Ok, if you’re like me, you’re probably finding it difficult to keep track of the procession of events unfolding around us. There’s chaos – a White House administration that rarely seems to share a page; there’s running roughshod across the Constitution – Executive Orders, barring members of the press from White House briefings; there are lies – Kellyanne Conway and fake terrorist attacks; Trump and fake terrorist attacks; there’s a Congress whose members are refusing to communicate with their constituents while working furiously to roll back healthcare from about 20 million of them; there’s Bannon – who, rumor has it, is drafting the Executive Orders and Presidential Memorandums, who has also vowed to dismantle the administrative state (Leninist that he is); the list goes on and on and on and on. I’m 90% convinced that the insanity is pre-calculated to wear us out, confuse us, and force us to give up on pushing back.
Then there’s also Russia, and holy heck is there a tangled web there. So I’ve decided to pull together a “starter” outline of the progression of events that led us to where we are now – with a national security advisor who resigned due to ties with Ukraine’s pro-Russian government and a president who is trying to lead an all-out assault on the country’s intelligence agencies. Are we living in a James Bond movie right now??
Spring of 2016 (yes, there was already ongoing investigation at this early date)
Sources to get you started:
Who: An informal, inter-agency working group made up of the FBI, CIA, National Security Agency, the Justice Department, the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, and representatives of the Director of National Intelligence.
What they were doing: Looking at possible Russian involvement with the US election system. This was prompted after the CIA received a recording that showed the Russian government planned to disrupt the election. Specifically, the CIA director was given a tape recording of a conversation about money from the Kremlin going into the US presidential campaign. It was passed to the US by an intelligence agency of one of the Baltic States.
What else they were doing: In June, lawyers from the National Security Division in the Department of Justice drew up an application to intercept the electronic records from two Russian banks the Fisa court (named after the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act). This initial application was denied. In July, the lawyers returned to the court with a more narrowly drawn order. This, too, was rejected.
Summer of 2016
Who: Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence agent (who was, at that time, still unnamed). He’d been a former senior intelligence officer who specialized in Russian counterintelligence but was working for a US firm that gathers information on Russia for corporate clients (ugh, the dirty underbelly of global corporatism). Steele had been assigned the task of researching Trump’s dealings in Russia and elsewhere.
What he was doing: The project on which Steele was working was an opposition research project funded by a Republican client who was critical of Trump. The project’s financing later switched to a client allied with Democrats. Steele said it started off “as a fairly general inquiry.” But then he came across troubling information: He turned up an established exchange of information between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin of mutual benefit. He also noted that the “Russian regime has been cultivating, supporting and assisting TRUMP for at least 5 years. Aim, endorsed by PUTIN, has been to encourage splits and divisions in western alliance.” [If true, Russia is a seriously conniving SOB. Not that we’re probably any less conniving, given the sorts of things the CIA has been involved with.] Steele felt that there was enough of an issue (the information was “sufficiently serious”) to share with the FBI. (Buzzfeed published an article in January with all of Steele’s findings with a disclaimer that the information was unverified. )
Who: Paul Manafort, who briefly served as Trump’s campaign manager before stepping down.
What he was doing: Well, resigning. But he was resigning because of news reports covering his business connections in Russian and his work as a consultant for a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine. New reports also suggest that Manafort was facing blackmail while he served as Trump’s presidential campaign chairman, and there are also reports that he was taking out puzzling real estate loans.
Fall of 2016
- Slate article
Who: That inter-agency investigatory group.
What they were doing: On October 15, 2016, a new judge on the Fisa court granted lawyers their order for permission to intercept the electronic records from those two Russian banks. Neither Trump nor any of his associates are explicitly named in the order, but ultimately, the investigation was looking for transfers of money from Russian to the United States. If proved, each one would be a felony. A lawyer outside of the DOJ (but who was nonetheless familiar with the case) said that three of Trump’s associates were the subject of the inquiry and that it was clear that the investigation was “about Trump.” This investigation was obviously very active going into the election and during that period, Harry Reid wrote Comey to accuse him of holding back “explosive information” about Trump. This was after Reid was a part of an eight-person intelligence briefing at which they were barred from taking notes.
Who: Reporters in Washington.
What they were doing: In October, reporters tried to determine whether anonymous online reports that a computer server related to the Trump Organization engaged in a high level of activity with servers connected to Alfa Bank, the largest private bank in Russia. A Slate investigation detailed the server activity but concluded “we don’t yet know what this [Trump] server was for, but it deserves further explanation.”
Who: The Department of Homeland Security and Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
What they were doing: On October 7, DHS and ODNI delivered a joint statement saying that the U.S. intelligence community believed Russia was behind a hacking operation “to interfere with the U.S. election process.” They also stated, “We believe, based on the scope and sensitivity of these efforts, that only Russia’s senior-most officials could have authorized these activities.” The statement finished with urging state and local election officials to “be vigilant and seek cybersecurity assistance from DHS.”
Winter of 2016
- WaPo article
Who: Former President Barack Obama
What he was doing: Besides NOT TELLING the American people that all of this was going on, on December 9, Obama also order the U.S. intelligence community to review Russia’s hacking operation. He asked that it produce a public report before his term ended. On December 29, his administration sanctioned Russia after determining that the country hacked the Democratic Party in an effort to influence the U.S. election. Along with this, the administration expelled 35 Russian intelligence officials from the U.S. and closed Russian intelligence-gathering facilities in New York and Maryland. [Why are there clandestine foreign intelligence-gathering facilities over here? More importantly, why are they allowed to just Netflix and chill while the government knows about them and goes about its business?] Additionally, Obama signed an executive order that sanctioned nine individuals and groups for being involved in election-related hacking.
Who: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell/Congress
What he was doing: At this point in time, McConnell was very much about investigating Russia. He even said “The Russians are not our friends.” He made this hard-hitting piece of commentary on the same day that House and Senate lawmakers from both parties called for an investigation into the matter. [Yeah, so about that, guys…] But, true to form, McConnell said this after having formerly dismissed the intelligence assessments from earlier in the fall that suggested Russia was trying to sway the elections. I guess you could say he’s an opportunistic kind of fellow. BUT, caveat, McConnell did not want a panel inquiry and Paul Ryan agreed with this, announcing that the House Intelligence Committee was already “working diligently on the cyber threats posed by foreign governments and terrorist organizations.” Both argued that the alleged attacked were a partisan issue and Ryan said “As we work to protect our democracy from foreign influence, we should not cast doubt on the clear and decisive outcome of this election.” [Is it just me, or is there some direct contradiction happening in that statement?]
January 6, 2017
Who: ODNI [As an aside, that might be my favorite government acronym]
What they were doing: ODNI released a declassified version of its report to Obama on Russia’s role in the election. The report is full of information (you know, if you have a free hour to sift through it, I recommend it), but ODNI concludes, with “high confidence” that Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the hacking operation in an effort to hurt Clinton’s campaign and help elect Trump. The report determined that the GRU (Russia’s military intelligence service) gave the information it obtained from the DNC and Clinton campaign’s emails to WikiLeaks. It also stated that Russia’s effort to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election “represented a significant escalation in directness, level of activity, and scope of effort compared to previous operations aimed at U.S. election” and that it was the boldest influence effort yet in the U.S.
January 10, 2017
Who: The leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee
What they were doing: In a joint statement issued on January 13, Chairman Richard Burr and Vice Chairman Mark Warner said that the U.S. intelligence community’s October 2016 report, which concluded that Russia had stuck its nose into the election, “raised profound concerns.” They went on to say that the panel would conduct an inquiry into Russia’s role in the election and that the investigation would include a review of the U.S. intelligence assessment released in October. It would further inquire into “any intelligence regarding links between Russia and individuals associated with political campaigns.” The two senators also stated that they planned to hold hearing and conduct interviews of current and former administration officials (and issue subpoenas to compel testimony, if necessary.) Senator Warner added, “This issue impacts the foundations of our democratic system, it’s that important. This requires a full, deep, and bipartisan examination.”
January 15, 2017
Who: Vice President Mike Pence
What he was doing: Pence was getting in on the denial action (because, who knows, if Trump gets impeached there could be blowback onto Pence). In interviews on Face the Nation and Fox News Sunday [because where else would he go to be interviewed], Pence insisted that Flynn did not discuss U.S. sanctions against Russia in conversations with Kislyak (Russian diplomat who has served as Russia’s Ambassador to the U.S. since 2008) before Trump took office. [But note that Pence made his assertion based on what Flynn told him, rather than on any objective information; also Flynn probably did discuss the sanctions] Why is any of this relevant? Because under the Logan Act, it’s illegal for a private citizen to communicate with foreign governments or officials to try to influence foreign policy. While Flynn was a top foreign policy advisor to Trump during the campaign and the national security advisor-designate during the transition, he remained a private citizen until formally taking over as national security advisor after Trump was sworn in as president.
February 2, 2017
Who: The Senate Subcommittee on Crime and Terrorism
What they were doing: The Subcommittee announced that it was launching its own separate probe into Russia’s election hacking. Senators Lindsey Graham (Chairman) and Sheldon Whitehouse (Ranking Member) gave a joint statement and said, “Our goal is simple – to the fullest extent possible we want to shine a light on Russian activities to undermine democracy.” They explained their goals as being as follows: (1) Gain a full understanding of the American intelligence community’s assessment that Russia did take an active interest and play a role in the recent American elections; (2) Learn more about the methods Russia has used to target democratic nations and elections; (3) Explore possible avenues to help prevent and deter future foreign influences from impacting American elections and institutions; (4) Assure that Congress provides the FBI tools it needs to keep its investigative work protected from political influence.
February 9, 2017
Who: The Washington Post
What they were doing: The Washington Post published a story showing that Flynn had indeed talked about the sanctions on Russia in his calls with the Russian ambassador. More importantly, the Post’s story stated that the calls started before Trump had won the election on November 8.
February 13, 2017
Who: Michael Flynn
What he was doing: Michael Flynn was busy resigning. His resignation letter was supremely annoying in that it included the following statement, “I inadvertently briefed the Vice President Elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian Ambassador.” [Pretty sure we call that “lying about what I did” but okay.] But Flynn also couldn’t let it go and tried to defend his actions by saying that “such calls are standard practice” and refusing to admit to any wrongdoing. [Probs cause of the Logan Act…]
February 14, 2017
Who: Sean Spicer
What he was doing: Damage control. Spicer stated that Trump learned of Flynn’s phone calls about two weeks before his resignation. But, like much of what has happened in this administration, everyone is on a different page her. The Vice President’s office said that Pence found out about the “true content” of the calls (and Flynn’s lies) through reading about it in the media reports, about two weeks after Trump found out. [So Trump “found out” but then didn’t actually tell anyone, including his VP.]
Who: The New York Times
What it was doing: The NYT published a story reporting that U.S. intelligence agencies had intercepted communications between several people associated with Trump or his campaign and Russian government officials during the election. [So, probably everybody knew about all of this. Except maybe Pence, actually.]
February 16, 2017
Who: Donald Trump
What he was doing: Trump was vigorously defending Flynn’s actions in a lengthy news conference at the White House [because, let’s be honest, all of his news conferences are lengthy]. Trump was asked whether any officials with his campaign had communicated with Russia during the election and Trump said “nobody that I know of.” He also launched into another diatribe about “fake news” and that any reports about his campaign’s ties to Russia were fake, stating, “Russia is a ruse. I have nothing to do with Russia. Haven’t made a phone call to Russia in years.”
February 17, 2017
Who: FBI Director James Comey
What he was doing: Comey had a closed-to-the-press briefing with the Senate Intelligence Committee panel investigating Russia’s interference with the 2016 election. According to Senators Warner and Burr, the briefing was closed to the press because they don’t want the investigation to “default to a partisan food fight that doesn’t serve the public interest.”
February 24, 2017
- Slate article
Who: Donald Trump
What he was doing: Trump is in an all-out war with U.S. intelligence agencies. He called the FBI a dangerously porous agency and stated that leaks of classified information from within the agency were putting the country at risk. He characterized law enforcement and intelligence agencies as misguided, irresponsible, and politically motivated. These criticisms appeared to be related to the fact that the White House asked the FBI to rebut an article that detailed contacts between Trump’s associates and Russian intelligence officials and the FBI refused.
And now…we sit around and wait and see where this circus lands.