President Donald Trump.REUTERS/Carlos Barria
President Donald Trump fired FBI Director James Comey on Tuesday night amid an active FBI investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election and whether the Trump campaign was involved.
Trump fired Comey, unexpectedly, one day after Sally Yates, the former acting attorney general, testified before Congress that she had warned the White House about former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia’s ambassador during the transition.
Days earlier, Comey reiterated during an open Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that the FBI was still “conducting an investigation to understand whether there was any coordination between the Russian efforts and anybody associated with the Trump campaign.”
“The Russia-Trump collusion story is a total hoax,” Trump tweeted on Monday night. “When will this taxpayer funded charade end?”
The FBI and Congress are pursuing separate probes into Russia’s election interference. Those probes include an examination of whether Trump and his campaign team tacitly or explicitly facilitated Moscow’s hacking and disinformation campaigns that targeted Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and her presidential campaign.
It is unclear exactly how Comey’s firing will affect the FBI’s investigation in the long run. Trump could appoint a new director who wants to kill the Russia probe, which is why many Democrats and a handful of Republicans have called on Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein to appoint a special counsel to oversee the investigation. FBI staffers will likely oversee the probe in the meantime.
The congressional investigations are bipartisan — both Democrats and Republicans have said the motivations behind Russia’s hacking campaign, and whether Trump had anything to do with it, warrant a closer look than the intelligence community was able to provide in its January report on Russia’s attempt to delegitimize the election.
Here are the key questions looming over the FBI and the congressional intelligence committees’ Trump-Russia probes.
Does Trump have any business ties to Russia — including real-estate holdings and outstanding debt — that could pose a conflict of interest in his dealings with Russian President Vladimir Putin?
Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper appears to have signaled during a hearing before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Monday that the intelligence community was scrutinizing Trump’s business ties to Russia.
When asked by Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham if Clapper had ever come across information relating to such business ties that concerned him, Clapper replied that he couldn’t comment “because that impacts an investigation.”
As Trump praised and defended Putin along the campaign trail, many questioned whether the real-estate mogul had any financial incentives — including business ties and outstanding debt — to seek better relations with Moscow.
“It’s not wrong to do business with Russians,” Graham told CNN after the hearing. “But Trump has said he never did business with the Russians.”
The question came up again last weekend after the golf writer James Dodson told WBUR that Trump’s son Eric bragged in 2014 that the Trump family had secured access to $100 million from Russian lenders to fund their golf courses.
How deep and far back do Trump associates’ Russia ties go?
White House senior adviser Jared Kushner.REUTERS/Carlos Barria
Early Trump campaign adviser Carter Page, onetime campaign chairman Paul Manafort, informal adviser Roger Stone, and Flynn received letters from the Senate Intelligence Committee late last month asking for extensive documentation of their contacts with Russians since June 2015, the month Trump launched his campaign.
Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, has also volunteered to be questioned by the congressional intelligence committees about his ties to Russia. Those include two meetings with Russia’s ambassador to the US, Sergey Kislyak, and the CEO of Russia’s state-owned Vnesheconombank, Sergey Gorkov, in December. Vnesheconombank has been under US sanctions since 2014.
Page, an investment banker turned foreign-policy adviser who was reportedly placed under FBI surveillance last summer after he returned from a trip to Moscow, has indicated he will not supply the committee with the documents it wants until it addresses his questions about Hillary Clinton’s “hate crimes” against him.
Meanwhile, Flynn, who failed to disclose the money he received from Russia’s state-owned news agency, RT, on his 2016 application for renewed security clearance, has requested immunity from prosecution in exchange for any testimony he gives to the congressional intelligence committees.
Manafort is being scrutinized for his financial ties to pro-Russian interests in Ukraine, and Stone sparked controversy in March after admitting he exchanged private Twitter messages with Guccifer 2.0, a shadowy online figure who claimed responsibility for the hacks on the Democratic National Committee. Cybersecurity experts and US intelligence officials have since linked the hacks to Russia.
Why did Trump’s associates’ contact with Russians in late 2015 raise red flags among European intelligence agencies?
Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper.Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein asked Clapper on Monday if it was accurate that “over the spring of 2016, multiple European allies passed on additional information to the United States about contacts between the Trump campaign and Russians” that they had obtained in late 2015.
Clapper said that was accurate, but that “the specifics are quite sensitive.” Feinstein referred specifically to a Guardian report published on April 13 that said Britain’s Government Communications Headquarters became aware in late 2015 of suspicious interactions between Trump advisers and Russian intelligence agents.
The Guardian’s report, which said other intelligence agencies in Germany, Estonia, and Poland also picked up communications between Trump’s associates and Russian agents, is consistent with earlier revelations about what spurred the US intelligence community to launch its investigation last summer into Trump’s ties to Russia.
Clapper wouldn’t say whether the FBI was motivated exclusively or even largely by the Europeans’ intelligence to open a probe into Russia’s election interference in July. But he told Feinstein that the US intelligence community had been monitoring the Russians’ activity relating to the US election “going back to 2015.”
A UK intelligence source told The Guardian, however, that the US intelligence community was slow to act on the Europeans’ information. The European agencies “were saying: ‘There are contacts going on between people close to Mr. Trump and people we believe are Russian intelligence agents,'” the source said. “‘You should be wary of this.’ The message was: ‘Watch out. There’s something not right here.'”
Why did the White House wait 18 days to fire Flynn after being warned by the Justice Department about his susceptibility to Russian blackmail?
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Yates said during a hearing before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee on Monday that she told White House counsel Don McGahn in “two in-person meetings and one phone call” in January that Flynn could be subject to blackmail by the Kremlin.
While he was vice president-elect, Mike Pence insisted in an interview with CBS that Flynn and Kislyak “did not discuss anything having to do with the United States’ decision to expel diplomats or impose censure against Russia” during their phone calls before Trump was inaugurated. That statement turned out to be untrue and set off alarm bells at the Justice Department.
The Russians also knew that Flynn had misled Pence, Yates said.
“This was a problem, because the Russians likely had proof of this information, which created a situation where he could be blackmailed by the Russians,” she said. “We told them we were giving them this information so they could take action. McGahn asked me if Flynn should be fired. I said that wasn’t my call.”
Yates told the subcommittee that she felt McGahn took her warning seriously. But Flynn was not asked to resign until February 13, about 18 days after Yates alerted the White House to Flynn’s conduct.
The White House has not explained that gap, and it is unclear whether any steps were taken to minimize Flynn’s involvement in sensitive national-security deliberations during that time. However, both Trump and White House press secretary Sean Spicer tried to downplay Yates’ conversations with McGahn.
Trump said in a February 16 press conference that McGahn told him it didn’t appear Flynn had done anything wrong, which runs counter to Yates’ recollection of the meetings. Spicer characterized Yates’ comments as a “heads-up” rather than a warning about Flynn’s compromising behavior.
At Monday’s hearing, Democratic Sen. Al Franken posited a theory about Flynn’s delayed departure from the White House.
“Maybe, just maybe, [Trump] didn’t get rid of a guy who lied to the vice president, who got paid by the Russians, who went on Russia Today, because there are other people in his administration who met secretly with the Russians and didn’t reveal it until later, until they were caught,” Franken said. “That may be why it took him 18 days, until it became public, to get rid of Mike Flynn, who is a danger to this republic.”
How reliable is the collection of memos compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele alleging collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia?
Russian President Vladimir Putin.Thomson Reuters
The BBC’s Paul Wood reported in late March that the FBI was using the explosive but unverified collection of memos alleging collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia as a “road map” for its investigation into Russia’s election interference.
Some of the dossier’s claims — many of which appear to align with events during the campaign — are slowly being corroborated.
CNN reported in March that the FBI had information to suggest that the Trump campaign “communicated with suspected Russian operatives to possibly coordinate the release of information damaging to Clinton’s campaign.” The bureau may also have used the dossier’s claims about Page to bolster its case for a warrant to surveil him last summer, CNN reported last month.
“Are you familiar with a dossier about Mr. Trump compiled with some guy in England?” Graham asked Clapper during Monday’s hearing. Clapper replied that he was familiar with it, but that the intelligence community “didn’t make a judgment” on whether the dossier was credible when it was compiling its January report on Russia’s election interference.
“We couldn’t corroborate the sourcing, particularly the second and third-order sources,” Clapper said.
The FBI may be taking cues from Steele’s dossier because it worked with him in the past, according to the BBC. Steele, who cultivated an extensive network of Russian sources while working for the Moscow desk of a British intelligence agency, apparently worked with the FBI on Russia- and Ukraine-related matters between 2013 and 2016 — specifically with the FBI’s Eurasian Joint Organized Crime Squad, according to a lengthy profile in Vanity Fair.
The relationship was so “chummy” that the FBI in October offered to pay Steele to continue his work, The Washington Post reported in February.
Some of the dossier’s more outlandish claims, including salacious accounts of sexual escapades, have not been confirmed. Trump has dismissed the dossier as “phony stuff” and “fake news.”
But comparing Steele’s reports, which were written between June and December, with events that unfolded before and after the election reveals a series of coincidences that has added to questions surrounding Russia’s interference in the election.
Why did a Russian bank with ties to Putin try to reach the Trump Organization during the campaign?
In early March, CNN reported that last summer a computer server owned by the Russia-based Alfa Bank “repeatedly looked up the contact information for a computer server being used by the Trump Organization — far more than other companies did, representing 80% of all lookups to the Trump server.”
The FBI is now examining why the server, run by a bank led by oligarchs with close ties to Putin, was trying to reach the Trump Organization, according to CNN. The New York Times reported on October 31 that the FBI examined the server activity and “ultimately concluded that there could be an innocuous explanation, like a marketing email or spam, for the computer contacts.”
But CNN’s reporting indicates the FBI has not dropped the subject and, as of March, is examining the activity as part of its counterintelligence investigation into Russia’s interference in the US election.
“One US official said investigators find the server relationship ‘odd’ and are not ignoring it,” CNN reported. “But the official said there is still more work for the FBI to do. Investigators have not yet determined whether a connection would be significant.”
The BBC reported in January that the FBI, as part of a counterintelligence task force led by the CIA, requested a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court warrant to investigate the banks after former CIA Director John Brennan received a recording of a conversation about Kremlin money potentially going into Trump campaign coffers.
Steele’s dossier discussed at length Alfa Bank — though it was misspelled as Alpha throughout — raising further questions about the bank’s apparent involvement in the unusual server activity.
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