Overview of the Russian Investigation

The Russia investigation (or Special Counsel Investigation) began as a probe into Moscow’s interference in the 2016 election. As of July 2018 U.S. law enforcement agencies, the FBI and the CIA as well as Congress are investigating any links between the presidential campaign of Donald Trump and Russia. This investigation is being perceived differently from the right and left. The narrative has not evolved greatly on either side since the first accusations of Russian interference in 2016.

During the campaign of Donald Trump news outlets began reporting the possibility of Russian intervention and hacking. At that time the right-wing media interpreted these accusations as false and a distraction from Hillary Clinton’s email scandal which became an equally hot topic in the media. Upon the election of Trump, and the continuation of the accusations, the right-wing media interpreted the covering of this topic in the media as a pejorative excuse from Democrats for having lost the election. Throughout the campaign period, the left-leaning media expressed concern for the veracity of these accusations, and how influence from Russia into the US elections might affect the results. In June-July of 2016 WikiLeaks and DCLeaks released  thousands of documents about Clinton and internal DNC deliberations. The release of these documents cast the democratic party in a negative light.

When Donald Trump won the 2016 election, the left was skeptical of its legitimacy due to evidence of hacking by Russia. The leftist narrative began expressing more concern of how Russian interference with the campaign would translate to having a US president who might have connections to Russia and the effects of entangling two superpowers that have been at odds with one another in the past

As of July 2018, the news outlets for both right and left-leaning media are covering the Russian investigation at a similar pace. It is a hot topic for both sides. There is considerable weight put on Special Counsel Robert Mueller and how he is handling the investigation. The left is concerned at the need for the probe. The right remains skeptical of the value of the investigation and consider it is a deliberate distraction by the left.

Narratives on the Left

The narrative of the left is convinced that the probe is necessary and producing results. There is no doubt expressed that Russia interfered with the 2016 election, and most on the left believe it was to favor the election of Trump. Donald Trump’s knowledge of this interference and collusion with it is called into question by left-leaning media outlets, as well as the collusion of his campaign staff.

According to the left, Trump’s ties to the Russians extend far beyond election or 2016. Trump’s history of funding business enterprises, real estate ventures, etc. with Russian money dates back to the 1990s. The relationship between Trump and Russia is perceived as long-standing. Therefore, Trump is seen as merely a puppet of Putin, or a compromised asset of the Kremlin. The left almost unanimously sees the Russia investigation as legitimate, producing results, and exposing corruption in not only the Trump administration, but in his personal business dealings as well.

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A sample of left-leaning articles about the Russia Investigation.

The sentiment for the left exhibits more joy, more anger and more disgust. The reason for joy can be perceived as the fact that the investigation is ongoing. The reason for anger disgust can be perceived as disdain towards the character of Donald Trump.

Narratives on the Right

The narrative of the right is skeptical of the veracity and legitimacy of the investigation, and the need for it at all. The investigation is often seen as a deliberate distraction in the news cycle from Trump’s accomplishments in office, and a way to undermine his presidential efforts towards conservative foreign policy, the economy and immigration. The investigation itself is seen as a waste of governmental resources.Agencies of the US government that have long been heavily supported and championed by the right are called into question. The FBI, the CIA, or US law enforcement agencies, as well as members of Congress are now considered by the right to be part of a “deep state” which is partisan in nature, or left-leaning, and acts based solely on corrupt self-interest. Justice is seen as rarely served by these entities, only special interests.

This right’s skepticism for the US federal law enforcement agencies is reinforced by past perceptions that are considered to be biased judicial fails, such as Hillary Clinton’s email scandal, the Benghazi attacks, etc. The fact that the left-leaning media is covering this investigation so consistently is evidence to the right that what they term as “the mainstream media” and these government entities work in cohorts to thwart conservative policy and keep Trump from “draining the swamp.” Some on the right disagree with some of Trump’s statements in favor of Russia, but still see Trump as tough on Russia in his actions, including bombing Russian ally Syria, imposed sanctions on Russia, and sold lethal weapons to Russia’s enemies in Europe. Articles on the right also assert that it is unfair that the left is not being investigated in the same way Trump is, and that this proves there is bias against him.

A selection of right-leaning articles on the Russia investigation.

The sentiment of the right has a higher concentration of sadness. This can be perceived at the undermining of the current right-leaning administration.

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Fact-Checking the Narratives

Did Russia interfere in the 2016 election?

According to a report by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence:

“We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency.

We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump. We have high confidence in these judgments. All three agencies agree with this judgment. CIA and FBI have high confidence in this judgment; NSA has moderate confidence.

We assess Moscow will apply lessons learned from its Putin-ordered campaign aimed at the US presidential election to future influence efforts worldwide, including against US allies and their election processes.”

In July 2015 the Russian government backed hackers to gain access to the Democratic National Committee’s networks. This hack resulted in the stealing of large amounts of data, data that eventually was leaked to the American public and cast the Democratic Party in a negative light.

One year later, in July of 2016, the FBI announced it had opened a counterintelligence investigation into the links between the Trump campaign and Russia. Trump was elected in November 2016. This election surprised many right and left media outlets, as Clinton was projected to win by a large margin (The New York Times projected an 85% chance that she would win).

Has the Russia-Trump investigation been biased?

In February of 2018 Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee released the “Nunes Memo“, and accused the FBI and the Justice Department (DOJ) of abusing power in the early stages of the investigation. Democrats countered that this memo cherrypicks information. The next day Trump announced on Twitter that this GOP memo vindicated him in the Russian probe.

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This same memo stated that the Papadopolous information was the initial trigger of the FBI investigation in July 2016 by FBI agent Peter Strzok. Strzok was found to have made negative statements about candidate Trump in personal texts to his girlfriend, and in July 2016 changed wording in a statement on the Hillary Clinton email investigation from “grossly negligent” to “extremely careless.” From the right’s perspective this is evidence of bias against Trump in the investigation within the FBI, and undermines the legitimacy of the findings. Strzok insists that his personal views did not bias or affect the outcome of either the Clinton or Trump investigations. Inspector General Michael Horowitz, of the DOJ announced that he could not conclude with confidence that Strzok’s personal views didn’t bleed into his investigative decisions.

The investigation of Russia-Trump collusion or Russian election interference is connected to the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email scandal. Per the email scandal, the Justice Department eventually published an inspector general report that criticized the FBI and James Comey on a personal level but did not find evidence that political bias had affected the investigation of Clinton’s email practices. Trump later fired James Comey and claimed this report exonerated him. This affected the timeline and staffing of the Russian investigation.

In June 2018, from the Department of Justice launched an investigation into the possibility of bias against Trump affecting the Russia investigation. Democrats questioned Horowitz on whether he looked into anti-Clinton sentiment in the New York division of the FBI.

According to Politico:

“Media reports have suggested that agents hostile to Clinton may have leaked information about the email investigation at a sensitive moment during the 2016 campaign. Horowitz has previously indicated the matter is still under review. On Tuesday, he said his investigation didn’t focus on those agents.

“We were not out there looking at every single FBI agent’s personal devices, text messages, who were not involved in the [Clinton] investigation,” he said. Horowitz said there were some messages from agents inside the Clinton investigation that could be construed to “imply” anti-Clinton sentiment. However, he added, “almost everything we found was the other way, anti-Trump.”

This investigation should be helpful in determining if bias against Trump within the FBI has had an impact on the Russian investigation.

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How Much has the Russia Investigation cost the taxpayers?

The Trump/Russia investigation has cost the United States $17 million as of May 2018. To put this in perspective, the costs of other prominent investigations have been:

  • Kenneth Starr Clinton Whitewater investigation: $70M total, $12M per year 
  • 9/11 attacks investigation: $15M total 
  • Columbia Space Shuttle disaster investigation: $152M
  • 2008 Financial Crisis investigation: $8M
  • Iran-Contra scandal investigation: $47M 
  • Average yearly costs of family travel for Obama presidency: $12.1M
  • First year travel costs for Trump Presidency $13.5M

Comparative costs of federal investigations. Sources highlighted in text above.

Did Trump take money from Russian businessmen?

In 2016 ABC News reported that Trump had documented dealings with Russian businessmen. Left-leaning media outlets also began to report (citing this news story) that Russian government officials had been channeling money directly to the Presidential candidate. This proved to be an inflammation of facts. The left was seemingly expressing concern that if elected, the president would be a puppet of Russia at worst, and lift sanctions to allow a greater flow of money from Russia at best. The final conclusions of the investigation should helps us better understand if this indeed happened. Trump has had many projects in Russia as a businessman, but it is uncertain if any of his dealings were inappropriate or simply business.

Is the Russia Investigation over?

According to some right-leaning political pundits and commentators, the Russia investigation has ended. However, members of the investigation team have explicitly stated that the investigation is ongoing. In a tweet in August 2018, Trump called for Jeff Sessions to end what he has repeatedly called a “Witch Hunt.”

Have There Been Any Substantial Findings?

Indictment (n): a formal written statement framed by a prosecuting authority and found by a jury (such as a grand jury) charging a person with an offense (Merriam Webster)

Special Counsel Robert Mueller has indicted four Trump campaign workers, and a variety of other related individuals. These include:

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    • George Papadopoulos: former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser, pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI.
    • Michael Flynn: Trump’s former national security adviser, pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI.
    • Paul Manafort: Trump’s former campaign chair, was indicted on charges of conspiracy, money laundering, and false statements. He’s pleaded not guilty on all counts.
    • Rick Gates: a former Trump campaign aide and Manafort’s longtime junior business partner, was indicted on similar charges to Manafort. He agreed to a plea deal.
    • 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies: indicted on conspiracy charges, with some also being accused of identity theft. The charges related to a Russian propaganda effort designed to interfere with the 2016 campaign. The companies involved are the Internet Research Agency, often described as a “Russian troll farm,” and two other companies that helped finance it. The Russian nationals indicted include 12 of the agency’s employees and its alleged financier, Yevgeny Prigozhin.
    • Richard Pinedo: This California man pleaded guilty to an identity theft charge in connection with the Russian indictments, and has agreed to cooperate with Mueller.
    • Alex van der Zwaan: This London lawyer pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI about his contacts with Rick Gates and another unnamed person based in Ukraine.
    • Konstantin Kilimnik: This longtime business associate of Manafort and Gates, who’s currently based in Russia, was charged alongside Manafort with attempting to obstruct justice by tampering with witnesses in Manafort’s pending case this year.
    • 12 Russian GRU officers: These officers of Russia’s military intelligence service were charged with crimes related to the hacking and leaking of leading Democrats’ emails in 2016.
    • Michael Cohen: Trump’s former lawyer pleaded guilty in August 2018, to 8 counts: tax and bank charges, related to his finances and taxi business, and campaign finance violations, related to payments to women who alleged affairs with Donald Trump, as part of a separate investigation in New York (that Mueller had handed off). In November, he made a plea deal with Mueller too, for lying to Congress about efforts to build a Trump Tower in Moscow.

    • Roger Stone: In January 2019, Mueller indicted longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone on 7 counts. He accused Stone of lying to the House Intelligence Committee about his efforts to get in touch with WikiLeaks during the campaign, and tampering with a witness who could have debunked his story.

Fact-Checking Resources

Select search results for “Russia Investigation” on PolitiFact.

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