During testimony given to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on Monday, FBI Director James Comey dropped a bombshell revelation— confirming for the first time that the agency is investigating links between Trump allies and Russian officials and the possible collusion with the Kremlin to harm Hillary Clinton and help Trump win the White House.
At this point, the evidence that Russia is responsible for the elections hack is pretty conclusive. Investigators have linked some of the code in the hack to known Russian operations; there’s consensus in the US intelligence community that Russia’s operation was designed in part to help Trump.
All of this raised the million-dollar question: Did Trump, or anyone on his team, know about the hack targeting Clinton while it was going on? And did they plan their campaign strategy around Russian interference?
Comey was asked whether he had yet uncovered anything to support such a conclusion.
“All I can tell you is that we are investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts,” Comey said.
Comey’s comments were a direct rebuke to President Trump, who has long tried to argue that concerns about potential Russian involvement had been ginned up by Democrats for political gain. Comey is now effectively saying his own boss was misleading the American public, and that a formal criminal probe is indeed underway.
There is no question that Comey’s comments turn up the heat on the Trump administration considerably.
President Trump, for his part, spent Monday morning denying there was any real story here:
Of course, Trump’s statement is clearly false. The FBI investigation means the Russia story isn’t made up, and won’t go away.
There is certainly circumstantial evidence. Paul Manafort, who was Trump’s campaign manager at the time the first emails went public, has longstanding ties to the Russian state. He resigned in late August — right in the middle of the campaign — after a secret ledger was discovered with his name in it, suggesting he had quietly received $12.7 million between 2007 and 2012 from Ukraine’s pro-Russian former president, Viktor Yanukovych.
In August, longtime conservative political operative and close Trump confidant Roger Stone said that he was in touch with WikiLeaks, the source through which Russia released the hacked emails to the public. On October 2, Stone sent a tweet hinting he had inside knowledge that WikiLeaks was about to torpedo Clinton’s campaign:
Five days later, on October 7, WikiLeaks released the first tranche of emails hacked from Clinton campaign manager John Podesta.
Trump himself seemed to encourage Russian involvement in the election. In a July 2016 press conference, his final presser of the campaign, Trump publicly called on Russia to hack Clinton and publish emails from her private server.
“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump said. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
After the campaign was over, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov publicly admitted that members of Trump’s “entourage” were in touch with Russia. “I cannot say that all of them, but quite a few have been staying in touch with Russian representatives,” he told the Russian news service Interfax.
Subsequent news reports, sourced to members of the US government and intelligence services, confirmed Ryabkov’s comments. The New York Times reported in February that members of Trump’s campaign team and other “Trump associates” had “repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials” prior to the November vote. The calls were intercepted by US officials monitoring Russian intelligence, who then leaked their existence to the Times.
Then in early March, Political Dig reported that Attorney General Jeff Sessions had met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak twice during the 2016 campaign when he was serving as a Trump adviser. This is despite the fact that Sessions said in his confirmation hearing that “I did not have communications with the Russians” — while under oath. The disclosure forced Sessions to recuse himself from any involvement in the FBI’s Russia investigation.
Put this all together and two things become clear. First, an unknown number of Trump campaign operatives and Trump-adjacent people were in touch with agents of the Russian government. Second, the Trump camp had no problem with Russian interference in the election and seemed to welcome it.