It’s getting difficult to keep up with the Russia/Trump story, but here’s some of what you need to know. On Wednesday night, CNN reported that the F.B.I. has information suggesting that “associates of President Donald Trump communicated with suspected Russian operatives to possibly coordinate the release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign.”
The information includes “human intelligence, travel, business and phone records and accounts of in-person meetings,” according to CNN, which, citing an unnamed source, also reported that “this is partly what FBI Director James Comey was referring to when he made a bombshell announcement Monday before Congress that the FBI is investigating the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.” Comey told Congress that, to launch a counterintelligence investigation, the F.B.I. needed “a credible allegation of wrongdoing or reasonable basis to believe that an American may be acting as an agent of a foreign power.”
The CNN report wasn’t the only Russia story to emerge on Wednesday. Earlier in the day, the Associated Press reported that Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, worked for a number of years with Oleg Deripaska, a Russian billionaire who has close ties to Vladimir Putin, to “influence politics, business dealings and news coverage inside the United States, Europe and the former Soviet republics to benefit the Putin government.”
The A.P. report quoted from a 2005 document in which Manafort made a pitch to Deripaska, who runs the world’s biggest aluminum company. In the document, Manafort said that his consulting company, given “the appropriate resources,” would “be offering a great service that can re-focus, both internally and externally, the policies of the Putin government.” The story also said that Manafort and Deripaska signed a “$10 million annual contract” beginning in 2006, and that they maintained a business relationship until at least 2009.
What are we to make of these reports? On social media, many people are declaring that Trump is about to be impeached. That is wishful thinking. On Monday, Comey only confirmed the existence of an F.B.I. investigation—he gave no indication of how the investigation is going. In Congress, meanwhile, there isn’t enough Republican support to set up a special committee to investigate the President’s ties to Russia, let alone to appoint an independent prosecutor or launch impeachment proceedings.
And, despite Comey’s testimony, many Republicans, including Devin Nunes, the head of the House Intelligence Committee, are still determined to change the subject from Russia and the Trump campaign to unauthorized leaks or alleged government surveillance of Trump and his aides—or anything else that doesn’t involve the spectre of Americans conspiring with agents of Vlad the Bad to influence last year’s election. The latest development in this diversionary campaign was Nunes’s visit to the White House on Wednesday, where he claimed that “the intelligence community incidentally collected information about U.S. citizens involved in the Trump transition.”
The White House, meanwhile, is busy seeking to distance Trump from Manafort, as well as from other associates who the F.B.I. is reportedly looking at, such as Roger Stone, the rogue political consultant, and Carter Page, the businessman who served as a foreign-policy adviser to Trump’s campaign. My colleague Ryan Lizza reported on Tuesday that “one of Donald Trump’s closest White House advisers” told him, “This campaign, early on, had a lot of marginalia associated with it. Guys like Carter Page, Roger Stone. I have no earthly idea what those guys have been up to, right?”
On Monday, Sean Spicer, Trump’s spokesman, claimed that Manafort, who ran Trump’s campaign between March and August of last year, “played a very limited role for a very limited amount of time”—a statement that immediately drew the ridicule it richly deserved. On Wednesday, when asked about the A.P.’s Manafort scoop, Spicer said that Trump hadn’t known who Manafort’s clients were when he hired him to run his campaign. And Spicer added, speaking of Manafort, “There is no suggestion that he did anything improper . . . He was not a government employee, he didn’t fill out any paperwork attesting to something; there is nothing that he did suggesting at this point that anything was nefarious.”
To put it gently, that is a matter of interpretation. Here is a bit more of the A.P. story:
In strategy memos, Manafort proposed that Deripaska and Putin would benefit from lobbying Western governments, especially the U.S., to allow oligarchs to keep possession of formerly state-owned assets in Ukraine. He proposed building “long term relationships” with Western journalists and a variety of measures to improve recruitment, communications and financial planning by pro-Russian parties in the region.
Manafort proposed extending his existing work in eastern Europe to Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Georgia, where he pledged to bolster the legitimacy of governments friendly to Putin and undercut anti-Russian figures through political campaigns, nonprofit front groups and media operations.
Trump replaced Manafort last August, shortly after the Times reported that handwritten ledgers discovered in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, indicated that, between 2007 and 2012, Manafort had received $12.7 million in cash payments from former President Viktor Yanukovych’s pro-Russian party. Manafort’s lawyer denied that he had received “any such cash payments.”
On Thursday morning, the A.P. published yet another story on Manafort, saying that U.S. investigators looking into the possible theft of Ukrainian government assets have obtained information about “offshore financial transactions” involving Manafort and a bank in Cyprus, a Mediterranean island “known for its history of money laundering.”
Few details are known about this investigation, which is separate from the F.B.I.’s counterintelligence probe. But the story referred to a specific transaction in which “a Manafort-linked company received a $1 million payment in October 2009 from a mysterious firm through the Bank of Cyprus. The $1 million payment left the account the same day—split in two, roughly $500,000 disbursements to accounts with no obvious owner.”
Of course, none of this proves that Manafort worked for the Russian government in the past, or that he communicated with any Russians during the election campaign. On Wednesday, he issued a statement through a spokesman, which said, “I worked with Oleg Deripaska almost a decade ago representing him on business and personal matters in countries where he had investments. My work for Mr. Deripaska did not involve representing Russian political interests.” Manafort also claimed that the A.P. story was part of an attempted smear, and added, “I look forward to meeting with those conducting serious investigations of these issues.”
Stone, Manafort’s former business partner and a longtime Trump associate, is also demanding a public hearing. He has admitted that, last summer, he was in contact via Twitter with an account reportedly connected to the Russian hackers suspected of stealing information from Democrats—but he vehemently denies any collusion. In a lengthy written rant to CNN’s Jake Tapper, Stone described Monday’s House Intelligence Committee hearing—the one at which Comey appeared—as “a kangaroo court.” He claimed that Adam Schiff, the committee’s top Democrat, who read out a timeline that included Stone appearing to predict the WikiLeaks release of John Podesta’s e-mails, had engaged in “demagoguery, red-baiting, fear-mongering half truths and innuendo.”
In all of this, there is much that remains murky. One thing shines through, though. The White House’s “marginalia” problem is far from marginal, and it isn’t going away.
John Cassidy has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 1995. He also writes a column about politics, economics, and more for newyorker.com.