On October 7th, 2016, the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Homeland Security released a statement on behalf of the nation’s 17 intelligence agencies, declaring their confidence that the Russian government directed the hacking of emails at the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary Clinton campaign. The hacks and subsequent leaks, the letter said, were “intended to interfere with the US election process.”
The hack had been uncovered months earlier, in June; at that time, security experts said the hackers likely had access to the DNC for a year. The same experts immediately suspected Russia was behind the attack.
Donald Trump, Clinton’s rival, wasn’t convinced. The Republican nominee memorably cast doubt on the origin of the hacks during a debate. “I don’t think anybody knows it was Russia that broke into the DNC,” Trump said in September. “Maybe it was – it could be Russia, but it could also be China. Could also be lots of other people. It also could be someone sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds.”
Since Trump’s election, a steady drip of reports have revealed members of his inner circle had repeated contacts with the Russian government throughout the campaign as, intelligence agencies say, the Russians were actively attempting to throw the election to Trump.
Here’s what we know about those contacts.
Paul Manafort, former Trump campaign manager
In January, The New York Times reported that the FBI – with help from the National Security Agency, the CIA and the Treasury Department’s financial crimes unit – is investigating whether intercepted communications and financial transactions demonstrate links between Russian intelligence officers and Trump’s former campaign manager. (Manafort’s defense was that if he did have contact with the Russians, he didn’t do it knowingly. “It’s not like these people wear badges that say, ‘I’m a Russian intelligence officer,'” he told The Times.)
The Times story did not specify what the intercepted communiques said – but a Politico report in February described text messages, hacked from phones belonging to Manafort’s daughter, that suggest Manafort was being blackmailed by a Ukrainian parliamentarian named Serhiy Leshchenko. Leshchenko reportedly threatened to turn over documents incriminating both Manafort and Trump to the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine and the FBI if he did not hear from Manafort.
As Trump’s campaign manager, Manafort, who worked for more than 10 years as a lobbyist in Ukraine, oversaw an effort to ensure that the new Republican platform did not include a position – supported by most Republicans at the time – in favor of providing the Ukrainian government with arms it could use to fight Russian and rebel forces.
The Times previously reported in August, shortly before Manafort left the Trump campaign, that the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine was in possession of a secret ledger that listed some $12.7 million in cash paid out to Manafort. In the hacked texts, Manafort’s daughter refers to her father’s work in Ukraine as “legally questionable” and the money he was paid for that work as “blood money.”
Carter Page, former Trump foreign policy adviser
The same Times report that detailed the investigation into Manafort said investigations into two other Trump associates – Carter Page and Roger Stone – were also ongoing. Page was named a foreign policy advisor by the Trump campaign in March 2016 but took a leave of absence from the campaign in September, when reports emerged that U.S. intelligence agencies were investigating his interactions with senior Russian officials, including former Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin and Deputy Chief for Internal Policy Igor Diveykin – the man U.S. officials believed was in charge of “intelligence collected by Russian agencies about the U.S. election.”
Page confirmed to MSNBC on Thursday that he met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak at the RNC in Cleveland as well.
Roger Stone, informal adviser
A longtime Republican operative and self-described “ratfucker,” Stone was in contact with Trump throughout the run-up to the election and often appeared on television and at rallies in support of the GOP nominee, though he served no official role in the campaign. Stone claimed to have inside knowledge about the content of the emails hacked from the Clinton campaign and the timing of their release. When WikiLeaks released emails hacked from the DNC over the summer, Stone touted knowledge that more would come. In August, months before Clinton campaign manager John Podesta’s emails were leaked, he tweeted a warning: “Trust me, it will soon the Podesta’s time in the barrel. #CrookedHillary.”
Stone later denied any foreknowledge of the leaks to The Times, calling the allegations “nonsense” and “totally false.” He added, “I have no Russian influences.”
General Michael Flynn, former Trump national security adviser
In late December, the day President Obama announced new sanctions against Russia in response to the Kremlin’s apparent efforts to sink Clinton’s candidacy and install Trump as president, Michael Flynn spoke five times with Kislyak. White House spokesman Sean Spicer later told reporters that the reason for the calls was to express condolences for two Russian tragedies: the killing of the Russian ambassador to Turkey and the shoot-down of a Russian plane carrying a choir to Syria. Vice President Mike Pence went on TV to defend Flynn, telling Face the Nation the fact that the calls took place the same day Obama announced he would expel 35 Russian diplomats was “strictly coincidental.”
Flynn, the former director of national intelligence, was apparently unaware of the fact that the FBI routinely wiretaps the phone calls of the Russian delegation in Washington. Recordings and transcripts of the calls later revealed that Flynn and Kislyak, whom intelligence officials reportedly consider a top spy and spy recruiter, did indeed discuss sanctions on the calls. The same day, Vladimir Putin announced he would not retaliate against the U.S. for the sanctions, and would wait for the new administration to come in before responding. Trump later praised the “good move” by the “very smart” Russian president on Twitter.
In addition to his December 2016 calls with Kislyak, Democrats in Congress raised questions about a December 2015 trip Flynn took to Russia. During the trip, paid for by the Russian government, Flynn attended a 10th anniversary gala thrown in honor of Kremlin-funded news network RT. At the dinner, also attended by Green Party candidate Jill Stein, both Flynn and Stein were seated at Putin’s table.
According to a Thursday New York Times report, “among Mr. Trump’s inner circle, it is Mr. Flynn who appears to have been the main interlocutor with the Russian envoy” during the campaign.
Jeff Sessions, Trump attorney general
A bombshell Washington Post report published Wednesday night names at least two occasions on which Sessions, the former Alabama senator recently confirmed as Trump’s attorney general, met with Kislyak, the Russian ambassador. According to the Post, Sessions met with Kislyak first at a Heritage Foundation event held during the July Republican National Convention and then again in September, in a private conversation in Sessions’ office during “the height of what U.S. intelligence officials say was a Russian cyber campaign to upend the U.S. presidential race.”
Under oath during his confirmation hearing, Sessions denied any knowledge of communication between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. “I’m not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I did not have communications with the Russians.” Amid calls to resign (from Democrats) and recuse himself from the investigation into Russian interference in the election (from Republicans), Sessions announced Thursday afternoon he would recuse himself from any investigations relating to the election.
Jared Kushner, Trump son-in-law and senior adviser
In addition to his repeated contacts with Flynn and Sessions during the campaign, the New Yorker reports that Kislyak met with Kushner during a previously undisclosed meeting at Trump Tower in December. The White House told the magazine that the point of their confab was to create “a more open line of communication in the future.”
JD Gordon, former Trump campaign national security adviser
The Trump campaign’s bewildering obsession with gutting a Republican Party plank that supported arming Ukraine in its fight against rebels supported by Russian forces was, at the time, widely believed to be an example of Manafort’s influence. But on Thursday, JD Gordon – then national security adviser to the Trump campaign – told CNN that orders to reword the platform came directly from Trump himself. Gordon told CNN’s Jim Acosta that at a March meeting in Washington, D.C., Trump instructed his advisers to pursue the language that was eventually adopted. According to Gordon, Trump said he didn’t want to “go to World War III over Ukraine.”
Gordon also told CNN he also met with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak while in Cleveland for the convention – twice. Gordon’s first meeting with Kislyak, at Case Western Reserve University, was attended by Trump advisers Carter Page and Walid Phares. He met with the Russian ambassador again at a cocktail party later that night, he said.