people, and undermine public trust in her and US institutions. While Trump has fallen for Russian claims with worrying ease, his opponents should also be wary of falling for Russian propaganda, produced with the intent of widening divisions and distrust.
During 2016 first Republican officials then Hillary Clinton’s campaign team hired a former British spy to find dirt on Trump, and he returned with allegations that Putin had recordings of Trump. His report was shared in full by Buzzfeed.
It includes allegations that Trump had engaged in “sex parties” (page 27) and indulged in “perverted sexual acts which have been arranged/monitored by the FSB” (page 1). Most famous is the claim that he hired a room used previously by the Obamas and defiled “the bed where they [the Obamas] had slept by employing a number of prostitutes to perform a ‘golden showers’ (urination) show in front of him. The hotel was known to be under FSB control” (page 2).
While we shouldn’t rule out the possibility that this is accurate, we also shouldn’t rule out the possibility that it’s misinformation that the FSB fed to the British spy. The public has no way to definitively disprove this rumour, so it will always hang over Trump, who is the only person who can possibly be sure that it’s fabricated. Trump already has a paranoid distrust of the American intelligence community, imagine how he’d react to the news that they’re investigating scandalous claims against him personally that he knows are false. He’ll distrust their judgment even more, perhaps even defund their operations and appoint loyalists to fundamentally change their culture.
Feel free to laugh at the idea of Russia blackmailing Trump with kompromat of his urine fetish if you want, but be aware that Putin may be manipulating you into doing so.
15 James Comey was obstructed
Imagine a situation where, in the run-up to a local election, a fight breaks out at a party hosted by a mayoral candidate. It would be totally correct for the local police to investigate, and to follow the evidence wherever it leads. This wouldn’t be evidence of the outgoing mayor running a “deep state” conspiracy against one of his two possible successors.
When James Comey, head of the FBI, first met Trump on January 6th, he told Trump that he personally wasn’t being investigated, but the circumstances of his election were. Comey says that he later made detailed notes on his meetings with Trump as he “was honestly concerned that he might lie” about them. Donald Trump has said on camera that one of the reasons for firing Comey was that “this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story”.
But that’s not the suspect’s place to decide. Given his praise for autocrats, Trump might not like living in a democracy. But in a democracy, everyone has to answer to the rule of law.
16 CNN’s resignations are a tiny part of the story
Last month CNN ran a story that a member of the Trump transition team had met with Russian investment bank. The story was retracted, 3 journalists resigned, and the transition team member at the centre of the story accepted CNN’s apology, saying that they “did the right thing. Classy move. Apology accepted. Everyone makes mistakes. Moving on.”
Trump was not so magnanimous, saying that “Fake News CNN is looking at big management changes now that they got caught falsely pushing their phony Russian stories. Ratings way down!”
As the above shows, the scale of the Trump – Russia story is huge. One mistake doesn’t disprove the whole story, it merely suggests investigators went down a dead-end.
We know that hackers, working at least partially in Russian code, have for more than a decade supported Russian military objectives. We know that someone within Russia has been hiring propagandists to spread a pro-Russia worldview.
We know that someone repeatedly hacked into and released information on the Democrats, but never the Republicans. We know that this pattern was repeated in France, again with the candidate most strongly opposed to Russia and Putin being hacked. We know that someone hacked into US voter rolls in 39 of 50 states, days before an election.
We know that Trump, Ryan and McConnell have all downplayed the seriousness of these attacks, the most serious threat to America since September 11th, and arguably since the Cuban missile crisis.
We know that the Trump family and Paul Manafort have extensive ties to Russia, and have profited financially from these ties. We know that Mike Flynn, Donald Trump Junior and Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort failed to disclose meetings with Russian officials. We know that Trump personally admires Putin, and shared misleading anti-Clinton stories originated on Russian state-owned media.
We know that the American intelligence community consider claims that Putin has compromising information on Trump plausible enough to investigate.
We know that Trump fired a man who was investigating his campaign team rather than wait to be cleared.
There’s so much information, information that’s being added to every day, that it’s hard to grasp onto certainties. Even leaving aside the abstractions and information not fully in the public domain (which includes most of the suspicions around Mike Pence) there is a huge body of evidence available to the public.
To not accept that there are reasons to be suspicious of Russia, the Trump team and the wider GOP is to fully abandon rational thought.