President Donald Trump‘s first 10 weeks in office—yes, it’s only been 10 weeks—have been embroiled in scandal, controversy, failed legislative efforts, and sinking poll numbers.
None of these is more baffling than the ongoing investigations into Russia’s attempts to sway the 2016 election and potential collusion between Trump associates and Russian operatives.
Amid an endless barrage of headlines and 24-hour news coverage around Trump, Russia, and its dizzying array of moving parts, Trump’s supporters see an outsider commander-in-chief besieged by a hypocritical political and corporate media establishment hell-bent on destroying the one leader with the guts to shake up the status quo and return America to its elusive greatness. All this Russia talk is a deliberate distraction and an impediment to what really matters: Jobs, security, law, and order.
Trump’s critics, meanwhile, have watched with growing morbid glee over the possibility that their worst suspicions about America’s 45th president are real—that he’s the dumb, tactless gangster-traitor they thought he was from the beginning.
On both sides, the temptation to hunker down in partisan bunkers stocked with wild tales of conspiracy is all too real.
There’s good reason for this unraveling view of reality: The Trump–Russia controversy is very, very weird. Historically weird. And given this weirdness, it’s hard to talk about what’s going on without sounding like you’ve jumped ship for Nonsense Land.
Here is my attempt—and it will probably fail—to explain what’s happening with regards to Team Trump and Russia without diving into speculation, exaggeration, or willy-nilly dot-connecting.
Russia’s election meddling
This is where it all begins.
The U.S. intelligence community concluded in a 25-page public report released on Jan. 6 that operatives working for the Russian government attempted to meddle in the 2016 presidential election. The efforts, according to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), included stealing emails from Democratic National Committee staffers and Hillary Clinton campaign manager John Podesta, then leaking the emails to WikiLeaks, spamming the internet with anti-Clinton messaging, and engaging in other “influence campaigns.”
ODNI’s report found that Russian President Vladimir Putin was personally involved, and the primary goal was to hurt Clinton.
Trump maintained that the focus on Russia’s “election hacking,” as it confusingly came to be known—Moscow is not accused of literally hacking voting machines, but is instead accused of doing things to influence American voters—was simply part of a “political witch-hunt” and he consistently downplayed Russia’s efforts. “[T]here was absolutely no effect on the outcome of the election including the fact that there was no tampering whatsoever with voting machines,” Trump said in early January, prior to the release of ODNI’s report.
The House Intelligence Committee, the Senate Intelligence Committee, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation are all investigating what happened and who was involved. FBI Director James Comey told the House Intelligence Committee that its investigation includes looking into ties between Trump associates and Russia.
The White House, meanwhile, maintains that leaks of classified information—not Russia, which Trump called “fake news”—is the “real story,” as the president once put it.
That’s basically where we’re at as of the beginning of April 2017: Some concrete information about Russia’s efforts to screw with the presidential election, a lot of investigating, and the Trump administration’s efforts to deflect the conversation.
Trump’s ties to Russia
President Trump’s connections to Russia date back to 1987, but the president himself is generally at least one step removed from most of the activities people are talking about when they say “Trump’s ties to Russia.” (Yes, including me right here. See, I’m already failing.) However, no fewer than 14 people in Trump’s administration or inner circle have known connections to Russia, to one degree or another.
Three former Trump advisers—campaign manager Paul Manafort, foreign policy adviser Carter Page, and National Security Adviser Michael Flynn—all resigned due to various improprieties involving Russia and its interests. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, now head of the Department of Justice and national security adviser on Trump’s campaign, recused himself from all investigations involving Russia and Trump’s team on March 2 after reports revealed that he lied during his confirmation hearing about meeting with Russian officials prior to the inauguration. (A former U.S. senator from Alabama, Sessions met Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak at least twice during the 2016 campaign season.) Other Trump associates linked to various Russian officials or oligarchs include: Son-in-law Jared Kushner, son Donald Jr., Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, friend and adviser Roger Stone, former campaign adviser J.D. Gordon, campaign adviser Michael Caputo, Manafort business associate Rick Gates, and Trump attorney Michael Cohen.
For a detailed overview of how these Trump associates are linked to Russia, check out the Washington Post‘s excellent explainer.
Trump’s treatment of Russia and Putin
Amid Russia’s hack of the DNC and Podesta, WikiLeaks publishing their stolen emails, and multiple Trump advisers resigning for Russia-related scandals, Trump maintained a friendly view of Russia and Putin, whom he’s called both a “really, really bad guy” and a “strong” leader. When Putin praised Trump in 2015, Trump said it was a “great honor.” To see everything Trump has said about Putin and Russia over the past few years, check out CNN’s thorough timeline—it’s worth the read.
Trump has also spoken out repeatedly against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), an international military alliance formed after World War II that Russia’s government opposes. And the Republican Party under Trump changed its official platform during the party’s convention in July 2016 to water down the GOP’s stance on defending Ukraine from Russian aggression.
When asked to explain why he departed from the GOP’s historically hardline stance on Russia, Trump simply says that it’s better to for the U.S. and Russia to work together than to be enemies.
The Nunes twist
Everything up to this point is well-trod territory, and a reasonable person can write off all of the above as the byproduct of a longtime real estate mogul with a knot of international business ties and no prior political experience running for president.
Enter Rep. Devin Nunes, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
Before the House and Senate Intelligence Committees began their investigations, Trump accused former President Barack Obama of having his “wires tapped” at Trump Tower ahead of Election Day—an explosive allegation of political corruption. To date, neither the White House nor Trump himself offered evidence that this is true. Instead, they called on Congress to investigate.
Soon after Trump accused Obama of spying on him, the House Intelligence Community began its investigation into Russia’s election meddling. On the first day of the hearing, March 20, FBI Director James Comey confirmed that the bureau was investigating Russia’s activities and that the investigation “includes any links between the Trump campaign” and “an assessment of whether any crimes were committed.”
Two days later, on March 22, Nunes—who, remember, is leading the House Intelligence investigation—announced that the intelligence community had “incidentally collected information about U.S. citizens involved in the Trump transition,” potentially including Trump himself. He said that this was not the wiretap of Trump Tower that the president mentioned, and that he believed the incidental surveillance was obtained legally but that it was not connected to Russia. However, he also mentioned that the names of American citizens, which are usually redacted from surveillance of foreign targets, had been “unmasked,” meaning they were uncensored for some reason. Why they were unmasked is part of what Nunes wanted to find out.
Regarding allegations of improper "unmasking" — US officials tell me the decision to unmask rests with the NSA and its lawyers.
— Ken Dilanian (@KenDilanianNBC) March 31, 2017
NSA Director Mike Rogers testified that 20 people at the agency have the authority to unmask.
— Ken Dilanian (@KenDilanianNBC) March 31, 2017
Former NSA Director Keith Alexander told me he turned down requests from both Bush and Obama officials to unmask.
— Ken Dilanian (@KenDilanianNBC) March 31, 2017
Nunes also said, in response to a reporter’s question, that “the administration isn’t aware of this, so I need to make sure I go over there and tell them what I know. Because it involves them.” Nunes later told a Bloomberg reporter that his sources did not work in the White House.
After the press conference, Nunes went to the White House to do just that—and he did all this without first briefing other members of the House Intelligence Committee. The surveillance of Trump associates and their unmasking would become the issue pushed by the White House as the most important.
Turns out, Nunes viewed the classified intelligence documents on the White House grounds (likely at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building) on the night of March 21, and his unnamed sources, according to the New York Times and Washington Post, were, in fact, White House staffers.
Nunes’ sources reportedly include Michael Ellis, a White House attorney who used to work with Nunes on the House Intelligence Committee, and Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director of intelligence on the National Security Council (NSC), which serves the president. Ellis is the person who reportedly met with Nunes. Cohen-Watnick, who was brought on by Michael Flynn, is notable because National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster attempted to fire him but Trump wouldn’t allow it after Cohen-Watnick got the support of Kushner and Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon. According to the Post, Cohen is the person who gathered the intelligence materials, which he reportedly discussed with top NSC attorney John Eisenberg.
This is where things get tough for us non-conspiracy theorists.
So, let’s just sum up what we know, assuming the relating reports are accurate: Nunes went the White House grounds, got handed classified intelligence compiled and shared by White House officials, held a press conference about what he found out without telling members of the House Intelligence Committee first, went back to the White House to brief President Trump on what the president’s own staff had revealed to him, and repeatedly lied to reporters about the sources of his information.
Oh, and right around the time that the Times and Post unveiled Nunes’ alleged sources on Thursday, the Wall Street Journal revealed that Flynn would testify before the House, Senate, and FBI if he received immunity—a move even Trump believes implies guilt.
This is where we stand as of Saturday. The House Intelligence Committee investigation has all but fallen apart as critics call for Nunes to recuse himself, the Senate Intelligence Committee’s investigation is ongoing, as is the FBI’s. Where this all leads next, well, we’ll just have to watch and see.