US & Canada

Trump Russia affair: Key questions answered

Trump Putin composite Image copyright AFP/Getty
Image caption Donald Trump has been dogged by suspicion over his ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin

For nearly two years the Trump-Russia affair has dominated front pages and mired the president's administration in conflict and controversy. But what is it exactly? How did it begin? And where is it going?

The inquiry is being led by Robert Mueller, a widely respected former director of the FBI. Holed up in an unremarkable office in Washington DC, Mr Mueller's team is quietly going about one of the most high-profile political inquiries in US history.

Five people connected with Donald Trump's campaign and presidency have been charged with criminal offences.

One of them, his former lawyer Michael Cohen, could be jailed on Wednesday on several charges, making him the first member of the president's inner circle to be imprisoned in relation to the inquiry.

President Trump denies any wrongdoing and says the charges against his former staff are "peanuts".

We've put together a straightforward guide to what we know, what we don't know, and what Mr Mueller may know that we don't.

What's it all about?

President Trump's campaign and transition teams have been accused of colluding with Russian agents to influence the US election in the then Republican candidate's favour.

US intelligence agencies concluded in 2016 that Russia was behind an effort to tip the scales of the US election against Hillary Clinton, with a state-authorised campaign of cyber attacks and fake news stories planted on social media.

Both the Russian and US presidents have poured scorn on suggestions of collusion, with Mr Trump calling it "the greatest political witch hunt in history".

What contact do we know about?

At least 12 Trump associates had contacts with Russians during the campaign or transition, according to an analysis of public records by CNN, with at least 19 face-to-face interactions with Russians or Kremlin-linked figures and at least 51 individual communications.

Trump aides known to have had contact with Russians include the president's son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner, his son Donald Trump Jr, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, and the Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

The president's supporters point out that interactions with foreign nationals are routine during any White House campaign, but three Trump aides have now admitted lying about these encounters.

Who's been charged?

The special counsel has indicted more than 30 people, including four members of Mr Trump's campaign team or administration and 25 Russians, as well as three Russian companies.

On the US side, indictments have been issued against:

  • Michael Cohen, the president's former lawyer
  • Paul Manafort, a former Trump campaign chairman
  • Rick Gates, a former business associate of Mr Manafort and campaign adviser
  • George Papadopoulos, a former Trump campaign adviser
  • Michael Flynn, Mr Trump's former national security adviser
  • Alex van der Zwaan, a lawyer who lied to the FBI about his contact with Gates - he was jailed for 30 days
  • Richard Pinedo, who admitted an identity theft charge
  • Konstantin Kilimnik, a Russian citizen and former aide to Mr Manafort

Mr Manafort was convicted of financial crimes in his first criminal trial and then reached a plea deal in the second trial. However, Mr Mueller has since said Mr Manafort breached that plea agreement by lying to the FBI at least five times - including about his interaction with Konstantin Kilimnik, a business associate who Mr Mueller says is tied to Russian intelligence.

Mr Papadopoulos is said to have attempted to set up meetings between Mr Trump and Russian representatives, and in November 2018 he went to prison after pleading guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with Russians. He was jailed for 12 days.

Mr Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI over meetings he had with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak.

And in late November, the president's former lawyer Michael Cohen admitted lying to Congress about a Trump real estate project in Moscow.

Then, in December, a taste of what he had told Mr Mueller's investigation in return for a less jail time was revealed in a memo advising the court on sentencing.

It included details about Michael Cohen's own contacts with "Russian interests" during the 2016 campaign, including one who said they were "trusted" in the Russian Federation and went on to suggest a meeting between Mr Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Thirteen Russians connected to the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Russian "troll factory", were charged with spreading fake news stories through US social media. Among them was Yevgeny Prigozhin, an associate of Mr Putin

And 12 Russian intelligence officers were charged with hacking the Democratic National Committee, using spear phishing emails and malicious software

Why are the Flynn charges important?

The most senior member of the Trump team to be indicted is Mr Flynn, who admitted one count of making false statements. This was a much lesser charge than analysts say he might have faced for conducting business as a private citizen with a foreign power. Such plea deals are only offered when a witness has incriminating evidence on someone more senior than themselves.

This was again hinted at in a heavily-redacted sentencing memo released in December in which Mr Mueller said Mr Flynn had provided "substantial" details about links between the Trump election team and Russian officials.

It also advised they were not seeking a jail sentence for Mr Flynn.

Mr Trump sacked Mr Flynn last February, saying he had lied to Vice-President Mike Pence about meeting the Russian envoy to the US. Questions have been raised over how much Mr Trump knew about Mr Flynn's contacts with the Russian ambassador and when. The answers to those questions could form part of Mr Flynn's plea bargain.

How many investigations have been conducted?

As well as the special counsel inquiry by Mr Mueller under the aegis of the Justice Department there have been four congressional investigations:

  • The Senate and House Intelligence Committees and the Senate Judiciary Committee are investigating alleged Kremlin meddling and any collusion with Trump aides
  • The House Oversight Committee is scrutinising links between Trump associates and Russian officials

All of the House inquiries were plagued by political squabbling amongst lawmakers, and closed without leading to any charges or claims of Russian collusion.

The Senate committee has yet to release its findings.

Who is special counsel Robert Mueller?

A former prosecutor, Mr Mueller went on to become the second-longest serving FBI director in history, after J Edgar Hoover. His Senate confirmation vote as FBI director went 98-0 in his favour. A special Senate vote to extend his term beyond the usual 10 years to 12 passed 100-0.

With a team of experienced lawyers drawn from private practice and from the justice department, as well as FBI officers, Mr Mueller has worked quietly from an unassuming building in south-west Washington, not issuing any public comment on his investigation.

Can't Trump just sack Mueller?

Reports have swirled that the president might fire the special counsel and confer a presidential pardon on Mr Flynn, in an attempt to gut the investigation.

The rumours began after one of the president's lawyers accused the special counsel of illegally obtaining emails from the Trump transition team. The Mueller investigation said all material was obtained legally.

Firing Mr Mueller would be seen by Democrats as a brazen attempt to obstruct justice and could trigger an effort to impeach the president.

He cannot directly fire the special counsel but when he fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions a day after November's mid-term elections, the issue was back on the table.

How does sacking of Sessions affect Mueller?

Mr Sessions recused himself early on from overseeing the special counsel investigation - a move that deeply irked the president.

His deputy Rod Rosenstein took on that role and appointed Mr Mueller.

But Mr Sessions' replacement in charge of the Department of Justice will have the power to sack Mr Mueller or end the investigation.

Mr Trump's nominee, conservative William Barr, who was attorney general under the late George HW Bush between 1991 and 1993, has previously voiced some disapproval of parts of the investigation.

What happened with James Comey?

Back in February 2017, before Mr Mueller was appointed as special counsel, the FBI was investigating Michael Flynn over his contacts with Russian officials.

Then-head of the FBI, James Comey, attended a briefing in the Oval Office at the White House, along with Vice-President Mike Pence and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. According to a detailed account of the meeting written by Mr Comey immediately afterwards, the president asked Mr Pence and Mr Sessions to leave the room before suggesting Mr Comey end the Flynn investigation.

The FBI director's notes quote the president as saying: "I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go. He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go."

Mr Comey prepared memos from his notes and shared them with other senior FBI officials, saying he was concerned about the nature of the meeting.

A few months later, in May, the president sacked Mr Comey, citing "this Russia thing", a move that shocked Washington and led to talk of a cover-up.

What about the Don Jr meeting?

Another focal point investigation is a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower in New York City involving Mr Trump's son, Donald Jr, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort and an influential Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya.

The meeting occurred after a Russian intermediary contacted Mr Trump Jr with a promise to provide material that would "incriminate" Hillary Clinton - the Democratic candidate - and be "very useful to your father". Mr Trump Jr replied: "I love it."

Mr Trump Jr later defended the meeting, saying Ms Veselnitskaya offered only "inane nonsense" and nothing came of it, but he also told Fox News' Sean Hannity "in retrospect, I probably would have done things a little differently".

In an initial statement to explain the meeting one year after it occurred, Mr Trump Jr claimed that it had been held to discuss Russian adoptions. But in a follow-up statement he said that the actual purpose had been about political opposition research.

In June 2018 Mr Trump tweeted that the meeting was "to get information on an opponent, totally legal and done all the time in politics".

President Trump's lawyers say he dictated his son's first misleading explanation, leading to questions of whether the president sought to obstruct a Justice Department inquiry.

See our full Russia timeline.

What is the Christopher Steele dossier?

In January 2017, a secret dossier was leaked to the press. It had been compiled by a former British intelligence official and Russia expert, Christopher Steele, who had been paid to investigate Mr Trump's ties to Russia.

The dossier alleged Moscow had compromising material on Mr Trump, including claims he was once recorded with prostitutes at a Moscow hotel during a 2013 trip for one of his Miss Universe pageants. Mr Trump emphatically denies this.

The file purported to show financial and personal links between Mr Trump, his advisers and Moscow. It also suggested the Kremlin had cultivated Mr Trump for years before he ran for president.

Mr Trump dismissed the dossier, arguing its contents were based largely on unnamed sources. It was later reported that Mr Steele's report was funded as opposition research by the Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee.

Fusion GPS, the Washington-based firm that was hired to commission the dossier, had previously been paid via a conservative website to dig up dirt on Mr Trump.

Who is 'coffee boy' George Papadopoulos?

Mr Papadopoulos's role in the drama begins with a May 2016 drink in a London bar with an Australian diplomat. He told the envoy that Russia had "political dirt" on Hillary Clinton - a conversation which was later reported by Australian authorities to the FBI and may have prompted the bureau's investigation into the campaign.

In late October 2017, court documents emerged showing Mr Papadopoulos had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about the timing of meetings with alleged go-betweens for Russia.

He falsely claimed he had met two figures with Russian connections before joining the Trump campaign in March 2016. In fact, he met them after joining the campaign. After lying to the FBI, he deleted an incriminating Facebook account and destroyed a phone.

Emails reveal that he communicated with high-level figures in the Trump campaign. He was pictured in March 2016 seated at a foreign policy meeting with Mr Trump, Jeff Sessions and others, a photo Mr Trump shared on Twitter.

Just before he began a two-week sentence in a Wisconsin prison in late November 2018 however, he sent a tweet saying he had "never met a single Russian official". On his release, he announced he was publishing a book entitled "Deep State Target: How I got caught in the crosshairs of the plot to bring down President Trump".

How did Russia (allegedly) hack a US election?

It didn't, exactly. Hacking voter machines, and rigging elections generally, is very, very difficult. Hacking people? That would be easier.

The special counsel charges show that Russia effectively ran a two-pronged operation. The first prong in mid-2016 allegedly involved sending rafts of so-called "phishing" emails to figures in the Democratic Party - an unsophisticated method used by everyone from state-sponsored actors to low-level scammers for duping people into giving up their passwords.

Hackers gained access to the Democratic National Committee's systems and leaked tens of thousands of emails revealing the inner workings of the Clinton campaign and the party's operations, along with mundane, embarrassing details.

The second prong allegedly involved flooding social media networks, especially Facebook, with bogus stories designed to smear the Democrats and undermine the Clinton campaign.

According to testimony by Facebook before Congress, Russia-backed content reached as many as 126 million Americans on the social network during and after election.

What did Obama know and when?

In August 2016, an envelope arrived at the White House marked for the eyes of President Barack Obama and three senior aides.

According to the Washington Post, the envelope had come by courier from the CIA, and contained a bombshell revelation - Mr Putin was directing a state-sponsored effort to interfere with the US election.

The FBI was already looking at ties between the Trump campaign and Russia, but the CIA memo seemed to confirm Russian efforts to throw the election Mr Trump's way.

According to reporting in the Post and elsewhere, the Obama administration agonised over whether to divulge the alleged operations. Reportedly fearful of appearing to attempt to interfere politically, they stayed relatively quiet.

Other intelligence agencies were slow in reaching the same conclusion as the CIA, and congressional Republicans were reluctant to offer support to a public condemnation of Moscow.

Warnings were issued to Russian officials, but it wasn't until the main US intelligence agencies agreed, in late September, that President Obama directed them to make a public statement. To avoid appearing partisan, the statement would not carry his name.

How far will the inquiry go?

The special counsel investigation could potentially extend into 2019, which would infuriate a White House that is eager to draw a line under the affair.

After Mr Trump's legal team spoke to federal investigators about the president himself being questioned by Mr Mueller, the president submitted written answers to investigators in November, saying he had done so "very easily".

Mr Trump's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, said he had provided "unprecedented co-operation" and that it was time to "bring this inquiry to a conclusion".

What about obstruction of justice?

There's been a lot of speculation that Mr Mueller is considering an obstruction of justice case against the president. It's hard to say if the sacking of Mr Comey alone constitutes a case, legal experts differ on this point. The hitch is that the charge carries a fairly high threshold - proof of "corrupt intent".

If the president intentionally pressed Mr Comey to drop the investigation into Mr Flynn, that could be considered a corrupt attempt to obstruct justice, but it is not clear cut. And even if it were, bringing charges against a sitting president is far from straightforward.

A controversial book by the journalist Michael Wolff claims Mr Trump went to some lengths to stop Attorney General Jeff Sessions from recusing himself from the justice department's investigation, another possible case of obstruction. But the veracity of several parts of Mr Wolff's book has been called into question.

How does impeachment work?

It is effectively impossible to bring criminal charges against a sitting president - any case would have to be brought by the executive branch, of which Mr Trump is the boss.

As for impeachment, there is political resonance to obstruction of justice charges - it factored in the impeachment of Bill Clinton and the resignation of Richard Nixon, prior to near-certain impeachment.

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Media captionWhat does it take to impeach a president?

But it remains highly unlikely at this stage. A majority in the House of Representatives is first required to approve an article of impeachment, and the Republican Party controls both houses of Congress.

In the event of a successful House vote, the Senate holds a trial presided over by the Supreme Court chief justice, and a two-thirds majority vote is required in the Senate to convict the president.

That's a high bar - two presidents, Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson, have been acquitted at this stage.

What does the American public think?

Polls suggest that most people are taking it seriously.

A Pew Research Center poll in March 2018 found that 59% of people believed Trump officials definitely or probably had improper contact with Russia during the election campaign.

Earlier, in November 2017, 49% of people surveyed in a joint ABC News /Washington Post poll thought Donald Trump was likely to have committed a crime, compared with 44% who said it was unlikely, and 53% who said they thought the charges against Mr Manafort, Mr Gates, and Mr Papadopoulos indicated a broader conspiracy.