President Trump and the Kremlin have denied allegations that Russia and the Trump campaign colluded in the 2016 presidential election – but the probe into Russia’s meddling is forging ahead.
A special counsel was appointed to investigate potential wrongdoing, and the team has already brought multiple charges against people associated with the presidential campaign.
Read on for a breakdown of what has happened in the Russia investigation thus far and what it means for the administration.
What exactly is being investigated?
Multiple investigators are looking into just how wide the scope of Russia’s involvement in the 2016 presidential election is and if the foreign nation had any interaction with the Trump campaign.
Investigators are also looking at the financial ties between some Trump associates and the Kremlin.
Who is in charge of the investigations?
Multiple congressional committees have launched probes into Russia’s attempts to influence the election.
And the Department of Justice appointed Robert Mueller as its special counsel overseeing its investigation in May.
Mueller was appointed after Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who was the first Republican senator to endorse Trump, recused himself from the investigation. His appointment also followed a growing Democratic outcry for someone outside the Justice Department to handle the probe.
Has anyone been charged yet?
Mueller’s investigation has led to multiple charges – although none are directly related to misconduct from the campaign.
Paul Manafort and his associate, Richard Gates, turned themselves over to federal authorities in October and were hit with a 12-count indictment – with charges ranging from conspiracy against the U.S. to conspiracy to launder money.
Nearly four months later, in February, the pair was hit with additional tax evasion and bank fraud charges. The new indictment involved much of the same conduct Manafort and Gates were already charged with, but the the amount of money Manafort is accused of laundering through offshore accounts was increased to $30 million.
Gates pleaded guilty to federal conspiracy and false-statements charges on Feb. 23, a sign that he could cooperate with Mueller’s investigators.
That same day, Manafort was hit with another indictment, accusing him of secretly paying former European politicians to lobby on behalf of Ukraine.
As special counsel, Mueller took over the criminal investigation into Manafort’s financial dealings dating back prior to the election. Manafort worked for controversial former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Russia politician who was ousted from power twice, and Russian billionaire Oleg Deripaska. In 2005, Manafort came up with a plan to influence U.S. politics, business dealings and the media in order to “greatly benefit the Putin Government,” according to The Associated Press.
Manafort joined Trump’s campaign ahead of the Republican National Convention to help wrangle delegates before becoming the campaign chairman. He resigned in August 2016.
Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, has also been charged in connection with Mueller’s probe. Flynn pleaded guilty in December to one charge of lying to the FBI – reportedly about his talks with a Russian ambassador.
Flynn was Trump’s national security adviser for a short time, but his connection to the White House was rife with controversy that still bedevils the administration. Flynn resigned after less than a month in the position.
At issue was his contact with Moscow’s ambassador to Washington. Flynn and the Russian appear to have discussed U.S. sanctions on Russia late in 2016, raising questions about whether he was freelancing on foreign policy while former President Barack Obama was still in office and whether he misled Trump officials about the communications.
Additionally, George Papadopoulos, a former foreign policy adviser to Trump’s campaign, pleaded guilty in 2017 to making false statements to the FBI about his connections with Russian officials.
During his time on the campaign, Papadopoulos attempted to set up meetings between campaign officials and Russians on numerous occasions. He also interacted with a professor “understood to have substantial connections to Russian government officials” who told Papadopoulos that the Russians had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, according to court documents released by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office.
Alex van der Zwaan, an attorney who allegedly lied to investigators in the Russia inquiry, was charged in federal court in February and pleaded guilty. According to charging documents, van der Zwaan was employed by a law firm hired by the Ukraine Ministry of Justice in 2012. He admitted to lying to investigators about his interactions with Gates.
Additionally, 13 Russian nationals and three Russian entities were indicted by a federal grand jury for allegedly interfering in the election. Mueller’s case alleges those involved had a sophisticated plot to wage “information warfare” on the U.S.
However, the Justice Department did not say if the actions had an impact on the outcome of the election.
Does anyone else on Trump’s team have connections to Russians or the investigation?
Donald Jr., the president’s oldest son, got the administration into some hot water when it was revealed that he took a meeting with a Russian lawyer during the campaign who was supposed to have damning information about Clinton.
“This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” an email about the meeting said in part.
Trump Jr. maintained that the lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, did not have any information to share and instead wanted to discuss the Magnitsky Act and other sanctions.
Manafort and Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, were also at the meeting.
Kushner, too, has been under FBI scrutiny. Married to Ivanka, the president’s daughter, Kushner may possess substantial information relevant to the investigation, officials have said.
Although he has denied colluding with Russians or knowing of anyone who did, Kushner has had private meetings with lawmakers on Capitol Hill to discuss the controversial encounter with Veselnitskya, which occurred in the summer of 2016. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have accused him of not being forthcoming in the information divulged.
Steve Bannon, Trump’s former White House chief strategist, agreed to meet with Mueller as part of his investigation, potentially avoiding appearing under subpoena in front of a grand jury. And Sessions has already met with Mueller, becoming the highest-ranking administration official thus far to have submitted to questioning.
What about Trump?
Trump has said he is “looking forward” to being questioned by Mueller under oath regarding the investigation. Aside from his associates’ connections to Russians, the president has also found himself under scrutiny for certain interactions in office.
Trump sacked FBI Director James Comey on May 9, 2017 – less than two months after Comey publicly proclaimed the agency was investigating ties between Russia and Trump’s campaign.
The White House maintained Comey was let go due to his handling of an investigation into Clinton’s private email server used during her tenure as secretary of state. But Trump has suggested that he considered the Russian investigation when he fired Comey.
Comey also told a Senate intelligence committee that Trump had asked for the FBI to drop its investigation into Flynn; the White House said Trump was not attempting to influence his FBI director.
Comey told the committee that he offered Trump repeated reassurances that he was not under an FBI investigation.
After Comey’s dismissal, Trump met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador at the time, where he shared classified information regarding ISIS threats, the Washington Post reported.
Trump told those officials that firing Comey – who he allegedly called a “nut job” – took “great pressure” off of him, The New York Times later reported.
What’s so controversial about the investigation?
Trump has been critical of Mueller, calling his friendship with Comey “very bothersome.” Multiple investigators on Mueller’s team face questions about their potential biases – and two were reassigned from the probe.
House Republicans released a memo in early February 2018 that detailed alleged surveillance abuses used in the Russia probe.
The memo, put together by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, R-Calif., did “raise concerns with the legitimacy and legality of certain DOJ and FBI interactions with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and represent a troubling breakdown of legal processes established to protect the American people from abuses related to the FISA process,” it said.
Trump said the memo “vindicates” him in the Russia investigation.
But Democrats have dismissed the memo as misleading, saying it was released by Republicans in order to push the narrative that the probe is biased against the president. They hope to release a rebuttal memo in the near future.
How did the Russian meddling allegations even begin?
Before Trump took office, tens of thousands of emails from the Democratic National Committee and officials connected to Clinton were leaked.
Those emails – released in July 2016 – purportedly showed the party favoring Clinton over Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and led to the resignation of party chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
But more than just ousting Wasserman Schultz, intelligence officials concluded those responsible for leaking the emails were 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.
Civilian deaths, Taliban attacks rising as full U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan looms, report says
WASHINGTON — Civilian casualties and Taliban attacks in Afghanistan are mounting as the U.S. withdrawal nears completion and the Afghan military continues its collapse, according to a new quarterly report from a U.S. government watchdog that describes a country ravaged by Covid-19 and violence.
The report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, found a “dramatic increase in enemy-initiated attacks” from January through March of this year compared to the same time in previous years. There were 10,431 attacks this year, up from 7,620 last year and 6,358 in 2019.
Attacks have been increasing since the U.S.-Taliban agreement on Feb. 29, 2020, with more attacks in each three-month period since the agreement than in the same quarters in the previous year.
The number of attacks against the Afghan military and civilians has increased significantly this year, the report says, with many attacks coming during the Taliban offensive now sweeping across the country.
The Taliban launched an offensive in May after U.S. and coalition military forces began withdrawing. The offensive accelerated in June and July.
However, the report notes that Afghan forces have stopped reporting attacks as their situation deteriorates, and it says the U.S. stopped collecting attack data effective May 31 with the end of the U.S. training and advisory mission.
Civilian deaths were rising until the end of that reporting period. Resolute Support, the NATO mission in Afghanistan, reported 2,035 civilian casualties in April and May — 705 deaths and 1,330 injuries. That is nearly as many civilian casualties as in the first three months of this year combined, 2,149, and higher than in April and May of last year. According to Resolute Support, the top two causes of civilian casualties were improvised explosive devices and direct fire, and 93 percent of civilian casualties in April and May were from insurgents, largely the Taliban.
The Taliban have overrun Afghan military checkpoints and bases, district centers and a series of key border crossings, according to the SIGAR report. In some cases, the Afghan military forces, known as ANDSF, have fled.
“In some districts ANDSF forces put up some level of resistance and conducted a tactical (fighting) retreat, while in others they surrendered or fled in disorder,” the report says, citing news reports that 1,600 ANDSF fled into Tajikistan this month to avoid Taliban advances in Badakhshan province.
At a briefing last week, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Mark Milley, said the Taliban control about half of the 419 district centers in Afghanistan and are pressuring 17 of the country’s 34 provincial capitals.
“Particularly concerning was the speed and ease with which the Taliban seemingly wrested control of districts in Afghanistan’s northern provinces, once a bastion of anti-Taliban sentiment,” the SIGAR report says. At a news conference June 29, the former commander of the NATO Resolute Support Mission, Army Gen. Scott Miller, told reporters: “We should be concerned. The loss of terrain and the rapidity of that loss of terrain has to be concerning.”
The SIGAR also found that most Afghan military forces “refuse to execute missions.” Instead, the more highly trained and proficient Afghan special operators are used for basic tasks like route clearance, checkpoint security and quick reaction forces.
The Afghan air force is overtaxed now that U.S. air support has largely ended, according to the report. All Afghan air force aircraft are flying at least 25 percent over their recommended scheduled maintenance, the report found, and the readiness of most of the aircraft has plummeted since most U.S. support has withdrawn. The UH-60 Blackhawk fleet was at 77 percent readiness in May and dropped to 39 percent in June.
The U.S. military has carried out a handful of airstrikes against the Taliban this month, according to defense officials, but the aircraft fly in from neighboring countries now that nearly all U.S. military forces and equipment have left Afghanistan. Once the U.S. military mission officially ends on Aug. 31, the U.S. will still carry out strikes against Al Qaeda and Islamic State terrorists, but it will no longer carry out strikes against the Taliban.
Meanwhile, the report says, the Afghan public is coping with a 2,400 percent increase in Covid cases, the majority from the delta variant. According to the U.N., half of the population requires humanitarian assistance.
Clean energy, aging grid to get big boosts under infrastructure deal
WASHINGTON – The nation’s aging power grid and burgeoning clean energy sector are set to get major boosts under a $550 billion bipartisan infrastructure deal reached by the Senate and the White House.
Although details of what’s in the deal are still scarce, the agreement includes $73 billion to expand clean sources of energy and the ability to move it from place to place, in what the White House calls the “single largest investment in clean energy transmission in American history.” It includes an additional $7.5 billion to build out electric vehicle charging stations across the U.S. as the nation seeks to wean itself from gas-guzzling cars and trucks.
At the same time, the deal will clear away major impediments to adopting clean energy and work to cut red tape that has complicated efforts to build sorely needed new power lines, according to a White House description of the agreement.
It’s a far cry from the eye-popping numbers President Joe Biden initially proposed in March in his American Jobs Plan, which included $100 billion for the power grid, $174 billion for electric vehicles and $46 billion for clean energy manufacturing. But Democrats are expected to shoehorn much of the spending left out of the bipartisan deal into their separate, $3.5 billion spending bill they plan to pass without Republican support.
A look at the clean energy provisions in the bipartisan deal:
New transmission lines
Two of the biggest energy challenges – resilience and emissions – both depend on a common factor: the energy grid.
The more reliably interconnected the electricity network is, the better any region can handle disruptions that affect local own power-generating abilities. This year’s electricity crisis in Texas illustrated how the state’s isolation from other power sources has left it with insufficient backup if things go wrong.
Transmission lines are also critical to widespread adoption of renewable energy like wind, solar and geothermal. Fossil fuel plants like coal and natural gas can generally be built close to where the electricity will be used. But clean energy often must be transported long distances to communities from parts of the country where, for example, it’s windy or sunny.
That requires new high-voltage transmission lines – and the White House says the $73 billion investment will include building “thousands of miles of new, resilient transmission lines” to help expand renewable energy.
‘Grid deployment authority’
Another huge obstacle to construction new power lines is the endless red tape and finding sites where you can get permissions to build, power industry analysts say.
Unlike with interstate oil or gas pipelines, there’s no single, federal authority you can apply to for permission to build power lines. Long-distance, high-voltage lines cross multiple states, municipalities and other jurisdictions that all may require different permits – or not grant them at all.
The bipartisan deal will create a new federal entity, called a Grid Deployment Authority, to “finance and encourage the development of high-voltage transmission lines,” the White House says. Housed within the Energy Department, the authority will make use of existing public property –highways, roads and railways – to secure rights-of-way for new power lines.
The $7.5 billion for electric vehicle charger stations is the first such investment by the federal government, the Biden administration says. But it’s less than 5 percent of the amount Biden initially said was needed to meet his goal of erecting a half-million charger stations across the country.
Consumers regularly cite “range anxiety” – the fear that an electric vehicle will run out of charge before they can recharge it – as a key reason they’ve waited to go electric. The White House says the funding will be focused on deploying chargers along highways, within communities and in places that are “rural, disadvantaged and hard-to-reach.”
The infrastructure deal also seeks to speed up development of smart grids, advanced transmission and “next-generation technologies,” although it’s not immediately clear exactly how much funding will be dedicated to those priorities or how it will be spent.
Notably, the White House singled out several technologies that would be prioritized that are generally considered “clean,” but not “renewable.” That means they produce less or no greenhouse gas emissions, but still use up a fuel that doesn’t exist in endless amounts, like the sun and wind.
Among them: Advanced nuclear reactors, as well as carbon capture, an emerging but expensive technology that seeks to capture carbon dioxide emissions from burning coal or natural gas and store it before it can enter the atmosphere. The administration also said the deal includes “clean hydrogen,” in which renewable electricity is used to create hydrogen gas that can then be burned with almost no emissions.
White House touts broadband part of new infrastructure deal
The White House announced Wednesday that its “once-in-a-generation investment in our infrastructure” would include a part dedicated to improving Americans’ access to the internet.
Later, the Senate passed a critical test vote by 67-32, suggesting possible passage of the entire infrastructure bill in the coming days.
“This bipartisan deal is the most important investment in public transit in American history and the most important investment in rail since the creation of Amtrak 50 years ago,” President Joe Biden said in a statement Wednesday afternoon. “It will deliver high speed internet to every American.”
Neither precise details of the broadband section nor the text of the whole bill has been released yet. The White House said in a related statement that a $65 billion investment for broadband, out of $550 billion in new spending, would ensure that “every American has access to reliable high-speed internet,” comparing it to the electrification of the country a century ago.
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration, part of the Commerce Department, published a comprehensive interactive online map last month. The document shows how poorer, more rural and tribal areas generally don’t have affordable broadband access.
The Federal Communications Commission defines broadband as a download speed of 25 megabits per second and an upload speed of 3 Mbps. While 25 Mbps is generally sufficient for most uses, when such a connection is shared via a wireless connection and transmitted to multiple people using different devices, real-world speeds — particularly when videoconferencing is involved — are often slower and insufficient.
A draft copy of the 68-page broadband section of the infrastructure bill obtained by NBC News would establish a de facto minimum standard of 100 Mbps down and 20 Mbps up, and it would require that internet service providers have an eye toward even higher speeds, most likely through fiber optic service. In addition, it would require the federal government to establish a single website where consumers could determine whether they are eligible for low-cost broadband.
“The main takeaway for me is that it’s oriented around future-proofing infrastructure, and that’s a good thing,” said Ernesto Falcon, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco.
Vinhcent Le, a technology equity lawyer with the Greenlining Institute, an advocacy organization in Oakland, California, was part of a coalition of pro-consumer groups that lobbied the bipartisan working group in recent months.
“It doesn’t rock the boat too much, but it does give things that advocates have been asking for: better mapping data and digital inclusion money, helping pay down the cost of broadband,” he said. “It’s going to help people get signed up.”
Most major ISPs have low-cost programs, but critics have said that they aren’t always widely known and that the speed floor has historically been too low.
In February, Comcast doubled the speed of its low-cost program, known as Internet Essentials, from 25 Mbps to 50 Mbps. Comcast, the country’s largest internet service provider, owns NBCUniversal, the parent company of NBC News.
“We’ve always offered the same super fast speeds across an entire city when we build out and offer gig speeds across nearly our entire footprint of 55 million plus homes,” Sena Fitzmaurice, a Comcast spokesperson, said by email. Fitzmaurice declined to comment on the White House announcement until legislative language has been released.
“We’ve been part of a coalition which has called for a permanent broadband program to help low-income households, and have been participating in the emergency program including allowing customers to use it to access any tier of broadband service,” she said.
The White House is also pushing to pass the Digital Equity Act, a bill to create “a permanent program to help more low-income households access the internet.”
NCTA, the lobbying organization for telecommunications companies, said it was generally in favor of the deal.
“Connecting every American to robust and reliable broadband infrastructure is a goal we share and our industry has spent decades building and upgrading networks that now reach 80% of U.S. homes with superfast gigabit speeds,” Brian Dietz, a spokesperson for NCTA, said by email.
“While we still need to see the details of the bill, we are encouraged that the bipartisan infrastructure deal directly addresses two critical elements of reaching universal connectivity — dedicating funding first and foremost to those regions without any broadband service, and providing financial assistance to help low-income Americans subscribe to this critical service,” Dietz said.
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