The Russian government interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election to increase political instability in the United States and to damage Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign by bolstering the candidacies of Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein. A January 2017 assessment by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) stated that Russian leadership favored presidential candidate Trump over Clinton, and that Russian president Vladimir Putin personally ordered an “influence campaign” to harm Clinton’s chances and “undermine public faith in the US democratic process”.
On October 7, 2016, the ODNI and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) jointly stated that the U.S. Intelligence Community was confident that the Russian Government directed recent hacking of emails with the intention of interfering with the U.S. election process. According to the ODNI’s report on January 6, 2017, the Russian military intelligence service (GRU) had hacked the servers of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the personal Google email account of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta and forwarded their contents to WikiLeaks. Although Russian officials have repeatedly denied involvement in any DNC hacks or leaks, there is strong forensic evidence linking the DNC breach to known Russian operations. In January 2017, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified that Russia also interfered in the elections by disseminating fake news promoted on social media. On July 13, 2018, 12 Russian military intelligence agents were indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller for allegedly hacking the email accounts and networks of Democratic Party officials.
On October 31, 2016, President Barack Obama warned Putin via the “red phone” to stop interfering or face consequences. In December 2016, Obama ordered a report on hacking efforts aimed at U.S. elections since 2008, while U.S. Senators called for a bipartisan investigation. President-elect Trump rejected claims of foreign interference and said that Democrats were reacting to their election loss.
On December 29, 2016, the Obama Administration expelled 35 Russian diplomats, denied access to two Russia-owned compounds, and broadened existing sanctions on Russian entities and individuals. More sanctions were imposed against Russia by the Trump administration in March 2018, and on April 6, 2018, the Trump administration brought another new round of sanctions against Russia, targeting several oligarchs and high-ranking Russian officials. In June 2018, the United States Department of the Treasury implemented new sanctions on several Russian entities and officials in connection to cyberattacks by Russia related to the 2016 election interference. Several countries in the European Union have also pursued a sanctions regime against Russia, accusing the state of supporting terrorism and interfering in their own elections.
Investigations about Russian influence on the election include a counter-intelligence investigation by the FBI, hearings by the Senate Intelligence Committee and the House Intelligence Committee, and inquiries about possible links and financial ties between the Kremlin and Trump associates, notably targeting Paul Manafort, Carter Page and Roger Stone. On May 9, 2017, Trump dismissed FBI Director James Comey, citing in part dissatisfaction with suspicions of his presidency because of “this Russia thing”. On May 17, Deputy Attorney General, and Acting Attorney General for this investigation Rod Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as Special Counsel to oversee the investigation.
In a testimony on February 13, 2018, before the Senate Intelligence Committee, the heads of the top six American intelligence agencies unanimously reaffirmed Russian interference. Three sources familiar with Trump’s thinking told CNN he remains unconvinced that Russia interfered because it suggests he did not win the election solely on his own merits. As of June 2018, at least 11 Trump associates or officials have admitted to having contacts with Russians during the campaign or transition.
Dismissal of FBI director James Comey
On May 9, 2017, Trump dismissed Comey, attributing his action to recommendations from United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein. After he learned that Trump was about to fire Comey, Rosenstein submitted to Trump a memo critical of Comey’s conduct in the investigation about Hillary Clinton’s emails. Trump had been talking to aides about firing Comey for at least a week before acting, and had asked Justice Department officials to come up with a rationale for dismissing him. Trump later confirmed that he had intended to fire Comey regardless of any Justice Department recommendation. Trump himself also tied the firing to the Russia investigation in a televised interview, stating, “When I decided to [fire Comey], I said to myself, I said, ‘You know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story, it’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should have won.'”
The dismissal came as a surprise to Comey and most of Washington, and was described as having “vast political ramifications” because of the Bureau’s ongoing investigation into Russian activities in the 2016 election. The termination was immediately controversial. It was compared to the Saturday Night Massacre, President Richard Nixon’s termination of special prosecutor Archibald Cox, who had been investigating the Watergate scandal, and to the dismissal of Sally Yates in January 2017. Near the end of James Comey’s testimony to the senate intelligence committee on June 8, 2017, Comey stated “It’s my judgment that I was fired because of the Russia investigation. I was fired in some way to change, or the endeavor was to change, the way the Russia investigation was being conducted.”
According to a document, which was read to The New York Times by a U.S. official, while having a meeting Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak on May 10, 2017, in the Oval Office, president Donald Trump allegedly told the Russian officials that firing the F.B.I. director, James Comey, had relieved “great pressure” on him. He stated, “I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job,” he continued, “I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off.”
Investigation by special counsel
On May 17, 2017, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel to direct FBI agents and Department of Justice prosecutors investigating election interference by Russia and related matters. As special counsel, Mueller has the power to issue subpoenas, hire staff members, request funding, and prosecute federal crimes in connection with his investigation.
Mueller assembled a legal team. Trump engaged several attorneys to represent and advise him, including his longtime personal attorney Marc Kasowitz as well as Jay Sekulow, Michael Bowe, and John M. Dowd. All but Sekulow have since resigned. On August 3, 2017 The Wall Street Journal reported that Mueller was using a grand jury indicating a possible gain in intensity of the investigation.
Investigation into possible obstruction of justice
There have been multiple reports that senior White House officials, and Trump himself, asked intelligence officials if they could intervene with the FBI to stop the investigation into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats later said he had “never felt pressured to intervene in the Russia investigation in any way”.
According to a memo written by FBI Director James Comey, on February 14, 2017, Trump suggested Comey should “let go” the FBI investigation into Flynn. In testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee Comey said he “took it as a direction”.
A few days after Comey’s dismissal, the FBI reportedly widened its investigation to examine whether President Trump attempted to obstruct justice. Many FBI insiders believed the real reason Comey was fired was because he had refused to end the investigation into Russian connections to the election. In his June testimony Comey said that Trump never asked him to stop the Russia investigation. The special counsel’s office took over the investigation. ABC News clarified in June 2017 that the special counsel is gathering preliminary information about possible obstruction of justice by the President, but a full-scale investigation has not yet been launched.
In July 2016, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange stated he had not seen evidence linking Russia to the emails leaked from the DNC. In November 2016, Assange said Russia was not the source of John Podesta’s hacked emails published by Wikileaks.
On February 16, 2018, a Federal grand jury in Washington, D.C., indicted 13 Russian nationals and 3 Russian entities on charges of conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to commit bank and wire fraud, and fraud with identification documents, in connection with the 2016 United States national elections. The 37-page indictment cites the illegal use of social media “to sow political discord, including actions that supported the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump and disparaged his opponent, Hillary Clinton.” On the same day, Robert Mueller announced that Richard Pinedo had pleaded guilty to using the identities of other people in connection with unlawful activity.
Lawyers representing Concord Management and Consulting appeared on May 9, 2018, in federal court in Washington, to plead not guilty to the charges. On July 13, 2018, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein released indictments returned by a grand jury charging twelve Russian intelligence officials, who work for the Russian intelligence agency GRU, with conspiring to interfere in the 2016 elections. The individuals, posing as “a Guccifer 2.0 persona” are accused of hacking into computers of the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee, as well as state election boards and secretaries of several states. In one unidentified state, the Russians stole information on half a million voters. The indictment also said that a Republican congressional candidate, also unidentified, was sent campaign documents stolen by the group. Additionally, according to the indictment, a reporter was in contact with the Russian operatives and offered to write an article to coincide with the release of the stolen documents.
Civil DNC lawsuit against Russian Federation
On April 20, 2018, the Democratic National Committee filed a civil lawsuit in federal court in New York, accusing the Russian Government, the Trump campaign, WikiLeaks, and others of conspiracy to alter the course of the 2016 presidential election and asking for monetary damages and a declaration admitting guilt. The lawsuit was dismissed by the judge, because New York “does not recognize the specific tort claims pressed in the suit”; the judge did not make a finding on whether there was or was not “collusion between defendants and Russia during the 2016 presidential election”.