Russia, Trump, and the 2016 U.S. Election

Special Counsel Robert Mueller during his tenure as FBI Director in 2012.

Charges of foreign power interference in the U.S. presidential election have raised grave national security concerns and touched off multiple federal inquiries that could drag on for months.


Allegations that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election have gripped Washington and kicked off multiple investigations into the campaign of President Donald J. Trump. At the root of these investigations are concerns about the security of the U.S. electoral process and whether a rival power might be able to influence an election’s results.

Russia has vehemently denied the charges, while Trump has dismissed them as politically motivated. However, the ongoing investigations and related media scrutiny have already prompted the resignation of a top Trump administration official and resulted in indictments of former campaign staff. The inquiries could go on for many more months.

Established Timeline of Russian Interference into U.S. Elections and Subsequent Investigations

Timeline of Russian Interference in U.S. 2016 Presidential Elections and Subsequent Investigations
Source: Council on Foreign Relations

Who accuses Russia of interfering in the election?

The CIA, FBI, and National Security Agency have jointly stated with “high confidence” that the Russian government conducted a sophisticated campaign to influence the recent election. President Vladimir Putin ordered the effort, the U.S. agencies said in a January 2017 report [PDF], with the dual aims of damaging Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and undermining the U.S. democratic process. “Putin and the Russian government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump,” the declassified version of the report said.

Trump’s transition team initially downplayed the intelligence community’s assessment. “These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction,” the team said in a statement. But in a press conference weeks later, Trump said, “As far as hacking, I think it was Russia. But I think we also get hacked by other countries and other people.”

In June, Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials said that individuals linked to the Kremlin attempted to infiltrate election-related computer systems in more than twenty states. Authorities do not believe that Russian hackers tampered with the vote count, but said they were likely scanning the systems for weaknesses.

What measures is Russia accused of taking?

The Russian effort involved overt activities by government agencies, state-backed media, and paid internet “trolls,” as well as covert operations, including illicit cyber activities conducted by intelligence agents.

The Russian government used state-funded media outlets, including the website and radio broadcaster Sputnik and television network Russia Today (RT), to disadvantage the Clinton presidential campaign, the U.S. intelligence report said. RT’s portrayal of Clinton during the run-up to the election, it found, “was consistently negative and focused on her leaked emails and accused her of corruption, poor physical and mental health, and ties to Islamic extremism.” Both Sputnik and RT produce media in several languages, including English, for international audiences.

Russia also took its influence campaign to highly trafficked social media spaces, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. A Russian entity with links to the Kremlin known as the Internet Research Agency (IRA) is reported to have hired hundreds of “trolls” to post false news stories and socially divisive content on these and other websites. Facebook, for instance, said the IRA posted content that reached more than 140 million of its users.

Meanwhile, Russian agents hacked into computer systems associated with both major U.S. political parties. They are believed to have stolen thousands of emails from leading Democratic Party figures in early 2016 and leaked them online weeks ahead of the party’s national convention in July. Russian military intelligence “used the Guccifer 2.0 persona,, and WikiLeaks to release U.S. victim data obtained in cyber operations publicly,” U.S. intelligence agencies said in the January report. The leaked documents contained correspondence described by the Washington Post as “an embarrassing look at Democratic Party operations.”

It is unclear whether Russia’s influence campaign influenced the election’s results. U.S. intelligence agencies have not evaluated its electoral consequences.

What are U.S. authorities investigating?

There are multiple investigations into the role Russia played in the 2016 election. Special Counsel Robert Mueller is leading a criminal inquiry for the Department of Justice (DOJ), the most high-profile investigation. He has the mandate to examine any links or coordination between Trump’s presidential campaign and the Russian government, as well as any matters that may arise from the investigation itself, including any efforts to obstruct it. Mueller took over the inquiry from FBI Director James Comey, who was fired by Trump in May 2017. Mueller can prosecute individuals for committing federal crimes.

At the same time, both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives Intelligence committees, as well as the U.S. Senate judiciary subcommittee on crime and terrorism, have begun inquiries into Russia’s interference in the election. While congressional investigations may bring new information to light, they do not result in criminal prosecutions, except in the event of a witness refusing to comply with a subpoena or lying under oath. They can, however, result in legislation or other congressional action, including, potentially, impeachment.

Did the Trump campaign conspire with Russia?

As a matter of law, the central question is not whether members of the Trump campaign coordinated or colluded with Russia, but whether they conspired with Russians to break a criminal statute, or whether they broke the law themselves. For instance, investigators will ask whether any member of the Trump campaign conspired with Russian agents to hack into Democratic National Committee (DNC) email accounts, which violated the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. “Collusion” and “coordination” are not legally relevant terms, but they are often used as shorthand to refer to such a criminal conspiracy.

Several senior members of the Trump campaign, including Donald J. Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner, Jeff Sessions, and Michael T. Flynn, have acknowledged meeting with Russian officials or individuals with links to the Kremlin in the months leading up to the election. But these and other interactions may have been lawful. President Trump has denied that his campaign colluded with the Russian government.

Have the various investigations reached any outcomes?

The investigations and intense media scrutiny associated with them have produced several remarkable developments involving members of the Trump campaign and administration.

In February 2017, Flynn resigned from his post as national security advisor amid revelations about his contacts with Sergey Kislyak, then Russia’s ambassador to the United States, before the inauguration.

In March, Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from federal inquiries into Russia’s interference in the U.S. election after he acknowledged meeting Kislyak during the presidential campaign. During his Senate confirmation hearing, Sessions had said he “did not have communications with the Russians.”

In October, Mueller obtained a guilty plea from one Trump associate and indicted two others. George Papadopoulos, a foreign policy advisor to the Trump campaign, pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI about meetings with Russian nationals. Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, and Richard Gates, Manafort’s business partner, were charged with multiple counts, including conspiracy to launder money and failing to register as a foreign agent.

When will the investigations end?

There is no fixed timeline for the Mueller or congressional investigations, and experts say they could go on for many more months, or even years. Past special counsel investigations have taken more than four years.

Once Mueller has completed his investigation, he will be required to submit to the U.S. attorney general (or the acting U.S. attorney general in this case, because Sessions recused himself) a confidential report explaining his decisions on whether to prosecute. The official can opt to make the report public if doing so would serve the “public interest.”

Can the president fire Mueller?

Some Trump supporters have called on the president to dismiss Mueller, which has raised a debate over the special counsel’s independence. Per DOJ regulations, only the U.S. attorney general can remove the special counsel, and only with “good cause,” such as misconduct or dereliction of duty. However, some legal experts say the president can ignore these regulations and fire the special counsel for any reason if he feels the DOJ regulations infringe on his constitutional powers.

Can the president be impeached as a result of the investigations?

A central question in impeachment discussions turns on what qualifies as impeachable conduct. The U.S. Constitution states that the president and other officials “shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.”

While treason and bribery are fairly straightforward offenses, there is much debate over what constitutes “high Crimes and Misdemeanors,” terms which are not defined in either the Constitution or federal statutes. Some legal scholars contend that only criminal conduct is impeachable, while others say that other abuses of office or violations of the public trust could be impeachable offenses. Some legal analysts and Democratic lawmakers say Trump’s actions warrant an impeachment inquiry by Congress.

The process would begin in the House of Representatives, where articles of impeachment must pass with a simple majority of those present. The baton would then be passed to the Senate, which would conduct a trial and render a judgment. Conviction—removal from office—would require a two-thirds majority vote of senators present. In the 115th Congress (2017–2019), the Republican Party controls both the House and Senate.

Deputy Editor at Council on Foreign Relations

Via Council on Foreign Relations
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