This is is a banner week for The Russian Connection. First, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn resigned Monday night amid allegations he misled the Trump administration about his communication with the Russian ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak. Then came the bombshell report from The New York Times alleging that a number of Trump campaign staff members and associates had repeated contact with senior Russian intelligence officials throughout the 2016 campaign.
That campaign, and Trump's subsequent transition and presidency, have been dogged by allegations about various ties to Russia. Here is a rundown of everything we know:
Last month, a Washington Post report indicated Flynn jumped on the phone several times with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak the same day that the Obama administration announced new sanctions following its determination that Russia had intervened in the 2016 presidential election.Rico says this is gonna get ugly... (And you need to read this book.)
(That report also detailed how Flynn has made appearances on and received a speaking fee from Russia Today, the news network the intelligence community has described as "the Kremlin's principal international propaganda outlet." At the gala where Flynn received the fee, he sat next to Vladimir Putin (photo, right) for dinner.)
Flynn told others in the Trump administration, particularly Vice President Mike Pence, that he did not discuss rolling back the sanctions once the White House changed hands. Pence then defended Flynn publicly. But a deluge of reports this week indicate that not only did he mislead Pence, but Acting Attorney General Sally Yates and a career national security official warned the Trump administration last month that he had done so, and that his decision had left him vulnerable to Russian blackmail. Trump allowed Flynn to continue in his role despite this revelation.
Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway struggled to account for that in a Today Show interview Wednesday morning. Meanwhile, some Russian leaders initially reacted with outrage to Flynn's departure, claiming there was a campaign against him laden with "Russophobia". Some have since scaled back their rhetoric, according to The Associated Press, which added the Kremlin appears to be switching its focus to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in its attempt to reset relations with the United States.
The former ExxonMobil CEO has his own ties to Russia and Vladimir Putin. As head of an oil and gas multinational corporation, Tillerson naturally had business interests in Russia. But the Texan's ties seemed to go deeper. In 2011, he struck a deal with the Russian government to drill in the Russian Arctic and celebrated by clinking champagne glasses, Gotham-villain style, with Vladimir Putin. That deal was subsequently defeated by US sanctions targeting Russia for its aggression in the Crimea and the Ukraine, but The Wall Street Journal reports Tillerson and Putin have "a close business relationship".
In his nomination hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Tillerson claimed he personally "never lobbied against the sanctions" on Russia and Iran, adding: "To my knowledge, ExxonMobil never lobbied against the sanctions." But a paper trail indicates he did, and the committee's Republican chair, Bob Corker, appeared to confirm that in the hearing. Both ExxonMobil and Russia have an interest in the sanctions being lifted, The Wall Street Journal reports, because they target drilling in Siberia and the Arctic, a business opportunity for both parties. Exxon has said it considers its operations in those areas to be on "pause" until sanctions are lifted.
Tillerson cashed out of his ExxonMobil stock to the tune of $170 million, citing a desire to avoid conflicts of interest. Meanwhile, he also was awarded the Russian Order of Friendship in 2013.
Trump's one-time campaign chair used to work for pro-Russian political candidates in the Ukraine, including the former president, Viktor Yanukovych. According to The New York Times, the FBI began investigating Manafort last spring as an extension of an existing criminal investigation into his work in the Ukraine. Some of Manafort's contacts there were under NSA surveillance due to their suspected ties to Russian intelligence agencies.
In August, The Times reported on a "secret ledger" discovered by a newly formed anti-corruption authority in the Ukraine, which showed Manafort had been paid millions in undisclosed cash. The Times has also noted that "The Associated Press has reported that his work for the Ukraine included a secret lobbying effort in Washington aimed at influencing American news organizations and government officials." Manafort resigned four days after the report on his business dealings. Since, Ukrainian investigators have examined the sale of a television station to a partnership formed by Manafort and Oleg Deripaska, a close Putin ally.
Manafort told The Times that the allegations of Russian connections were a "Democrat Party dirty trick and completely false". The January report also indicated the FBI had opened investigations into Trump associates Carter Page and Roger Stone, both of whom also denied the allegations.
The Times reported Tuesday night that, during the 2016 election, US law enforcement and intelligence agencies repeatedly intercepted communications between Trump's campaign staff and associates and senior members of Russian intelligence. This was around the time those agencies were looking into the Russian hacking and influence campaign in the election, and they "sought to learn whether the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians". The officials who spoke to The Times said that, so far, they had found no evidence of collusion, or even that the two parties discussed Donald Trump or the campaign.
However, as The Washington Post reminded us this morning, the Trump team has repeatedly denied it was ever in contact with Russian officials during the campaign. That includes an instance as recently as Tuesday, and one by President Trump.