Photo-Illustration: Konstantin Sergeyev/Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images
It’s here. After almost two years of waiting and prognosticating, Robert Mueller has submitted the Office of the Special Counsel’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 election. Attorney General William Barr will release the document publicly — with redactions, of course — on Thursday morning. Since the Justice Department gave the former FBI head and his team the jurisdiction to look into “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation,” the scope of the inquiry is absolutely massive. From Ukrainian oligarchs and botched business deals in Moscow to potential obstruction of justice and sketchy contacts with foreign agents, the story is full of both paperback-thriller allegations and convoluted, boring details that may add up to nothing.
Because of the winding timeline and Russian-novel’s worth of characters, we’ve fallen back on a tested form — the word jumble of an encyclopedia — to help make sense of the scale of the investigation. This index, full of middlemen, billionaires, “useful idiots,” and spies, is meant to be a reference tool to fall back on — even if the public doesn’t get to see anything close to a complete version of the report.
Russian billionaire known as “Putin’s builder,” who may have also been “Putin’s telephone.”
Could the man they call “Putin’s builder” also have served as the Russian president’s telephone, helping him communicate and ultimately collude with Donald Trump? It’s a theory that was helped along by Rob Goldstone, the publicist for Agalarov’s pop-star son, Emin Agalarov. In an email to Donald Trump Jr., Goldstone attempted to set up a meeting with him and a Russian lawyer as a part of what he called “Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump — helped along by Aras and Emin.”
Agalarov’s relationship with the elder Trump goes back to 2013, when the Azerbaijani-Russian construction tycoon paid $20 million to bring the Miss Universe pageant to Crocus City Hall, his concert venue in Moscow. This relationship, experts say, would have been enough for the Kremlin to reach out to Agalarov in order to get to Trump. If you believe Goldstone, that’s just what it did.
The Russian pop star set up the highly problematic Trump Tower meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya.
Known in Russia for such hits as “Baby Get Higher” and “Heart Keeps Beating,” pop star Emin Agalarov helped orchestrate the meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya at Trump Tower in the summer of 2016. It was his publicist Rob Goldstone who initiated the sit-down with an email to Don Jr. The son of billionaire builder Aras Agalarov, Emin was assisting the Russian government’s efforts to help Trump, Goldstone wrote. Whether Agalarov was simply helping out a family friend or repaying Trump for appearing in one of his music videos remains unclear.
The other Russian in the Trump Tower meeting.
In the first reports of the June 9, 2016, meeting in Trump Tower, lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya was billed as the only Russian in the room. Shortly after, it emerged that lobbyist Rinat Akhmetshin had joined Veselnitskaya and the Trump campaign to discuss sanctions, the Magnitsky Act, and access to dirt on Hillary Clinton. A former Soviet counterintelligence officer and naturalized U.S. citizen, Akhmetshin partnered with Veselnitskaya to lobby against Magnitsky Act sanctions and has a history with political hacking campaigns. In 2011, he was hired by a financier with close ties to Vladimir Putin to send spyware to a business competitor. In 2013, on behalf of a fertilizing and mining giant owned by a billionaire close to Putin, Akhmetshin coordinated the hack of a rival company, replaced its servers, and was accused of computer espionage in a U.S. court. A friend of the former deputy head of the FSB, Akhmetshin says he is also an acquaintance of Paul Manafort from the time he attempted to join the lobbying team of Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. Akhmetshin received scrutiny from the special counsel, who wrote in a file that he “has ties to a Russian intelligence service and had such ties in 2016.” Akhmetshin claims innocence, that he attended the meeting after grabbing lunch with Veselnitskaya — she asked him on a whim to join her at Trump Tower. That explains his outfit for the occasion: ripped pink jeans and a pink T-shirt.
The unkempt alt-right strategist who moved from Breitbart News to the Trump Campaign to the White House.
If Stephen Bannon hadn’t opened his big mouth, special counsel Robert Mueller might have left him alone. Instead, the former Breitbart News head and President Trump’s onetime senior adviser was hauled in front of federal investigators earlier this year to answer questions about Russian meddling. Mueller was reportedly uninterested in speaking to Bannon until Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury was published. In the book, Bannon is quoted as saying he thinks Donald Trump Jr. introduced a Russian operative to his father at the now-infamous summer of 2016 Trump Tower meeting. He also told Wolff that he had nothing to do with any supposed collusion. “I know no Russians, I don’t know nothin’ about nothin’,” he said.
Bannon, who reportedly pitched the Trump administration a plan to cripple the Russia probe, first met with Mueller’s investigators for 20 hours in February 2018 and again in October, when he was questioned about Roger Stone’s claims of a relationship with WikiLeaks and potential obstruction of justice by Trump.
A shady real-estate firm that had a hand in financing Trump Soho.
Bayrock Group, the firm responsible for some of the shadier financing of Trump Soho, was founded in 2001 by Russian-born Turkish developer Tevfik Ariv. In 2003, Ariv picked Russian-born grifter Felix Sater as managing director to help license the Trump name for real-estate ventures in Turkey, Ukraine, Russia, and Florida. The firm became part of a three-way joint venture to finance and build Trump Soho, courting Kazakhstani billionaire Alexander Mashkevitch to provide the bulk of the investment; dicier sources would later include Kazakhstani oligarch Viktor Khrapunov, who allegedly funneled millions of dollars stolen from his home country into the hotel’s condos. In 2007, a year after taking on Trump Soho, Bayrock traded future profits from the building to an Icelandic holding company. As a response to the $50 million deal, Bayrock’s former finance director filed a racketeering lawsuit, calling Trump Soho “a monument to spectacularly corrupt money-laundering and tax evasion.”
A second lawsuit emerged, accusing Bayrock of laundering $250 million of projected profits from Trump Soho and three other projects, sending the cash “through a sham Delaware entity to Iceland (and reportedly then Russia), intending to evade up to $100,000,000 of U.S. taxation.” The case was eventually dismissed, but trouble hung around Bayrock. Sater became entangled in the Mueller investigation, and Arif was arrested in 2010 on human-trafficking charges in Turkey when police raided an alleged sex party on a yacht full of business associates and Russian prostitutes. (Arif was acquitted.) Bayrock eventually fell apart, and Sater, ready for the next big thing, replaced its office on the 24th floor of Trump Tower with a new venture called Swiss Capital.
The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and the third key player in the Seychelles meeting.
After huddling with Jared Kushner and Steve Bannon at Trump Tower, Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, a.k.a. MBZ, who shares Trump’s goal of convincing Russia to back away from Iran, was approached by a square-jawed businessman unafraid of getting his hands dirty. It was Erik Prince, and the Washington Post reported that he asked MBZ to set up a meeting with someone close to Putin. By mid-January 2017, they were off to the Seychelles together. Prince later told Congress that MBZ had him along to “meet with some potential customers.” But anonymous officials have indicated that MBZ was actually the one who made the meeting between Prince and Kirill Dmitriev happen. Why? In hopes of advancing his and the Trump administration’s shared goal of having Putin distance Moscow from Tehran.
The resistance’s amateur collusion investigators.
President Trump’s election was a deeply polarizing event for the U.S., prompting disbelief, disgust, and outright rejection from countless Americans. That energy, combined with the ubiquity of social media, soon led to the anti-Trump resistance movement and many Americans insisting that Trump was #NotMyPresident. Trump’s popular-vote loss had already delegitimized him in the eyes of many, but the collusion scandal supplied a more sinister explanation as well as a legal and logical rationale for both dismissing his victory and removing him from office.
It should come as no surprise, then, that many Google and social-media-armed Americans would deputize themselves to join the Russia investigation and start sharing their theories — or that those theories would find a wide audience. Tech writer Charlie Warzel dubbed these amateur sleuths the “blue detectives” in a 2017 BuzzFeed News post:
Call it the Alex Jonesification of the left or the rise of the Blue Detectives — the pure id of a strand of conspiratorial thought of the left and the anti-Trump movement. It’s intriguing and eyeroll-inspiring all at once, but for the #resistance crowd it’s a mooring force. Most of all, it’s an effective messaging tactic: It’s designed to go viral, to spark outrage — and perhaps even action.
No blue detective became more famous than Louise Mensch, whose conspiracy theories proved irresistible to many on the left. But the demand for an anti-Trump InfoWars far exceeded what Mensch could supply. Enter Seth Abramson, Eric Garland, John Schindler, and Claude Taylor, who are among the most breathless cataloguers of literal fake news about the Trump administration. Among the stories pushed by this cadre were claims that Bernie Sanders is a Russian agent, Steve Bannon was bound for the electric chair for espionage, and Paul Ryan is both a traitor and a “filthy little Ayn Rand cock holster.”
The Robert Mercer–founded data-mining firm whose work became part of the Trump campaign’s digital operation.
When Steve Bannon approached conservative billionaire Robert Mercer about bringing the services of the British big-data firm SCL Group to the U.S., it was not with the explicit intention of helping Donald Trump. At the time, Trump was still two years away from launching his presidential campaign, and the SCL-offshoot that Mercer and Bannon founded, Cambridge Analytica, first used its online ad targeting to help Ted Cruz in the GOP primary. But by the summer of 2016, with Trump the clear nominee, Cambridge Analytica sent 13 employees to work with his digital team in San Antonio. What they did remains a point of contention. In an undercover video, Cambridge Analytica CEO Alexander Nix said, “We did all the research, all the data, all the analytics, all the targeting, we ran all the digital campaign, the television campaign, and our data informed all the strategy.” But others associated both with the data firm and the Trump campaign say its famed psychographic profiling, the company’s “secret sauce,” as Nix once called it, was never used.
This is a key point, because the way the company obtained the data used to construct profiles has come under intense scrutiny and led to congressional hearings. After its methods were revealed by a whistle-blower, Cambridge and SCL Group were suspended from Facebook, even though the data firm maintains it didn’t break any of the social network’s rules.
Cambridge’s PR nightmare didn’t end with the Facebook scandal. Nix was also caught on hidden camera bragging about the company’s shady techniques, including bribery and the use of sex workers, to a reporter he thought was a potential client. But it was Nix’s overtures to Julian Assange that got the attention of Robert Mueller. As Nix was negotiating a contract with the Trump campaign, he reached out to the WikiLeaks founder in hopes of getting a look at Hillary Clinton’s emails. Both men say the discussions never went anywhere.
In May 2018, Cambridge Analytica shut down, with some of its execs moving to Emerdata, a new data firm under the SCL Group banner. But that hasn’t stopped investigators from looking into the firm. The Special Counsel’s Office has interviewed at least one former Cambridge Analytica executive and the Senate Intelligence Committee peppered Bannon with questions about it last December. The U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California also continues to investigate how the firm improperly obtained Facebook data.
A former talk-radio host and early Trump supporter whose involvement in the Russia scandal lost him a chance to work at the USDA.
A former Air Force fighter pilot, Clovis bailed on Rick Perry’s presidential bid to join the Trump campaign, first as a policy adviser, then as the national co-chairman. In October 2017, George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian government and told the special counsel that Clovis encouraged Papadopoulos’s May 2016 meeting with the Russian Foreign Ministry. An email among the court papers shows that Clovis told Papadopoulos to “make the trip, if it is feasible,” to learn more about the dirt on Hillary Clinton that Russia promised. (At that point in the timeline, the FBI had not yet publicly acknowledged the DNC hack.) After Papadopoulos’s guilty plea, the 68-year-old had to withdraw from consideration after being nominated for the USDA’s top scientist position. He is not a scientist.
Trump’s longtime lawyer and fixer turned state’s witness on his boss after being rolled up by the Southern District of New York.
Loyalty has its limits. Michael Cohen was Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, fixer, and “pit bull” for more than a decade. In 2017, he bragged that he was “the guy who protects the president and the family” and would “take a bullet” for Trump. A year later, after he became the target of investigations by special counsel Robert Mueller and the Southern District of New York, Cohen had flipped on his former employer and idol, pleading guilty to violating campaign finance laws, committing bank and tax fraud, and lying to Congress about what he knew about the Trump Organization’s efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.
Cohen was one of the key Trump officials named in the Steele dossier, which alleged that he had maintained a “covert relationship” with Russia on behalf of Trump during the 2016 campaign and managed the subsequent cover up. Cohen vehemently denied the claims, but the smoke was clearly visible, and court filings indicate that the special counsel began looking at Cohen as early as July of 2017. By that point, Cohen had been hard at work profiting off his proximity to Trump. He remained the president’s personal lawyer after the election, while his shell company, Essential Consultants LLC, took in more than $4 million by the end of the first year of Trump’s presidency — including payments from big corporations like AT&T and Novartis, and an investment firm linked to Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg.
That grift ended when federal prosecutors at the Southern District of New York, after a referral from Mueller’s office, opened a criminal investigation into Cohen and the FBI conducted an April 2018 raid on his office, home, and hotel room in New York. The president fired Cohen in May, and he was arrested and charged in August.
Cohen shady dealings included many of the other key players in this index. During the campaign, Cohen worked with Felix Sater to pursue a deal to build a Trump Tower skyscraper on Moscow, and the two met with pro-Russia Ukrainian politician Andrey Artemenko in January 2017 to discuss a back channel plan to get U.S. sanctions on Russia lifted — a plan Cohen then delivered to Michael Flynn. Cohen also admitted setting up Trump-ordered hush payments during the Trump campaign to porn star Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal to hide Trump’s alleged affairs with the women — a violation of campaign finance laws.
After Cohen rolled on Trump for Mueller and the SDNY, the president and his allies branded him a liar who would say anything to reduce his prison sentence. Trump derided Cohen as a “RAT” and said that “flipping” should “almost be illegal.”
Cohen’s testimony before the House Oversight Committee in late February provided even more revelations. The disbarred attorney called the president a racist and a conman. Cohen could offer no direct evidence of collusion, but said he had heard Roger Stone tell Trump about the Wikileaks DNC email dump before it happened, and that Trump expressed his approval. Cohen also said he believed he had seen Donald Trump Jr. tell his father about the infamous 2016 Trump Tower meeting. Cohen said that he had not been directly instructed by Trump to lie to Congress about the Trump Tower Moscow timeline — seemingly contradicting a recent Buzzfeed News report — but that Trump had done so nonverbally, like a mob boss who knows how to order something without uttering the words themselves.
Beyond Russia and the campaign, Cohen alleged that Trump had committed insurance, tax, and bank fraud, and cited his ongoing cooperation with the Southern District of New York as the reason he could not discuss the other illegal acts he knew Trump had committed. These details suggested Mueller’s Russia investigation may not be the one that does the most damage to Trump and his family. In the meantime, future author Michael Cohen will start his prison sentence in May.
A term that is not easily defined, at least in Washington. Typically prepended with “no” when uttered in Trumpworld.
Since the story first broke, the word collusion — the secret cooperation, or conspiracy, between two parties to deceive or cheat others — became shorthand for the web of Russia-Trump connections. As a PR strategy, and as legal defense, Trump and his rotating band of lawyers have touted that collusion, on its own, is not a crime. In December 2017, Jay Sekulow, Trump’s personal lawyer dedicated to the special counsel’s investigation, said, “For something to be a crime, there has to be a statute the you claim is being violated.” The same month, Trump said, “There is no collusion, and even if there was, it’s not a crime.”
The Department of Justice may disagree. In April 2018, a heavily redacted document from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein accused Paul Manafort of committing “a crime or crimes by colluding with Russian government officials” to interfere with the 2016 election. Now, it appears Mueller has the go-ahead to bring criminal charges for collusion, and a complicated legal defense just became more complicated.
The porn star who allegedly slept with Trump in 2006 and was paid $130,000 to keep quiet about it during the 2016 campaign.
When Stormy Daniels revealed that she had received $130,000 in October 2016 in exchange for keeping quiet about her affair with Donald Trump, it appeared to be another tabloid blight on the presidency — but one independent of the collusion scandal. The two narratives converged with the April 2018 raid of Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s office, home, and hotel room. It subsequently emerged that Columbus Nova — a New York investment firm whose biggest client is Kremlin-linked Ukrainian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg — deposited around $500,000 into the same shell company Cohen used to pay off both Stormy Daniels and Sarah Bechard, the Playmate who allegedly had an affair with GOP fundraiser Elliott Brody.
Vekselberg, who attended Trump’s inauguration, is a Ukrainian energy magnate with ties to Oleg Deripaska and a “complicated relationship” with the Kremlin, according to a former U.S. ambassador to Russia. He had already been contacted by Robert Mueller when he stopped at a New York–area airport and was questioned by investigators for the special counsel. Columbus Nova said the half-million dollars paid to Cohen’s shell company had nothing to do with Vekselberg and was instead a fee for his consulting services. Stormy Daniels’s lawyer, Michael Avenatti, suggested the money “may have reimbursed the $130K payment” to Daniels, but this was never confirmed.
Last August, Cohen pleaded guilty to a handful of tax-and-bank-fraud charges, while also admitting that the payment to Daniels was made “at the direction” of Trump and “for the principal purpose of influencing the election.” It was later reported that prosecutors had evidence of Trump playing a “central role” in the payoff to Daniels.
Billionaire Russian oligarch and Putin ally who once employed Paul Manafort.
Before the financial crisis, aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska was the richest man in Russia with a net worth of about $28 billion. During that time, one of his many employees was Paul Manafort, whom he gave a $10 million annual contract — from 2006 to at least 2009 — to promote Russian interests and business deals in the West and the former Soviet republics. Ten years after the start of the deal, Manafort, acting as Trump campaign chairman, allegedly emailed a Deripaska intermediary that if the oligarch wanted private briefings on the campaign, “we can accommodate.” It was reportedly an attempt by Manafort to resolve outstanding debts. “He owed us a lot of money,” a Deripaska employee told Time. “And he was offering ways to pay it back.”
Deripaska is also known as a close Putin ally: A U.S. diplomatic cable from 2006 painted him as “among the 2-3 oligarchs Putin turns to on a regular basis,” and it is believed that Putin saved him from bankruptcy in 2009 to reward his loyalty and to keep his assets out of European banks. Last year, Deripaska offered to cooperate with congressional investigators if he would be given full immunity from prosecution. Naturally, the offer was turned down. In April 2018, Deripaska was one of 24 Russians sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department for the alleged actions of threatening the lives of business rivals, illegal wiretapping, extortion, and racketeering.
In March 2019, Deripaska filed suit against the Treasury Department, which has already lifted sanctions on companies he controls but continues to punish him. U.S. allegations against him are “very absurd,” he told CNBC, and he’s hoping the suit will end the sanctions, which have caused “the utter devastation of Deripaska’s wealth, reputation, and economic livelihood,” according to court documents.
When other lenders ditched Trump, this German megabank stuck by his side.
Owing to overexpansion and mismanagement in his sprawling empire, Donald Trump was toxic on Wall Street in the 1990s. At the same time, Deutsche Bank was trying to make a name for itself in the U.S. One strategy that worked for the bank: making loans deemed too risky by rivals. Deutsche Bank first lent Trump $125 million to renovate a building at 40 Wall Street, leading to a $2.5 billion relationship between the pair, not to mention the improperly disclosed $285 million lent to his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, a month before the election.
In December 2017, it was reported that Robert Mueller demanded that Deutsche Bank hand over records involving “people or entities affiliated with Donald Trump,” including transactions linked to Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort. These accounts could represent a missing financial link between the Trump campaign and Russian interests, which have previously used Deutsche Bank to help launder their money.
When Democrats took over the House, they too homed in on Trump’s connections with the German bank. The House Intelligence and Financial Services committees have announced a joint probe into Deutsche Bank, which Intel chairman Adam Schiff has called an “obvious place to start” as he looks into potential money laundering by the Trump Organization.
A Putin buddy who was at the meeting in Seychelles.
The head of a government-owned Russian investment fund, Dmitriev is the man who, depending on whom one believes, either met with Erik Prince to talk about establishing communication between the White House and the Kremlin, or spent a half-hour talking oil and commodity prices over a beer with the Blackwater founder. Stanford- and Harvard-educated, Dmitriev has ties to both the U.S. and Russia, where he runs the Russian Direct Investment Fund, a sovereign wealth fund of more than $10 billion that was hit by U.S. sanctions after the annexation of Crimea. Asked on CNN last summer about the sit-down, Prince slighted his interlocutor, describing Dmitriev as “some fund manager” whose name he couldn’t remember.
The former Soviet ambassador who helped Trump make his first trip to Moscow in 1987.
Donald Trump first set foot on Russian ground in 1987, when the Soviet diplomatic service arranged a visit to Moscow so he could see about building a hotel. In The Art of the Deal, Trump lays out the timeline quite simply: He had met Soviet ambassador Yuri Dubinin at a luncheon in New York in ’86, and a year later, he and Ivana were in the Russian capital. As Dubinin’s daughter tells it, though, this was not happenstance. Her father was trying to hook Trump and did so with flattery over Trump Tower.
Before long, he was in Moscow, and right away he was an intelligence target. The KGB helped smooth out the paperwork for his visit in coordination with a mid-’80s effort to recruit more American sources, looking for powerful men who had a “habit of having affairs with women on the side.” Trump loved his time in Moscow. He stayed at the Lenin suite in the National Hotel near the Red Square, run by the state agency for tourism. The suite was bugged. It’s been suggested that this trip may have provided Russians with their first chance to capture kompromat, or compromising information, on the man who, three decades later, would be elected president.
The link between the Clinton campaign and the Steele dossier.
When the Washington Free Beacon cut its funding for Fusion GPS’s opposition research on Trump in April 2016, Fusion head Glenn Simpson met with Marc Elias in his office a couple blocks east of the White House. The chair of political law at the Seattle megafirm Perkins Coie, Elias, who represented the DNC and the Clinton campaign, accepted the offer by Fusion to rake through Trump’s dirt. Elias did not inform the campaign of the hire; he was okayed to spend certain funds on his own, and attorney-client privilege meant his correspondence with Fusion was under lock and key. Focused on actionable intel on the hack of the DNC, Elias considered the more risqué elements of Steele’s research to be a can of worms — leaking the unprovable allegations would just create further back-and-forth over Bill Clinton’s and Trump’s alleged sexual misconduct. Thus, the ultimate client didn’t know of the dossier’s existence until it was leaked to the public.
A Russian attempt to sow divisions in the American electorate using fake groups and accounts on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr.
The Internet Research Agency conducted its PSYOP through highly partisan, well-targeted social-media accounts which were used to inflame the tensions of readers on the right and left, before and after the 2016 election. As an example, its Facebook groups had names like “Being Patriotic,” “Blacktivist,” “Secured Borders,” “LGBT United,” and “Defend the 2nd,” which described itself as “the community of 2nd Amendment supporters, guns lovers & patriots.” These pages reached at least 126 million Americans, Facebook has admitted, with content that pushed racist tropes, expressed outrage about police shootings, and insulted “Killary Rotten Clinton.” The groups also organized at least 20 protests and events, including a vigil for victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting.
On Twitter, there were at least 3,800 IRA accounts which sent more than 170,000 tweets seen by roughly 1.4 million Americans.
A Russian hacking group that handles election interference for the Kremlin and caught John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, with a phishing campaign.
On March 19, 2016, an email sent by a hacking collective linked to the Russian government arrived in the in-box of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman John Podesta. Dressed up to look as if it had come from Google, the email prompted Podesta to click a link to change his password. It was one of many similar phishing attempts to hit the in-box of a Clinton campaign official, and it was immediately flagged by an IT guy as such.
But a mistake in the warning he sent to Podesta — he wrote that the email was “legitimate” rather than “not legitimate” — resulted in 50,000 emails falling into the hands of the hackers most commonly known as Fancy Bear. Cybersecurity experts don’t know much about the group, which first showed up in 2009 and honed its dark arts in Ukraine, Georgia, and Estonia. There’s not even an accepted name for it, with some referring to Fancy Bear as APT 28 or Tsar Team. But there’s little debate that Fancy Bear does the bidding of the GRU, Russia’s foreign military intelligence agency — which, weirdly, uses the Batman symbol as its logo. After breaching Podesta’s emails in March, an invasion that would lead to a bizarre conspiracy theory and the distribution of a family risotto recipe, the hackers were soon inside the DNC’s network. And before long, reams of private information were made very public.
The Russian agency responsible for collecting kompromat — embarrassing information that can be used against public figures.
Headquartered in the former Soviet secret police building, a massive, neo-Baroque structure with a prison in its basement, the Federal Security Service (FSB) is the inheritor of the KGB, charged with security, intelligence, counterterrorism, and surveillance for the Russian Federation. Think of it as part elite military branch, part spy agency. One of its boundless duties is the collection of kompromat: compromising personal and financial details used to incapacitate public figures, or to blackmail them into performing the will of the state. The term dates back to the secret police of the 1930s, and since then, it has evolved in lock-step with technology and social mores to become something of a national art form — America has jazz, Russia has kompromat.
Kompromat is often sexual in nature, from the “honey trap” stings of the ’50s that caught foreign officials engaging in homosexual activity, to leaking sex tapes of prominent Russian lawyers, to, allegedly, taping the golden-shower extracurriculars of American oligarchs. According to the first sentences of the Steele dossier, the FSB has been hoarding personal and financial kompromat on Trump for five years. The FSB had allegedly been gathering Clinton kompromat, too. During Carter Page’s visit to Russia, the deputy chief for internal policy, Igor Diveykin, informed Page that the FSB could release kompromat on Clinton to help derail her campaign.
“Lock her up” chant-leader and short-lived national security adviser to Trump who pleaded guilty to lying about his contacts with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak and was a catalyst in the firing of James Comey.
Ask President Trump about Michael Flynn, his first national-security adviser, and he’ll tell you that the former Army general is a “wonderful man” whose life has been ruined by “very unfair” treatment. He is also a liar. In December 2017, months losing his White House gig and hitting the beaches of Rhode Island, Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about conversations with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
The most publicized of those conversations took place over the phone on December 29, 2016, the same day that President Obama announced sanctions against Russia for meddling in the previous month’s election. Flynn initially said he and Kislyak did not discuss those sanctions, but that seemed suspect, especially given Vladimir Putin’s decision, one day later, not to retaliate. “I always knew he was very smart!” Trump tweeted after Putin’s announcement.
The same could not be said of Flynn. By February, it was clear that he had lied about the content of the calls, which were intercepted by U.S. intelligence, and had lied about them again in conversations with Mike Pence. Those lies were what forced him to resign or get fired, but Trump stood by the man who led “lock her up” chants at the Republican National Convention in 2016. James Comey would later testify that Trump pressured him to leave Flynn alone. “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Trump privately told Comey the morning after Flynn was forced to resign. The FBI investigation proceeded, and Comey was fired in May.
The research firm originally hired to write what would become known as the Steele dossier.
Glenn R. Simpson was an investigative reporter for The Wall Street Journal known for whipping around D.C. on an electric scooter and scratching his belly in the office. He teamed up with WSJ senior editor Peter Fritsch and WSJ staff reporter Thomas Catan to found the strategic-intel firm Fusion GPS in 2011; Simpson didn’t call it selling out as much as “cashing in.” In 2012, the firm was hired to do opposition research on both major-party presidential candidates and has also been hired to dig into the past of both Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton.
In 2016, the Washington Free Beacon, funded by GOP billionaire Paul Singer, reached out to Fusion to look into potential scandals involving GOP hopefuls; once Singer bailed, the Clinton campaign and the DNC footed the bill via the law firm Perkins Coie, paying Fusion a little over a million dollars. Fusion specialized in open-source research, scouring public documents for overlooked compromising details. In the spring of 2016, Simpson reached out to Christopher Steele at Orbis Business Intelligence, who generated his reports from Russian sources cultivated during his years in the MI6. Together, from the backgrounds of journalism and a spy agency, from the library and the field, they stomped around in Trump’s dirt and were well compensated for getting their boots muddy.
The star Mueller witness was Paul Manafort’s former right-hand man and a top official on the Trump campaign and inaugural committee.
For years, everywhere that Paul Manafort went, his deputy Rick Gates was sure to follow. The pair were inseparable while lobbying in Ukraine, working for Trump’s campaign, and getting charged by Mueller. In February 2018, Gates and Manafort finally split after Mueller hit them with 32 new charges, in addition to the 12 filed in October 2017. While Manafort remained defiant, Gates started singing.
The new charges, like the old, focused on years of financial crimes and accused the duo of tax evasion and bank fraud, among plenty of other misdeeds. They also brought the differences between these bosom buddies into stark relief. Gates, who was also popped for lying to the FBI, is more than 20 years younger than Manafort. With two young kids at home and mounting legal bills, the benefits of cooperating with Mueller were clear, and Gates became the star witness in the case against Manafort, testifying that he and his former boss used offshore shell companies to hide millions of dollars they made in Ukraine.
As of March 2019, Gates still hadn’t been sentenced. In a court filing requesting a delay on Gates’s sentencing, the Special Counsel’s Office said he “continues to cooperate with respect to several ongoing investigations.”
The Kremlin’s blueprint for subversion.
Coming to terms with the 21st-century battlefield, Russian deputy defense minister Valery Gerasimov published a 2,000-word speech in the weekly trade paper The Military-Industrial Kourier in February 2013. In “The Value of Science Is in the Foresight,” he described a “permanently operating front” in which “the role of nonmilitary means of achieving political and strategic goals has grown, and, in many cases, they have exceeded the power of force of weapons.” Named the “Gerasimov Doctrine” by Mark Galeotti, the journalist who translated it, the document by the former tank commander lays out the strategy of irritating a nation’s sovereignty by nonmilitary means: kompromat, business connections, hacked emails. Many of the actions are consistent with the Soviet “active measures” strategy, which one ex-KGB agent called “the heart and soul of Soviet intelligence … not intelligence collection, but subversion … to drive wedges in the Western community.” Galeotti claims that the document explains how the Kremlin planned to defend against a potential uprising or affront à la the Arab Spring or unrest in Ukraine. But, just as SERE training designed to protect American forces from capture and interrogation became a blueprint for CIA torture, a good defense can quickly become a good offense.
Coincidences and questions over an $11 billion deal.
In December 2016, the state-owned Russian oil company Rosneft sold a 19.5 percent stake, worth about $11 billion, to Qatar’s national wealth fund, the Swiss mining giant Glencore, and an unnamed buyer in the Cayman Islands. Conspiracy theorists have picked up on that 19.5 percent figure — the same percentage that Rosneft head Igor Sechin allegedly offered Carter Page in July for getting the Ukraine-related sanctions lifted. The day after the sale was signed, Carter Page appeared in Moscow to “meet with some of top managers” of Rosneft. The day after Christmas, the chief of staff of Rosneft, and Steele’s suspected source for the Page-Sechin intel, was found dead in the back of his Lexus. What’s more, when Trump fired James Comey, he placed Christopher Wray at the helm of the FBI; Wray is a partner in a firm that represents Rosneft. The endgame of this link of coincidences is unclear, but Mueller, for one, hasn’t touched it.
A British music publicist who set up the Trump Tower meeting between his buddies Donald Trump Jr. and Emin Agalarov.
The initial offer that led to the Trump Tower meeting came via email to Donald Trump Jr. from music publicist Rob Goldstone. The former British tabloid journalist reached out to Don Jr. on behalf of pop star Emin Agalarov, writing that the Russian government wanted to share “official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia.” He went on to write that sharing the information “is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” Don Jr. replied enthusiastically. “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer,” he wrote. Six days later he, Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort met in midtown with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya.
The day before the first anniversary of the special counsel’s investigation, the Senate Judiciary Committee released a transcript in which Goldstone tried, on behalf of Aras Agalarov, to coordinate a follow-up meeting six months after the initial Trump Tower talk. The Trump team declined, concerned about contact with Russia during the transition.
An attempt by Russian intelligence to cover up its role in the DNC email hack.
In June 2016, on the same day that a cybersecurity firm tied the DNC hack to Russia, someone going by Guccifer 2.0 showed up online claiming responsibility. A supposed “lone hacker” from Romania, Guccifer mocked the idea that the Kremlin was behind the DNC hack. The story didn’t hold up for long, though. A handful of clues suggested that Guccifer was lying about his nationality. The most obvious was the Google Translate–level of written Romanian. A consensus soon formed that this persona was actually a Russian operative. A consensus among experts, at least. Some, like Trump confidant and style blogger Roger Stone, became believers and began parroting Guccifer’s claims. But recently it was revealed that the agent behind the moniker appears to have slipped up and provided proof of a relationship with the Kremlin. According to the Daily Beast, Guccifer was sloppy with a sign-in once and revealed himself to be a “particular GRU officer working out of the agency’s headquarters on Grizodubovoy Street in Moscow.”
The law that prevented then-Secretary of State John Kerry from doing anything with the contents of the Steele dossier before the election.
Secretary of State John Kerry had the information in the Steele dossier in September 2016 but did not act on it, owing to this 1939 federal law that prohibits most Executive-branch employees from trying to influence elections. In September 2016, concerned that the FBI did not yet act on the dossier, Steele reached out to a friend at the State Department, who passed it up the chain to Kerry. Immediately aware of its political toxicity, Kerry read it, then put his copy in a safe. “No one wanted to touch it,” said one State employee.
The Hatch Act is enforced by the U.S. Office of Special Counsel, an independent government agency that was formed following the Watergate scandal (and has nothing to do Special Counsel Robert Mueller).
In 2017, the OSC flagged several violations of the Act by members of the Trump administration. Trump social media director Dan Scavino Jr. got off with a one-time warning after he tweeted out a political attack on a fellow Republican in the House, as did former UN ambassador Nikki Haley (she retweeted President Trump’s endorsement of a House candidate.) In March 2018, the OSC announced the White House adviser Kellyanne Conway violated the law twice, for endorsing GOP Senate candidate and accused child molester Roy Moore on Fox and Friends and CNN’s New Day.
In November of 2018, the OSC also warned the country’s two million federal employees about the law, sending out a controversial mass-memo which told the workers it might be illegal for them to publicly discuss their MAGA pride, the #resistance, or Trump’s potential impeachment.
Russian “troll farm” that ran a PSYOP on millions of American voters using social media ads.
Dubbed a “troll farm” in the U.S., the Internet Research Agency began operating in 2013 with a mandate of attacking Ukraine and defending Russia online. Its mission soon expanded to needling other Russian adversaries, and the 2016 presidential election presented an opportunity in the U.St. By the summer of 2016, the agency was operating with a budget of more than $1 million a month as it flooded Facebook and Twitter with disinformation and racial division from its drab gray headquarters in St. Petersburg. The four-floor building was packed with ex-journalists and bloggers pounding out propaganda. Each floor had a mandate. The third floor blogged to promote Russia, while the second seeded posts with comments written under fake identities. They mingled only in the cafeteria and on smoking breaks.
All told, the agency bought 3,000 political ads and reached 128 million Americans during the election. Among its Facebook ads were ones showing Jesus and Satan arm wrestling, promoting succession of Texas, and previewing a “Buff Bernie” coloring book.
The London restaurant where George Papadopoulos let it slip to the wrong person that Russia had dirt on Hillary Clinton.
A career politician and Australia’s top diplomat in Britain, Alexander Downer was at Kensington Wine Rooms, a generic tapas-and-vino joint blocks away from Kensington Palace in London, when George Papadopoulos, a few too many glasses into the May evening, spilled the intel that Russia had dirt on Hillary Clinton. Downer, who worked with the Clinton Foundation in 2006 to provide $25 million in screening and treatment to AIDS patients in South Asia, took note of the 28-year-old’s bold claims and went about his business. When WikiLeaks published its stash of hacked Clinton emails in July 2016, Downer rethought the importance of the barroom confession and informed Canberra. The Australian government then contacted the FBI; prompted by the WikiLeaks dump, and the scoop from one of America’s closest intelligence allies, the agency began looking at Trump’s entanglements with Russia.
In addition to his presence at the June 2016 Trump Tower summit, Trump’s son-in-law and adviser proposed a method of secret communication between the Trump administration and the Kremlin.
Jared Kushner has hidden more meetings with Russian officials than most Americans have had. One such appointment, which the White House did not disclose until two months into the Trump presidency, was with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak on December 1, 2016, at Trump Tower. In the meeting, Kusher and Kislyak discussed a “secret back channel” of communication between the Trump transition and the Kremlin. Kushner would later say that the line of communication was not so secret and it was proposed as a way for Russia to transmit information about Syria. But U.S. officials told the Washington Post that the back channel, and the suggestion it be carried out using Russian diplomatic facilities, was an attempt to shield the Trump administration’s “pre-inauguration discussions from monitoring.” The New York Times explained why: Flynn, the paper said, wanted to “speak directly with a senior military official in Moscow to discuss Syria and other security issues.”
With that idea scrapped, efforts focused on setting up a face-to-face with representatives of Trump and Putin. Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the crown prince of the UAE, met with Kushner and Steve Bannon at Trump Tower on December 15, and within weeks, a meeting was arranged in Seychelles. While communications back channels are common in the world of national security, the one that Kushner was angling for is mired in issues. For starters, there was a president when he was holding these talks and his name was not on Trump Tower. And the suggestion that the communication go through Russian facilities privileged Moscow over Washington just weeks after the former had tampered in the election. The whole episode left some asking whose side Kushner was on.
Russia’s foreign minister and the country’s foremost denier of election collusion.
A polyglot diplomat who served as the president of the U.N. Security Council on seven occasions, Lavrov has been the Russian minister of foreign affairs since 2004. A reformed chain-smoker and consummate professional, he has been the public face of Russia’s denial of collusion in the election: He’s called the story “claptrap,” “ridiculous,” just blabber,” and said that it is “flattering” for Russia as “a regional power” to be treated as such a sincere threat. But the veteran’s stone face broke on May 10, 2017, when he met in the Oval Office with President Trump the day after he fired James Comey. Reporters asked Lavrov if the FBI director’s dismissal “cast a shadow” over the day; Lavrov responded, “Was he fired? You are kidding,” throwing a 180-degree eye-roll and shoulder-slump, as if fed up with the amateurs he was dealing with in the press scrum and inside the meeting. Inside the Oval Office, with only Tass, the Russian state news agency, present, the two shared an uncanny tangerine glow.
Trump’s first campaign manager and the guy who couldn’t remember telling Carter Page to go to Moscow because he did it on Father’s Day.
In November 2017, former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page sat before the House Intelligence Committee, testifying that he got the okay for his July 2016 trip to Moscow — the trip that sparked the FBI’s interest in Trump’s Russia dealings — from then–campaign manager Corey Lewandowski with the agreement that he would not represent the campaign while there. In interviews, Lewandowski left Page hanging; in March 2017, he said he had “never met or spoken to Carter Page in my life.” But shortly after Page’s testimony, his memory focused. A year after Trump’s Electoral College victory, Lewandowski recalled that he had given Page the blessing but forgot about it because it was Father’s Day. In his own testimony before the House, it took Lewandoski a few tries to get the record straight; by his third visit in April 2018, a bit frustrated and not historically known for his politesse, he told Democrats, “I’m not answering your fucking questions.”
That may be more difficult to do now that Democrats are in charge of the House. Lewandowski was among the 81 people asked to turn over documents by the House Judiciary Committee in early March. His response was, again, not very friendly. In a Fox News op-ed, he wrote that Democrats are “engaging in a fishing expedition to set up perjury traps and make a case for ‘obstruction of justice,’ even though the Mueller witch hunt is likely to come up empty of any underlying crime.”
The federal law barring private individuals from conducting diplomacy against U.S. interests, which the Trump campaign may have broken more than once.
The U.S. and France were in a state of undeclared war in 1798, when Pennsylvania State Senator George Logan visited the new government in Paris to pave things over. Since the Logan Act was passed the next year, it has been a felony for private U.S. citizens to deal with a foreign government or officer “in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States.” There have been just two indictments in the act’s 219 years on the books: in 1803, when a Kentucky farmer tried to ally with France, and in 1852, when a Philadelphia sailor tried to circumvent the secretary of State and build a railroad across the narrowest point in Mexico. In the last six months of 2016, the Trump campaign was accused of violating the Logan Act. Twice. In July, Donald Trump gave his “Russia, if you’re listening” speech requesting Russian assistance in tracking down Hillary Clinton’s emails while secretary of State, and in December, Michael Flynn met with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak to “establish a line of communication” between Moscow and the transition team. Both have merit, according to the law’s domain. A conviction can result in a prison sentence of up to three years.
The Obama-era law targeting Russian human rights abuses which the Kremlin wants to undo, and which was reportedly came up at the Trump Tower meeting.
Before he was jailed in 2008, Russian lawyer and accountant Sergei Magnitsky was onto a $230 million case of tax fraud involving the police, a convicted murderer, one of the largest foreign investors in Russia, state officials, and the Mafia. Because of his investigation, he was placed in an overcrowded 19th-century Moscow jail for almost a year, where he developed pancreatitis and gallstones. The 37-year-old was found dead in November 2009, chained to his bed and lying in a pool of urine; in his last hours, he had screamed for medical aid, but a prison surgeon determined he needed only a psychiatric examination. As a response to the human-rights abuse, a bipartisan bill, the 2012 Magnitsky Act, was signed by President Obama; it was meant to punish the 18 Russian officials deemed responsible by barring entrance to the U.S. and use of its banking system. To counter, Russia banned American citizens from adopting Russian children.
The passage of the Magnitsky Act became a great moment of division between Russia and the U.S. in the Obama era, souring the rapport before the annexation of Crimea poisoned it. For the Trump family, the Magnitsky Act may have served as cover: Donald Trump Jr. has claimed that “the true agenda all along” of his June 9, 2016, meeting with Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, and Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya was about easing the Magnitsky Act to reopen the pathway for adoption. Of course, that ignores the emails earlier that week from Rob Goldstone, who was told by way of Emin Agalarov that the crown prosecutor of Russia had dirt to share on Clinton, asking him to meet with a “Russian government attorney.”
The former GOP operative and longtime lobbyist for shady foreign leaders, Manafort was Donald Trump’s second campaign chairman and is now, after convictions for financial crimes, a federal inmate.
The 2016 race was an exciting campaign for Paul Manafort, who got the shot to combine his twin professional talents for the very first time: getting a Republican nominee elected and engaging in murky international dealings. A longtime GOP operative, Manafort advised the campaigns of Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, and George H.W. Bush before joining the Trump team in March 2016, offering to work without salary. As one of the founders of modern lobbying, he made a fortune doing stateside PR for authoritarian leaders, including Angolan rebel Jonas Savimbi, Zaire dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, and Filipino kleptocrat Ferdinand Marcos. He’s now in the hot seat for his representation of former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych, and Ukrainian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. Manafort worked for the Ukrainian president and his Party of Regions from 2004 to 2012, and again from 2014 to 2015, raking in tens of millions of dollars for cleaning the party’s image after the corruption of the 2004 Orange Revolution. In 2007, Manafort signed a $10 million annual contract with Putin associate Oleg Deripaska to promote Russian business interests in the U.S. However, he never registered as a foreign agent with the Justice Department and was removed from the Trump campaign in August 2016 when his under-the-table payments emerged in the press.
In October 2017, Manafort and sidekick Rick Gates were hit with the special counsel’s first indictments. Manafort was accused of laundering more than $18 million from his time in Ukraine, avoiding taxes by funneling money through shell companies and banks in Cyprus. A second round of indictments by the special counsel hit Manafort and Gates in February 2018; this time, they were accused of fraud — after the deposition of Yanukovych in 2014, Manafort’s income quickly tanked and he and Gates falsified financial records.
Then there’s the alleged contact with Russia. Manafort was in attendance at the Trump Tower meeting in June 2016, where his boredom was palpable. He’s also mentioned in the Steele dossier, accused of managing the campaign’s correspondence with Russia in the summer of 2016 via intermediaries including Carter Page. In May 2018, when Mueller’s questions for Trump leaked, it was more bad news for Manafort’s legal team. One of the questions asked was, “What knowledge did you have of any outreach by your campaign, including, by Paul Manafort, to Russia about potential assistance to the campaign?”
But it was Manafort’s long life of financial crimes, not his role in any potential Russia collusion, that ultimately brought him down. On March 8, he was sentenced to 47 months in prison for tax-and-bank-fraud charges. Less than a week later, he received another 43 months on conspiracy charges.
The FBI’s former deputy director and one of Trump’s chief “deep state” enemies.
In an administration beset by capricious firings, Andrew McCabe’s may have been the most vindictive. Twenty-six hours before the former deputy director of the FBI planned to retire, then–Attorney General Jeff Sessions cut him loose. It was a fittingly spiteful ending to the law-enforcement career of a man who’d endured months of public taunting by the president. Trump’s animosity sprung from political donations made to McCabe’s wife, who ran for state senate in Virginia in 2015. Donations from former governor Terry McAuliffe led Trump to accuse McCabe, who worked on both the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails and the investigation into Russian collusion, of being a Democratic lackey and an agent of the “deep state.” Both investigations, conservatives argued, were tainted by pro-Clinton bias, and Fox News goaded Trump into firing McCabe. None of that was why he was let go, though, at least according to Sessions. In a firing statement, which was released to the media before McCabe even learned about his dismissal, Sessions cited a report from the DOJ inspector general, and said McCabe “made an unauthorized disclosure to the news media and lacked candor — including under oath — on multiple occasions.”
The senator who single-handedly stopped a bipartisan statement warning about Russia’s election interference.
By early September 2016, the Obama administration was confident that Russia was engaging in active measures to tip the election in the Trump campaign’s favor. At a September 5 meeting between the president and Vladimir Putin, Obama told him to “cut it out” or face the consequences. (To match Obama’s stern-dad language, there’s a photo of the two shaking hands, Obama glaring down at Putin, who feigns innocence like a kid who knows he won’t be caught.)
Obama then went to the Gang of Eight — the party leaders in the House and Senate and the ranking members of both chambers — to draft a bipartisan statement informing the public of Russia’s involvement in the election. The Eight were onboard, except for Mitch McConnell, who had issued a lukewarm endorsement of Trump in May. According to a source at the meeting, McConnell doubted “that the underlying intelligence truly supported the White House’s claims.” Obama, flummoxed by the Senate majority leader, then said nothing.
The conspiracy queen of the resistance.
In 2010, Louise Mensch was elected to the British Parliament. In 2014, she went to work for News Corp., launching the conservative news website Heat Street. And in 2017 she became the unlikeliest bullhorn of the resistance movement through her blog Patribotics. The former romance novelist attracted a large following thanks to her endless stream of outlandish and unverified claims. Mensch’s stories are eaten up by the kind of people who still call the president “Drumpf,” even when her supposed reporting is as ridiculous as this oft-mocked tweet: “My sources say the death penalty, for espionage, being considered for @StevenKBannon. I am pro-life and take no pleasure in reporting this.”
A billionaire right-wing activist whose deep pockets gave us Breitbart News, Cambridge Analytica, and President Donald Trump.
The billionaire hedge-fund manager and computer scientist Robert Mercer doesn’t like to talk about his political beliefs, but he’s not shy about spending money to promote them. Over the years, the reclusive 71-year-old and his daughter Rebekah Mercer have bankrolled fringe political groups and outsider candidates, including Arthur Robinson, a biochemist who collects human urine and hopes to use it to extend human life, and Donald Trump, who has his own (alleged) issues with human urine.
Mercer has enjoyed a close relationship with Steve Bannon over the years and pumped money into Breitbart News before the pair founded Cambridge Analytica, the big-data firm the improperly obtained information on millions of Facebook users before going to work for the Trump campaign. The Mercer-Bannon relationship came to a public end in January 2018, when Rebekah Mercer told the Post that Bannon was cut off.
The Maltese professor who tried to connect Trump and Putin, then disappeared into the wind.
The first time he met Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos in March 2016, Joseph Mifsud, an enigmatic Maltese professor and enthusiastic Putin booster, offered “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. The pair of low-level operatives forged an alliance with the mutual goal of bringing together their idols, Trump and Putin, or at least their representatives. Later that month came the first attempt, when Mifsud introduced Papadopoulos to a woman he said was Putin’s niece. She wasn’t. It was the first of many signs that Mifsud was not a straight shooter.
Once Mifsud’s name began appearing in the papers, he vanished. His online biographies disappeared, he quit his job, and he ghosted on his pregnant fiancée. She got a small taste of revenge in February, when she broke down and spoke to BuzzFeed News, telling the site that Mifsud not only ditched her when she was seven months’ pregnant but has demanded that she return jewelry and bags he bought her on a romantic trip to Rome. In September 2018, an associate told the Daily Caller that he knew from “really good sources” that Mifsud is alive and well and living under a new identity.
A mysterious businessman with links to the Gulf powers.
A Lebanese-American businessman and confidant of MBZ’s, Nader helped pull together the Seychelles meeting. He also spilled the beans on its true nature, telling investigators that the meeting was not a chance encounter, as Erik Prince claims. It was arranged in advance, Nader has said, and its purpose was to discuss relations between the U.S. and Russia. Mueller’s interest in Nader, a former D.C. gadfly who worked behind the scenes in Syria for the Clinton administration, runs deeper than the Seychelles meeting. He’s also been quizzed by the special counsel about trying to influence White House policy by funneling Emirati money to a top Trump fundraiser, Elliott Broidy. Implicated in a sex scandal involving a Playboy Bunny, Broidy pushed the White House to take a hard line against Qatar and Iran and fire Rex Tillerson. It took him a while, but Trump did all of that.
The gun-rights group that helped elect Trump, potentially with a little help from Russia.
The National Rifle Association spent a record $55 million to elect Donald Trump, the bulk of which from a wing that isn’t required to disclose its donors to the FEC. In the wake of the 2016 election, the FBI is reportedly investigating to see if Russian money reached the Trump campaign by way of the NRA’s dark-money coffers. In May, the Senate Judiciary Committee’s release of investigation evidence revealed that the “Kremlin used the National Rifle Association as a means of accessing and assisting Mr. Trump and his campaign.” Two Russians lay at the center of this story: the deputy governor of the Central Bank of Russia, Aleksandr Torshin, and his assistant, Maria Butina, who founded the Russian equivalent of the NRA. The Senate Judiciary states that Torshin — who is now sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury — and Butina “repeatedly offered the campaign back channels to Russia and relayed requests from President Putin to meet with Mr. Trump,” including an alleged meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and Torshin at the annual NRA convention held in Kentucky in May 2016. The Senate Judiciary Committee also states that the “Kremlin may also have used the NRA to secretly fund Mr. Trump’s campaign.” Aleksandr Torshin would certainly be an experienced candidate to serve as an intermediary. A “godfather” in a Russian mob outlet called Taganskaya, he allegedly aided the Moscow crime organization’s efforts to funnel money into Spanish banks and real estate.
The oft-fired Trump hanger-on famous for melting down all across cable news.
Few people have heard Donald Trump’s signature phrase as much as Sam Nunberg, a frequently fired former campaign staffer whom Trump sued for $10 million in July 2016 for violating a confidentiality agreement. But most people who know Nunberg’s name are probably more familiar with him because of the #NunbergMeltdown, the hashtag used to label his all-day media blitz in March 2018. Nunberg hit the airwaves on March 5 after telling the Washington Post that he would not comply with a subpoena from the special counsel. “Let him arrest me,” he said.
Nunberg said Mueller wanted him to testify against Roger Stone, a man he once considered a mentor, and turn over reams of emails. “The Russians and Trump did not collude. Putin is too smart to collude with Donald Trump,” he told the Post. Despite his initial resistance, Nunberg eventually caved. He showed up to the grand jury and testified for six hours because, he said, it was his “duty as an American, whether I like it or not.”
Former House Intelligence Committee Chairman who ran interference for Trump using his own Russia investigation.
Elected to Congress at the age of 29, California representative Devin Nunes was appointed the U.S. House Intelligence chairman in 2014, after refusing to endorse the resolution of the committee’s Benghazi investigation. A member of the Trump transition team, he has been a powerful skeptic of the Russia investigation since the tip-off, rejecting calls for a select committee to investigate collusion. In a March 2017 press conference, he stated that the transition team had been monitored by American spy agencies, suggesting incorrectly that U.S. intelligence had intentionally monitored Trump. (The night before, Nunes took a “midnight run” to the White House and also briefed Trump shortly after the presser.) In April 2017, Nunes temporarily recused himself from the House investigation while the Office of Congressional Ethics determined if, in his speech, he made “unauthorized disclosures of classified information.” He did not and returned in December 2017.
While on the bench of recusal, Nunes began a parallel investigation determined to clear Trump of all charges. After pressure from Republicans to release his findings, Nunes delivered a controversial four-page memo in February 2018, asserting that the FBI relied on biased intelligence from Christopher Steele when it obtained a FISA warrant to investigate Carter Page after his July 2016 visit to Moscow. It offered Page — whose name is often followed by a dig at his intelligence — a rare moment of redemption among Republicans. The president rallied around the Nunes memo, claiming that it “totalled vindicates” him in the Russia investigation. But the intelligence community offered a dissenting opinion. Because Nunes refused to allow the FBI and Department of Justice to see the memo, the DOJ called its release “extraordinarily reckless” owing to the potential to expose sources. The ranking member of the House Intelligence committee at the time, Adam Schiff, called the memo full of “distortions and misrepresentations.” He also rebuked Nunes’s entire argument, citing proof that the FBI informed federal judges when applying for a warrant. After a tumultuous 18 months of being wrong a lot, Nunes won reelection and is now in the minority.
Though it’s hard to prove, the president’s treatment of Michael Cohen and other underlings could make this federal charge the best legal case for impeachment.
Obstruction of justice is simple on paper. According to federal law, it is a felony to “influence, obstruct, or impede, the due administration of justice.” The Department of Justice has added that “an endeavor to obstruct justice need not be successful to be criminal.” Notable cases include Barry Bonds, convicted of lying to a grand jury during the steroids scandal; Richard Nixon, investigated for the Watergate cover-up; and Bill Clinton, impeached for a 1998 obstruction-of-justice charge for lying about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky in a sworn deposition.
Donald Trump may be vulnerable to the charge, owing to Mueller’s authorization to “prosecute federal crimes arising from the investigation.” He was potentially exposed on a handful of occasions: the Valentine’s Day meeting, when Trump asked James Comey to go easy on Michael Flynn; Trump’s firing of Comey; Trump’s attempted firing of Mueller in June 2017; the misleading statement Trump dictated about his son’s June 2016 meeting with a Russian lawyer; and Trump’s discussion of pardons for Flynn and Paul Manafort. But as a crime of intent, obstruction of justice is notoriously difficult to prosecute. The president is within his executive power to fire the FBI director — only if it is done with corrupt intent is it illegal. In a March 2018 decision, the Supreme Court made it more difficult to prove intent, as prosecutors must demonstrate that the defendant knew his action would complicate an investigation. In March 2019, the case for obstruction grew significantly when a report emerged that Michael Cohen has an April 2018 email from a lawyer working for Rudy Giuliani telling him he could “sleep well tonight” because he has “friends in high places,” suggesting that the president may have dangled a pardon in front of Cohen in exchange for staying quiet.
Through this hapless intermediary, the Kremlin reportedly offered the Trump campaign a sweet deal for getting rid of sanctions.
Oil consultant and Trump campaign foreign-policy adviser Carter Page gets made fun of a lot. “I think he is an idiot,” said Russian spy Victor Podobnyy in 2013, who Page thought was a Russian businessman. When Trump announced that Page was on his team, a former colleague was shocked, saying “he wasn’t a smart person.” He appeared in front of a congressional investigation without a lawyer — on two occasions — because he wanted to work on his “personal legal training.”
Page first got in over his head when visited Moscow in July 2016, where he allegedly met with Igor Sechin. A former spy known as the de facto deputy of Vladimir Putin, Sechin is also the head of the state-run oil conglomerate Rosneft. According to the Steele dossier, Sechin suggested a deal: If elected, the Trump campaign would drop Ukraine-related sanctions in exchange for flush energy deals for U.S. contractors. Sechin even dangled “a 19 percent (privatized) stake” in Rosneft to the Trump campaign as a brokerage fee.
In a second alleged meeting, with Putin administration official Igor Diveykin, there came the bad-cop end of the routine: Diveykin “indicated more strongly” that Moscow had kompromat on Trump. When news broke of Page’s visit to Russia in September 2016, he stepped down. Shortly after, the FBI obtained a warrant to monitor his communications. By early 2017, he was under the watchful eye of the FBI, CIA, NSA, the director of National Intelligence, and the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network. He now retains a lawyer.
A low-level foreign-policy adviser on the Trump campaign who tried to arrange meetings between Team Trump and Team Putin, then lied to the FBI about it.
Though he didn’t have the title or influence of Mike Flynn and Rick Gates, Papadopoulos did have the poor judgment that his seniors in the campaign showed by lying to investigators. And like them, he had the good judgment to plead guilty to charges.
Written off after the plea as a campaign “coffee boy,” Papadopoulos took some exotic java runs for Team Trump. He was in Italy when he met Maltese professor Joseph Mifsud, who the Feds say has “substantial” ties to the Kremlin, and in London when Mifsud revealed that Russia had “thousands of emails” of “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. Papadopoulos then spent months trying to arrange a meeting between Trump and Putin, or their representatives, and was encouraged at one point by campaign national co-chairman Sam Clovis to visit Moscow. When the campaign wouldn’t foot the bill, he stayed home, but Papadopoulos harbored no hard feelings. In fact, he lied to the FBI for Trump when he was asked about his contacts with Russians, telling investigators that his discussion with Mifsud came before he joined the campaign. Not so, those investigators later found, writing in court documents that Mifsud was totally uninterested in Papadopoulos until he learned that that young man was working for Trump. Then he “latched onto him,” the Times reported.
Trump’s biggest leverage, but did he offer any?
One way for all of the trouble hounding Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort to disappear would be for President Trump to treat them like a Thanksgiving turkey and issue pardons. It’s an idea floated by one of Trump’s many former lawyers. John Dowd reportedly discussed pardons with attorneys for Flynn and Manafort in an apparent bid to keep them from pleading guilty and cooperating with the special counsel. It didn’t work.
Dowd has denied offering the pardons, but current and former administration officials have contradicted that line in media reports. Either way, Mueller is no doubt interested in the conversations and whether the pardons were floated to prevent Flynn and Manafort from cooperating with investigators. That, some legal experts say, could amount to obstruction of justice.
A pro-Russia political party in Ukraine and former employer of Paul Manafort.
Once considered a haven for “mobsters and oligarchs,” Ukraine’s biggest pro-Russia political party needed a makeover in the mid-aughts. And one of the people brought in to do that work was Paul Manafort, who would eventually be paid more than $17 million by the party. It took him years, however, to reveal that minor detail, which also meant he broke a law requiring those lobbying for a foreign government to disclose that information. Manafort is credited with devising a slogan for the Party of Regions — “A Better Life Today” — but maintains that he had no part in one of the group’s most notorious moments. In 2006, the party stoked anti-NATO protests in the port city of Feodosiya, which led to attacks on U.S. Marines who’d arrived there to prepare for NATO exercises.
The most scandalous detail in the Steele dossier alleged that Trump watched Russian prostitutes urinate on a bed in which the Obamas had earlier slept and that the whole thing was caught on tape.
When BuzzFeed published the Steele dossier in January 2017, most readers couldn’t get past the second page, where four of Steele’s sources attest that while staying at the Moscow Ritz-Carlton in 2013, Donald Trump had hired prostitutes to “perform a ‘golden showers’ (urination) show in front of him” on a bed that Barack and Michelle Obama had previously slept on. “The hotel was known to be under FSE control with microphones and concealed cameras in all the main rooms to record anything they wanted to.” Late-night comics, and Twitter’s finest, jumped at the opportunity. Sam Bee called it “comedy Christmas.” Billy Eichner asked if “Netflix will buy the pee-pee tape.” Select All’s Brian Feldman did a fact-check: “pee tape is more likely a pee mp4 or m4v.” Colbert took a more somber tone: “I’m being a wet blanket, but reporting on this is the worst kind of yellow journalism.”
The reasons the tape does not exist are plenty. The allegations in the dossier are unverified, meaning that they should be treated as raw intelligence, not fact. Furthermore, Steele has said he has 70 to 90 percent confidence in the dossier at large, while his confidence in the pee tape is about 50 percent. It could be disinformation fed to Steele by Russian intelligence to throw him off the trail. The reasons the tape may exist are also bountiful. Trump did spend a night at the
Moscow Ritz-Carlton in November 2013, and his ex-bodyguard Keith Schiller testified to Congress in November 2017 that a Russian offered to “send five women” to his boss’s room that night. Schiller declined the invitation, though during Trump’s alleged affairs with Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, Schiller served as the fixer for Trump’s extramarital behavior. Despite Trump’s “germaphobe” defense, he may have enjoyed waterworks before: In Russian Roulette, David Corn and Michael Isikoff report that in June 2013, Trump visited a Vegas nightclub that was known for its explicit programming, including a show in which two partially nude women would fake urination onstage. In James Comey’s memos released in April 2018, Trump told Comey in February 2017 that Vladimir Putin once told him that Russia had “some of the most beautiful hookers in the world.” It appears the president is just as consumed by the allegation as his public: In Comey’s A Higher Loyalty, he claims that Trump brought it up on four separate occasions.
Michael Cohen backed up Trump’s denial during congressional testimony in February. Congressman Jamie Raskin asked the former lawyer if he was aware of “any videotapes that may be subject of extortion or blackmail?” Cohen said he was not. “I’ve heard about these tapes for a long time, I’ve had many people contact me over the years, I have no reason to believe that that tape exists,” he said. Last summer in Helsinki, Putin was less absolute when asked about the existence of such a tape, telling reporters, “I treat President Trump with utmost respect. But back then, when he was a private individual — a businessman — nobody informed me that he was in Moscow.”
The fake ID salesman who got in with the wrong Russian crowd.
A small-time crook in Southern California, Richard Pinedo didn’t set out to assist Russian cyberwarriors in their attempt to influence the 2016 presidential election. But that’s apparently what he did through his website Auction Resistance. Pinedo’s racket was selling bank accounts that he’d opened in his own name to anyone willing to pay up, including Russians affiliated with the Internet Research Agency troll farm. They used the bank accounts to set up PayPal accounts, which were used to buy Facebook ads that, among other things, suggested that Satan was rooting for Hillary Clinton to win the election. Pinedo pleaded guilty to identity fraud in February 2018, agreed to cooperate with the special counsel, and was sentenced to six months in prison.
Putin’s chef and the founder of the Internet Research Agency.
Decades before he was indicted by a federal grand jury for interfering in the 2016 presidential election, Yevgeny Prigozhin emerged from a nine-year stint in a Soviet prison and opened a hot-dog stand. The franks sold fast, and Prigozhin parlayed his success into a chain of convenience stores before becoming Moscow’s hottest restaurateur, a position that brought him into frequent contact Vladimir Putin. The Russian president took a shine to Prigozhin, who would earn the nickname “Putin’s chef” and cater the inauguration dinners for both Putin and Dmitry Medvedev.
Over the years, Prigozhin’s empire expanded to include a mercenary business, a nationalist media outlet, and (reportedly) the Internet Research Agency. Though Prigozhin has denied any relationship with the agency, he was one of 13 Russian nationals indicted in February for attempts to “promote discord in the United States and undermine public confidence in democracy,” as Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein put it. The others included a 31-year-old executive director, two women who traveled the U.S. on a three-week recon trip, and an IT director who purchased server space in the U.S. to mask the group’s location.
The private military mogul and Trump donor who somehow ended up meeting a Putin-friendly Russian in Seychelles.
A private military mogul and the brother of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, Prince was never an official part of Team Trump. His roughly quarter-million dollars in campaign donations leave little mystery to his allegiances, though. Prince has steadfastly denied claims that there was anything untoward about the meeting he had with Kirill Dmitriev in Seychelles. He told Congress that it lasted no more than 30 minutes and came about by chance. But others have disputed the claim, including George Nader, who helped set up the meeting. U.S. officials also told the Washington Post that Prince presented himself to MBZ before the meeting as an “unofficial surrogate for the president-elect.” If true, Prince lied to Congress, and that’s a problem his hired guns won’t be able to save him from.
Prince also seems to have omitted from his testimony a 2016 meeting he had at Trump Tower with Donald Trump Jr., Stephen Miller, and George Nader. At least that’s what the transcript of his testimony indicates. As Prince told Al Jazeera, though, Congress must have gotten “the transcript wrong.”
It’s little wonder that House Democrats are eager to take another crack at Prince. Last December, several members of the then-incoming majority signaled their interest in another round of interviews with Prince. Later, he was among 81 people asked to turn over documents to the House Judiciary Committee. They might not have much luck getting him onboard. Though Prince has said he “cooperated with the special counsel,” he’s also said it wasn’t something he enjoyed. “Look, anytime you sit down for an interview like that it’s — I think you probably would rather go to a proctology exam,” he told CNBC.
He wanted to be Secretary of State but Russia may have gotten in the way.
In late November 2016, Steele wrote a second memo, after his contract with Fusion GPS had expired. According to “a senior Russian official,” employees in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs were saying that the Kremlin had contacted Trump’s transition team to block the nomination of Mitt Romney as secretary of State. The Kremlin had allegedly pushed for a nominee more sympathetic to Russian interests than Romney, who once called Russia “our No. 1 geopolitical foe.”
The report, if true, suggests a level of influence more damning and dangerous than any other allegation in the Russia-Trump tangle. If it isn’t true, Putin still got what he wanted; former secretary of State Rex Tillerson once negotiated a major partnership between ExxonMobil and state-controlled Rosneft and treated the State Department like Romney’s Bain Capital treated Toys “R” Us: Strip it to the foundation and run. Trump, meanwhile, treated Romney, a never-Trump Republican, to dinner at Jean Georges before removing him from consideration and treated the world to a picture of a man swallowing $200 frogs’ legs and his pride.
Two years later, Romney was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he’s promised to be a thorn in Trump’s side.
Took over the Russia investigation at the Department of Justice and brought in Mueller.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein entered the collusion timeline on Trump’s good graces, when he wrote a memo, per Trump’s request, explaining that the president fired James Comey over the former FBI director’s handling of the Hillary Clinton investigation. Since then, Rosenstein has drawn Trump’s ire because, a little over a week after Comey’s removal, he named former FBI director Robert Mueller the special counsel for the Department of Justice.
Rosenstein felt that an independent investigation into Russian election meddling was vital “in order for the American people to have full confidence in the outcome.” The White House did not want a special counsel, nor was it privy to the decision: Trump was in a meeting with FBI-director candidates when the Executive branch was informed that a special prosecutor had been appointed. After Rosenstein personally approved the FBI raid of Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s office, the president began talking trash publicly and asked privately about ways to fire the deputy AG. House Republicans even filed articles of impeachment against Rosenstein, but eventually backed down over fears it would derail the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh.
Later reporting has shed light on Rosenstein’s mind-set in the days following Comey’s firing. He reportedly joked about wearing a wire to record Trump and talked about invoking the 25th Amendment to remove the president from office. Revelations of these conversations nearly led to his firing, but Rosenstein has so far managed to hang on. Despite reported plans that he’d step down once Attorney General William Barr assumed his post, Rosenstein is apparently not going anywhere.
The sleepy billionaire and U.S. Commerce secretary with a slew of business ties to Russia.
U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross is known as the “king of bankruptcy” for his expertise in scooping up busted steel mills and flipping them for a profit. In 2014, Ross became a vice-chairman of the Bank of Cyprus, an offshore stash spot for the oligarch class of Russia. One of the owners of the bank is Dmitry Rybolovlev, a mineral billionaire who bought an 18-bedroom Palm Beach mansion from Donald Trump for an eyebrow-raising $95 million in 2008. (Trump claims this is the only deal he’s ever done with a Russian, while Oregon senator Ron Wyden suggests its an obvious case of money laundering.) With Ross as vice-chairman, the bank sold some of its Russian interests to banker Artem Avetisyan, who has ties to Putin, and to Sberbank, the state-owned bank under U.S. sanctions at the time of the sale. When the Panama Papers were published in November 2017, it emerged that a shipping company partly owned by Ross has a lucrative deal with Sibur, a Russian gas company under U.S. sanction owned in part by the son-in-law of Vladimir Putin. Ross failed to disclose the connection in his confirmation hearings.
Last June, Ross flatly denied having any relationship with Russia at all. “I don’t have any investments in Russia. I never have,” he told CNBC.
A Russian think tank with the plan to boost Trump.
Influencing the election of a global power with a sophisticated propaganda campaign is probably not the type of thing that can be pulled off on the fly. Little wonder then that there was a plan floating around the Kremlin detailing how to swing the U.S. election toward Donald Trump. That plan, reportedly prepared in June 2016 by the retired spooks at the Kremlin’s foreign-policy think tank, called for Moscow to back a propaganda effort on TV and social media to encourage Americans to elect Donald Trump. By October, when it looked as if its efforts had failed, the Russian Institute for Strategic Studies prepped another document, this one detailing how to undermine Hillary Clinton’s expected victory by spreading rumors about voter fraud.
Reuters reported in April 2017 that these two documents played a major role in the Obama administration’s determination that Russia tampered with the election. The Kremlin and RISS has denied drafting any such plans, which might be because no such plans exist. Or it could be because they’re too embarrassed to admit those plans were leaked.
Overdue punishment on the Putin power circle from a reluctant Trump administration.
It took more than a year, but on March 15, 2018, the Trump administration finally punished Russia for its interference in the 2016 presidential election. It was a remarkable step for a White House led by a man who had repeatedly denied that such interference happened. The sanctions were levied on five Russian entities and 19 individuals, including the Internet Research Agency and its founder, Yevgeny Prigozhin. That move was followed a little more than two weeks later with another round of sanctions against powerful, wealthy Russians. The goal this time was to make life hard on the Russian government and the wealthy elites it disproportionately benefits.
Unlike the prior sanctions, these were not explicitly tied to election hacking, through Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin did mention Russia’s attempts to “to subvert Western democracies” when listing the reasons for the punishments. A third round was expected to follow in mid-April after former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley announced them on TV. But Trump had pulled back without telling her, hanging Haley out to dry.
Eight months later, the U.S. hit Russia with new sanctions on the same day it lifted others. The new sanctions once again targeted the Internet Research Agency, this time for its role in “cyberhacking” the World Anti-Doping Agency. The relief came for Oleg Deripaska, a target of the sanctions from April. The oligarch was able to cast off the yoke through a well-funded lobbying campaign that freed his company’s of sanctions.
A former mobster, felon, and Trump business partner.
A Moscow native who grew up in Brighton Beach, Felix Sater carried a sordid reputation before he entered Trump’s circle. In 1991, while working as a broker at Bear Stearns, he got into an altercation at a midtown Mexican restaurant and stabbed a man in the face with the broken stem of a margarita glass, severing nerves and breaking his jaw; Sater did 15 months in a Washington Heights prison for the assault. In 1998, federal investigators found two pistols, a shotgun, and a gym bag full of documents outlining a money-laundering scheme in his Soho storage unit; he pleaded guilty to involvement in a $40 million pump-and-dump stock scheme coordinated by the Russian Mafia and became an informant for the FBI to go after the mob.
In the late ’90s, after renting a penthouse suite in a Trump-owned building, Sater began to license the Trump name for real-estate projects. This gig led to his involvement in the much-maligned development of Trump Soho. As the managing director and face of Bayrock Capital, he sought out funds to build the residential hotel and fill its condos — including a deal with Kazakhstan oligarch Viktor Khrapunov, who allegedly dumped $3.1 million of the stolen funds into three condos in Trump Soho, leading to potential exposure to the Mueller investigation. Sater plays into the special counsel’s search at a second nexus: He and Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen had worked on a deal during the campaign to build a Trump tower in Moscow. Sater had even secured financing via VTB Bank, a Moscow-based enterprise under American sanctions for its role in Russia’s disruption of democracy in Ukraine in 2014. In an email exchange between Cohen and Sater, the latter was confident in his abilities: “I will get Putin on this program and we will get Donald elected.”
After initially telling Congress that discussions about the tower ended in early 2016, Cohen admitted last year that they actually continued well past that. All the way until Election Day, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani later said. Sater will go before the House Intelligence Committee to give his version of events on March 27.
Putin’s “Darth Vader” who tried to broker a sanctions-relief deal with Carter Page.
In July 2016, an alleged meeting in Moscow saw one of Vladimir Putin’s top deputies, a man so universally feared that Russian media has called him the “scariest man on earth,” come face-to-face with a Trump campaign aide who’s been described in public as “awesomely stupid.” It was quite a mismatch. In this meeting, which is detailed in the Steele dossier, Putin crony Igor Sechin, the head of state-run oil conglomerate Rosneft, made an offer to Carter Page, the onetime Trump-campaign foreign-policy adviser. If Trump was elected and ended Ukraine-related sanctions on Russia, Rosneft would repay the favor by cutting lucrative deals with U.S. companies.
The dossier also claims that Sechin, a former spy who’d spent years earning Putin’s trust, was so eager to make this deal he offered Page a bribe in the form of the brokerage on a chunk of Rosneft that was to be sold off. The details of these meetings are unconfirmed outside the dossier, and Page told Congress he never met with Sechin, although he admitted to meeting one of his deputies.
The former attorney general recused himself from the Russia investigation after failing to disclose his contacts with Russia during the campaign. His deputy, Rod Rosenstein, then appointed the special counsel.
The Department of Justice’s top law-enforcement official was unable to mete out justice. After lying under oath that he did not have contact with Russian officials during the campaign, nor was aware of any contact, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III was forced to recuse himself from the Trump-Russia investigations. In 2016, Sessions met twice with the Russian ambassador to the U.S., Sergey Kislyak — with an alleged third contact — while Carter Page had informed Sessions that he had made contact with Kremlin officials in July 2016. (In March 2018, it emerged that the FBI had investigated the attorney general for possible perjury for his statements under oath.) When the AG recused himself, Trump was furious, saying that he wouldn’t have nominated his longtime supporter if he knew he could not defend him. Trump presumed the AG was in place to provide him with legal immunity, believing that RFK had guarded JFK and Eric Holder protected Barack Obama in this manner. Their relationship never recovered: The day after the 2018 midterms, Sessions resigned at the “request” of the president.
Christopher Steele’s confidence in his dossier.
In Collusion: Secret Meetings, Dirty Money, and How Russia Helped Donald Trump Win, Luke Harding reports that Christopher Steele is “70 to 90 percent” confident in his dossier as a whole. A bottom range around a C-minus doesn’t immediately inspire confidence, but intelligence memos aren’t graded on the same scale as high-school book reports: Alexander Vershbow, the U.S. ambassador to Russia for the Bush administration, described the grading to The New Yorker as such: “In intelligence, you evaluate your sources as best you can, but it’s not like journalism, where you try to get more than one source to confirm something. In the intelligence business, you don’t pretend you’re a hundred percent accurate. If you’re 70 or 80 percent accurate, that makes you one of the best.”
Was this sit-down between Erik Prince and Kirill Dmitriev a chance encounter or much more?
Days ahead of Donald Trump’s inauguration, a meeting in the Seychelles, off East Africa, brought together two men, one close to the incoming administration and another close to the Kremlin. While that much is clear, what happened in the meeting remains in dispute. Erik Prince, founder of the private military company Blackwater and a big-time Trump booster, says the sit-down with Kirill Dmitriev was short and uneventful. Federal investigators believe otherwise. They see the meeting, believed to have been brokered by the UAE, as the first in a series of attempts to establish a back channel of communication between Trump and Putin. They have at least two reasons for thinking this. First, there’s the December meeting between Jared Kushner and Sergey Kislyak at Trump Tower, where a potential meeting between Trump and Putin representatives was apparently discussed. And second, George Nader told them.
A memo sent by Dmitriev after the meeting also calls Prince’s story into question. According to the Daily Beast, the memo suggested the U.S. and Russia work together on fighting ISIS, nuclear nonproliferation, investing Russian money in the American Midwest, and improving U.S.-Russian relations.
The hedge-fund billionaire who originally funded the Steele dossier.
A major GOP booster since the first George W. Bush campaign, Paul Singer is a hedge-fund billionaire who has donated millions to LGBT rights and has been accused of running a vulture fund that sabotaged U.N. efforts to help developing nations emerge from debt. In the Republican primary, Singer supported Rubio and donated $1 million to Our Principles, a PAC with the sole intention of knocking Donald Trump out of the race. A Singer-funded conservative website, the Washington Free Beacon, hired Fusion GPS — which then hired Steele — to conduct opposition research on Trump and other candidates. When a Trump nomination became apparent in the spring of 2016, the Beacon cut its funding, and Perkins Coie, the law firm representing the Clinton campaign and the DNC, picked up the tab.
A former investment banker and Republican activist who killed himself days after it was revealed that he tried to get Hillary’s hacked emails.
An investment banker from Chicago, Peter W. Smith had a history in funding anti-Clinton opposition research. In the early 1990s, he spent $80,000 in donations and attorney fees to bolster the Troopergate scandal, in which Bill Clinton was accused of using on-the-clock Arkansas State Police officers to arrange sexual liaisons for the then governor, then lie to Hillary Clinton about it. Two decades later, Smith was determined to find Clinton’s 30,000 deleted emails from her tenure as secretary of State. During the 2016 campaign, he reached out to several hackers, including Russian-linked actors, asking for leads and stating that he was “talking to Michael Flynn about this.” When The Wall Street Journal contacted Smith in May 2017, he confirmed its reporting: “We knew the people who had these [emails] were probably around the Russian government,” he said. But ten days after the interview, in a hotel room in southern Minnesota, he put a plastic bag over his head, filled it with helium, and asphyxiated himself. In a note, the 81-year-0ld millionaire claimed “NO FOUL PLAY WHATSOEVER,” blaming a recent turn in health and an expiring life-insurance policy for his action.
The Green Party candidate for president whose own Russia connections launched a few conspiracy theories.
Most accusations of interference tossed at Jill Stein have involved her vote count in states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, where votes for the Green Party would otherwise have tipped the scales toward a Democratic victory. But in December 2017, the Senate Intelligence Committee announced its investigation into America’s other other party for potential collusion. The behavior, in list form, reads a bit odd: Stein met with Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov in 2015 and attended an RT gala in Moscow that year, sitting with Michael Flynn at Vladimir Putin’s table. During the campaign, Stein suggested the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych was a CIA coup, a position that cozies up nicely to the Kremlin party line. Upon announcement of the investigation, committee chairman Richard Burr said that there are “two other campaigns that we’re just starting on.” Look out, Gary Johnson.
The dirty trickster and longtime Trump adviser with a big mouth who took a keen interest in obtaining Clinton’s hacked emails.
A longtime conservative strategist and lobbyist, Stone became involved opposition research back during the ’72 election, when he managed to get a GOP spy hired by the Hubert Humphrey campaign to serve as the Democratic candidate’s driver. (Stone is also known for his indelicate behavior: He’s the godfather of “ratfucking,” he uses the word “Negro” in the 21st century, and he has a tattoo of Richard Nixon’s face between his shoulder blades.) Stone departed the Trump campaign early, in August 2015, but like many who leave the president’s orbit, he maintained influence as an unofficial adviser: It appears he helped get Paul Manafort on the ride in March 2016.
By order or by his own imperative, Stone appears to have been chasing the DNC’s hacked emails. On August 4, 2016, he wrote in an email to Trump aide Sam Nunberg that he “dined with Julian Assange last night.” He later said it was a joke, though the Mueller investigation is taking it more seriously.
In March 2018, Nunberg and an anonymous source told the Washington Post that Stone had also discussed the Clinton emails in a phone call. In August 2016, he sent a Twitter direct message to DNC hacker and alleged Russian intelligence officer Guccifer 2.0 — Stone later claimed it was just to praise their efforts. Despite the mixed messaging on his contacts with WikiLeaks and Russian hackers, Stone had a knack for timing. On October 5, 2016, he tweeted “Payload coming. #Lockthemup.” Two days later, WikiLeaks published a drove of John Podesta’s hacked emails, including an excerpt of Hillary Clinton’s paid speeches before Goldman Sachs.
Stone’s ratfucking finally caught up with him early on a Friday morning in late January, when he was arrested after an FBI raid at his Florida home. The arrest followed a seven-count indictment accusing him of lying to Congress, obstructing the House’s Russia investigation, and intimidating a witness: the comic and radio host Randy Credico, who Stone says introduced him to Assange. The indictment included this tasty nugget: Following the initial WikiLeaks dump of DNC emails, someone from the Trump campaign got in touch with Stone and asked to be kept abreast of WikiLeaks’ future plans.
A former FBI agent and FBI lawyer, respectively, whose extramarital affair and secret text messages embarrassed the FBI and consumed the president.
The second-in-command of the FBI’s counterintelligence division, Peter Strzok oversaw the FBI investigation into Russian interference in the election and conducted the interviews with Michael Flynn, who would later plead guilty to lying during the questioning. His own name entered headlines in December 2017, when the FBI handed Congress a text exchange from his extramarital affair with FBI lawyer Lisa Page. Like any good Beltway pillow talk, the texts from August 2015 to December 2016 involved lots of gossip: Eric Holder is intolerable; Jeff Sessions’s appointment would be “a disaster”; Trump is a “douche” and an “utter idiot.”
Donald Trump’s oldest, and possibly dumbest, child.
In his indictment of the 13 Russians accused of election meddling, the special counsel wrote that this baker’s dozen “communicated with unwitting individuals associated with the Trump campaign.” The phrase, “unwitting individuals,” has a certain down-home appeal, capturing the endearing ineptitude of a sitcom deputy bumbling through a small-town case, not a campaign official disrupting American sovereignty. The poster boy for the phrase is Donald Trump Jr., whose face is a treasure trove of unwitting poses, as are some of his word choices. When the June 2016 emails from Rob Goldstone emerged, in which Goldstone promised information from the “Crown prosecutor of Russia … that would incriminate Hillary,” Junior responded as if describing a bed-and-breakfast in Vermont: “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.” When it emerged that he met with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, Russian lobbyist and former Soviet counterintelligence agent Rinat Akhmetshin, Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner less than a week after the Goldstone email, he said he had only wanted to have the meeting over the phone. “To put this in context,” he said, “this occurred before the current Russian fever was in vogue.”
The president, at least publicly, has forgiven his son. After claiming his own ignorance of the matter, on Air Force One, he told reporters “Don is — as many of you know — he’s a good boy. He’s a good kid … Honestly, in a world of politics, most people are going to take that meeting.” But this acceptance may not be carte blanche forever. A March 2018 report from Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee revealed that on June 6, 2016, Donald Trump Jr. called Emin Agalarov twice to arrange the rendezvous at Trump Tower three days later. Between the calls, at 4:37 p.m., Trump Jr. called a blocked number, though he claims he does not know whose line it was. But Corey Lewandowski had told the House Committee that Donald Trump’s “primary residence has a blocked line.” House Republicans blocked further inquiry into the president’s phone records, but if the chamber flips in the midterms, Democrats could be able to source crucial evidence that Trump knew of the collusion while it was happening.
A Manhattan hotel built with sketchy funding.
The 46-story glass rectangle at 246 Spring Street was an albatross for Donald Trump since he first announced the project on The Apprentice in 2006. When backhoes dug into the plot in 2007, they struck burial vaults from an early-19th-century abolitionist school and church, and were accused of improperly handling the remains. In 2008, a Ukrainian construction worker from Greenpoint was decapitated in a 48-story fall when a makeshift wooden support gave way. The building has been ridiculed by New Yorkers cognizant of their neighborhood lines: Trump Soho is not technically in Soho.
Financial and legal crises emerged. Because it was built in a nonresidential neighborhood, condo buyers had to pay in cash and sales were slow. Trump, Donald Jr., and Ivanka began lying about the occupancy rate, which led to a civil fraud case — and nearly a criminal indictment — before the Trump family settled, refunding 90 percent of deposits without admitting wrongdoing. Trump first sold the project as a licensing deal: For 18 percent equity, he provided the gilded name on the front, and the Sapir Organization and Bayrock Capital — featuring felon Felix Sater as its front man — put up the money. The financiers then reached out to “questionable sources” in the post-Soviet sphere to fund and fill out the building. One buyer, the Kazakhstani oligarch Viktor Khrapunov, purchased three condos in Trump Soho to launder $3.1 million allegedly stolen from the government of Kazakhstan. (Tracing the money back to its source, Robert Mueller has targeted Trump Soho as a site of suspicion.) Already a hemorrhaging investment, in December 2017, with ties cut to the Trump empire, the hotel changed its name to the Dominick to gussy up business.
Fake news before the age of “FAKE NEWS!”
A little more than a week ahead of Election Day 2016, Slate published a story that could have been a bombshell. The headline: “Was a Trump Server Communicating With Russia?” The answer: Yes, but it was probably meaningless. In the piece, Franklin Foer goes into detail about a “sustained relationship” between a Trump Organization computer server and two servers connected to Alfa Bank in Russia. Though he didn’t suggest a nefarious plot, he didn’t have to. The implication was clear, and Hillary Clinton ran with it, tweeting the article and suggesting it was proof that Trump was in cahoots with a “Putin-tied Russian bank.”
Her suggestion didn’t hold up under scrutiny. Not only did multiple media outlets debunk the notion that the “relationship” between the computers meant anything, but the FBI looked into it too. And what did it find? On the same day Foer’s piece was published, the Times reported that the FBI “ultimately concluded that there could be an innocuous explanation, like a marketing email or spam, for the computer contacts.”
A small massaging of language, pushed by the Trump campaign, that softened the GOP’s 2016 position on Russia.
At a policy meeting in Cleveland in July 2016, the Trump campaign sparred with GOP wonks over the language of the party’s draft policy toward Ukraine. The Republican Establishment wanted to provide “lethal weapons” to help the country resist Russian interference; J.D. Gordon, the campaign’s director of national security, wanted to provide Ukraine “appropriate assistance.” The campaign-preferred language made it to the official platform, and the GOP took a step back from its hawkish tone. On July 14, Carter Page congratulated the campaign’s foreign-policy team for its “excellent work” massaging the “Ukraine amendment.” Later that week, Page, Gordon, and Jeff Sessions met with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. The meeting would haunt Sessions — it was one of two rendezvous with Kislyak that forced the attorney general to recuse himself from the Russia investigation. The amendment became a target of the congressional investigation, which sought to determine if it was part of a larger conspiracy to warm the GOP toward Russia in an attempt to collude with the Kremlin.
Russia’s election-interference dry run.
Russia, like the United States, maintains a tradition of interference in foreign elections, meddling in recent years in Montenegro and Latvia and in Ukraine in 2014 — the Kremlin’s most aggressive tampering yet. Russia abducted or harassed the leaders of local elections commissions, shut down the election commission in a city of 1 million people, and used malware to damage infrastructure and obtain emails that would sway public opinion on candidates.
The move took place in concert with the physical skirmishes surrounding the annexation of Crimea, marking the full rollout of the 2013 Gerasimov Doctrine, the Russian scheme to use military force and hacking to cause maximum damage at minimum cost. In 2014, the Obama administration was informed that the Kremlin was developing “a disinformation arm” to be used in Europe and the United States. Post-mortem investigations of the 2016 election have read the chaos in Ukraine as a forensic map to determine how the hacking in the U.S. may have happened.
The day in 2017 when President Trump gave James Comey a fateful suggestion about the FBI’s Flynn investigation.
The morning after Michael Flynn resigned as national-security adviser, Trump called a meeting in the Oval Office with high-profile officials including Mike Pence, Jared Kushner, Jeff Sessions, and James Comey. At the end, all the officials left through the door by the grandfather clock except for Comey. In his testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Comey says that Trump kept him behind to ask for some leniency for Flynn: “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” Comey “took it as a direction,” he told the Senate, believing that Trump meant it as “an order.” The meeting is a key moment in the timeline of Trump’s possible legal exposure to an obstruction-of-justice charge.
The Belarusian sex coach with secret oligarch recordings pertaining to the 2016 election.
In February 2018, this Belarusian escort was arrested in Thailand for solicitation while leading a sex-education class attended by Russian tourists wearing “Sex Animator” T-shirts. Upon arrest, Vashukevich played her trump card: The 27-year-old claimed she had 16 hours of recordings in Russian and English discussing interference in the 2016 election. The alleged audio comes from an August 2016 yacht trip off the coast of Norway, when a modeling agency employing Vashukevich sent her to escort Ukrainian oligarch Oleg Deripaska and Russia’s then–deputy prime minister, Sergei Prikhodko. Prior to her arrest, she posted several pictures of the jaunt, as well as an audio recording of Deripaska and Prikhodko, both close allies of Vladimir Putin, discussing Russo-American relations.
In August 2018, Vashukevich told the Times that she sent copies of the recordings to Deripaska, who had a prior business relationship with Paul Manafort, hoping he would rescue her from the Thai jail. But her release didn’t come until January, after she pleaded guilty to charges that included solicitation of prostitution. Upon landing in Moscow, she was immediately detained. After Belarusian president Alexander Lukashenko got involved, Vashukevich, who apologized to Deripaska while in jail, was released. In a subsequent interview with CNN, she said Russian agents warned her to keep quiet about the metals magnate. “They said to me, ‘Don’t touch Oleg Deripaska anymore,’ ” she said.
A government-owned development bank in Russia with ties to Jared Kushner.
Why did Sergey Gorkov, a graduate of the FSB academy and the head of Russian-owned Vnesheconombank, or VEB, meet with Jared Kushner in December 2016? The two principles in the meeting can’t seem to agree, and given Gorkov’s status in Russia, the rendezvous has attracted attention from federal investigators. The White House says the meeting, which occurred days after Kushner met Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak at Trump Tower, was held at Kislyak’s request. But Gorkov, who brought Kushner a bag of dirt from his ancestral home in Belarus, says it was about business, specifically Kushner’s family business.
It’s the other possibilities that have Mueller interested. Were Gorkov and Kushner discussing the “secret back channel” of communication reportedly pitched in the meeting with Kislyak? Was Gorkov lobbying for the removal of sanctions, which was one of the central reasons he was in the U.S.? And what, if anything, did the meeting have to do with VEB’s role in helping to finance the construction of the Trump International Hotel and Tower in Toronto?
In late 2018, VEB popped back up in the news as Mueller watchers wondered if the bank was the mysterious “foreign financial institution” at the center of a grand-jury subpoena fight. The identity of that institution is still not known.
The Russian lawyer who promised to bring dirt on Hillary Clinton to a meeting at Trump Tower.
Prior to showing up in the pages of the New York Times, Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya wasn’t widely known back home. That changed after the paper revealed that the “fearsome Moscow insider” met with Donald Trump Jr. in Manhattan after he was promised dirt on Hillary Clinton. Veselnitskaya, whom the Kremlin has treated like a ghost, has a history of lobbying against Russian sanctions, and Don Jr. says that is what she was doing on June 9 in Trump Tower. He wasn’t interested, and the meeting ended after 30 minutes, he says. Veselnitskaya has also said she mainly talked sanctions during the meeting, but some mysteries remain. Why, for one, did President Trump help Don Jr. craft a misleading statement about the meeting after news of it first broke? And could the meeting have been a test to see how the Trump campaign would respond to an offer of direct assistance from the Russian government? If so, the Kremlin must have been pleased with Don Jr.
According to the 2,000-page Senate Judiciary Committee report released May 2018, the meeting was a dud. The campaign was disappointed that Veselnitskaya’s dirt on Clinton was only a few allegations of fraud in Russia by small-time Democratic donors. Jared Kushner left early. Paul Manafort looked bored. On the way out, Rob Goldstone apologized to Donald Trump Jr.: “This was hugely embarrassing.”
The former head of the DNC who was taken down by the political preferences revealed in her Russia-hacked emails.
Considered a long shot upon his campaign announcement, Bernie Sanders eventually won 23 primaries, proving the reach of the party’s progressive wing and pushing Hillary Clinton’s social agenda to the left to entice his supporters. But days before the Democratic National Convention in July 2016, WikiLeaks released almost 20,000 hacked emails, suggesting that the Democratic Establishment wanted nothing to do with a Sanders win. In one email, an executive suggested that the Clinton campaign ask Sanders if he believes in God in conservative states like West Virginia. In another, a Clinton lawyer advised the DNC on how to defend against Sanders’s accusations of bias against him. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Democratic National Committee chairperson, wrote that he had “no understanding” of the party. If Russia’s goal was to “sow discord in the U.S. political system,” as Mueller suggests in his indictments, it appears it worked here. Wasserman Schultz was booed off the stage in a Florida appearance shortly before the July convention, and the DNC booted her from the gavel appearance opening the convention. The day before the convention, she announced her resignation. The hacked emails were an internal crisis for a Democratic Party split between its Establishment base and its new, progressive vanguard represented by Sanders. Though it was not enough to tip the Electoral College in Trump’s favor, a little over one in ten Bernie voters ended up casting a ballot for Trump.
The GOP lawyer who replaced Comey and kept the FBI going.
James Comey, the seventh director of the FBI, was officially fired for “grandstanding and politicizing” the Russia investigation on May 9, 2017. On June 7, Republican lawyer Christopher Wray was nominated, by tweet, to become the eighth. At his Senate confirmation, he told the committee that he did not believe the collusion scandal to be a “witch hunt” and that he would resign if asked to do anything illegal. So far, he has maintained those promises: When Republicans in Congress released the Nunes memo, Wray expressed “grave concerns” about “material omissions of fact.” In January, when then–Attorney General Jeff Sessions pressured Wray to fire FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe — who investigated Sessions on a potential perjury charge — Wray threatened to resign. (Sessions eventually fired McCabe two days before his retirement.) Under Wray, the agency has maintained its staunch independent streak; after McCabe’s ouster, Wray wrote to his 35,000 employees that he would continue to run the bureau “objectively and independently, and by the book.” It appears that book includes an FBI raid of the office of Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer, on a search warrant related to the Access Hollywood tape. For his part, Trump did not expect a cozy relationship with the new FBI director: He did not attend Wray’s swearing-in, the first time a president no-showed the ceremony.
Russia-friendly former Ukrainian president who was once a client of Paul Manafort.
Ukraine’s president from 2010 to 2014, Viktor Yanukovych rose to power in the former Soviet state with the help of wealthy oligarchs and a well-coiffed consultant from Connecticut who’d go on to chair Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Paul Manafort was brought to Ukraine in 2004 to help polish Yanukovych’s image. The onetime prime minister Yanukovych and his party has a reputation of being too close to organized crime and riddled with corruption, while Manafort had experience in softening the edges of controversial leaders.
During his decade working in Ukraine, Manafort and his deputy Rick Gates made millions working for local politicians and oligarchs. In a dizzying set of indictments, special counsel Robert Mueller alleges that they laundered $30 million they made in Ukraine, among other crimes. Mueller also alleges that the mechanics of their scheme changed in 2014, when Yanukovych was ousted from Ukraine and sent to Russia to live in exile. With their political allies out of power, Manafort and Gates turned to a new moneymaking tactic, this one involving “fraudulently secur[ing] more than $20 million in loans,” according to Mueller’s indictment.
The Facebook CEO whose platform played a key role in the 2016 election.
The role of the world’s largest social network in this scandal goes back to June 2014, when Aleksandr Kogan, a Moldovan researcher at Cambridge University, developed an app that served a personality quiz to Facebook users and mined other data from their accounts, including information about their friends. Cambridge Analytica funded his work and used the data from the 270,000 who downloaded Kogan’s app to develop the “psychographic profiling” method it touted as revolutionary. Facebook learned about Kogan’s improper data sharing in 2015 and didn’t do much beyond a polite demand to delete the data.
Though the firm said at the time, and still maintains, that it complied, media reports suggest otherwise. This has caused some people to turn on Facebook, which is accused of not doing enough to protect user data, hiding the breach from users, and failing to ensure that Cambridge shred the information it improperly obtained. After a user revolt, Zuckerberg issued a mea culpa. “This was a major breach of trust, and I’m really sorry that this happened,” he told CNN. “We have a basic responsibility to protect people’s data, and if we can’t do that, then we don’t deserve to have the opportunity to serve people.”