Let’s start at the top. When did this Trump-Russia investigation begin? 🇷🇺
Two years, or roughly a million news cycles ago, give or take. The FBI’s original Trump-Russia investigation got underway in the summer before the 2016 campaign, though the public wasn’t really aware of it then. (In contrast to the extremely public FBI investigation of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server, the bureau followed protocol and never publicly acknowledged that Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was under investigation for its ties to a hostile foreign government.)
The little reporting on the probe at the time underplayed the gravity of the investigation. Not long before the election, The New York Times said in a piece titled “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia,” that investigators had not “found any conclusive or direct link between Mr. Trump and the Russian government.”
It wasn’t until long after Trump’s election that then-FBI Director James Comey in March 2017 publicly confirmed the bureau’s investigation of connections between Trump associates and the Russian government. The Times later admitted that its pre-election story “gave an air of finality to an investigation that was just beginning” and buried the key fact of the investigation into the Trump campaign’s Russia ties.
When and why did Robert Mueller get involved in all this? 🚨
In May 2017, Trump fired Comey, and said a day later that Russia was on his mind when he made the decision. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was overseeing the Russia probe at the time because Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from any investigations involving the Trump campaign (Sessions’ recusal decision came amid public pressure over his failure to disclose that he met with the Russian ambassador during the Trump campaign).
With the bureau in turmoil over Comey’s firing, Rosenstein named Robert Swan Mueller III (aka “Bobby Three Sticks”) as special counsel on May 17, 2017. That day, Mueller issued the only public statement he’s issued since he took the job: “I accept this responsibility and will discharge it to the best of my ability.”
Rosenstein said at the time that his decision was based on the unique circumstances of the situation. He said that the “public interest requires me to place this investigation under the authority of a person who exercises a degree of independence from the normal chain of command.”
Hold on, didn’t Rosenstein have something to do with Comey’s firing?
Yup. Rosenstein, at Trump’s request, wrote a legal memo that made the case for Comey’s firing. Ironically, while Trump long insisted that Comey went too easy on Hillary Clinton, Rosenstein’s case was that Comey’s public declarations about the Clinton email investigation during the 2016 campaign were unfair and violated Justice Department protocol. It probably didn’t matter a ton, because Trump said he was going to fire Comey no matter what Rosenstein’s letter said. But that was the official story the White House tried selling: that Trump fired Comey because he was unfair to Clinton. Rosenstein, meanwhile, was reportedly upset that the White House cast him as the guy who instigated Comey’s firing.
What’s Robert Mueller’s job?
Rosenstein’s memo tasked Mueller with investigating “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump,” as well as “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.”
So what is a special counsel, anyway?
A lot like a regular prosecutor, but they have a bit more independence from the normal chain of command. Federal regulations say that a special counsel can be appointed if there’s a conflict of interest or there are “extraordinary circumstances.”
A special counsel isn’t the same as an independent counsel, the type of investigation aimed at former President Bill Clinton. The independent counsel statute expired in 1999, and a special counsel isn’t quite as independent as an independent counsel. Mueller, as special counsel, reports to Rosenstein. But the special counsel regulations don’t allow Mueller to be fired as special counsel without good cause.
Didn’t the White House claim Trump could fire Robert Mueller, though?
They did. It’s a bit of a murky legal issue. A more plausible scenario is that Trump could order Rosenstein to fire Mueller, which Rosenstein would almost certainly refuse to do. It would set up a situation similar to Nixon’s “Saturday Night Massacre,” in which the president has to work down the chain of command ― via firings or resignations ― until he finds someone willing to carry out his order.
Some Republicans have indicated they wouldn’t stand for Trump firing Mueller. Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa said it would be “suicide.” But prominent Trump backers have engaged in a lengthy campaign against the Mueller probe that has convinced many Trump supporters that the president is being unfairly persecuted by the “deep state.” That would give Trump at least some political cover to fire Mueller.
What’s Robert Mueller’s deal again?
Well, he’s a Republican, for starters. And ― at least until he took on the special counsel gig ― politicians on both sides of the aisle were pretty big fans.
Mueller is a Princeton grad and a highly decorated Marine Corps officer who served in Vietnam. He spent most of his career in the Justice Department. President Ronald Reagan tapped him to serve as U.S. attorney for the District of Massachusetts, and he later headed the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, a key role in which he oversaw hundreds of attorneys and supervised major prosecutions. After President Bill Clinton’s election, Mueller did what a lot of D.C. lawyers do when their party is out of power: He took a corporate law gig.
Sounds pretty typical.
It was. But Mueller wasn’t long for the corporate world. He soon rang up Eric Holder, who was then serving as U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, a unique office in that it prosecutes both federal and local crimes in the nation’s capital. Washington had a really high homicide rate at the time, and Mueller wanted to run murder cases. He “became the oldest and most improbable rookie in the history of the homicide bureau,” and later headed up the office’s homicide section.
Mueller was then named U.S. attorney for the Northern District of California, where he served until his party took back power and the George W. Bush administration asked him to serve as acting deputy attorney general, the No. 2 spot at the Justice Department. Bush later nominated him as FBI director, and he started the gig a week before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which sparked the transformation of the bureau into a counterterrorism agency.
Mueller was so well-respected that the Senate unanimously extended his 10-year term as FBI director for an additional two years back in 2011. Mueller stepped down as FBI director in 2013, after the longest tenure of any FBI director since J. Edgar Hoover.
He totally raked in the dough when he jumped back to the private sector, didn’t he? 💰💰💰
He did. Mueller left his WilmerHale salary behind when he was named as special counsel, and he also managed to convince a few colleagues at his former law firm to give up their lucrative gigs and join his team.
All right, but what about this Rosenstein guy? Trump and Fox News hosts don’t seem to like him very much. Is he a Democrat?
Yes. He’s a lifelong Republican. He even wrote a letter to his college newspaper complaining about its “disgraceful” attitude toward Reagan supporters and urging it to “recognize and respect the appeal Reagan has to the average American.” Early in his career, Rosenstein worked with fellow Republican Ken Starr, the independent counsel who investigated Bill Clinton.
But Trump said Rosenstein is from Baltimore and that there weren’t many Republicans from Baltimore.
Rosenstein is not from Baltimore. He’s lived in the D.C. suburb of Bethesda, Maryland, for years. He worked out of an office in Baltimore when he was U.S. attorney for the District of Maryland, a position he was first appointed to by President George W. Bush (who later nominated Rosenstein as a federal appeals court judge).
Another pretty solid indication that Rosenstein is a Republican? The fact that Republican President Donald Trump nominated him to the critical second-in-command position at the Justice Department.
So why are Trump supporters beating up on a Republican like Rosenstein? 🐘
Put simply, to protect Trump. Rosenstein is the guy overseeing the Mueller probe, which Trump has called a “witch hunt.” So, under the guise of congressional oversight, they’ve been making Rosenstein a target. Unlike Trump, Rosenstein respects the traditional divisions between the White House and the Justice Department.
What’s this about impeaching Rosenstein? Can you even impeach a deputy attorney general?
House Republicans have talked about holding Rosenstein in contempt, and for months have even floated the idea of impeaching him. Some of Trump’s biggest supporters on Capitol Hill did end up introducing articles of impeachment against Rosenstein in late July. Impeachment ― which the Constitution associates with treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors ― is obviously really rare, and it’s even more rare for non-presidents. The last time a member of the executive branch who wasn’t the president was impeached by the House was way back in 1876. Raising the prospect of impeaching the No. 2 official at the Justice Department over a document dispute is quite extraordinary. House Speaker Paul Ryan said he’s not on board.
OK, Mueller and Rosenstein are both Republicans. So what’s all this about Mueller’s team being a bunch of Democrats?
It’s true that there are a number of registered Democrats on Mueller’s team. The Washington Post found that 13 of 17 people had previously registered as Democrats and that nine had donated to Democrats. Six had donated to Hillary Clinton.
But it’s important to look at that statistic in context. Federal prosecutors are allowed to take part in a number of political activities when they’re off the clock, and there’s supposed to be a tradition of federal prosecutors leaving their politics at the door. Mueller also wasn’t supposed to take political affiliation into consideration when making hiring decisions. And the fact that the entire investigation is being run by a Republican and is overseen by a Republican ― who Trump himself nominated ― kind of undermines that talking point.
So how much has the Mueller investigation cost?
What’s Mueller got to show for it?
A whole bunch of indictments and several guilty pleas. Mueller’s team has been involved in indicting 32 people and three Russian companies. Mueller’s team has secured the indictments of four Trump campaign officials: Paul Manafort, Richard Gates, George Papadopoulos and Michael Flynn. All have reached plea deals.
Though one of Manafort’s two trials (it’s complicated) resulted in a conviction on eight counts, 10 other counts that the judge declared a mistrial on will be dropped as part of the plea deal he reached in his second trial weeks later.
The majority of those charged in the Mueller probe ― 26 Russian nationals ― are unlikely to show up in an American court anytime soon. But two major indictments this year offered an outline of major Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 election.
One of the indictments was about Russian Facebook and Twitter trolls, right? 💻
Right. So back in February, a federal grand jury indicted 13 Russians charged in a conspiracy to influence the 2016 election through their use of social media. The grand jury found there was probable cause that the Russians posed as Americans and purchased political advertisements and organized political rallies with the aim of boosting Trump and disparaging Clinton.
It’s a pretty fascinating case. The indictment alleges that the Russians had a multimillion-dollar operation aimed at conducting “information warfare against the United States of America.” They pretended to be Americans and set up groups and pages that addressed divisive political and social issues, with names like “Secured Borders,” “Blacktivist,” “United Muslims of America,” “Army of Jesus,” “South United” and “Heart of Texas.” They racked up hundreds of thousands of followers. The specialists running the pages were told to use any opportunity to criticize Hillary Clinton. One Russian-run account called “Woke Blacks” encouraged followers not to vote for “Killary”: “We cannot resort to the lesser of two devils.” The post said that blacks would be better off not voting.
The Russians also allegedly paid actual Americans to engage in anti-Clinton protests, including an American who was paid to show up to portray Clinton in a prison uniform at a rally in West Palm Beach, Florida. They also worked with “unwitting individuals associated with the Trump Campaign” who were unaware of their true Russian identities.
How much of an effect did Russian trolling on social media have on the 2016 election?🕵️
That’s really tough to say. But the Russian propaganda efforts reached a ton of Americans. One example: Their advertisement for a “Florida Goes Trump” rally reached over 59,000 Facebook users in Florida and got clicks from more than 8,300 Facebook users, according to the indictment. One Russian-run Twitter account impersonating the Republican Party in Tennessee had more than 100,000 followers. The Russians posted a lot of Breitbart stories. Beyond what’s spelled out in the indictment, we know that Facebook says Russian efforts on Facebook and Instagram reached at least 146 million people.
What about the hacking of the DNC and the Clinton campaign?
In July, a federal grand jury indicted 12 Russian military intelligence officers for hacking the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee during the 2016 election. The indictment accused two units of the Russian Federation’s Main Intelligence Directorate of the General Staff (GRU) of conducting “large-scale cyber operations to interfere with the 2016 U.S. presidential election.”
It had long been clear that the U.S. government had concluded that Russia was behind the hacks. But the indictment, which came down days before Trump’s July 16 meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, offered up the most detailed look at the Russian campaign to date, and specifically alleged that two online personas ― DCLeaks and Guccifer 2.0 ― were in fact operated by Russians.
Intriguingly, the indictment also said that on the very same day Trump called on Russia to “find” 30,000 Clinton emails, July 27, 2016, that the Russians worked “after hours” to try to hack email accounts hosted by a third-party email provider that was used by Clinton’s personal office.
So how did that Russian hacking affect the election?
Again, that’s tough to quantify. We do know that email hacks had a tremendous effect on news coverage of the 2016 campaign. DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz resigned just days after hacked emails showed DNC officials deriding Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential primary campaign. The hacking of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s Gmail account provided plenty of fodder for journalists with revelations about Clinton’s Wall Street speeches; discussions about Catholicism; and Donna Brazile sending questions CNN planned to ask to the Clinton campaign. So the hacks led to news coverage that definitely had a significant effect on the coverage of the election, it’s just really hard to say precisely how that influenced voters.
Rosenstein said the indictment included “no allegation that the conspiracy altered the vote count or changed any election result.” That’s true, but it also doesn’t really mean much because it’d be weird and irresponsible for the feds to speculate about the effect of Russian interference on voters’ minds.
So how does Paul Manafort play into the Trump-Russia probe again?
Manafort is the former chairman of Trump’s presidential campaign and had a long history in Republican politics. He surrendered to the feds in late October 2017 after a federal grand jury indicted him on a wide range of charges related to his work on behalf of the Ukrainian government. Manafort’s bail was revoked in June after he was charged with obstruction of justice and witness tampering.
On Aug. 21, Manafort was found guilty on eight counts: five tax fraud charges, two bank fraud charges and one count of failing to report bank and financial accounts. The judge declared a mistrial on 10 counts. But a plea deal he took in his second trial ― in Washington ― in September allows for those other 10 counts to be dropped.
The charges against Manafort aren’t directly related to his work for the Trump campaign, but the charges were widely seen as a way for Mueller to get valuable information out of Manafort. He had close ties to Russians and sat in on an infamous Trump Tower meeting in which Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner heard from a Kremlin-linked attorney whom they had expected to give them dirt on Hillary Clinton. She apparently did not.
The case against Manafort is really complex. But it largely deals with his shady work for a pro-Putin political party in Ukraine and evading taxes.
There was another guy charged with Paul Manafort, right?
Yeah, Rick Gates. He was Manafort’s deputy, and he also worked on the Trump campaign and the Trump inauguration. He’s been cooperating with Mueller’s team since February after he reached a plea deal in which he pleaded guilty to a tax charge and a charge of lying to Mueller’s investigators and the FBI.
What about Michael Flynn?
Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, has been working with Mueller’s team since December 2017. He pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his talks with the Russian ambassador during the presidential transition. Which is a pretty big deal: a senior Trump administration official has admitted he lied to federal investigators about his talks with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Didn’t Trump try to get James Comey to drop Flynn’s case?
Yes, according to Comey. The former FBI director testified last year that, after Flynn was asked to resign for misleading Vice President Mike Pence about his conversations with the Russian ambassador, Trump privately told Comey he hoped he could “see your way clear to letting this go” and called Flynn a “good guy.”
And how does Michael Cohen play into all this? 💰
It’s related. Mueller’s team isn’t investigating Cohen directly, but the U.S. Attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York reportedly started their probe in part because of a referral from Mueller’s office. Cohen’s disclosure of a secret recording from 2016 that features Trump and Cohen talking about a payment to a Playboy Playmate who said she had an affair with Trump makes clear he could be willing to cut a deal. But since the Cohen investigation isn’t being overseen by Mueller’s team, things might get a little complicated.
Cohen pleaded guilty on Aug. 21 to illegally interfering in the 2016 presidential election at Trump’s behest. The former Trump confidant pleaded guilty to five counts of tax evasion, two counts related to an illegal campaign contribution and one count of making a false statement. Cohen’s plea deal is in connection to hush money the lawyer paid women on behalf of Trump, according to The New York Times.
Cohen’s lawyer, Lanny Davis, said his client is willing to provide information that would be “of interest” to Mueller.
Has anyone gone to prison yet?🔒
Just one guy, Alex van der Zwaan. He used to be a London-based lawyer who worked with Gates, Manafort and Konstantin Kilimnik, another Manafort associate who was indicted in June when he and Manafort were accused of witness tampering and obstruction of justice. Van der Zwaan served a bit of time in federal prison and was deported to the Netherlands.
Alright, back to the Trump-Clinton-Russia stuff. What about George Papadopoulos? ☕
George Papadopoulos was actually the first person arrested in the Mueller probe. That happened on July 27, 2017. But Mueller’s team kept the whole thing quiet for three months until it unsealed the case against Papadopoulos the same day Manafort was arrested. Papadopoulos has been cooperating ever since.
The Trump team has said Papadopoulos was merely a campaign “volunteer” and even a “coffee boy.” But during the campaign, Trump described the former campaign policy adviser as an “excellent guy.” There’s also a photo showing Papadopoulos at a meeting with Trump and Sessions in March 2016. Papadopoulos said he indicated during that meeting that he had the connections to set up a meeting between Trump and Putin. Sessions claimed he “pushed back” on the suggestion that Trump campaign officials get together with the Russians, though others have disputed Sessions’ account.
Papadopoulos likely holds answers to a lot of the key questions about the Trump campaign’s relationship with Russia. It was his May 2016 meeting with an Australian diplomat at a London bar that kicked off the Russia probe. He told the diplomat that he’d met with a professor with ties to the Russians who said the Kremlin had “dirt” on Clinton. That was months before the hacked materials came out.
Papadopoulos admitted that he lied to the FBI about when he was told about Russian “dirt” on Clinton. He said it was before he joined the campaign, but it was in fact about a month after he was on the Trump team.
So what did Trump know about all this? And what about the allegation that Trump obstructed justice?
What exactly Trump knew about Russian efforts to undermine the 2016 election is still an open question. Trump, of course, has long insisted there was “no collusion” while also routinely rejecting or undercutting the intelligence community’s universal consensus that Russia was behind the 2016 interference.
But it’s been clear for months that Mueller’s team has been more focused on the question of obstruction. The obstruction case against Trump would center on his alleged attempt to intervene in the Flynn case, his decision to fire Comey and his attempts to get Sessions to reverse his recusal. Mueller’s team even laid out for Trump’s lawyers some of the questions they’d want to ask.
We know Mueller wants to talk to Trump, and Trump has said he welcomes the interview. His legal team is less excited, though.
It seems increasingly unlikely that the interview will take place. Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani recently said that the legal team wasn’t willing to let Trump answer questions about obstruction of justice. They believe that Trump has the power under Article II of the Constitution to appoint and dismiss members of his administration, so he shouldn’t be questioned about his hiring and firing decisions.
HOW’S THIS ALL GONNA END?
Probably not with an indictment of the president, even if Mueller’s team thinks Trump committed a crime. The Justice Department’s view has long been that a president can’t be indicted while in office. There’s some disagreement in legal circles, but Mueller is a by-the-book kind of guy, and there’s little chance he’d break from precedent, even if he thinks Trump broke the law. Plus, the president’s lawyers claimed Mueller’s investigators told them directly that they won’t indict the president.
Well, what’s Mueller’s team going to do then?
Mueller’s team could write a report about the president’s conduct and send it to Congress to potentially be used in impeachment proceedings. Or they could list Trump as an unindicted co-conspirator in court documents. Sending a report to Congress seems more likely. It’s unclear what form that report would take.
But will Congress impeach Trump?
While Republicans controlled Congress there was no chance of an impeachment, but the issue is in the spotlight more following the midterm elections, since Democrats took back the House. But Democratic leaders haven’t taken a strong stand on impeachment yet, instead signaling that they’ll wait for what comes from the investigation.
So public opinion is pretty important, huh? These Republican attacks on Mueller and Rosenstein and the FBI are starting to make a lot more sense.
Exactly. Giuliani sort of gave away the game during an appearance on CNN in late May, explaining that, while he and Trump supporters had been attacking the special counsel and the Russia investigation, the goal of convincing Americans to “question the legitimacy” of the probe was part of a public relations strategy to protect the president.
“It is for public opinion, because eventually the decision here is going to be impeach, not impeach. Members of Congress, Democrat and Republican, are going to be informed a lot by their constituents. So, our jury is the American ― as it should be ― is the American people,” Giuliani said.
Wait, what’s all this about Sessions getting fired?
Trump got rid of Sessions within a day of the midterm elections, in a move that has big implications for the Mueller investigation. Trump had spent months belittling Sessions over his recusal from the Russia investigation, and there was longstanding speculation that the president might replace him.
Sessions technically resigned rather than being fired, which is important because it allowed Trump to immediately name a new acting attorney general. The person he chose was Matt Whitaker, who was Sessions’ chief of staff.
What do we know about Whitaker then?
Before he became Sessions’ chief of staff last year, Whitaker was an attorney in Iowa, a failed Senate candidate and a CNN commentator. He’s a conservative who rose fast in the Justice Department while gaining a reputation as a Trump loyalist.
Whitaker immediately raised red flags for those concerned about the independence of Mueller’s investigation. Whitaker has repeatedly criticized Mueller’s probe for “going too far,” including writing an opinion piece for CNN calling on Rosenstein to limit the investigation’s scope. Now he’s Rosenstein’s boss.
That sounds bad for the investigation. What happens next?
It’s still unclear, but Democrats quickly demanded that Whitaker recuse himself from the Mueller investigation over his comments on the probe and his links to one of its witnesses. This seems like it won’t happen, especially since Sessions was effectively fired for recusing himself.
If Whitaker does take action against the probe -- say, telling Mueller to stop investigating a particular issue -- it would set up a major political crisis. Whatever happens, the best bet now is an ugly battle ahead for the future of Mueller’s investigation.
This article has been updated with Manafort’s convictions and plea deal and Cohen’s guilty pleas, as well as Sessions dismissal and Whitaker’s appointment.
CORRECTION: This story previously referred to an Austrian diplomat who spoke with George Papadopoulos. The diplomat was Australian. The story also previously referred to a photo showing Papadopoulos at a meeting with Trump and Sessions in March 2017. It was March 2016.
Ryan Reilly is HuffPost’s senior justice reporter covering the Justice Department, federal law enforcement, criminal justice and legal affairs. Have a tip? Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Signal at 202-527-9261.