Scoundrels: Political Scandals in American History—2016 Russian Election Interference
The most recent scandal covered in my forthcoming book, Scoundrels: Political Scandals in American History, involves the 2016 presidential election, when the Russian Federation deliberately interfered in the American electoral process to sow seeds of discord and political instability for its historic adversary. Even before the November 2016 elections, American intelligence officials recognized that the Russian government had developed an ambitious scheme to hack computer systems operated by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) as well as systems used by Democratic operatives. The Russians specifically sought to harm Democratic Party candidate Hillary Clinton’s chances to become president in favor of the Republican nominee, reality television star and real estate mogul Donald J. Trump, who was viewed as more favorably disposed to Russia and its authoritarian leader, Vladimir Putin, than Clinton and the Democrats would be.
After Trump staged a surprising come-from-behind victory in the presidential election, Congress and American intelligence agencies stepped up their investigations of Russian interference in the election. The incoming president was upset with these probes, apparently believing that charges of Russia’s involvement were thinly disguised efforts to delegitimize his election. Trump so vigorously objected to American investigations that he undertook seemingly inexplicable actions, such as firing Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director James Comey, presumably to impede the agency’s Russia investigation. Following the Comey firing, the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) empowered a special counsel, former FBI Director Robert Mueller, to investigate the affair. Mueller indicted several Trump associates for improper ties with Russia and he secured convictions, but he could not definitively conclude that Trump conspired—or “colluded,” as Trump was wont to say—with Russia to win the 2016 election. It became one of numerous political scandals during the Trump era.
The affair originated with hacking attempts by Russia, which had once been part of a superpower, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), commonly called the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union had opposed the United States and her allies in the Cold War for almost five decades. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia suffered through a scramble for power and a search for an effective means of rebuilding its shattered economy.
A former intelligence officer, Vladimir Putin, emerged in the 1990s as a contender for the Russian presidency. Putin longed to restore Russia’s place on the world stage, but he was working from a position of weakness. The once mighty superpower had been humbled, prostrated before the world. The United States was the sole superpower, although China was making rapid progress and might soon rival the Americans. In a desperate effort to strengthen Russia’s position by undermining its adversaries, Putin approved a series of clandestine methods for attacking the United States and its electoral system.
United States intelligence agencies were confident that Russia coordinated cyberattacks against American interests in the 2016 presidential election cycle. Informed sources concluded that Putin personally authorized operations designed to undermine citizens’ faith in democratic processes and institutions. Evidence suggested that Putin wanted the Republican presidential nominee, Donald J. Trump, to defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton in the election because Putin believed that Trump would ease economic sanctions against Russia and would not be a hardline adversary. Putin was correct.
Months before the 2016 election, the Internet Research Agency (IRA), a Kremlin-backed “troll farm” of computer hackers who were directed to use social media to talk up Trump’s candidacy while castigating Clinton, launched a campaign to shape American public opinion. The IRA sought to stoke partisan, racial, and ethnic discord by posting messages denigrating groups based on negative stereotypes associated with their demographic traits.
By 2016, the Internet afforded trolls with numerous social media platforms from which to spread their toxic messages. Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, Tumblr, Pinterest, Medium, YouTube, Vine, Instagram, and Google+ offered anyone in the world an instant, easily accessible forum for influencing opinions. The typical Russian tactic was to create a false organization, such as fictional conservative interest group offering “dirt” on Hillary Clinton and the Democrats. Posting false news, manipulated videos and photographs, and derogatory messages captured voters’ interest. The bogus conservative groups discovered how easy it was to garner media attention. In some cases, members of the Trump campaign reposted the damaging information with little concern about confirming its authenticity. The IRA trolls became experts at “astroturfing”—that is, disguising the sources of messages to make it appear as though it originated from average people with support from grassroots participants.
Russian hackers also purchased advertisements on Facebook to reach 10 million viewers. The trolls understood a crucial insight in generating effective propaganda: a lie repeated over and over, circulated, and shared online, eventually became the conventional wisdom of public discourse. Attacks on Hillary Clinton’s health and politics, DNC internal divisions, and policy failures in the Obama administration were especially potent topics.
Aside from influencing opinions on social media, the Russians hacked into email accounts associated with the Clinton presidential campaign as well as the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and the DNC. The hackers unearthed a treasure trove of damaging information, which they shared with the WikiLeaks organization. A person or organization using the nom de guerre “Guccifer 2.0”—probably a Russian hacker or someone closely associated with the IRA—also provided damaging information, as did the entity “DCLeaks.”
For all the sophistication of the Russian cyberattacks, their techniques were simple. Beginning in or around March 2016, the Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye (commonly abbreviated GRU), Russia’s foreign military intelligence agency, targeted more than 300 men and women associated with the Democratic Party and the Hillary Clinton campaign with a series of “spearphising” emails. When a target received the email and clicked on a link or attachment, GRU operatives gained access to the target’s computer system, including their email files. This technique yielded thousands of emails and attachments that the Russians could use to damage the Democrats.
John Podesta, chairman of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, received a classic phishing email on March 19, 2016. The email warned him that his computer system had been compromised, and he must change his password immediately. He clicked on the link and, in so doing, provided access to 60,000 emails for the Russian hackers who had contacted him. The hackers recovered emails about the fees that Wall Street financiers paid to Hillary Clinton for her speeches, unguarded comments about potential vice-presidential nominees, and comments to and from staffers about celebrities and other candidates. The infamous Pizzagate conspiracy theory, which alleged that Democratic Party officials operated a child sex trafficking ring out of pizzerias in Washington, D.C., originated because of the misinterpretation of information derived from these emails.
The Russians timed the public release of emails at strategic points during the summer and fall general election campaign. On July 22, 2016, three days before the opening of the Democratic National Convention, the hackers released 19,000 emails and 8,000 attachments. As the Democrats headed into the convention in hopes of uniting myriad party factions, the newly released emails suggested that DNC officials had stacked the deck against Hillary Clinton’s principal challenger in the primary elections, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders. The Russians’ goal in releasing the emails was to sow discord among Democrats at precisely the moment when the party faithful needed to coalesce behind their presidential nominee. The resultant brouhaha indicated that the hackers had achieved their goal. Members of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party complained that their candidate had been sabotaged by the party establishment. Owing to the public outcry about the national party’s sharp practices, Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigned from her role as the DNC chairwoman.
A second release of emails, this one on October 7, 2016, distracted from the Obama administration’s revelation that the Russians were interfering in the 2016 elections. It was a precarious time for the Trump campaign. A 2005 videotape of Trump bragging about sexual assault with Access Hollywood television host Billy Bush was causing a furor among elected officials and the public. The new emails provided cover for Trump and his allies to divert attention from their candidate’s damning admissions. Trump and his proxies dismissed the candidate’s comments on the tape as “locker room talk” and insisted that the Democrats’ emails were the real story.
Critics charged that an 11-year-old videotape and the Democrats’ hacked emails were not the real story. Instead, Russia’s nefarious hacking campaign should be the focus. When American intelligence officials issued their statement about the Russian election interference on October 7, they expressed high confidence that agents of the Russian government were responsible for the hacks. Moreover, they were reasonably certain that the email leaks were designed to hurt Hillary Clinton’s electoral chances. By publicizing internal Democratic polls, data analytics, and voter-turnout models, the hackers were throwing the election in favor of her opponent, Donald Trump.
The ostensible source of the email disclosures, WikiLeaks, was a nonprofit organization created in 2006 by an Australian activist, Julian Assange. Assange claimed that he was a free speech advocate who was dedicated to speaking the truth to power. In his view, governments were far too secretive, using their information monopoly as a means of suppressing dissent and oppressing the citizenry. By disclosing secret information, he was promoting the free exchange of ideas and exposing the ugly secrets of overbearing governments around the world.
These rationales served Assange well early in his career. He was a charismatic “bad boy” who aimed to clean up the dirt and grime created, and often hidden, by authoritarian governments. In agreeing to accept information supplied by disreputable sources that was obtained through illicit means, however, Assange showed that WikiLeaks was not the “white knight” enterprise portrayed by its founder. Assange detested Hillary Clinton, and his willingness to assist the Russian government—under Putin, hardly a bastion of transparent, participatory government—revealed him to be a hypocrite of the first rank.
Donald Trump was delighted by the Democrats’ problems. A long-time celebrity and salesman for his brand, Trump hailed from the school of realpolitik. He had little use for traditional political or ethical considerations. He believed that politics was a zero-sum game; a participant either won or lost. He saw Russian interference in the election as another means to hurt his opponent and help his own campaign. When he learned of the WikiLeaks disclosures, Trump declared himself a Julian Assange fan, although he had disparaged the man and his methods previously. Trump insisted, however, that he had not coordinated or colluded with WikiLeaks or the Russian government.
Hillary Clinton was already struggling to contain a brewing scandal involving emails when the WikiLeaks disclosures occurred. During her tenure as secretary of state in the first term of the Obama administration, she had merged her personal and State Department email accounts, which meant that she possibly had transferred top secret communications on an unsecure server, thereby violating departmental protocols and possibly federal law. The FBI launched an investigation. Clinton and her team sifted through thousands upon thousands of emails, deleting items that were private—perhaps as many as 30,000 entries—and turning over emails containing State Department communications to the FBI. Although the agency found no evidence of criminality, the investigation created a giant public relations problem for the candidate. FBI Director James Comey, in an unusual public announcement in 2016, indicated that no crimes had been committed, but he concluded that Clinton had been extremely reckless in her email usage.
The continuously negative press coverage was a godsend for the Trump presidential campaign. Trump was a stunningly weak candidate with a string of failed businesses and marriages to his credit. He had no experience in elective office, and as a loud-mouthed, obnoxious, famously (and proudly) ignorant septuagenarian, he seemed to have little to recommend him for a position as president of the United States. Associates past and present marveled at his lack of judgment as well as his poor temperament for the job. His only hope of winning the election was to denigrate Hillary Clinton at every opportunity.
For all his deficiencies as a candidate and a human being, Trump was a master at negative campaigning. He possessed an uncanny knack for discovering an opponent’s weaknesses and highlighting them incessantly. Because he was shameless and oblivious to other people’s pain—his niece, Mary L. Trump, a Ph. D clinical psychologist, admitted that he is a narcissist, albeit “the label gets us only so far”—Trump would stop at nothing to undermine, even humiliate a perceived enemy. With the ongoing news stories about Hillary Clinton’s emails, he eagerly exploited the opportunities he had been afforded to attack the Democratic nominee.
Purposely conflating Clinton’s email controversy with stories of Russian hacking of Democratic Party emails, candidate Trump appeared at a news conference on July 27, 2016, with a proposition. “Russia,” he thundered to an approving crowd, “if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.” Subsequently criticized for the comment, Trump insisted that he was joking. The comment and the situation did not appear funny to many observers worried about the integrity of American elections. Investigators later found that Russian operatives took up Trump’s suggestion. On the same day that he uttered his “joke,” hackers attempted to enter Hillary Clinton’s electronic server for the first time.
As American intelligence agencies learned of the Russian interference, the question was what they should do about it. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper included information on the attempt in the President’s Daily Briefing (PDB) that he supplied to Obama. With the 2016 presidential election rapidly approaching, the president worried that any release of information about Russians trying to throw the election to Donald Trump would appear to be partisan manipulation of intelligence to make Trump look bad—“notice how much the Russians, our adversaries, want him to win”—and assist Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Yet sitting on the intelligence was unfathomable. Allowing a foreign government to interfere in an American election with impunity would seriously harm the nation’s electoral process.
Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director John Brennan recommended an “under-the-radar” response. Instead of the president making a prime-time public address castigating the Russians or ignoring a credible threat, Brennan said that he, Brennan, could approach Alexander Bortnikov, his counterpart in the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB), a successor of the infamous Soviet KGB. Brennan would tell Bortnikov that the Americans knew that the Russians were interfering in U.S. elections. The Russians must immediately cease and desist. President Obama agreed that this was a wise approach, and he authorized Brennan to make the contact.
On August 4, 2016, Brennan did as he had been instructed. He reached out to Bortnikov and warned him that the American government would not tolerate continued Russian interference in the election. Bortnikov denied any Russian involvement. With a long record of disinformation and denial, the Russians’ reaction was not surprising. At least the Obama administration had alerted them that the hacking had not gone unnoticed.
In the meantime, DNI Clapper briefed members of Congress on the issue. Much to his dismay, the members reacted along party lines. Anxious to use the information to sully Trump’s candidacy, Democrats asked multiple questions about the intelligence and seized on every detail as damning to Trump. For their part, Republicans did not want to hear about it. They seemed skeptical of the quality of the information and obviously did not believe, or want to believe, what Clapper told them. After a long career in intelligence, Clapper thought that all elected officials would be alarmed by the information, but he realized that he had been naïve. Even intelligence data was seen through a partisan lens.
President Obama understood that his administration needed to do more to discourage Russian hacking and election interference. In September 2016, the president spoke with Russian President Putin privately while the two leaders were attending a G20 summit in China. Obama told Putin that the hacking had to stop. When it became clear that this conversation had no effect, Obama called Putin on the phone on October 31, 2016, and reiterated his concerns. Putin always denied that his country was responsible, but the denials no doubt helped buy him time. He knew that the Obama administration was on the way out of office. Putin could outlast the outgoing president in hopes of receiving preferential treatment form the incoming administration, which was the rationale for the hacking in the first place.
Obama understood precisely what the Russian leader was doing. He instructed the American intelligence community to produce a report on the Russian efforts no later than January 20, 2017, the day his term of office ended. The president also instructed his intelligence officers to use overt and covert methods to foil the Russians, which would include American hacking of Russian computer systems.
On December 29, 2016, less than a month before Obama left the White House, the United States government instituted a series of punitive measures against Russia for interfering in the election. The government sanctioned four high-ranking GRU officials and declared 35 Russian diplomats as personas non grata, ordering the diplomats to leave the country within 72 hours. Vladimir Putin might have retaliated—typically, when one country expels diplomats, the other country immediately reacts with similar measures—but he did not. Putin knew that a Trump administration would be more hospitable to Russia than its predecessor. He could, and did, wait.
Cyberwarfare is a relatively passive form of interference, and Putin sought an active response as well. Consequently, the Russians reached out to potential allies in the United States. Trump’s campaign advisers had innumerable contacts with Russian nationals during 2016, but it was unclear whether the contacts were illegal. American intelligence officials were monitoring Russian government officials, a customary surveillance activity, when they heard their targets mention conversations with many Trump associates.
Paul Manafort, a prominent lobbyist for foreign governments, joined the Trump campaign in March 2016. Intelligence records indicated that Manafort met frequently with Russians before, during, and after his association with the Trump campaign. The most controversial Manafort Russian contact during the 2016 campaign occurred on June 9, 2016, when he, Donald Trump Jr., and the president’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, met with a Russian attorney, Natalia Veselnitskaya, and other Russian nationals in Trump Tower. The purpose of the meeting became a matter of subsequent dispute. Eventually, it was clear that Trump’s team sought damaging information on Hillary Clinton. Their defense was that nothing came of the meeting, and therefore the session was not evidence of a conspiracy between Russians and the Trump campaign to win the 2016 election.
Manafort became Trump’s campaign manager later in June, but he lasted only a few months. Because he carried so much baggage, he became a political liability. Trump accepted Manafort’s resignation after several advisers, notably Kushner, told Trump that Manafort’s overseas lobbying activities raised too many problems. In 2017, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia indicted Manafort on multiple charges for irregularities in his consulting work as well as tax and bank fraud.
Michael Flynn, a former general who later served briefly as Trump’s national security adviser, was another close Trump adviser who seemed cozy with the Russians. Flynn was seen in the company of Vladimir Putin in December 2015. He also had delivered a paid speech in Moscow without disclosing that fact, as required of former high-ranking military leaders. Intelligence intercepts revealed that the Russians believed Flynn’s association with Trump could be used to good advantage. The general was another Trump enthusiast who started the campaign in the candidate’s good graces but became a political liability and departed in disgrace.
Jeff Sessions, a United States senator from Alabama who served as Trump’s first attorney general before falling out of favor, also had Russian contacts, as did Roger Stone, a long-time Trump associate and informal adviser. Both men struggled to defend their associations after they initially lied about their contacts. Fearful of incurring Trump’s wrath, on one hand, and violating federal law, on the other hand, Sessions and Stone walked a fine line that strained their credibility with all parties.
An oil industry consultant and Trump associate, Carter Page, became the target of a United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance (FISA) Court warrant because he was suspected of serving as a Russian foreign agent. While he was acting as a Trump foreign policy adviser, Page had contacts with the Russians that worried American intelligence officials. Trump’s subsequent charge that the “deep state” within the United States government was spying on his campaign was because the FISA court had allowed intelligence officials to monitor Page’s communications. Intelligence officials insisted that they were following leads and it was Page’s contacts with the Russians, not his association with the Trump campaign, that made him the subject of the FISA warrant application.
Because he was Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner enjoyed a special relationship with the president. The relationship created and saved his White House career. When Kushner applied for a security clearance, he failed to disclose multiple meetings with foreign officials, including some Russians. He was denied the security clearance, but Trump overruled the decision. Any other White House staffer likely would have had to leave the staff and seek employment where a security clearance was not required.
Michael Cohen, Trump’s personal lawyer, also had contact with the Russians. When he testified before both chambers of Congress in 2017, Cohen admitted that he had reached out to contacts inside the Kremlin for assistance in building a Trump Tower property in Moscow. Unlike previous presidential candidates, Trump never divested himself of his business holdings, nor did he place them in a blind trust. This decision left Trump and his agents free to pursue business opportunities while he campaigned for president—and even after he won the post—but it also left him especially vulnerable to charges of self-dealing and manipulation by foreign entities.
Furthermore, Trump appeared vulnerable to foreign influence according to a controversial source known as the “Steele dossier.” In June 2016, Christopher Steele, a former agent of the British intelligence agency MI6, accepted an assignment from Fusion GPS, a research firm hired to provide opposition research on Donald Trump. Republican operatives originally hired Fusion GPS when Trump was running for the Republican presidential nomination. After he became the party’s nominee, the Republicans ceased using the firm. The DNC and the Clinton campaign later hired Fusion GPS to continue the opposition research on Trump. Steele was tasked with producing information focusing especially on Trump’s Russian connections.
Steele’s report—the so-called “dossier”—alleged that the Trump campaign conspired with the Russians to steal the election from Hillary Clinton. The dossier contained salacious and unsubstantiated information suggesting that Russian officials possessed compromising information (kompromat) on Trump. The most outrageous claim intimated that the Russians possessed a tape of prostitutes urinating on Trump in a Moscow hotel room in 2013. Even the most diehard anti-Trumper found this tidbit difficult to credit considering Trump’s famous aversion to germs. (Of course, he might have watched the episode without venturing close enough to make physical contact with the prostitutes.)
As the dossier circulated, the issue for media outlets was how they should handle the information. Some sources freely reported material from the dossier, but most mainstream media outlets refused to do so because they could not corroborate many of the allegations. Trump’s operatives insisted that everything in the report was fabricated by his enemies in a desperate attempt to derail his winning political campaign. The sheer outrageous of the dossier made it difficult to credit the allegations as anything other than rumor and innuendo.
Of course, accurate or not, the information could serve multiple purposes. In October 2016, FBI agents used portions of the dossier—although it was not clear which portions—to obtain a FISA warrant in the Carter Page case. Trump and his allies attacked this fact as evidence that the deep state was out to get him, and that the entire FBI investigation of Russian election interference was corrupt and therefore untrustworthy. The FBI responded that the dossier was only a small fraction of the material used to obtain the FISA warrant. According to the Bureau, a FISA warrant probably would have been granted even without the Steele dossier.
After Donald Trump won the presidency in one of the greatest upset victories in American political history, the question of how much the Russians had contributed to that victory remained crucial, although Trump did not care to hear it. As far as the president-elect was concerned, his victory was all that mattered. How he had gotten there, and whatever shortcuts he and his campaign staff had taken, were immaterial. He was ready to put allegations of Russian election tampering behind him by shutting down further investigations.
Despite Trump’s aversion to continuing the Russian investigations, the CIA issued a December 2016 report concluding that “individuals with connections to the Russian government” had provided material to Wikileaks, including the emails hacked from John Podesta’s email account as well as the DNC email account. The Republican National Committee account had been hacked as well, but that material was not disclosed. The report did not reach the conclusion that Trump, or his men, knew of the leaks, or had coordinated with the Russians, but their involvement was an open question.
In addition to the CIA, the FBI investigated the Russian hacking episodes and any possible connections with the Trump campaign. Beginning in July 2016, when the DNC reported the theft, the Bureau followed the trail from the Russian trolls to WikiLeaks. The FBI wanted to find out whether the Trump campaign had been in touch with the hackers or with WikiLeaks. It was possible that Trump had benefited innocently from a foreign government that wanted him to win for reasons unrelated to his participation, but it was also possible that Trump or someone associated with his campaign had been in contact with the Russians or their agents.
The Bureau focused especially on a meeting between George Papadopoulos, a low-level Trump campaign adviser, and Alexander Downer, a prominent Australian politician and diplomat, in London in May 2016. During the meeting, Papadopoulos bragged about his advance knowledge of a release of emails damaging to Hillary Clinton. Papadopoulos had met with a Maltese academic, Joseph Mifsud, a few months earlier. Mifsud had shared his knowledge of the emails with Papadopoulos before the theft of the information from the DNC and the Clinton campaign was common knowledge.
Despite the Papadopoulos connection, in the summer of 2016 the FBI was not certain that the Russians had interfered in the election to help the Trump campaign. It was possible that the interference was simply a general effort to spread disinformation and chaos. Later, intelligence professionals concluded that the Russian favored Trump’s election. On July 31, 2016, the Bureau launched “Operation Crossfire Hurricane,” a code name taken from a Rolling Stones song, for the FBI counterintelligence investigation into links between Trump associates and Russian officials. The goal was to determine whether Donald Trump’s presidential campaign officials were coordinating, “wittingly or unwittingly,” with the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Although the newly inaugurated President Trump was not inclined to examine evidence of Russian interference in the election, other government officials sought information about what happened and how it could be prevented in future elections. Congress and American intelligence agencies launched multiple investigations. To preserve the legitimacy of his victory, Trump repeatedly and emphatically argued that whatever hacking Russia did in the election, if any, had not influenced the outcome. His CIA director, Mike Pompeo, agreed. As Pompeo understood it, the intelligence community concluded that Russian meddling had occurred, but it “did not affect the outcome of the election.”
In response to the allegations of Russian interference, President Trump searched for ways to reassure the public of the legitimacy of his victory. He had always been a paranoid personality, but the barrage of stories about Russian interference only heightened Trump’s deep-seated insecurities. He demanded loyalty from everyone in his administration, including executive branch appointees with fixed terms. When Trump did not receive sufficient guarantees from officials, he typically erupted in anger. In most cases, an errant appointee was dismissed.
FBI Director James Comey was a case in point. Comey was a controversial public figure because he had assumed a higher profile than most of his immediate predecessors. His surprising comments about Hillary Clinton after the Bureau decided not to charge her with a crime and, later, his abrupt decision to reopen the email investigation shortly before the 2016 election incensed Democrats who believed that he had irreparably harmed their candidate. Donald Trump, of course, had been delighted. As president, he hoped that he could persuade Comey to become an ally, especially while the FBI investigated the Russian connection with the Trump campaign. Throughout his adult life, Trump had surrounded himself with loyal supplicants. The question was whether Comey would become another Trump sycophant, in which case he could stay in his position as FBI director—he was four years into a 10-year term—or whether he should be removed from his post.
After Comey testified before Congress in January 2017 about Russian election interference, Trump publicly declared that he retained confidence in the FBI director. Their relationship turned sour, however, after Comey confirmed that the Bureau was investigating a possible link between the Trump campaign and Russia. Comey also disputed Trump’s unfounded allegation that the Obama administration had spied on Trump’s campaign.
At the dawn of the Trump administration, the FBI was investigating General Flynn’s connections with Russia. Although Trump had dismissed Flynn from the position as national security adviser, the president retained a soft spot for the general. Flynn had been an early and avid Trump supporter, appearing at rallies where the audience chanted “lock her up,” a slogan alluding to Hillary Clinton’s alleged crimes, and encouraging the crowd to support their man’s demagoguery. At a one-on-one meeting with Comey on February 14, 2017, the president asked the FBI director to gloss over Flynn’s possible malfeasance.
According to contemporaneous memoranda that Comey wrote shortly after the discussion, the president was unequivocal in delivering his message. “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Trump said. “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.” It was a stunning conversation. The president of the United States was “suggesting” that a federal law enforcement officer drop the prosecution of a potential defendant in a criminal investigation. Unnerved but nonetheless resolute, Comey did not act on the recommendation.
Three months passed after this encounter. By May 2017, Trump had grown disillusioned with Comey. The president was convinced that the myriad investigations into Russian interference in the election, and especially the focus on the Trump campaign, was a “witch hunt” that must be derailed. Comey’s unwillingness to issue a public statement that Trump was not under investigation and his continued probing into sensitive subjects infuriated the president. Trump longed to sack the rogue FBI director and install a crony in his place.
Trump’s advisers cautioned him against taking precipitous action. White House counsel Don McGahn fretted that firing Comey because of the investigation into Russian election interference would create untold political and legal headaches, not to mention establishing potential grounds for an impeachment inquiry. Chief strategist Steve Bannon, as usual, offered a blunt, earthy assessment. While admitting that Comey was unpopular, even inside the FBI, dismissing the man from his position could backfire. “The moment you fire him he’s J. fucking Edgar Hoover,” Bannon explained. “The day you fire him, he’s the greatest martyr in American history. A weapon to come and get you. They’re going to name a special fucking counsel.” These were wise, prescient words.
Despite these admonitions, Trump would not be dissuaded. “Don’t try to talk me out of it,” he told his men, “because I’ve made my decision, so don’t even try.” He needed a pretext for dismissing Comey, and his advisers resolved to manufacture one.
The deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, agreed that Comey should be dismissed for his mishandling of the Clinton email investigation. Seizing on this explanation, Trump directed Rosenstein to record his comments in writing. In response, the deputy attorney general produced a three-page memorandum titled “Restoring Public Confidence in the FBI.” Using this memorandum as his stated justification, Trump relieved Comey of duty on May 9, 2017.
In his termination letter, Trump disingenuously wrote that “I have received the attached letters from the Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General of the United States recommending your dismissal as the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. I have accepted their recommendation and you are hereby terminated and removed from office, effective immediately.” Before he received the letter, Comey saw news coverage of his firing on television while he was visiting the FBI’s Los Angeles field office. The surprised former FBI director rode back to Washington, D.C., on a Bureau plane, although Trump later ranted that Comey should have been left in California to find his own way home. In Trump World, when a disloyal person was gone, he was gone for good, immediately.
If Trump had hoped that the Russia investigation would disappear from the headlines because he dismissed Comey from his post, he was woefully mistaken. Newspapers and online sources blasted the president’s decision. Trump undermined his position when he and administration officials offered conflicting reasons for firing Comey. One rationale for Comey’s dismissal, the White House insisted, was because he had lost the support of rank-and-file agents, although Trump’s press secretary later admitted that she had exaggerated this point. In one of his many explanations, Trump said that Comey “wasn’t doing a good job.”
In the wake of Comey’s abrupt dismissal and the resultant public outcry, the FBI Russian election interference investigation was left in doubt. No one outside of the White House seriously thought that Comey’s firing would shut down the investigation, but the path forward was unclear. A new issue arose: Should the firing be investigated as well?
Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein answered that question on May 17, 2017, when he appointed a special counsel to investigate Russian election interference and related matters, including Comey’s firing. Steve Bannon’s prediction had come true. Rosenstein appointed a well-respected attorney, Robert Mueller, to serve as special counsel. Mueller was an ideal choice. With a long-standing reputation as a straight shooter, the Republican Mueller had served as FBI director from 2001 until 2013, serving in Democratic and Republican presidential administrations. As special counsel, Mueller would have broad powers to hire staff, issue subpoenas for records, compel testimony, and prosecute any federal crimes he and his investigators uncovered.
When he learned of the appointment of a special prosecutor, President Trump as apoplectic. “Everybody’s trying to get me,” he groused. “It’s unfair. Now everybody’s saying I’m going to be impeached.” He claimed that Mueller had too many conflicts of interest to serve in the position. Mueller had once been a member of Trump’s National Golf Club in Sterling, Virginia, and had engaged in a dispute over fees. He also said that Mueller had recently been to see Trump and lobbied for his old position as FBI director. Both comments were false. Mueller had resigned from the golf club because he never used his membership. He had requested a refund of his club fees, but he did not nurse any personal animosity over the issue. As for the position of FBI director, Muller had visited Trump, but the president, not Mueller, mentioned the position. Mueller was not interested. He was working in a prestigious law firm and did not want to return to government service. Rosenstein had pressed him to accept the appointment as special counsel, and Mueller had reluctantly agreed to serve.
The special prosecutor got to work. He assembled a team of dedicated, tenacious investigators and issued an order that they should not leak information to the press. In a town where leaks were common, the Mueller team became known for its deafening silence. The special counsel preferred to work through a grand jury and allow indictments to be his public voice.
In October 2017, George Papadopoulos agreed to plead guilty in what became the first victory in the special counsel’s Russia probe. Papadopoulos confessed that he had lied to the FBI, saying that he had not met with Russian agents when, in fact, he had. As part of his plea deal, Papadopoulos agreed to cooperate with investigators.
That same month, former campaign manager Paul Manafort surrendered to FBI agents after he was indicted on multiple charges. His associate, Rick Gates, facing indictment, surrendered as well. Prosecutors tried to use the indictments to pressure Manafort and Gates to provide information implicating other members of the Trump inner circle, a common prosecutorial practice.
In keeping with his preference for superlatives, President Trump frequently excoriated the investigation into Russian election interference as an unprecedented hoax, the most egregious “witch hunt” in American history. Yet evidence of Russian election meddling was incontrovertible. On February 16, 2018, a grand jury in Washington, D.C., indicted 13 Russian nationals as well as three Russian entities on federal charges of conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to commit bank fraud, and fraud with identification documents. The indictment outlined a pattern of social media activity designed to sow discord and damage Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. Other indictments followed later in 2018.
Two years after his appointment, Mueller’s report on his investigation was the most highly anticipated development in the multiple Russian inquiries. Aside from occasional indictments filed in open court, his investigators had remained remarkably quiet in 2017 and 2018. During that time, President Trump continually had used social media and speeches to attack the special counsel and his “team of angry Democrats” for their unfair prosecutions as part of his effort to discredit their findings before the final report appeared.
On March 22, 2019, Mueller transmitted his two-volume report, titled Report on the Investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 Presidential Election, to Attorney General William Barr. It was the attorney general’s decision as to whether he should release all, some, or none of the report to the public. Barr released a redacted version of the report on April 18, 2019. The redactions occurred pursuant to President Trump’s claim of executive privilege.
Volume I of the report found that insufficient evidence existed to conclude that the Trump campaign “coordinated or conspired with the Russian government in its election-interference activities.” Nonetheless, the report concluded that the Russians interfered “in sweeping and systematic fashion,” and that the purpose was to benefit the Trump candidacy. Moreover, several Trump campaign officials made false statements about their communications with individuals linked to the Russian government, and those same campaign officials obstructed investigations into the matter.
Volume II highlighted the obstruction of justice issue in detail. According to a long-standing DOJ Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) opinion, a sitting United States president is immune from criminal prosecution while he is in office because such proceedings would preempt impeachment proceedings. Accordingly, the special prosecutor believed that he must not accuse Trump of a crime because the president would not have the opportunity to defend himself at trial. In arguably the most befuddling statement in the report, Mueller’s team wrote that the investigation “does not conclude that the President committed a crime,” but “it also does not exonerate him.” The report summarized ten damning incidences where Trump may have obstructed justice, but the report left it to Congress to determine whether the episodes constituted grounds for presidential impeachment.
Before the redacted report appeared in public, Attorney General Barr, a fierce, unapologetic Trump loyalist, sent a four-page letter to Congress. It was a mere two days after Barr had received the Mueller report. Instead of communicating Mueller’s ambivalence about the possibility of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian agents, the attorney general provided his own interpretation. He said that although the report had not reached legal conclusions about obstruction of justice, he and Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein “have concluded that the evidence developed during the Special Counsel’s investigation is not sufficient to establish that the President committed an obstruction-of-justice offense.” He promised to release the report on a later date.
Trump wasted no time in claiming complete vindication, even though the Mueller report did not exonerate the president. Speaking to reporters at Palm Beach International Airport on March 24, 2019, he slipped into the victim role he had pioneered throughout his business and political careers. “So, after a long look, after a long investigation, after so many people have been so badly hurt, after not looking at the other side where a lot of bad things happened, a lot of horrible things happened for our country—it was just announced that there was no collusion with Russia.” He added a postscript that was not factually accurate, but it became the enduring summary of the Mueller investigation. “It’s complete exoneration,” he said.
Newspaper headlines the following day made it clear that the cloud hanging over Trump’s head was gone. It was a new day for his presidency. Although the Mueller report painted a devastating portrait of an immoral, ignorant, petty president, Trump no longer needed to fear impeachment owing to his ties to the Russian Federation or his campaign’s efforts to steal the election from Hillary Clinton. Further recriminations followed, and investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election continued, but Donald Trump was free and clear of the special prosecutor.
When the heavily redacted Mueller report appeared in April 2019, a pattern of Russian interference in the 2016 election was clear to anyone who sifted through the two volumes. Subsequent congressional hearings explored possible changes to thwart future interference, and members of Congress debated potential sanctions against the Russian Federation. The seriousness with which a member of Congress treated the offenses depended on party affiliation. Democrats expressed concern about the integrity of American elections, citing the Russian campaign against the nation’s democracy as one of the biggest threats in the nation’s history. Republicans—possibly concerned that an emphasis on Russian election interference would undermine the legitimacy of the Trump victory, and fearful that the president might post nasty remarks about defectors on Twitter—shrugged off the Democrats’ concerns. Everyone agreed that future elections must be secured and free from outside interference, but their concern for Russian interference in 2016 remained a hotly debated partisan political issue.
Unencumbered by a special counsel’s investigation, and free to pursue a new agenda, most politicians in Trump’s position would have allowed the public brouhaha to subside, perhaps quietly exacting revenge against their opponents at some future date. As he demonstrated repeatedly throughout his public career, however, Trump was not like most politicians. His ability and willingness to nurse grievances were legendary. He was not prepared to put the Mueller report behind him. In numerous speeches and social media postings, he referred to the unfairness of the investigation, constantly touting his innocence and complaining that he had been treated worse than any president in American history.
Aside from his public complaints, Trump urged his advisers to “investigate the investigators.” By 2019, the Trump administration was staffed with sycophants who had abandoned any pretense at professional objectivity or concern for the public interest. If their president wanted them to inquire into the origins of the Russian election interference probe, the administration supplicants would do exactly that. The same month that the Mueller report appeared in public, Attorney General Barr announced that he had initiated a review of the original FBI investigation into Russian election interference. United States Attorney John Durham would lead the investigation of the investigators.
The inquiry continued into 2020. Attorney General Barr remained integrally involved in the investigation, going so far as to contact foreign intelligence officials to learn about FBI activities there. As the 2020 election drew closer, President Trump pressed Barr and Durham to issue a report so that he could use the results to aid in his reelection campaign. When a report was not forthcoming, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, another shameless Trump ally, approved the release of a large volume of previously classified documents to the DOJ about the Obama administration’s handling of the Trump-Russia investigation. Trump hoped that Ratcliffe or Durham would provide him with information leading to indictments of top Obama officials to support the president’s repeated assertions that the Russia investigation was the biggest criminal conspiracy in American history.
Despite the multiple investigations and inquiries, the American public never learned everything about the nature and extent of Russian interference in the 2016 election. The evidence overwhelmingly indicated that the Russians interfered, but their coordination with Donald Trump and his agents was unclear. Moreover, Trump’s strange affinity for Vladimir Putin remained puzzling. As numerous sources suggested, Trump greatly admired immoral authoritarian strongmen who could exercise power with little or no institutional constraints. Perhaps he envied their lack of accountability. Whatever the case, Trump’s willingness to believe Putin’s assertions that Russia did not interfere in American elections while discounting information and data from his own intelligence agencies deeply troubled many Americans.
Even the most biased, pro-Trump supporter must admit that the complete story of Russian interference in American elections, which started before 2016 and continued long past that time, was never fully revealed. Too many questions remained unanswered. Trump’s involvement with Russia in general, and Putin in particular, was confusing. Trump’s associates were not forthcoming with information. Perhaps all that could be said was that foreign interference in American elections, from whatever source, fundamentally threatened, and continues to threaten, the integrity and health of the American republic.