Russia: The scandal Trump can’t shake
Throughout the confusion of Donald Trump’s campaign and the chaotic events of his early days in the White House, one controversy has clung to the Trump train like glue: Russia.
The sudden departure of Michael Flynn from his role as national security adviser in February and the revelations of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s meetings with Russia’s ambassador Sergei Kislyak are among a string of controversies tying the administration to apparent Russian interests.
Early warning signs
It was back in May 2016 that the first reports emerged of hackers targeting the Democratic Party. Over the next two months, the reports suggested US intelligence agencies had traced the breaches back to Russian hackers.
In July, on the eve of the Democratic National Convention, Wikileaks published 20,000 internal emails stolen by the hackers. US intelligence officials said they believed with “high confidence” that Russia was behind the operation, but the Trump campaign publicly refused to accept the findings.
Instead, at a press conference, Mr Trump caused outrage by inviting Russian hackers to target Hillary Clinton’s controversial personal email server, saying: “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing”.
The first casualty
About the same time the hacking scandal was beginning to unfold, Mr Trump’s then campaign manager, Paul Manafort, was accused of accepting millions of dollars in cash for representing Russian interests in Ukraine and US, including dealings with an oligarch with close ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
While Mr Manafort was running the campaign, the Republican Party changed the language in its manifesto regarding the conflict in Ukraine, removing anti-Russian sentiment, allegedly at the behest of two Trump campaign representatives.
Mr Manafort was investigated by the FBI and quit as Mr Trump’s campaign chairman. Like Mr Flynn, Mr Manafort, a political operative with more than 40 years’ experience, was supposed to marshal some of the chaos and controversy around Mr Trump, but ended up falling prey to it.
At odds with the intelligence
In October, the US intelligence community released a unanimous statement formally accusing Russia of being the perpetrator behind the hacking of the Democratic National Committee (DNC).
Mr Trump continued to argue against the finding, claiming in a presidential debate that it “could be Russia, but it could also be China, it could also be lots of other people. It also could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds”.
The same day that the intelligence agencies released their finding, the explosive “Access Hollywood” recording emerged of Mr Trump’s obscene remarks about women in 2005. An hour later, Wikileaks began dumping thousands more leaked Clinton emails.
Mr Trump continued to refuse to acknowledge the consensus that Russia was behind the hack.
‘I always knew Putin was smart!’
In December, the FBI and Department of Homeland Security published a report of the US intelligence findings linking Russia to the hack.
In response, President Barack Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats and levied new sanctions on Russia. The world awaited Mr Putin’s response but he chose not retaliate. Mr Trump, by then the president-elect, sided with the Russian president, tweeting: “Great move on delay (by V. Putin) – I always knew he was very smart!”
Mr Putin’s decision not to respond in kind struck many as a canny PR move, but reportedly set off suspicions among US intelligence officials that Russia was confident the sanctions would not last.
The same month, Mr Trump picked Rex Tillerson as his nominee for secretary of state, arguably the most important job in the cabinet. The biggest hurdle for Mr Tillerson’s confirmation? Close ties to Mr Putin.
As CEO of the ExxonMobil oil company, Mr Tillerson cultivated a close personal relationship with the Russian leader, leading many to speculate on whether he was fit to serve as America’s most senior foreign diplomat.
Mr Tillerson was sworn in as secretary of state on 2 February.
The ‘compromising claims’ dossier
In January, Buzzfeed published a dossier compiled by Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence official and Russia expert, which alleged that Moscow had compromising material on the then-president-elect, making him liable to blackmail.
Among the various memos in the dossier was an allegation that Mr Trump had been recorded by Russian security services consorting with prostitutes at a Moscow hotel.
Mr Trump dismissed the claims as fake news.
CNN revealed that President Obama and President-elect Trump had been briefed on the existence of the dossier by intelligence officials, and Buzzfeed went one further, publishing the entire thing.
The document went off like a hand grenade tossed into the already febrile political scene and generated a backlash against Buzzfeed for publishing what were essentially unverified claims.
The evidence against Flynn…
In February, the most concrete and damaging Russia scandal finally surfaced, months after suspicions were raised among intelligence officials.
A Washington Post report said Mr Flynn had discussed the potential lifting of Mr Obama’s Russia sanctions with the Russian ambassador, Sergei Kislyak, before Mr Trump took office.
Mr Flynn, who had appeared regularly on Russian propaganda channel RT and once attended dinner with Mr Putin, resigned as Mr Trump’s national security adviser, saying he had “inadvertently briefed the vice-president-elect and others with incomplete information regarding my phone calls with the Russian ambassador” late last year.
It is illegal for private citizens to conduct US diplomacy.
… and now Sessions
Attorney General Jeff Sessions is being accused of lying at his confirmation hearing when he said he had had “no communications with the Russians” during the election campaign.
It has now emerged that he too had met Mr Kislyak – at a private meeting in September and as part of a group of ambassadors in July last year.
The Alabama senator was one of the most prominent players in Mr Trump’s bid to take the White House.
But he says his meetings with Mr Kislyak were related to his role as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and had nothing to do with the election campaign.
The Democratic House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi says he lied under oath and should resign, and Mr Sessions is also under pressure to recuse himself from an FBI investigation into the Russian hacking claims, an investigation he is overseeing.
Mr Trump has made no secret of his regard for Mr Putin and his desire to establish closer ties with Russia. But the more pressing question, and one which the president just can’t seem to shake, is just how close those ties already go.