Former national-security adviser Michael Flynn has pleaded guilty to lying to investigators, the first time a Trump White House official has been charged in the ongoing investigation of Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 election. But the criminal probe is only one of several going on. Adrian Morrow explains which ones are which and what they’ve done so far.
It was one of the most jaw-dropping revelations to hit American democracy: The Russian government meddled in last year’s U.S. presidential election campaign in a bid to tip the election to Donald Trump. Now, it is the most pervasive threat to Mr. Trump’s presidency: Congress and special counsel Robert Mueller are investigating ties between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, and whether anyone in the President’s circle colluded with the Russians.
The FBI-led investigation landed one of its biggest coups on Friday, when Michael Flynn, Mr. Trump’s former national security adviser, pleaded guilty to making false statements to investigators. Prosecutors say he falsely told the FBI that he hadn’t discussed sanctions against Russia with the country’s then-ambassador to the United States when the two met last December.
In his plea deal, Mr. Flynn admitted that Trump transition team officials had a hand in his contacts with the Russians. Mr. Flynn said in a statement that, as part of the plea bargain, he was co-operating with the special counsel, raising the prospect of more Trump officials coming under official scrutiny. But White House lawyer Ty Cobb responded that “nothing about the guilty plea or the charge implicates anyone other than Mr. Flynn.”
Mr. Flynn is the fourth person to be charged in the Trump-Russia probe, but the first to have worked in the Trump White House; the others who have faced charges worked only on the 2016 election campaign. The first was former Trump foreign-policy adviser George Papadopoulos, who pleaded guilty on Oct. 5 to making false statements to the FBI. Then came Mr. Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and his former business associate Rick Gates, who were charged in October over their lobbying activities in Ukraine. The two were accused of conspiracy against the United States, conspiracy to launder money and violating federal lobbying laws. Both have pleaded not guilty.
Mr. Trump, who regularly denies that there had been collusion between the campaign and Moscow, has been under investigation himself for his alleged attempts to thwart the Russia investigation, including by firing former FBI director James Comey. But could Mr. Trump really be kicked out of office over Russia? Technically, yes, but it’s very unlikely in the short term. Mostly, it depends on what the investigations conclude, whether Republicans keep control of Congress and whether the GOP stands by the President.
“It’s the intersection of all three branches of government,” said Professor Barbara Perry, director of Presidential Studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. “It’s a complex process.”
What actually happened with Russia? What is being investigated?
There are broadly two things under investigation. One is possible collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia to hack the election. The other is possible obstruction of the investigation by Mr. Trump.
On collusion: Russian government hackers broke into the servers of the Democratic National Committee, downloaded embarrassing e-mails and released them through WikiLeaks in July of 2016. The e-mails showed that the DNC favoured Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders during the battle for the party’s presidential nomination, a contest in which the DNC was supposed to be neutral. U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Russia’s purpose was to tip the election toward Mr. Trump. Shortly after the hack, Mr. Trump publicly called on Russia to find e-mails from Ms. Clinton’s private server and release those, too. Now, Congress and Mr. Mueller are investigating ties between Mr. Trump’s circle and the Kremlin, to see if the Trump campaign worked together with the Russian government as it interfered in the election.
On obstruction: On May 9, Mr. Trump abruptly fired Mr. Comey, the FBI director. At first, the White House claimed Mr. Comey was booted because he was doing a bad job running the FBI. But Mr. Trump subsequently told NBC anchor Lester Holt that he axed Mr. Comey because of the FBI’s investigation into Russia. “When I decided to just do it, I said to myself I said ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story,’ ” Mr. Trump said. At a Senate hearing the following month, Mr. Comey also said he understood his firing to be the result of the Russia probe. Mr. Comey detailed a series of incidents in which Mr. Trump tried to meddle in the investigation: On one occasion, Mr. Comey said, Mr. Trump asked him to “lift the cloud” of the Russia probe hanging over the White House.
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The Globe and Mail, December 1, 2017