The near-daily barrage of news and revelations, big and small, about the Trump campaign and its metastasizing ties to Russia can be hard to keep track of, even for people following the scandal closely. Story lines and players appear and disappear, sometimes for weeks or even months at a time.
While there remain big, overarching questions about whether there was active conspiracy between Trump, his associates, and Russia—or merely opportunistic collusion—the answers to those questions could be amorphous and long in coming.
More simply and immediately, there’s plenty of information that we know we don’t yet know about what went on in the campaign, from cyber meddling to clandestine meetings surveilled by US and other intelligence agencies—missing puzzle pieces that we can discern from the revelations that have come out so far. As Donald Rumsfeld famously said in the early days of the Iraq War, “As we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know.”
As the Trump campaign’s onetime chairman Paul Manafort—a key figure in the scandal—makes his way toward the Senate Judiciary Committee, we thought the time was right to, in Rumsfeldian terms, present a nonexhaustive list of 15 of the most pressing known unknowns in the Trump/Russia investigation: holes and unanswered questions that you can bet Special Counsel Robert Mueller is digging into.
1. What was said on the Kislyak intercepts?
We know that something in last December’s telephone calls between Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and soon-to-be Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn triggered concern among US intelligence. Presumably the calls focused on the sanctions against Russia that the outgoing Obama administration had imposed at that time. What was said, and by whom, that led US intelligence to begin the lengthy and complicated process of flagging the conversations as concerning?
2. Are there intercepts discussing the Kislyak “backchannel” discussion?
We know that there are US intelligence intercepts—either of telephone calls or electronic communication—that contradict Jeff Sessions’ recounting of his interactions with Sergey Kislyak. This week, presidential adviser and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner said that the so-called secret backchannel offer was simply a means of attempting to gain reliable information on the Russian military’s view of the Syrian conflict. Is Jared Kushner’s reporting of that meeting consistent with any Russian reports of the meeting—and did the US or its allies intercept those reports as they were dispatched to Moscow?
3. Intelligence agencies in Europe and among our so-called Five Eyes partners— Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom—had evidence of suspicious Trump interactions in 2015 and 2016. What triggered them?
News reports have indicated that the first alerts to the US government of suspicious “interactions” between Trump associates and people associated with Russian intelligence came from European intelligence partners in late 2015. According to the Guardian, intelligence and tips came from a wide variety of European and Five Eyes partners, which form the world’s closest and deepest intelligence alliance. Tips gathered during routine surveillance of Russian intelligence assets evidently filtered into the US from countries as widely sourced as Germany, Estonia, Poland, and the Netherlands, and from the French foreign intelligence service, DGSE. What were they seeing and what were they warning about?
4. Relatedly, where was the Russian money going?
According to news reports, last April CIA director John Brennan was given a tape recording, allegedly from a friendly Baltic intelligence service, which purported to indicate that Russian—perhaps even Kremlin—money was being funneled to the Trump campaign. Where was that money coming from and where was it purportedly going?
5. Where did the Russians get their American political intelligence?
Former FBI director James Comey appeared to hint in his congressional testimony that Americans may have been involved in helping Russian intelligence navigate and understand the US political landscape. Earlier this year, former CIA director Brennan told Congress, “I had unresolved questions in my mind as to whether or not the Russians had been successful in getting US persons involved in the campaign or not to work on their behalf.”
Additionally, many people who cover or study Russia say they are suspicious of the advanced tactics deployed against semi-obscure political institutions and locations. “The Russia I know didn’t know what the DNC was, and it certainly didn’t know what the DCCC was,” Julia Ioffe, a reporter for The Atlantic, said at last week’s Aspen Security Forum. “They didn’t really have a good understanding of how our political system worked. They were so far behind in terms of lobbying on the Hill. Then, all of a sudden, they wander into the DCCC servers, they know which precincts in Florida to target, where to disseminate information, false information about Hillary Clinton to drive down voter turnout. Where did they get so smart all of a sudden?”
6. How involved was Vladimir Putin?
This may never be known, but US intelligence has hinted that it has information saying Putin was personally aware and directed at least some level of the influence operation against the November election. Which only raises the question: What’s the evidence and what do they know? According to the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike, the two different Russian intelligence services that penetrated the DNC’s servers—the military GRU and the security service FSB—didn’t know about the other’s presence inside the Democratic IT network. That could indicate, perhaps, that an order had come from on high to influence the election.
Moreover, according to multiple current and former intelligence officials, the Russian hierarchy and internally risk-averse modus operandi would not allow such a high-profile operation to continue for very long without approval from the top. So, to paraphrase the Watergate question, what did Vladimir Putin know and when did he know it?
7. When Ron Goldstone said the meeting with Donald Trump Jr. at Trump Tower was “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,” what did he mean by that?
The phrase in Goldstone’s email to Donald Trump Jr., in setting up the instantly infamous meeting last summer, is a curious one, appearing to imply that the Russian government’s support was clearly known and understood. What was the meaning behind his phrase—did he assume the Trumps knew they had the Kremlin’s backing, and, if so, why?
8. What was the content (and purpose) of the meeting between Jared Kushner and the head of Russia’s intelligence-linked development bank?
Kushner’s statement this week downplayed the December meeting with Sergey Gorkov, the head of Vnesheconombank (VEB), Russia’s state-run development bank, effectively saying it was a courtesy meeting with a high-ranking official that he took only because he’d been badgered by the Russian embassy. Gorkov, though, is no ordinary banker; he is a graduate of Russia’s intelligence academy.
Then there’s the fact that the number two official in the bank’s New York office, Evgeny Buryakov, was arrested in 2015 by the FBI for being an intelligence officer—and, at the time of the Kushner-Gorkov meeting, was sitting in an Ohio prison (the first Russian intelligence officer imprisoned in the US in decades). The same two Russian intelligence officers who worked with Buryakov also tried unsuccessfully to recruit Carter Page, a businessman and Republican foreign policy adviser who went on to work with the Trump campaign. VEB itself, meanwhile, was sanctioned as part of the Western reaction to Russia’s invasion of Crimea and Ukraine.
Did Kushner—who, between his own work and the Trump Organization’s work, has wide-ranging business contacts across Russia—know any of this before the meeting? Can US or allied intelligence corroborate or contradict Kushner’s telling of the story? Was the meeting as innocuous as he has said?
9. Who funded Paul Manafort?
The man who led the Trump campaign last spring has wide-ranging connections throughout eastern Europe and Russia, including with Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska. And he worked with another oligarch, Dmitry Firtash. (Firtash, a long-standing target of the FBI, is today under arrest in Austria, awaiting possible extradition to the US, and has been associated with Russia’s most notorious organized crime figure, Semion Mogilevich, who for many years was the only international figure on the FBI’s most wanted list other than Osama bin Laden.)
In recent years Manafort used cash to buy more than $12 million in New York real estate, including a condo inside Trump Tower, and he has subsequently taken out mortgages on some of those properties. Where did Manafort’s money come from—and where did it go?
10. What more does the US government know about Jeff Sessions’ meetings with the Russian ambassador?
Last Friday there were reports that US intelligence agencies overheard Sergey Kislayk telling his superior that his meetings with Jeff Sessions involved talk of the campaign. (Sessions has maintained that they only discussed Senate matters.) But this was hardly surprising—it always seemed unlikely that, in the midst of a campaign, the Russian ambassador would meet with a Trump campaign associate without discussing the campaign—but they illustrated the depth and sophistication of the surveillance blanket under which Russian officials operate in the United States.
So, is there more that the US intelligence community, perhaps the CIA or the NSA, knows about what transpired during Sessions’ meetings with Kislyak—or, for that matter, about what transpired during some of the other controversial meetings between Trump associates and Russian officials?
11. Who influenced the change of the GOP platform, and why?
The GOP’s party platform position on Ukraine was watered down at the last minute before the 2016 Republican National Convention, striking a section that called for helping to arm Ukraine against Russia’s invasion. One campaign official, J. D. Gordon, admitted this spring that he advocated the change to bring the platform in line with the Trump campaign’s desires. The move was surprising at the time; as The Washington Post’s Josh Rogin noted last summer, “The Trump campaign worked behind the scenes last week to make sure the new Republican platform won’t call for giving weapons to Ukraine to fight Russian and rebel forces, contradicting the view of almost all Republican foreign policy leaders in Washington.”
Given how uninterested and flexible the Trump campaign was on almost all detail and specific policy points in other areas, why was the arming of Ukraine such a focus? And who else advocated for the change?
12. Why was Oleg Erovinkin murdered?
The former top KGB official died suspiciously in December, just weeks after he had been publicly linked to the mysterious “dossier” compiled by former MI6 officer Christopher Steele. The dossier traced a variety of links between Trump associates and Russian intelligence and business leaders. While Russia announced that Erovinkin died alone in his car of a heart attack, other reports point to foul play—including the simple fact that it’s inherently suspicious that a high-profile figure like him would be alone without a driver or bodyguards. Erovinkin served in both the KGB and its successor, the FSB, and also more recently worked for the oligarch Igor Sechin, the head of the Russian oil giant Rosneft and a close associate of Putin himself.
13. What was the relationship between Peter W. Smith and Gen. Michael Flynn?
The Wall Street Journal reported that Smith, a longtime Republican operative who committed suicide this spring, had assembled a team to attempt to uncover what he believed were Hillary Clinton’s emails stolen by Russian hackers. The Journal story, based on interviews with Smith just days before he killed himself in a Minnesota hotel, created more questions than it answered—especially because Smith appears to have told people he contacted that he was working with Michael Flynn, then a Trump national security adviser. Was that true? Were the people that Smith was contacting actual Russian hackers—and, if so, were they related to the “Guccifer 2.0” teams that leaked John Podesta’s emails? And is there a relationship between Smith’s team and the attempt to track down the “missing” Clinton emails and Trump’s public call, around the same time, for Russia to hack the emails?
14 Perhaps the simplest question: How many more meetings were there between the Trump campaign and Russians?
We continue to learn about new ones—meetings held at Trump Tower, or the second private chat between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Germany earlier this month. There’s also a long-rumored third meeting between Jeff Sessions and Russian officials. How many more contacts, if any, were there between the Trump world and Russian officials?
15. And a new one: What was said during the private dinner conversation at the G20 meeting between Putin and Trump—and are there tapes?
One senior intelligence source told me it would be “espionage malpractice” if German intelligence hadn’t carefully and extensively bugged the G20 meeting rooms. While the White House says the meeting between the two leaders lasted only 15 minutes, other sources say it lasted more like an hour. Regardless, though, there was no US official present other than Trump himself—so what transpired and who said what?
Garrett M. Graff is a contributing editor at WIRED who covers national security. He can be reached at [email protected]