Investigators are casting a wider net in their probe of alleged connections between Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign and the Russian government, reportedly taking over a separate criminal investigation into the President's former campaign chairman Paul Manafort. The revelations come amid reports that the Trump administration tried to end the Russian sanctions as soon as the President took office.
The special counsel investigating the ties – headed by highly respected former FBI director Robert Mueller – may also take a look into the roles of US Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in Mr Trump's decision to fire former FBI director James Comey.
The criminal investigation into Mr Manafort, who was forced to resign from his position within the Trump campaign amid revelations that he had lucrative business deals in Ukraine years ago, predates the probe into possible collusion between Russian officials and Trump associates. The counterintelligence probe into Moscow’s influence in the 2016 election began last July.
Mr Mueller’s special counsel hasn’t commented publicly on the investigations, and the actual range of the investigation into the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia is so far unknown. Reports have indicated that the scope has grown to include Mr Trump’s son-in-law and senior White House adviser Jared Kushner.
Mr Manafort’s connections to Ukraine are robust. He has received millions of dollars in payments from pro-Russia sources, and once worked closely with Russian politicians and a Russian billionaire. Those connections reportedly led some Russian officials during the 2016 campaign to discuss potential ways of influencing him, according to reports from US intelligence officials. Those discussions also focused on influencing former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
The drip of revelations about the extent of Mr Trump’s team connections with Russian officials – and allegations that the President himself sought to obstruct justice in asking Mr Comey to stop his bureau’s investigation into Mr Flynn – have rocked Washington in recent weeks and months. While far from a consensus, some members of Congress have called for Mr Trump’s impeachment, and a growing number of Americans say that he he should be impeached regardless of whether his actions meet the “high crimes and misdemeanours” standard for removal from office established in the US Constitution.
As things stand, impeachment seems unlikely. Even if allegations of collusion end up extending all the way to the Oval Office, Congress would still need to see it fit to act on those allegations. Mr Trump’s party currently controls both chambers of Congress, including the House of Representatives where impeachment proceedings would take place.
Mr Flynn was forced to resign from his White House post less than a month into the Trump presidency after it was discovered that he had lied to Vice President Mike Pence about conversations with Russian officials during the transition period. He indicated to Mr Pence that he had not discussed US sanctions on Russia that were imposed for the Kremlin’s alleged meddling in the 2016 election. He had, in fact, done so.
But Mr Flynn was not the only member of the Trump team that discussed those sanctions in some form or another. The President himself sought to normalise relations between Washington and the Kremlin immediately after taking office, but encountered tough opposition from holdovers in government from former President Barack Obama’s administration. As soon as taking over the West Wing, Trump officials instructed the State Department to begin exploring ways to lift the Russian sanctions imposed by Mr Obama.
State Department officials, however, were alarmed by that effort, and began lobbying Congress to impose laws that would block Mr Trump’s administration from lifting those sanctions.
“There was serious consideration by the White House to unilaterally rescind the sanctions,” Dan Fried, who was serving as chief US coordinator for sanctions policy until he retired in late February, told Yahoo News. He said that he began receiving “panicky” phone calls from staffers in the State Department pleading with him to block Mr Trump’s efforts.
Mr Sessions was forced to recuse himself from a Justice Department probe into the Trump-Russia ties earlier this year after it was revealed after he misled Congress in failing to disclose that he had come in contact with Russian Ambassador to the US Sergey Kislyak. Mr Kushner, alongside several other campaign officials, also spoke with Mr Kislyak either during the campaign or during the transition period following the election.
The special counsel probe could look eventually look into memos written by Mr Sessions and Mr Rosenstein that appeared to support a decision by Mr Trump to fire Mr Comey. While Mr Rosenstein’s letter in particular was touted by the White House as having been the impetus behind the ouster, but Mr Trump himself later indicated that he had made up his mind to fire Mr Comey regardless of Mr Rosenstein’s opinion.
Following his firing, reports have surfaced indicating that Mr Comey had kept meticulous notes on his interactions with the President, including a description of a dinner with Mr Trump in which the President allegedly urged the former FBI director to end his investigation into Mr Flynn.
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