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Lithium A beginner's guide to the Trump-Russia investigation

Jan. 2, 2019
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The Special Counsel Investigation, also known as the Mueller investigation, has been ongoing in the past year and a half, and chances are everyone has heard something about it. As it deals with both U.S. affairs and international law, articles are constantly feeding people different, often complicated viewpoints. 

Thus, I’ve elected to create a “beginner’s guide” to the investigation. Below, I explain every concept as clearly and concisely as possible, allowing people who might not be too familiar with politics more aware of what is going on and how the investigation may develop.

When did it start?

The investigation officially started on May 17th, 2017, though its origins date back to before the 2016 presidential campaign. 

Why did it start? 

There are two main reasons:

  1. Contacts between then-Attorney General, ex-senator Jeff Sessions and Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak had given rise to controversies, to the point that Sessions, as soon as he was appointed Attorney General, excused himself from any investigations regarding Russian interference in the election. 
  2. In May 2017, President Trump fired FBI director James Comey, who was investigating security adviser Michael Flynn; the latter then reported that Trump had pressured him to drop the FBI investigation.

Due to Sessions’ decision to recuse, the matter fell in the hands of Rosenstein, ex-Deputy Attorney General; he then appointed Robert Mueller to Special Counsel to overlook the investigation, which officially initiated what the BBC defined “one of the most high-profile political inquiries in U.S. history." After Sessions resigned in November, Trump interrupted Rosenstein’s oversight of the Special Counsel with Whitaker, who is openly skeptical about the investigation; he claimed that it has “gone too far." 

What can the Special Counsel effectively do?

As a Special Counsel, the ex-FBI director can issue subpoenas, prosecute federal crimes, request funding, and hire staff members among his powers. While the POTUS cannot be indicted directly by the Special Counsel, at the end of the investigation a report will be issued; it will be the Justice Department’s decision to determine whether President Trump can be charged with the accusations. 

Who’s involved?

Other than the key figures, the investigation is being carried out by a Grand Jury as well as three main legal teams. The Grand Jury was appointed by Mueller in August 2017 and can subpoena documents, require witnesses to testify, and issue charges for those suspected of crimes. So far, it has issued subpoenas to several key figures, some of whom were involved in a Trump-Russian meeting in June 2016. Others are executives of various public relations firms, and have been suspected of having ties with Russian interference. One of the legal teams, the attorneys, is supervised by Mueller himself; the second team is the defending side of President Trump, and the third represents the White House, which is considered separate from the President. 

What’s being investigated?

As the BBC reports, there have been four main investigations, divided into two categories. The Senate and House Intelligence Committees, and the Senate Judiciary Committee are investigating the assistance of the Kremlin—hence, the Russian government—in the 2016 presidential election, while the House Oversight Committee is scrutinizing any possible links between Trump associates and Russian officials.

How did the interference with the election work? 

In February 2018, the heads of six top American intelligence agencies affirmed Russian interference in a testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee. This brought Mueller to press charges against twelve Russian agents on July 13th. According to the Special Counsel, this would have been divided into a “two-pronged” operation

The first part, carried out in mid-2016, involved sending a raft of “phishing” emails (similar to those used by low-level scammers to obtain username and password information), and leaking thousands of Democrat emails, both related to the Clinton campaign and personal information. 

The second step was manipulating social media ad purchases and creating fake news stories aimed at undermining the Clinton campaign and glamorizing the Republicans. These were mainly executed on social networks such as Facebook. These campaigns, according to testimony, could have reached as many as 126 million Americans during and after the 2016 election. 

Who has been charged so far?

More than 30 people have been indicted so far. This includes four members of Trump’s campaign and administration teams, 25 Russians, and three Russian enterprises. 

Paul Manafort, the former Trump campaign chairman, was convicted of financial fraud; despite reaching a plea deal, he allegedly lied to the FBI at least five times—which, according to Mr Mueller, breached the agreement. Mr. Manafort was also involved in Donald Trump Jr’s controversy concerning a New York meeting with an influential Russian lawyer, which Donald Jr claims was about political opposition research. In June, the President defined this meeting as “totally legal and done all the time in politics.” 

George Papadopoulos, Trump’s ex-foreign policy adviser, pleaded guilty in October 2017 to lying to the FBI about his personal contacts with Russians; he was also found to have attempted to set up meetings between the President and Russian representatives. 

Michael Flynn, ex-security advisor, was forced to resign in February 2017 after his meetings with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak were brought to light. He pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about such conferences.

The most important arrest to date is that of Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal attorney. He admitted to making false statements about the Trump Tower project in Russia. Although he claimed the talks had ended by January 2016, they continued until June of the same year. He further confessed to providing misleading information about his contacts with Russian officials. As CNN reported, in August he also pleaded guilty to orchestrating payments to women for them to stay silent about sexual encounters with Trump. He was sentenced to three years in a federal prison on December 13th on the grounds of campaign finance violations, tax evasion, false statements to a bank, and most importantly, to the Congress. As noted by TIME Magazine, Trump has claimed that he is a “weak person” and that he is “lying to get a lighter sentence.”

How far is the investigation expected to go?

Although the White House is trying to draw a line under the affair, it is highly likely that the investigation may continue through 2019. President Trump has, so far, showed “unprecedented co-operation,” providing written responses to investigators.

According to speculation, the investigation may culminate in the subpoenaing of Trump with allegations of obstruction of justice. This could refer to the sacking of Comey among other events, which could all be treated as proof of corrupt intent to obstruct justice—however, according to the BBC, “it is not clear cut.” Certainly, extending an investigation to a sitting president would be far from easy. 

How is this affecting the American public?

Research polls in March 2018 have found that 59% of people believe Trump officials had illicit contact with Russia during the election. This could potentially serve as an obstacle in Trump’s re-election campaign in 2020.