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In which John discusses the Russian government's interference in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, allegations of collusion against members of Donald Trump's campaign, what is known about various Trump campaign officials' relationship to Vladimir Putin's regime, and also what we don't know. SOURCES BELOW:

CORRECTION: Nixon resigned before he was impeached.

Vladimir Putin personally oversaw efforts by the Russian government to affect the U.S. Presidential election outcome in favor of Donald Trump, according to both the Department of Homeland Security and the Officer of the Director of National Intelligence:

Trump campaign removed language from the Republican Party platform supporting Ukraine in their ongoing conflict with Russia:

The Putin regime engaged in a disinformation campaign, attempted to access several states' election data, and oversaw the hacking of the DNC and sent the DNC and John Podesta emails to wikileaks: and

Congressional Republicans agree with the conclusion that Putin's regime was behind the DNC hack and other meddling: and

The U.S. election law saying that no American can accept or receive a contribution or "thing of value" from any foreign national in connection with a political campaign:

One-time Trump campaign manager Paul Manfort was paid $10,000,000 a year for 3 years by Oleg Deripaska:

Michael Caputo worked on a campaign to improve Putin's image among Americans:

Michael Flynn accepted money from the Russian government without disclosing it: and discussed sanctions on a call with Kislyak in December 2016, which he initially denied:

Trump asked FBI Director James Comey for 'loyalty" and to drop the Flynn investigation:

Special counsel Robert Mueller has convened (at least) two grand juries as part of his investigation:

Trump acknowledged firing Comey in large part because of the collusion investigation:

Info about Donald Trump Jr.'s meeting with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer, which was also attended by Manafort and Jared Kushner: and

As President, Donald Trump had a private meeting with Vladimir Putin at which no U.S. translator was present, which is extremely unusual:

If you have any other source questions, feel free to ask in comments.


A very helpful overall timeline of events related to the Russian collusion investigation:

The wikipedia article on the topic is very good:

Huge thanks to Rosianna Halse Rojas for fact-checking and research assistance:
Good morning Hank, it's Tuesday. 

So today I want to discuss what we know about the relationship between Donald Trump's presidential campaign and the Russian government's interference in our 2016 Elections, but first a couple notes. Russia is a huge and massively diverse country of 144 million people, but in the context of this election meddling, we are talking specifically about Vladimir Putin and his government.

Russia and the US are currently adversaries. Putin's regime has sought to undermine democracy and democratic institutions around the world and in the US's view invaded a sovereign nation, but whether the United States and Russia are friends is not actually that relevant to the legal questions at hand.

Also there is a lot of speculation about this story online. For the purposes of this video, I'm only going to refer to events that have either been confirmed by the people who participated in them or reported independently by two separate news organizations. Sources, as always, in the video info below.

Okay, here we go!

The Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence have stated with high confidence that the Russian government sought to influence the outcome of the US Presidential election favoring Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. They've also stated that Russia's leader, Vladimir Putin, personally oversaw this operation, which actually shouldn't come as that much of a surprise. 

The Putin regime has a history of trying to sway foreign elections and, also, Trump's policy positions were broadly much more favorable to Putin than Clinton's policy positions. I mean, as far back as 2007 Trump said that Putin was "doing a great job." The Trump campaign even cut proposed language from the official Republican Party platform about supporting Ukraine and their ongoing conflict with Russia.

Okay, so the Putin regime meddled in our election in at least three ways: via a disinformation campaign in which they created and shared inaccurate news stories, by trying to breach election data in several states, and by hacking the Democratic National Committe and DNC leader John Podesta to access their emails, which they then released to Wikileaks. 

Now you may not believe all of that, and certainly both Wikileaks and the Russian government deny it, but there is overwhelming agreement not just within US intelligence circles but also among both Republican and Democratic members of Congress. Who, as you may have noticed, struggle to find common ground on pretty much anything. 

The email hack in particular made a significant impact because it created a huge imbalance of information. The public has access to all these Democratic emails, many of which one might charitably describe as sleazy, but not to any similar Republican emails that might have existed. It's a bit like saying: "Can you believe all this crap in candidate X's tax returns," when candidate Y doesn't release their tax returns at all. 

Now you can say, and you ought to, that political parties just shouldn't be sleazy. But my point is only that it created an information imbalance, and that, by choosing whose emails we saw, Putin had a lot of say in the election narrative. Of course none of that means the election was illegitimate - it wasn't - or that Trump didn't win - he did. 

Ad benefiting from a foreign government's propaganda initiative is not a crime. However, colluding with that government is. Probably. US election law says that a foreign national, be they Canadian or Russian or Martian, cannot make a contribution or a donation of anything of value in connection with a US election. It also says that no American can solicit or knowingly accept a donation or anything of value from a foreign national. 

I suspect we're going to hear the phrase "thing of value" a lot in the coming months, by the way, in part because the courts haven't been super clear at deciding what it means. If, hypothetically, you received damning information about your opponent from a foreign national, and then shared that information, that is probably receiving a thing of value, but it hasn't been entirely established. 

And there are a lot of nuances here. Have you received a thing of value if you know about the thing, and approve of sharing it, but don't share it yourself? Did you solicit a thing of value, if you set up a meeting with a foreign national in the hopes they would provide something they didn't provide, et cetera?

So many people in the Trump's campaign had past relationships with Putin's regime. Trump's one time campaign manager, Paul Manafort, received around $30 million working for Oleg Deripaska, who is seen as one of Putin's closest business confidantes. Michale Caputo, an early Trump adviser had previously worked on a Russian campaign to improve Putin's image among Americans. Trump's Attorney General, Jeff Sessions had to recuse himself from the Russia investigation after it was revealed he had previously undisclosed meetings with Sergei Kislyak, Russia's ambassador to the United States. And Michael Flynn, Trump's first national security advisor, failed to disclose payments that were made to him by an arm of the Russian government.

And failure to disclose such payments is illegal for former military officers. Flynn also talked several times with Sergei Kislyak during the transition - the period after the election, but before Trump became president. One of those calls occurred on December 29th, which happened to be the same day the US announced new sanctions on Russia. Flynn initially denied that he discussed sanctions on that call, but it became apparent that there was evidence to the contrary because Kislyak's calls are routinely monitored by US intelligence. 

Discussing sanctions policy on that call was possibly illegal, I mean Flynn was not yet the national security advisor, but he was trying to negotiate foreign policy. But a greater concern is that the day after Trump learned that Flynn lied about discussing sanctions, Trump asked FBI director James Comey for "loyalty." And then, the day after Flynn eventually resigned, Trump asked Comey to drop the Flynn investigation altogether. 

This is alarming, because in the United States, the Justice Department and the FBI are supposed to operate independently from the White House. That's part of the reason why FBI directors serve a ten year term: they're supposed to be above party politics and not beholden to one particular leader. Trump asking Comey to drop the Flynn investigation was a significant breach of protocol. In fact, some have argued that it amounts to obstruction of justice, which is the charge that Richard Nixon was eventually impeached for. 

And then, a few months later, Trump fired James Comey. Initially the White House said the FBI Director was being fired for his mishandling of the Hillary Clinton email case. But then, after a few days of trying on various justifications, Trump acknowledged it was mostly about the collusion-with-Russia investigation. But if firing Comey was intended to make the investigation end, that gambit definitely failed because a few days later, the Department of Justice appointed a Special Counel, Robert Mueller.

He is tasked with building a team to look into collusion and "any matters that arise from the investigation." Since then, Mueller has been doing just that, and it has been reported that he's working with at least two Grand Juries to decide who, if anyone, should be charged with crimes.

The most serious evidence of collusion that has emerged so far involves a meeting with a Kremlin connected Russian lawyer that was attended by Donald Trump Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kusher, the President's son in law and Senior Advisor. So during the setup for the meeting, Donald Trump Jr. was told via email that the lawyer had (quote), "incriminating information about Hillary Clinton" that she wanted to share as (quote), "part of Russia and its government's support for Mr. Trump." 

That should've been a HUGE red flag, like the correct response there is: "I cannot accept anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a campaign - especially not if it's part of a foreign government's support for my candidate." But instead Donald Trump Jr. replied in part, "If it's what you say, I love it, especially later in the summer." 

The meeting that ensued remains secret for over a year until July of 2017, when the New York Times published a report about it. Donald Trump Jr. initially said the meeting was about adoption, but then a day later said that the meeting had been about Hillary Clinton, but that the lawyer "had no meaningful information." 

Even if that's true, some legal scholars still think the meeting itself was illegal depending on your definition of "soliciting" and "thing of value." Kushner, meanwhile, failed to mention this, and also several other meetings with Russian officials on his initial security clearance application. He also apparently asked the Russian government for a so-called "back channel" that would've allowed Kushner to communicate directly with Moscow without US intelligence listening in. 

Much of this is suspicious - Trump Jr., Kushner, Manafort, and Flynn have all been caught in lies about the extent and nature with their contacts with the Russian government But (1) none of it is unambiguous evidence of collusion or cooperation with foreign nationals. And (2), none of what is known publicly involves the President himself, except for him asking Comey to drop the investigation. 

That said, Trump's behavior towards Russia has, at times, been strange. As President, he had a private meeting with Putin without a US interpreter present, which is extremely unusual. Trump has also gone to great lengths not to criticize Putin and he has refused to publicly acknowledge or condemn the Putin regime's interference in our election. 

But none of that is illegal - and connecting the dots can lead to a very misleading picture when you don't have many dots. What we know is that the Russian government sought to influence the US Presidential Election in Trump's favor, that at least one person in Trump's campaign knew about this, and that several people close to Trump had interactions with Russian foreign nationals that they either failed to disclose or lied about.

None of the meetings reported so far involve the President himself, although he did try to interfere with the ensuing investigation. 

So that's what we know. What we don't know is almost everything. We don't know what was discussed in the meetings, whether any American accepted any thing of value from a foreign national. And we certainly don't know if any American participated in collusion with the Russian government's efforts. Also we don't even know for what what a "thing of value" is.

I think it's important to follow this story because it has big implications for the present and future of our democracy, but I also think it's really important to remember that we are living in the middle of this story and we don't know how it's going to end. 

Now, if you're looking for information to confirm your pre-existing biases, you'll find plenty of that on both sides. But the whole truth, we just don't know that yet. I hope we will some day. 

Hank, I'll see you on Friday.