Closer look at election to obstruction

WASHINGTON — It started with her emails.

Hillary Clinton’s emails were hacked — through both Democratic National Committee servers and the private account of her campaign chairman — and released on the website Wikileaks.

The intelligence community  pointed the finger at Russia, and officials later said they believed the operation was part of a deliberate effort to sway the 2016 presidential election.

There is, as of yet, no direct, public evidence that President Trump knew anything about the hacking — though he did say last July that he hoped Russia would be able to find official emails missing from Clinton’s home server.

But as tends to happen in Washington (see Watergate, 1972-1974 and Whitewater, 1993-1998), one controversy can beget another until the central question becomes not what the president did, but whether he obstructed the investigation.

“They made up a phony collusion with the Russians story, found zero proof, so now they go for obstruction of justice on the phony story,” Trump tweeted Thursday.

And so it is five months into the Trump administration, as the original firestorm over hacked emails has set into motion a series of offspring controversies that have consumed the presidency.

Here’s a guide to the Russian hacking investigation and its many offshoots:

Russian hacking

In October, as the Clinton campaign was weathering near-daily disclosures of internal emails, 17 U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that the Russian government was behind the hacking of the emails. At the time, the agencies said only that Russia was attempting to interfere in the election. But in January, the same agencies released an even stronger assessment: Russian President Vladimir Putin personally ordered the hacking — and not just to interfere with the election, but to get Trump elected.

Trump, then president-elect, responded by complaining that the report was leaked to NBC News before he had a chance to read it. And he said the report showed that the election wasn’t tampered with because no votes were changed. “Intelligence stated very strongly there was absolutely no evidence that hacking affected the election results. Voting machines not touched!” he tweeted.

The Russian interference campaign also included “fake news” stories and propaganda from Russian-owned media, intelligence reports said.

Flynn’s contact with Russian diplomat

In December, incoming National Security Adviser Michael Flynn talked to Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak about relaxing sanctions — a call that would be reported in the Washington Post two weeks later. White House officials — including the vice president — insisted it was a courtesy call and sanctions were not discussed.

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When that turned out not to be true, Trump fired Flynn for lying.

But that wasn’t the end of Flynn’s legal troubles. He also failed to disclose his lobbying for the Turkish government, and didn’t get approval to work for a Russian state-owned media outlet.

The Jared Kushner ‘back channel’

During the transition, Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner met with Russian officials at Trump Tower in an apparent attempt to create a “back channel” between the White House and the Kremlin.

That move could have used Russian communications methods, and appeared designed to allow the senior officials to speak directly to their Russian counterparts outside of normal diplomatic and intelligence protocols.

The White House said such communications are “an appropriate part of diplomacy.” But the communications could implicate federal laws governing communications with foreign powers: The Logan Act, a rarely used law forbidding private citizens from conducting foreign policy; the Espionage Act, which prohibits divulging state secrets; and the Foreign Agent Registration Act, which requires those acting on behalf of a foreign power to disclose their contacts with the government.

Also, using Russian communications equipment could have made Kushner or anyone else vulnerable to blackmail, as the Russians would have had control over the communications and any recordings that might have been made.

Kushner, who later took on a formal role as an adviser to Trump, also allegedly failed to disclose meetings with Russians on security clearance forms.

Sessions’ incomplete testimony

During Jeff Sessions’ confirmation hearing as attorney general, Sen. Al Franken asked him about reports of communications between the Trump campaign and the Russian government.

Sessions said he was unaware of any such contacts, and then volunteered, “I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn’t have — did not have communications with the Russians.”

That turned out not to be true: He met with the Russian ambassador at least twice as a U.S. senator. But whether Sessions committed perjury is a question that turns on whether he intended to deceive the Senate Judiciary. “My answer was honest and correct as I understood it at the time,” Sessions later said.

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Sessions later recused himself from investigations into the Russian matter.

Trump fires FBI Director Comey

Trump abruptly fired FBI Director James Comey — the man responsible for the various Russia investigations — on May 9. The purported reason: A memo from Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein excoriating Comey for how he conducted an investigation into Clinton’s mishandling of classified information.

But Trump later told NBC’s Lester Holt he was thinking about “the Russian thing” when he made the decision. And Comey later testified that Trump had repeatedly pressed him to publicly deny that the president personally was under investigation in the probe.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller is now investigating whether the president obstructed justice.

Trump’s disclosure of foreign intelligence — to the Russians

The day after firing Comey, the president met in the Oval Office with Kisylak — the same Russian ambassador whose meetings with other officials had proved problematic — and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Trump reportedly told the two men that Comey was a “nut job” and that his firing relieved “great pressure” on him.

Separately, the Washington Post reported that Trump divulged classified information to the Russian diplomats, giving them details of an intercepted plot to bomb planes using disguised laptops. While the president can legally share classified information with anyone, the intelligence in question belonged to Israeli intelligence agencies.

‘Lordy, I hope there are tapes’

After firing Comey, Trump set off weeks of speculation with a single tweet: “James Comey better hope that there are no ‘tapes’ of our conversations before he starts leaking to the press!”

Secretly recording conversations in the White House isn’t illegal, because the District of Columbia requires only one party of the conversation to consent to the recording. But those tapes, if they exist, could be evidence in an obstruction of justice investigation, and Congress has officially requested that the White House turn over the tapes.

Comey has said the tapes would back up his testimony about the conversations. “Lordy, I hope there are tapes,” he told the Senate Intelligence Committee.

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Reality Winner and election hacking 

Last week, the online publication The Intercept published a leaked National Security Agency memo documenting Russian attempts to hack election vendors and local election officials. The website said the memo showed that Russian hacking “may have penetrated further into U.S. voting systems than was previously understood.”

Hours later, the FBI arrested Reality Lea Winner, an NSA contractor, and accused her of illegally leaking the memo.

Next week, the Senate Intelligence Committee will hold a public hearing on Russian cyberattacks on U.S. election systems in 2016 and efforts to prevent it in future elections.

Obstruction of justice

After Comey was fired, Rosenstein appointed former FBI director Mueller as special counsel. His mandate: To investigate “any links and/or coordination bet ween the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump” and “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation.”

But the special counsel regulation also allows the special counsel to “investigate and prosecute federal crimes committed in the course of, and with intent to interfere with, the special counsel’s investigation, such as perjury, obstruction of justice, destruction of evidence, and intimidation of witnesses.”

The Washington Post reported Wednesday that Mueller would interview two high-ranking intelligence officials with an eye toward investigating whether Trump obstructed justice. Those officials: Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and NSA Director Mike Rogers, who have declined to answer congressional questions about their conversations with the president.

Trump appeared to confirm that he was a target of the investigation in a tweet on Friday: “I am being investigated for firing the FBI Director by the man who told me to fire the FBI Director! Witch Hunt,” he said.

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