The CIA, FBI, and NSA all agree: the Russians interfered in the 2016 presidential election. Since then, the U.S. government has been working to discover what happened, who was involved, and how to prevent it from happening again.
It's a multi-pronged investigation that has received almost non-stop media coverage – and it’s really complicated. We’ve put together a fact sheet to help you navigate through all the news and understand what’s actually going on.
What is the Special Counsel?
The Special Counsel is an independent attorney appointed to investigate sensitive matters that cannot be investigated by traditional means due to conflicts of interest. In the case of the Trump-Russia Probe, the President has authority over the Justice department which would generally handle this kind of investigation – and therein lies the conflict.
On March 2, 2017, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from the Russia inquiries due to his involvement in the campaign and his previous, undisclosed meetings with Russian officials. As a result, the decision to authorize the Special Counsel was made by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on May 17, 2017, just eight days after President Trump fired FBI Director, James Comey. Rosenstein appointed Robert Mueller, a long-time Republican and the FBI Director under both the Bush and Obama administrations, to run the Special Counsel investigation.
What is Robert Mueller and the Special Counsel investigating?
The original authorization gave Robert Mueller authority to investigate and prosecute "any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump," as well as "any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation" and any other matters within the scope of a Special Counsel as laid out by the Department of Justice.
Let’s look at the known areas of the investigation that have come out of the original authorization:
- Russian efforts to interfere with the 2016 election: This area focuses on Russia’s involvement in undermining the 2016 election through targeted social media campaigns, as well as the hacking and strategic release of emails from the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign.
- Coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia: This is more commonly referred to as “collusion” by the media and Trump administration. Ultimately, investigators are looking into whether or not the Trump campaign was aware of Russian efforts to interfere with the election and if they were working in concert to aid those efforts. The Trump Tower Moscow project and Wikileaks email dumps are part of this aspect of the probe.
- Foreign influence violations by members of the Trump campaign: Lobbyists who work on behalf of foreign governments are required to register under FARA, the Foreign Agent Registration Act. The Special Counsel is looking into whether Trump aides failed to comply with laws like FARA.
- Obstruction of justice: Since taking office, President Trump has made several controversial decisions and statements, including the firing of former F.B.I. Director, James Comey. Mueller is looking into whether or not any of these actions, tweets, interviews, and more could be an effort by the President to obstruct and impede the investigation.
- Financial crimes: Under the original mandate, Special Counsel Mueller is authorized to investigate “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation,” which includes potential financial crimes like tax evasion and fraud.
Who has been charged in the Russia Probe so far?
Nine Americans and 26 Russians have been charged so far in relation to the Special Counsel investigation. Of the nine Americans, six are people who were associated with the Trump campaign: Michael Cohen, George Papadopoulus, Paul Manafort, Rick Gates, Michael Flynn, and Roger Stone.
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Is collusion a crime?
The short answer is no, collusion is not a crime. But conspiracy to commit a crime is.
While the media and the Trump administration commonly use the term “collusion”, what they are actually referring to is the idea of coordination between the presidential campaign and Russia to commit certain crimes. Such coordination, or agreement, to commit an illegal act is an essential element of conspiracy.
To date, no Trump campaign official has been charged with any conspiracy crimes. However, the charges against 25 of the 26 Russian operatives include conspiracy charges.
Are there any other investigations happening?
Yes, believe it or not, there are multiple ongoing investigations stemming from the 2016 election that are not being led by the Special Counsel. These parallel investigations are being run by:
- The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York (SDNY), which is examining the finances of the Trump Organization, the money behind President Trump's inauguration, the finances of President Trump's former attorney, Michael Cohen, and more.
- The U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, which is looking into the activities of Russian spy, Maria Butina, as well as the NRA.
- The U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, which is investigating former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn’s lobbying on behalf of Turkey, as well as a Russian involved in the Internet Research Agency that ran targeted social media campaigns.
- New York City, New York State, and a handful of state attorneys general are also exploring potential tax crimes by the Trump family and the Trump Organization, Trump Foundation financials, and potential violations of the Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
In total, there are more than a dozen ongoing investigations into President Trump, his businesses, his campaign, and Russia.
So what does this all mean for President Trump?
President Trump has not been directly linked to any charges or allegations relating to the Special Counsel investigation. However, the investigations have cast a long shadow over his presidency, leaving the media and the public with lots of questions and few answers.
Until the Special Counsel’s final report is released, everyone is just guessing what might happen.