If there were a starting point for the political turmoil around members of Donald Trump’s inner circle and their ties to Russia, it likely would be last June 15.
On that day, news broke of a computer penetration. It seemed like a minor event and was barely noted in newscasts, not unlike the famous political break-in 44 years earlier at the Watergate complex that became synonymous with political scandal.
A cybersecurity firm, CrowdStrike, posted a blog item saying it had detected a series of intrusions into the network of the Democratic National Committee in Washington. The culprits, it said, were Cozy Bear and Fancy Bear, nicknames of two highly skilled hacking units linked to the Russian security services.
CrowdStrike said one of the units had been lurking on the DNC network for at least 10 months, and that both units had used sophisticated Remote Access Tools – fittingly called RATs – to maraud for documents and emails.
Those hacked emails would soon turn into a political weapon, leaked to the media in an effort to hurt presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The Russian hack marked the beginning of a cascade of allegations about Russian influence on Trump’s aides, steadily building to this week’s troubles hounding Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Along the way, the rip-roaring scandal has ricocheted from hacked emails, and the sudden ouster of Trump’s campaign manager, to a secret dossier with salacious content and on to wiretapped phone calls between Trump’s national security adviser and Russia’s ambassador. The scandal shows no signs of abating.
A key moment came July 22, when the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks published a vast trove of 19,252 DNC emails that revealed personal information about donors, cozy ties with media figures and evidence that the DNC was tilting the board in favor of Clinton over a rising challenger, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
The leak took an immediate toll: DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz and three other senior party officials resigned on the eve of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, where delegates would hoist Clinton as the party’s presidential nominee.
But as the convention played out, Trump artfully stole media attention. He appeared at a podium at his Doral Resort in Florida on July 27 and made a quintessentially brash Trumpian appeal: He called on Russia to locate Clinton emails that had gone missing from her private server while she was secretary of state.
“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.”
The call ruffled the presidential race. By asking Russia, a longtime U.S. nemesis, to break American law and muck around in its computer networks, even if in a jocular tone, Trump was seen as breaking sharply from conventional Republican orthodoxy.
Trump’s appeal to Russia would soon boomerang.
On Aug. 19, his campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, stepped down amid allegations that he had accepted millions of dollars in cash from Russian interests in Ukraine. Manafort had also been involved in gutting the GOP platform of its anti-Russia stance.
As the presidential race heated up, the White House faced new pressure to accuse Russia formally of meddling in the campaign.
In early September, another cybersecurity firm, ThreatConnect, said Russian hackers appeared to be probing election databases in Arizona and Illinois, a possible prelude to broader interference in the November vote.
It wasn’t until Oct. 7 that the Department of Homeland Security and Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a short statement saying U.S. intelligence agencies were “confident that the Russian government directed the recent compromises of emails from U.S. persons and institutions, including from U.S. political organizations.”
Coinciding with that statement was a new tranche of leaked emails – this time thousands of them stolen from the personal account of John Podesta, Clinton’s campaign chair, and published by WikiLeaks. The leaks tore the veil off the inner workings of the campaign.
Trump, as he would do all the way until January, disparaged the notion that Russia was behind the hacks or was meddling on behalf of his campaign.
After he triumphed over Clinton in the election, Trump repeatedly exonerated Russia: “I don’t believe it. I don’t believe they interfered,” he told Time magazine.
On Dec. 12, Trump tweeted: “Unless you catch ‘hackers’ in the act, it is very hard to determine who was doing the hacking. Why wasn’t this brought up before election?”
But the mood was changing in corners of the media establishment. A 35-page secret dossier had begun to circulate weeks earlier, compiled by a former British spy, Christopher Steele, who had been hired by a Republican opponent of Trump’s to develop politically damaging and unverified research about Trump.
The document suggested collusion between Trump associates and Moscow in the hacking of Democratic computers and contained lurid allegations of activities by Trump during his stay in the $14,000-a-night presidential suite of the Moscow Ritz-Carlton Hotel in 2013, allegedly captured on video and held as “kompromat,” material for potential blackmail.
Among its charges, the dossier said Russian President Vladimir Putin and his top aides had been disappointed that the leaked emails hadn’t hurt Clinton more during the campaign and that some Kremlin officials felt “buyer’s remorse” over support for Trump.
Over the year-end holiday period, President Barack Obama took more forceful action against Russia, releasing more detailed information about the Russian hacking and ordering the expulsion of 35 Russians, presumably spies under diplomatic cover. In the Dec. 29 action, he also forced Russia to give up a Long Island compound and a 45-acre complex in rural Maryland.
Putin announced he would not retaliate, as Russia has done in similar cases in past years, prompting Trump to praise the Russian leader: “I always knew he was very smart!”
A declassified Jan. 6 report, summing up the views of major U.S. intelligence agencies, assessed that Putin had sought to influence the campaign, undermine Americans’ faith in their democracy, harm Clinton’s chances and act on a “clear preference” for Trump.
Four days later, the secret dossier exploded into the public arena when the website BuzzFeed published it in its entirety.
Steele, who was well-regarded by the FBI from previous contacts, went into hiding, and in Moscow the earth trembled. A former KGB chief suspected of helping Steele, Oleg Erovinkin, had turned up dead in the back of his black Lexus on Dec. 26. After leaving state security, Erovinkin had served as a top aide to Igor Sechin, chief of Rosneft, a state-owned oil company, and allegedly acted as an intermediary between his boss and Putin.
Two cyber experts at the FSB, Russia’s federal security service, were arrested and charged with treason, raising suggestions that they had been a source for U.S. intelligence on Russian hacking during the campaign, giving credibility to the U.S. charges of meddling.
Tremors were also hitting corners of the Trump camp as Inauguration Day neared.
The most senior victim was Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, the chief of the Defense Intelligence Agency from 2012-14 who had gone on to become one of Trump’s most trusted advisers. Flynn had grown so in synch with Trump that he’d blasted shouts of “Lock her up!” at the Republican convention in July.
Trump tapped Flynn to be his national security adviser in mid-November.
Flynn had his own Russia connection. He’d dined with Putin at the Metropole Hotel in Moscow in late 2015 as part of festivities to honor the RT state-run television network. Flynn was paid for the appearance.
On Jan. 12, a columnist in The Washington Post reported that Flynn had made several calls to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak on the very day Obama announced the expulsion of 35 Russians, and raised the question whether Flynn had discussed U.S. sanctions on Russia. A Trump spokesman said Flynn was simply discussing a time for Trump and Putin to speak after Inauguration Day.
Almost daily since then, events around the Russian connection have erupted.
In an exclusive report Jan. 18, McClatchy said the FBI and five other law enforcement and intelligence agencies were collaborating on an investigation into whether the Kremlin had funneled money to covertly aid the Trump campaign. Among the subjects of their interest: Michael Cohen, a lawyer for the Trump Organization, who the dossier said had met with Russian government officials in Prague late last summer
As recently as Jan. 3, Trump had been pillorying the intelligence assessment of Russian hacking. But he backed off days later, acknowledging that Russia had had a role in the hacks that roiled the 2016 campaign, but he said they hadn’t affected the outcome. One after another, his aides came forth to deny any undue connection with Russia. Vice President Mike Pence went on national television to say Flynn hadn’t discussed sanctions with the Russian ambassador, nor had anyone in the campaign spoken with Russian officials.
In Congress, a good number of legislators either wanted to investigate further or were willing to go along with an inquiry. Investigations have opened in both the House of Representatives and Senate intelligence committees into Russian influence in the campaign.
Even after Trump took office in a flurry of executive orders, Russia kept simmering as an issue. At the end of his first week in office, Trump received a phone call from acting Attorney General Sally Yates telling him that authorities had a recording of his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, talking with the Russian envoy. Yates would be fired within days.
And Flynn would be gone just 24 days into his tenure. Trump called him a “fine person” but said he’d asked for Flynn’s resignation because Flynn had misled the vice president about the nature of his contacts with the ambassador.
Attorney General Sessions was next to feel the tremors.
The Washington Post reported late Wednesday that Sessions had met twice with Ambassador Kislyak in 2016, including a meeting in the office he occupied in the Senate. During his confirmation hearings in January, Sessions didn’t disclose the contacts.
In a news conference Thursday afternoon, Sessions offered details of meeting with Kislyak and said he would recuse himself from any inquiry on ties between Trump aides and Russia.