FBI Director James Comey said on Monday during a public hearing before the House Intelligence Committee that the bureau opened its investigation into Russia’s interference in the US election in July and concluded by December that Russia had interfered to “hurt” Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and “help” President Donald Trump.
Comey told the House Intelligence Committee that the investigation, which “includes whether there was any coordination between the Trump campaign and Russian efforts,” was still in its early stages and that he had “no timetable” for its conclusion.
But the FBI’s opening of its investigation coincided with a flurry of events that increased scrutiny of the Trump campaign’s friendly attitude toward Russia.
Those events included a hack of the Democratic National Committee in June that was attributed to Russia, an early foreign-policy adviser’s trip to Moscow in early July, a change made before the Republican National Convention in July in the GOP platform’s policy toward arming Ukraine, WikiLeaks’ release of stolen DNC documents in late July, and Trump’s subsequent urging of Russia to hack Clinton’s email server.
The DNC confirmed in mid-June that it had been hacked, and the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike said that it had concluded with “a very high degree of confidence” that the hack was linked to the Russian government.
Shortly after the DNC hack was made public, Carter Page, then a foreign-policy adviser to Trump’s campaign, travelled to Moscow, where he delivered a commencement speech at the New Economic School that was highly critical of US foreign policy. Page had served as an adviser “on key transactions” for Russia’s state-owned energy giant Gazprom before setting up his own energy investment fund, Global Energy Capital, with Sergey Yatesenko, a former Gazprom executive.
Page was in Moscow for three days, but it’s unclear what he did or whom he met with before and after the speech. Yahoo’s Michael Isikoff, citing a Western intelligence source, reported in September that Page had met with Igor Sechin, a Russian oligarch and the CEO of Russia’s state-owned oil company, Rosneft. Page has denied those reports, but he resigned from the campaign shortly after the report was published.
In July, while Paul Manafort was Trump’s campaign manager, an amendment to the GOP’s draft policy on Ukraine, which had proposed sending “lethal weapons” to the Ukrainian army to fend off Russian aggression — a stance that was generally consistent with the Republican Party’s position — was watered down to say “provide appropriate assistance.”
Manafort had advised the Russia-friendly Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych, whom he helped win the presidency in 2010.
The language change was orchestrated by two national-security experts sent to sit in on a national-security subcommittee meeting on behalf of the Trump campaign, according to one of the experts, J.D. Gordon, and the original amendment’s author, Diana Denman, who was also in the meeting. As Business Insider has reported, the circumstances around the language change are controversial, and there are conflicting accounts about the reason for the change. The policy amendment with the softer language was ultimately included in the GOP platform.
A few days later, WikiLeaks began publishing emails that had been stolen from the DNC and the Clinton campaign. The timing coincided with the start of the Democratic National Convention the following week.
WikiLeaks didn’t reveal the source of the documents. But the emergence in early August of a shadowy figure who called himself Guccifer 2.0 claiming responsibility for the DNC cyberattack added to suspicions that the hacking and disinformation campaign was linked to the Russian government.
Guccifer 2.0, who said he targeted Democrats in the heat of the election last summer, has denied having any links to Russia. But ThreatConnect, a cybersecurity firm based in Arlington, Virginia, has concluded that Guccifer 2.0 used the Russian-based virtual private network Elite VPN to secure later communications with politicians and reporters.
Roger Stone, a former Trump adviser and longtime confidant, said he exchanged private messages with Guccifer 2.0 in mid-August that were “short and innocuous.”
During a press conference on July 27, Trump called on Russia directly to hack his opponent.
“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump said, apparently referring to the emails that were deleted from Clinton’s private email server before it was handed over to the FBI in late 2015.
“I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press,” Trump added. (There had been a media frenzy surrounding WikiLeaks’ release of the DNC emails.)
On October 7, shortly after an “Access Hollywood” video surfaced of Trump making lewd remarks about women, WikiLeaks published the first batch of emails stolen from Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta.
Seventeen US intelligence agencies concluded in January that Russia interfered in the US election — hacking into the DNC and Podesta’s inbox and leaking the stolen documents to WikiLeaks — to undermine Clinton.
Comey and National Security Agency Director Mike Rogers said on Monday that that assessment had not changed.