Russia Interfered in 2016 US Elections? Here’s What We Know So Far
Donald Trump (left) and Vladimir Putin. (Photos: Reuters)
Donald Trump (left) and Vladimir Putin. (Photos: Reuters)

Russia Interfered in 2016 US Elections? Here’s What We Know So Far

US President Donald Trump's firing of Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director James Comey on 9 May renewed attention to allegations by US intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the 2016 election campaign to benefit Trump.

The following describes what is publicly known and not known about US investigations into meddling and possible collusion between Russia and members of the Trump campaign:

How Did the Investigations Begin?

Former president Barack Obama ordered US intelligence agencies to assess whether Russia tried to intervene in the election after a cyber attack on the Democratic National Committee in July 2016 and the publication of thousands of hacked personal emails from Hillary Clinton's campaign manager in the month before the 8 November election. Obama told intelligence officials to deliver a report on possible foreign interference before he left the White House in January 2017.

Also Read: A History of Hillary Clinton’s Email Controversy

What Did the Intelligence Agencies Find?

The Central Intelligence Agency, the FBI and the National Security Agency concluded in a report declassified in January that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a campaign not just to undermine confidence in the US electoral system, but to affect the outcome.

Putin's associates hacked information, paid social media "trolls" and backed efforts by Russian government agencies and state-funded media to sway public opinion, the agencies said.

The report stopped short of assessing whether Russia succeeded in swaying the election result.

Also Read: Vladimir Putin Denies Russia’s Alleged Role in US Elections

Trump On Russia's Role

Trump has not taken a clear public position.

I will tell you this, Russia: if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing

Trump said at a July 2016 news conference, in reference to a FBI probe into Clinton's use of a private email system when she was secretary of state and emails, that had possibly been deleted.

Trump subsequently dismissed reports, including from US intelligence officials, that Russia had attempted to intervene in the election on his behalf.

Also Read: Trump Calls Special Counsel for Russia Probe a “Witch Hunt”

The first time Trump said he accepted the findings of the intelligence agencies was at a news conference ahead of his inauguration on 11 January.

As far as hacking, I think it was Russia.
Donald Trump

He then added: "It could have been others also."

Earlier this month, Trump said China may have hacked the emails of Democratic officials to meddle with the election, offering no evidence and countering the view of intelligence officials.

How Many US Probes Are Involved?

Committees in the House of Representatives and the Senate, along with the US Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, are all known to be investigating. Some Democrats and Trump critics have also called on the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel.

Also Read: Former FBI Director Robert Mueller to Lead Trump-Russia Probe

Any Fallout For Trump Staff Over Russian Contacts?

Michael Flynn, Trump's national security adviser, was fired in February. The White House said he had misled Vice President Mike Pence about the contacts he had with Russia's ambassador to the US, Sergei Kislyak, before Trump took office.

On 9 May, federal prosecutors issued grand jury subpoenas seeking business records from people who worked with Flynn when he was a private citizen.

On 10 May, the Senate Intelligence Committee issued the first subpoena in its Russia investigation, demanding documents from Flynn after he declined to voluntarily comply with an earlier request.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions had to recuse himself from involvement in Russia-related probes at the Justice Department because he had not told the Congress of his own contacts with Kislyak in 2016.

Will FBI Probe Continue After Comey's Dismissal?

Comey's departure does not necessarily mean the FBI's Russia investigation will be disrupted or ended as the FBI officials Comey put in charge of it will likely continue working on the matter even as the search for a new director begins.

Also Read: Comey Testifies Trump Fired Him to Scuttle FBI’s Russia Probe

The leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee had raised concerns about the pace of the FBI inquiry before Comey's firing. The congressional probes are dependent on the intelligence produced by the FBI and other agencies.

FBI Acting Director Andrew McCabe, who will lead the agency until a new director is hired, promised the Senate Intelligence Committee that Comey's firing will not affect the investigation and that he will notify the committee of any attempt to delay or derail it.

Why Was Comey Fired?

Attorney General Sessions sent Trump a 9 May letter attaching a memo from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein on "Restoring Confidence in the FBI" that recommended Comey's dismissal.

Also Read: Trump Denies FBI Director’s Sacking Was to Quash Russia Probe

Rosenstein's memo said Comey erred in July 2016 by announcing the FBI had been examining Clinton's use of a private email server and that the case should be closed without prosecution. Rosenstein's view was that Comey's decision to make a public statement on the matter broke with longstanding FBI precedent and should have been handled by the then-US Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

Also Read: Trump Accuses Ex-FBI Director Comey of Cowardice Over ‘Leaks’

Was Comey's Firing Related to the Russia Probe?

The White House says Comey was dismissed because of his handling of the Clinton email investigation. But many Democrats challenged that and some Republicans have expressed skepticism given the delay between Trump taking office on 20 January and Comey's dismissal.

Trump aides have told Reuters that top Justice Department officials wanted a heads-up from Comey about what he would say during a 3 May congressional hearing about the FBI's investigation of Clinton's private email system.

Also Read: Clinton Says ‘There Is No Case Here’ in FBI Email Investigation

Comey told the congressional panel the idea that he may have affected the election result made him "mildly nauseous."

Also Read: FBI Says No Charges On New Clinton Emails, Trump Cries Foul

Just days before his firing, Comey asked Rosenstein for a significant boost in resources to fund the agency's Russia probe, according to media reports. The Justice Department has denied this request was made.

Is Trump Under FBI Investigation?

In the short letter Trump sent to Comey dismissing him from the FBI, he thanked Comey for informing him on three separate occasions that he was not under investigation. Comey has never stated publicly whether or not the FBI was investigating Trump and it would be unorthodox for him to say such a thing to the president. The White House has offered no proof to back Trump's claim.

Also Read: Donald Trump Under Direct Investigation for Obstruction of Justice

Trump has made clear on multiple occasions he believes the Russia investigations have run their course and should be closed. "The Russia-Trump collusion story is a total hoax, when will this taxpayer funded charade end?" he wrote on Twitter on 8 May.

(This article has been published in an arrangement with Reuters.)

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