The announcement on Thursday that Special Counsel Robert Mueller has impaneled a grand jury to probe Russian meddling in the 2016 election is seen as an indicator that the investigation into the Trump campaign is entering a new phase.
Russia has previously denied being involved in the U.S. presidential election. President Donald Trump has also strongly denied allegations of collusion and has labeled the probe a “witch hunt.”
The announcement about the grand jury, first reported by The Wall Street Journal, follows the disclosure of a June 2016 meeting Donald Trump Jr. took with a Russian lawyer.
The New York Times originally reported that President Trump’s oldest son met with a Russian lawyer who had information about Hillary Clinton that came from the Russian government. Following the report, Trump Jr. released on social media copies of the emails pertaining to the meeting.
That information about Clinton, according to the emails, included “some official documents … that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia” that “would be very useful to your father.”
The publicist who helped to coordinate the meeting, identified as Rob Goldstone, said his client wanted to arrange a meeting between a lawyer – referred to in the emails as a “Russian government attorney” – and Trump Jr. when she was in New York.
“This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” Goldstone wrote.
Trump Jr. almost immediately agreed to the meeting, saying, “if it’s what you say I love it.”
News of the meeting and the publication of the emails sparked fresh speculation that Trump or his associates could have colluded with the Russian government in order to win the 2016 presidential election.
Read on for an overview of the Russia investigation.
Before Trump ever took office, tens of thousands of emails from the Democratic National Committee and other officials connected to former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton were made public through WikiLeaks.
Those leaked emails — released in July 2016 ahead of the Democratic National Convention — purportedly showed the party favoring Clinton over Democratic challenger Bernie Sanders and led to the resignation of party chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schutlz.
But more than ousting Wasserman Schultz, intelligence officials concluded that those responsible for leaking the emails are connected to the Russian government. In its assessment of the hack, the CIA concluded that Russia intervened in the election in order to help Trump secure the presidency.
Russia has staunchly denied involvement, but Russian President Vladmir Putin lauded the leaks as “important” because they made the information public.
Before he handed over the White House to Trump, former President Barack Obama sanctioned Russia for its alleged involvement in the election — a move that would eventually come back to dismantle one of Trump’s own senior aides.
Michael Flynn’s tenure as Trump’s national security adviser was short but rife with controversy, and it still bedevils the Trump administration. But Flynn didn’t come without a warning.
Only a few days after the November election, Obama reportedly met with Trump to share his concerns about Flynn, a retired lieutenant general. Flynn had served under Obama as head of military intelligence until he was fired in 2014 following reports of insubordination and questionable management style.
Still, Trump ignored Obama’s apparent apprehensions and selected Flynn as his national security adviser.
Not even a month after Flynn was sworn in, Trump was already accepting his resignation.
As Obama issued sanctions on Russia for its involvement in the presidential election, Flynn reportedly was on the phone with the Russian ambassador to discuss the move. Flynn ultimately denied having spoken to the ambassador; when intelligence officials revealed proof of the discussions, Flynn said he didn’t remember speaking on that topic.
Flynn resigned under harsh scrutiny for misleading the administration, including Vice President Mike Pence, about his ties to and conversations with Russian officials.
Flynn was subpoenaed on May 10 by the Senate Intelligence Committee, which is looking into Russia’s influence on the 2016 election. Flynn is also under investigation by other congressional committees and the Pentagon’s inspector general regarding his Russian contacts and dealings.
Flynn initially invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. But Flynn’s attorneys eventually conceded to the Senate Intelligence Committee and announced that Flynn would begin to turn over documents and records in response to a subpoena.
Flynn was not the only Trump associate who had contacts with Russia, The New York Times reported in February.
Law enforcement and intelligence officials allegedly intercepted communications from Trump associates and campaign aides, including former campaign manager Paul Manafort, repeatedly in the year leading up to the election, according to the Times.
The Times reported that Manafort has done business in Russia — something that is not unusual for businessmen — and he was not charged with a crime.
Trump sacked former FBI Director James Comey on May 9, less than two months after Comey publicly proclaimed that the FBI was investigating ties between Russia’s involvement in the presidential election and Trump’s own campaign.
“I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and that includes 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 during a House Intelligence Committee hearing on March 20.
“As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed,” he added.
The White House maintained Comey was relieved from his duties due to his handling of the investigation into Clinton’s private email server during her tenure as secretary of state.
Trump told NBC News in an interview following the firing that he never attempted to pressure Comey into dropping the investigation. Instead, Trump said, he would like to find out what role Russia played in the election.
“As far as I’m concerned, I want that thing to be absolutely done properly,” Trump told NBC. “Maybe I’ll expand that, you know, lengthen the time [of the Russia probe] because it should be over with, in my opinion, should have been over with a long time ago [because] all it is, is an excuse but I said to myself, I might even lengthen out the investigation, but I have to do the right thing for the American people.”
He also denied any “collusion” between his campaign and the Russians during that interview.
While the FBI remains mum on specific details into the investigation — as is the norm — Trump claimed in his letter firing Comey that he was told multiple times by the former director that he is not under investigation.
“While I greatly appreciate you informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation, I nevertheless concur with the judgment of the Department of Justice that you are not able to effectively lead the Bureau,” Trump said.
He has also dismissed the allegations of ties between his officials and Russia on Twitter, calling it a “hoax” and “taxpayer funded charade.”
But Democrats and critics of the Trump administration called into question the reasoning behind Comey’s termination. Democratic Sens. Bob Casey and Patrick Leahy even labeled the situation “Nixonian,” drawing comparisons between Comey’s dismissal and former President Richard Nixon’s firing of special prosecutor Archibald Cox during the Watergate scandal.
In the wake of Comey’s dismissal, the Trump administration was rocked with reports of Trump’s own controversial dealings with the former FBI director and Russian officials in the Oval Office.
On May 15, the Washington Post reported that Trump shared classified information regarding ISIS threats with Russian officials.
The information Trump reportedly shared with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak was given to the U.S. by Israel and was not meant to be shared, the Washington Post reported.
“As President I wanted to share with Russia (at an openly scheduled meeting) which I have the absolute right to do, facts pertaining to terrorism and airline flight safety,” Trump tweeted the morning following the report.
“Humanitarian reasons, plus I want Russia to greatly step up their fight against ISIS and terrorism,” he added.
National Security Adviser Gen. H.R. McMaster pushed back on the report, saying Trump’s conversations were “wholly appropriate.” McMaster used that phrase — “wholly appropriate” — nine times during a briefing with reporters.
Russian President Vladimir Putin also denied that Trump shared any secrets with Lavrov and promised to turn over his records of the meeting to Congress.
Trump met with Lavrov and Kislyak the day after he fired Comey — again causing an outcry among Democrats about the optics.
Special counsel appointment
On May 17 the Justice Department announced the appointment of former FBI Director Robert Mueller as a special counsel to oversee the federal investigation into the probe of alleged Russian influence in the election.
The appointment followed a growing Democratic outcry for someone outside the Justice Department to handle the investigation.
“In my capacity as acting Attorney General, I determined that it is in the public interest for me to exercise my authority and appoint a Special Counsel to assume responsibility for this matter,” Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said in a statement. “My decision is not a finding that crimes have been committed or that any prosecution is warranted.”
The appointment gave Mueller, who led the FBI through the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and served under presidential administrations of both parties, wide powers to investigate whether Trump campaign associates colluded with the Kremlin to influence the outcome. It also gave Mueller the authority to prosecute any crimes uncovered during the probe.
On May 25, reports claimed that Trump’s son-in-law and top adviser Jared Kushner was under FBI scrutiny.
Kushner, who is married to Trump’s daughter Ivanka, may possess substantial information relevant to the Russian investigation, officials told NBC.
Kushner, who held meetings in December 2016 with Kislyak and a banker from Moscow, is being probed due to the extent and nature of his interactions with the Russians, people familiar with the investigation told The Washington Post.
The information Kushner may possess, however, doesn’t mean that officials necessarily suspect him of a crime or intend to charge him.
During a June Senate hearing, Comey confirmed that he kept a paper trail of memos detailing his conversations with Trump.
In one such memo, Comey revealed, he detailed a conversation in which Trump supposedly asked the FBI to drop the investigation into Flynn. The memo was reportedly written after Comey met with Trump in the Oval Office on Feb. 14 — the day after Flynn resigned.
“I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go,” Trump reportedly told Comey. “He is a good guy. I hope you can let this go.”
The White House strongly denied an attempt by the president to influence the FBI director at the time to drop the investigation.
“This is not a truthful or accurate portrayal of the conversation between the President and Mr. Comey,” the White House said.
The Hill reported in July that more than half of the memos Comey kept of his conversations with Trump were determined to contain classified information.
Citing unnamed sources, the Hill reported that Comey could have broken the FBI’s privacy rules by sharing them.
Trump took to Twitter to allege that Comey’s giving of the memos to a friend – who in turn leaked at least one of the notes to the media – is “so illegal.”
Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee on June 8 and accused Trump of trying to “defame” him.
“The administration then chose to defame me and more importantly the FBI by saying that the organization was in disarray,” Comey said. “That it was poorly led. That the workforce had lost confidence in its leader. Those were lies, plain and simple.”
Comey also said he was concerned about the “shifting explanations” that came from the White House in regards to his firing.
Comey confirmed during the hearing that he did reassure Trump that he was not under investigation by the FBI during its probe.
But he also declined to say whether he thinks the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians in the election. When asked by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., about his opinion, Comey said he couldn’t answer in “an open setting.”
“I am not trying to suggest, by my answer, something nefarious,” he said.
On Trump’s request to “let go” of the FBI’s investigation of Flynn, Comey said he didn’t believe Trump’s words to be an “order” but took them as “direction.”
Comey said that he believes he was fired over the Russian investigation.
“I know I was fired because of something about the way I was conducting the Russia investigation was in some way putting pressure on him, in some way irritating him, and he decided to fire me because of that,” Comey testified.
At their first face-to-face meeting, Trump said he questioned Putin about Russia’s involvement in the election.
In a two-hours-plus meeting in Germany, Trump and Putin had a “robust and lengthy” discussion about the interference, though Putin denied involvement, said Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. His Russian counterpart, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, said Trump had accepted Putin’s assurances that Russia didn’t meddle in the U.S. election — a divergent description of the conversation that illustrated each country’s effort to show its leader had held his ground.
“I think the president is rightly focused on how do we move forward from something that may be an intractable disagreement at this point,” said Tillerson, who took part in the meeting along with Lavrov.
Trump’s decision to raise the issue directly with Putin fulfilled ardent demands by U.S. lawmakers of both parties that the president not shy away from the issue in his highly anticipated meeting with Putin. Trump has avoided stating unequivocally in the past that Russia interfered, even as investigations proceed into whether Trump’s campaign colluded with Russians who sought to help him win.
On one point, Putin and Trump agreed, Tillerson said: the issue has become a hindrance to better relations between the two powers. The two leaders agreed to continue the discussion, with an eye toward securing a commitment that Russia won’t interfere in U.S. affairs in the future, Tillerson added.
Trump Jr.’s controversial meeting
After the New York Times reported on Trump Jr.’s meeting to gather potentially damning information about Clinton, the president’s son released emails related to the meeting on Twitter.
“The Crown prosecutor of Russia met with his father Aras this morning and in their meeting offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary [Clinton] and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father,” Goldstone said in one email. “This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump – helped along by Aras and Emin.”
“I could also send this info to your father via Rhona, but it is ultra sensitive so wanted to send to you first,” he said.
Following Trump Jr.’s release of the emails, White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders read a statement from Trump to reporters about his son.
Trump called his son a “high quality person” and said he applauded Trump Jr.’s “transparency.”
As Trump Jr. does not have a position in his father’s administration, he is not required to disclose foreign contacts, according to the Associated Press.
Foreign nationals are prohibited from providing “anything of value” to campaigns, and that same law also bars solicitation of such assistance. The law typically applies to monetary campaign contributions, but courts could consider information such as opposition research to be something of value.
Common Cause, a nonpartisan nonprofit that pushes for government accountability, filed an official complaint against Trump Jr. with the Federal Election Commission and the Justice Department alleging that Trump Jr. “may have broken” election law.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.