As speculation continues to swirl about President Donald Trump’s plans to put an end to the investigation being conducted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the ongoing congressional inquiries take on even more significance. Several committees are investigating overlapping issues related to Russian interference in the 2016 election and any potential involvement of the Trump campaign. Here are 20 questions they must answer as they carry out their investigations.
Russian Attempts to Influence U.S. Election
Congress must provide the American people with a full accounting of Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election, including through cyber operations, leaking stolen private communications, and spreading of demonstrably false facts.
1. What was the extent of Russian cyber operations focused on voter information held by states? Publicly available information suggests that Russian agents attempted to penetrate “election systems” in up to 39 states and attempted to alter or delete records in the statewide voter registration database of at least one state, Illinois.
2. What was the extent of Russian cyber operations focused on infiltrating state election systems via a third party? Press reports indicate that the Russians successfully infiltrated the network of a company that sells voter registration software which would allow it to manipulate this data.
3. What was the extent of Russian cyber operations focused on obtaining the confidential communications of private parties and releasing damaging information? The theft of the emails of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and of John Podesta, the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, has been publicly reported.
4. What was the extent of Russian propaganda efforts to influence the election and what methods were used? Publicly reported efforts include the release of emails stolen from the DNC and the Clinton campaign supplemented by the use of human agent and robot computer programs to spread disinformation about these emails and the use of Twitter bots to spread fake news stories about Clinton (e.g., that she had Parkinson’s disease and had murdered a DNC staffer, and that her aides ran a pedophile ring in the basement of a D.C. pizza parlor).
5. Which elements of the Russian government and intermediaries or proxies were involved in these efforts?
6. What was the purpose of their efforts? The intelligence community has concluded the Russian government intended to promote Trump’s candidacy and undermine Clinton’s campaign, an assertion that the president contests – Congress should come to a conclusion on this point. Is it possible to gauge the impact of Russian interference in the 2016 election and could measures be put in place to do so in the future?
7. What measures should the United States take to prevent such interference in future elections? Is legislation needed to clarify that cooperation with foreign actors in elections is a criminal offense?
Trump Ties to Russia
It is critical that Congress scrutinize connections between Trump and his associates and the Russian government and associated individuals and entities, both to determine whether the Trump campaign cooperated with the Russian attempt to influence the election and whether business dealings between Trump or his associates with Russian entities create vulnerabilities or financial incentives that could be exploited to the detriment of U.S. national interests.
8. Starting from the time of the party primaries in 2015, what contacts did Trump and individuals and entities associated with the Trump campaign have with Russian individuals or entities? Have these individuals and entities followed legal requirements with respect to such contacts (e.g., registration as foreign agent, reporting of income, and disclosure on security clearance forms) and if not, why not? The campaign’s denials of contacts with Russians have dissolved in the face of repeated instances where close Trump associates – including Michael Flynn, Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Jeff Sessions – were found to have met or communicated privately with individuals who are reportedly connected to the Russian government.
9. What was the purpose of these contacts? Donald Trump Jr. released e-mails showing that he had enthusiastically accepted an invitation to obtain information being proffered on behalf of the Russian government that would be damaging to the Clinton campaign. Did other contacts similarly involve either offers of assistance to the Trump campaign by Russia or offers of assistance to Russia (or Russian interests) by the Trump campaign?
10. What was the extent of the Russian government’s effort to instigate the repeal of the Magnitsky Act and were Trump’s associates involved in these efforts?
11. Is there any evidence – direct or circumstantial – to suggest that Trump was aware of, sanctioned or approved, or directed contacts between his associates and Russian government proxies?
12. What is the full extent of past or existing business dealings between the president and his associates in Russia or with Russian nationals or entities? Do any of these deals or relationships give Russia leverage over Trump or his associates – for example, if they were illegal or inappropriate, if they are continuing to provide a benefit to Trump’s businesses or associates, or if they resulted in significant debts being owed by Trump or his associates to Russia or Russian nationals?
13. What efforts did the Trump campaign or administration make that would benefit Russia and is there any indication of influence from Russia for these moves? Were moves such as removing the plank of the Republican Party platform that supported sending arms to Ukraine, attempts to try to roll back sanctions against Russia, or a reported deal to give back Russian intelligence-collecting compounds seized by the Obama administration attempts to appease Russia?
14. Is our system of checks and balances sufficiently robust to detect and prevent conflicts of interest on the part of the president or are additional measures, such as legislation requiring greater disclosure of financial information and business interests, needed?
Obstruction of Justice
Regardless of whether the president can be criminally indicted for obstruction of justice, Congress has a duty to ascertain whether he attempted to hinder or influence the FBI’s investigation of issues relating to Russian interference in the 2016 election. Presidential interference with law enforcement investigations is incompatible with the rule of law.
15. Did President Trump ask former FBI Director James Comey to end his investigation of former national security advisor Michael Flynn, as indicated by Comey’s sworn testimony to the Senate Intelligence committee and his contemporaneous record of the meeting? Did he ask other government officials – such as Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and CIA Director Mike Pompeo – to intervene with Comey on his behalf?
16. Did the president ask Comey to pledge loyalty, as indicated by Comey’s sworn testimony to the Senate Intelligence committee and his contemporaneous record of the meeting?
17. Did Comey request additional resources for the Russia investigation the week before he was dismissed; if so, was this information communicated to the White House?
18. Under what circumstances did Deputy Attorney General Rosenstein and Attorney General Sessions undertake to prepare their May 9, 2017 recommendation to dismiss Comey? What was the nature and extent of their communications with the White House and the Justice Department about the recommendation, both before and after it was made?
19. Why did Trump dismiss Comey? Was he motivated solely by Comey’s handling of the Clinton e-mail investigation, as administration spokespersons originally claimed, or was he at least partially motivated by Comey’s handling of the Russia investigation, as publicly stated by the president?
20. Are further measures needed to insulate the FBI or the Department of Justice from political interference?