Trump and Putin talk before a session of the APEC summit in Vietnam [File: Handout/Sputnik/Mikhail Klimentyev/Reuters]
Former US National Security Adviser Michael Flynn became the fourth known person connected to the Trump campaign to be charged in connection to an investigation over whether Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election.
The probe, headed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, began in May to investigate any links or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of now-President Donald Trump.
So far, four people, including Trump’s foreign campaign manager and Flynn have been indicted.
Al Jazeera answers some of the key questions surrounding the probe and those involved.
Robert Mueller, a lawyer and the head of the FBI from 2001 to 2003, was appointed special counsel to the US Justice Department to investigate possible Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election on May 17.
Mueller was directed to investigate “any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump,” as well as “any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation”, according to Assistant Attorney General Rod Rosenstein’s letter announcing the appointment.
A “special counsel” is a lawyer appointed from outside the government to investigate possible wrongdoings of senior officials in the US. Otherwise, lawyers within the government could be tasked with investigating their superiors, including the sitting a president or attorney general, leading to a conflict of interest.
Mueller and his team have been working since May to see if there are links between Russian authorities and the Trump campaign.
These connections were suspected after numerous revelations regarding Russia’s role in the hacking of the Democratic National Convention’s email database, undisclosed meetings between Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner and Michael Flynn’s undisclosed work for foreign governments.
So far, four people connected to the Trump campaign have been charged in the probe.
The first charges were announced in October. Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, and his business associated Rick Gates, were charged on 12 counts, which included conspiracy against the US, money laundering and other financial charges. It was also revealed in October that George Papadopoulos, an adviser during the campaign, pleaded guilty to “making false statements to the FBI”.
In December, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI over his contact with the Russian ambassador before Trump took office. He became the first person who served in the White House to be charged.
Michael Flynnis a retired US Army lieutenant general who served in the military for over three decades, leaving the service in 2014.
Flynn was a highly-decorated general who over oversaw top secret operations and helped shaped US strategy against armed groups.
Flynn also served as an adviser for the Trump campaign and later as the national security adviser.
The retired general rose to prominence in the 2016 campaign for being an ardent critic of handling of counterterrorism operations by the administration of former President Barack Obama.
After clashing with Obama-era officials over the danger of armed groups during his tenure as the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency – the highest-ranking military intelligence position – in 2014, Flynn was fired and subsequently retired.
Flynn resigned as national security adviser less than a month after Trump took office after reports emerged that said that the Trump administration was warned by the Department of Justice that Flynn’s communication with the Russians could leave the president in a compromised position.
After leaving the military, Flynn started a consulting firm, Flynn Intel Group Inc, with his son, Michael G Flynn. This is where his known work for foreign governments began.
His firm had been working for a Dutch company with ties to the Turkish government. While working for the Trump campaign, Flynn reportedly attended a meeting in 2016 with Turkish officials where a plan to abduct Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish Islamic leader living in the US who Turkey accuses of plotting the failed coup, was discussed. Flynn’s lawyer said the reports were “false”.
US law requires that officials working in the interest of foreign governments register as foreign agents. Flynn did so in March 2017.
On December 1, Flynn pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI in relation to his contact with the Russian ambassador just before Trump took office.
According to the court documents, Flynn:
- Falsely told the FBI on or about December 29, 2016, that he did not ask the then-Russian ambassador to “refrain from escalating the situation in response to sanctions that the United States had imposed against Russia that same day”. The documents also say that Flynn “did not recall the Russian ambassador subsequently telling him that Russia had chosen to moderate its response to those sanctions as a result of his request”.
- Falsely told the FBI on or about December 22, 2016, that he did not ask the then-Russian ambassador to “delay the vote on or defeat a pending United Nations Security Council Resolution; and that the Russian ambassador subsequently never described to Flynn Russia’s response to his request”
Paul Manafort was Trump’s campaign chair and Rick Gates was his deputy. Both were charged on October 27 with 12 counts including conspiracy against the US, making false statements, money laundering and undisclosed foreign lobbying.
Manafort has more than 40 years of experience in politics and lobbying. He, along with Trump ally Roger Stone and Gates, worked at the DC-based consulting firm Black, Manafort, Stone and Kelly.
A lawyer by trade, Manafort joined the Trump campaign in March 2016 and was appointed chairman of the campaign in June 2016.
Manafort was reportedly forced out of the Trump campaign team in August 2016 after coming under fire for allegedly taking millions of dollars of undisclosed payments for lobbying efforts on behalf of the pro-Russia Ukrainian political party, Party of Regions, which was ousted in the 2014 Ukrainian revolution.
Manafort worked as a consultant for Yanukovych and his party, maintaining an office in Kiev. Ledgers found there showed that Manafort had been paid more than $12m by the Party of Regions.
Gates joined Manafort when he went to work for the Trump campaign. His past involvement with Republican politics included working for Senator John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.
The two men turned themselves into the FBI on October 30.
Manafort and Gates have pleaded not guilty to the charges and have been released $10m and $5m bail, respectively.
According to the indictment, Manafort and Gates hid “tens of millions of dollars” from their work in Ukraine from 2006 through at least 2016 by laundering “the money through scores of United States and foreign corporations, partnerships and bank accounts”.
The charges had been expected after the FBI seized documents from Manafort’s home in August.
Much of the media attention on Manafort focuses on a meeting he had with Trump’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr, his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and a Russian government lawyer, who claimed to have incriminating information against Hillary Clinton, Trump’s Democratic challenger in the last year’s election.
Papadopoulos was one of Trump’s foreign policy advisers, according to Trump in his interview with the Washington Post’s editorial board.
During the interview, Trump said Papadopoulos was “an energy and oil consultant, an excellent guy”.
The Chicago native of Greek background is 30 years old. He began his political career in December 2015 as a national security and foreign policy advisor in Ben Carson’s 2016 presidential campaign.
After Carson dropped out of the race and endorsed Trump, becoming a close ally, Papadopoulos was hired by the Trump campaign in March 2016.
Papadopoulos offered to arrange various meetings with Russian officials and the Trump campaign during his tenure as an advisor, according to US media.
The court document outlining Papadopoulos’s false statements says he lied about contact with an “overseas professor” with extensive ties to the Russian government who informed the foreign policy adviser that Russians possessed “dirty” information on then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
After his arrest and guilty plea, Trump and his press officer Sarah Huckabee Sanders attempt to downplay Papadopoulos’s role in the campaign. Trump said he was a “young, low level volunteer named George, who has already proven to be a liar”.
Trump had previously attempted to downplay meddling by attacking former campaign officials and Hillary Clinton, sometimes alleging she was connected to Russia through donations to the Clinton Foundation made by Frank Giustra, an investor in Canadian company Uranium One, which also sells uranium to the Russian government. The claim has not been proven.
Trump directly addressed the issue with reporters in the press cabin on the Air Force One in early November.
“[Putin] said he didn’t meddle … I asked him again. You can only ask so many times”. The comments came after Trump informally spoke with Putin during on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Danang, Vietnam.
Trump then appeared to somewhat contradict himself when asked whether he believed a CIA assessment that Russia did play a role the US elections. He said: “As to whether I believe it or not, I’m with our agencies, especially as currently constituted”.
A CIA report in January said that Russian President Vladimir Putin “ordered” a campaign to influence the election.
Trump has tweeted and said several times that the Mueller probe is a “political witch hunt”.
Following the announcemnet of charges against Manafort and Gates, Trump tweeted that “this is years ago, before Paul Manafort was part of the Trump campaign”. However, the charges relate to dealings in 2016 and 2017.
He added that there “is no COLLUSION!” – a statement he has repeatedly said in reference to the probe into Russia’s alleged meddling.
White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders told reporters that the charges “has nothing to do with the president, has nothing to do with the president’s campaign or campaign activity”.
After Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to making false statements, Trump’s lawyer Ty Cobb said in a statement that “nothing about the guilty plea or the charge implicates anyone other than Mr Flynn”.
Cobb added: “The conclusion of this phase of the Special Counsel’s work demonstrates again that the Special Counsel is moving with all deliberate speed and clears way for a prompt and reasonable conclusion.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin has been generally tight-lipped about meddling, though he has denied any wrongdoing on Russia’s part.
Putin stated in July that Trump had “agreed” with his assurances that the Kremlin did not meddle in the 2016 election.
“It seemed to me that he took it into account, and agreed,” Putin told reporters during the G-20 summit in Hamburg, adding “you should ask him.”
“He said he absolutely did not meddle in our election. He did not do what they are saying he did,” Trump continued, still referring to Putin.