President Donald Trump’s relationship with Russia is again dominating the headlines in the wake of confirmation that the FBI is actively investigating whether his campaign colluded with the Kremlin as it allegedly attempted to influence last November’s election.
FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before the House Intelligence Committee on Monday prompted even Rep. Devin Nunes, a Republican and Trump ally on Capitol Hill, to observe that the investigation is a “big, gray cloud” hanging over the White House.
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Aside from distracting from Trump’s legislative agenda, the testimony is sure to embolden lawmakers who are calling for an independent prosecutor to investigate claims that Trump’s campaign was in contact with Russia as it tried to tilt the election the president’s way.
The ongoing saga has many parts, but it centers around what relationship, if any, Trump’s campaign may have had with Russia. Here’s a rundown of what issues are at play.
What is the Trump-Russia scandal about?
Trump raised eyebrows throughout his campaign for his unusual praise of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president whom many lawmakers regard as an autocrat and an adversary of America.
The president’s critics are now wondering aloud whether his posture toward Putin is a sign of an inappropriate relationship between the two leaders, which Trump denies.
Specifically, as intelligence officials and congressional committees investigate the extent of Russia’s alleged attempts to meddle in the presidential election through cyberattacks on Democratic Party leaders, one major question is whether Trump’s campaign was in contact with Russian officials before Election Day.
The Trump campaign has denied any such contact, but The New York Times and CNN reported in February that U.S. intelligence officials had evidence of repeated contacts between some Trump campaign associates and Russian officials.
The White House has pushed back on those reports, but if true, they raise another question: Did Trump’s campaign have any knowledge of, or encourage, Russia’s alleged cyberattacks on Democrats during the campaign? (The Trump campaign has repeatedly denied any such wrongdoing.)
Attorney General Jeff Sessions invited fresh scrutiny into the Trump campaign’s conduct when The Washington Post broke the news that he had held two meetings with the Russian ambassador last year, appearing to contradict his previous testimony. Under pressure in early March, he recused himself from any investigations involving the 2016 presidential election.
When did the Russia controversy start?
Last summer, private Democratic National Committee emails stolen by hackers were published on the website WikiLeaks, embarrassing Hillary Clinton’s campaign. In the fall, hacked emails from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta also appeared on the site.
U.S. intelligence officials later concluded that the Russian government was behind the hacks, carried out with the specific goal of hurting Clinton and helping Trump as he sought the presidency. President Barack Obama ordered intelligence officials to compile a report on the suspected election meddling before he left office.
At first, Trump refused to accept the intelligence community’s conclusion that Russia was behind the hacks, but he eventually did.
The scrutiny heated up around Trump and his associates in February, when reports surfaced that Michael Flynn, then Trump’s national security adviser, had inappropriately discussed sanctions on Russia with the country’s ambassador before the inauguration and lied about it to the public and Vice President Mike Pence.
Flynn was forced to resign, but the questions did not stop there. At about the same time, The New York Times and CNN reports about the Trump campaign’s alleged contact with Russian officials came out, igniting a firestorm.
Citing anonymous intelligence officials, the Times report named Flynn, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, onetime campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page and Trump confidant Roger Stone as the aides whose communications the FBI had probed for possible contacts with Russia.
The Times reported that the FBI found evidence that Manafort had been in contact with Russian officials. Manafort, who has done business in Ukraine, has denied this.
The newspaper noted that intelligence officials said they had not yet seen evidence that the aides had colluded with Russia on the suspected cyberattacks.
Sessions became a player in the saga when news broke that he had met with the Russian ambassador last year but not told a Senate committee about it during his confirmation hearing. The Wall Street Journal also reported that contacts between the attorney general and Russia had been “examined” by U.S. investigators, led by the FBI.
Sessions maintains that those contacts were not about the campaign and were in his capacity as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. And the White House dismissed the outcry to the report as attacks by “partisan Democrats.”
“I never met with any Russian officials to discuss issues of the campaign,” Sessions said at the time, through a spokeswoman. “I have no idea what this allegation is about. It is false.”
But the news prompted more people, including House Oversight Chairman Jason Chaffetz, to call for the attorney general to recuse himself from the ongoing investigation into Russia’s alleged attempts to meddle in the presidential election. Reportedly against Trump’s wishes, Sessions agreed and announced that he would stay out of any investigations related to the 2016 election.
Some Democrats, including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, maintain that he should resign because the news contradicts his previous testimony, under oath, that he had no contacts with Russia as a campaign surrogate.
Who’s investigating Trump’s suspected Russia ties?
Intelligence and law enforcement officials have been probing the suspected attempts by Russia to meddle in the 2016 election. As part of its counterintelligence probe, the FBI is also looking into contacts between Trump campaign advisers and Russian officials in the lead-up to the election and whether they coordinated on the cyberattacks, as Comey confirmed when he testified before the House Intelligence Committee.
According to Comey, the FBI’s investigation has been ongoing since July, which he described as a “fairly short period of time” for a counterintelligence probe. He would not say, however, whether or not the bureau has found any evidence to suggest collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians. He also declined to comment on which Trump aides, if any, the FBI is scrutinizing.
The Senate and House intelligence committees also are in the midst of a bipartisan investigation into the broad question of Russia’s attempts to meddle in the election, including the allegations about the Trump campaign.
When Comey testified before the House committee about the FBI’s work on the subject, Nunes, the group’s chair and a Republican, urged him to complete the investigation quickly if possible.
“There’s a big gray cloud that you’ve now put over people who have very important work to do to lead this country, and so the faster that you can get to the bottom of this, it’s going to be better for all Americans,” Nunes said.
Some lawmakers, largely Democrats, have called for a bipartisan, 9/11-style outside commission to take on the case. Others, including the Republican Rep. Darrell Issa of California, have suggested that a special prosecutor should be appointed.
So far, no such person has been appointed, but Sessions has recused himself from investigating any cases related to the election.
What about that dossier?
In the background of this discussion is a series of explosive but unverified allegations about Trump and Russia detailed in a now-infamous “dossier.” The document, compiled by a former British intelligence official on behalf of Trump opponents during the campaign, purported to outline evidence that Trump has deep ties to Russia, along with crude allegations that remain unverified.
After CNN reported in January that intelligence officials had briefed Trump and then-President Obama on the existence of the document, BuzzFeed published it in its entirety. That decision prompted Trump to dismiss it as “fake news” and call the news outlet “a failing pile of garbage.”
CNN reported last month that U.S. investigators had been able to corroborate some of the communications outlined in the document, but nothing related to the “salacious allegations.”
What are the stakes?
Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook has compared the controversy to Watergate, but no “smoking guns” have emerged to suggest that Trump or his associates were in on Russia’s suspected attacks on the Democrats. Trump critics are warning, though, that it would be a scandal of historic proportions if that happened.
Even if no such evidence emerges, Democrats are sure to exploit the ongoing investigations, and the fallout from Flynn and Sessions’ misstatements, for political gain. Like other recent developments in the saga have, Comey’s testimony is distracting from Trump’s agenda, just as Congress looks to push through health care legislation and the president’s Supreme Court nominee.
The scandal could also affect major negotiations between the U.S. and Russia on issues such as Syria, the Islamic State, Ukraine, NATO and nuclear proliferation.
Further, there are still general questions about what Russia did to influence last year’s election and how the U.S. can protect itself from cyberattacks on the government and other democratic institutions, like the major political parties, going forward.