A Layperson’s Guide to the Trump-Russia Scandal

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Content warning: politics, for pretty obvious reasons.

First, some boilerplate: The primary audience for this article is US citizens that desire a synopsis of what is happening in government, as well as for friends looking in from other countries that would like a succinct summary of what is happening in the US, up to this point. For day-by-day reading, I recommend sources like WTF Just Happened Today for a sourced accounting of what we know so far.

Please note that I am not a lawyer, nor do I have any specialized prior or current expertise or knowledge beyond being technically literate and employed in the civilian software industry in the United States. The views and interpretations that follow are my own, do not reflect those of my employers past or present, and are based upon evidence available to anyone. Where possible, links are provided.

Due to its highly mutable nature, Wikipedia is not used in any source for this document.

Welcome to what is likely the biggest political scandal in modern US history. It seems as if every day, some new shred of evidence or metaphorical shoe drops more damning than the last. The evidence is dizzying, almost impossible to keep in context even for American citizens following it daily, and this is before considering the scale of the disinformation campaign being levied both domestically and abroad to muddy its understanding and distort truth.

What follows is my understanding of the information reported so far, according to public documentation available to US citizens and sourcing provided by moderate news agencies in the United States (such as articles from the New York Times and the Washington Post), erring on the side of left-leaning. This does not include far-left or far-right sourcing, nor does it include anything with “alt” in its title, as most “alternative” sources of media cannot be used to cleanly separate conspiracy theory from fact — and in many cases, exist to promote conspiracy theories and misinformation.

Let’s get right to it:

What is the central issue of the Trump-Russia scandal?

The Trump-Russia scandal, often called “Trumpgate” or “Russiagate” due a popular obsession with and striking similarity to the Richard Nixon Watergate scandal, emerged as a result of the hacking of and subsequent leaks from the Democratic National Committee and John Podesta’s private email account during the 2016 US presidential election. In collaboration with the private security firm CrowdStrike, US intelligence officials determined that Russia was responsible for these hacks with “high confidence”, with a Russian affiliated pseudonym known as Guccifer 2.0 taking responsibility for part of the attack.

What is known is that during the election, these leaks were incredibly damaging to the Democratic presidential campaign of Hillary Rodham Clinton, primary opponent to the far-right Republican businessman Donald John Trump. It is widely reported that these leaks contributed to her shocking electoral college loss during the election, despite having a popular vote lead of approximately 2.5 million votes.

At issue IS NOT whether these hacks occurred, nor whether they were the result of state-sponsored actors from Russia; this information has since been widely corroborated by multiple intelligence agencies and private information security and intelligence firms, both domestic to the United States and abroad under Five Eyes surveillance.

At issue IS whether the 2016 Trump campaign knowingly abetted, financially supported, and itself colluded with the same state actors from Russia to swing the 2016 presidential election. Doing so would place them in jeopardy of multiple felonies, though notably not treason as strictly defined, in addition to placing a current sitting president in jeopardy of impeachment and debasing the legitimacy of the 2016 presidential election.

This is especially salient because during the lead-up to the 1972 US presidential election, a similar scheme was carried out by Richard Nixon to bug the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate hotel, leading to his eventual impeachment, as evidence was revealed over the next two years. If proven, this would be the same caliber of scandal, but with the unprecedented additions of modern technology, allegedly laundered financial emoluments, and alleged collusion with a foreign power by a sitting US president and his administration. And this does not speak for the multitude of domestic and private abuses of power waged on the American people over the past 86 days.

The United States Constitution, the US’ central document upon which its government institutions and laws are established, does not define what to do in these cases. While it does specify the terms of impeachment and a chain of command for who should become president under these circumstances, the constitution neither specifies the terms for a new election nor what to do when an entire administration of its Executive branch is subsequently criminally held accountable.

What is a leak, a strategic leak, and how does the press verify them?

A leak in the context of this article is a typically-anonymous release of classified, potentially incriminating, or damaging information without authorization. An example of a leak would be the 1972 release of privileged information on the Nixon campaign by the pseudonymous informant “Deep Throat” (believed today to be W. Mark Felt). This was pivotal to the eventual impeachment and subsequent resignation of Richard Nixon.

strategic leak is a leak with a strategic agenda. In the above example and sourcing, the strategy was proclaimed to be to “‘protect the office’ of the presidency and ‘effect a change in its conduct before all was lost.'”

Strategic leaks do not necessarily need to occur for whistleblower purposes or purposes that protect the public good. It is widely assumed, for example, that Donald J. Trump may have leaked two pages of his own 2005 tax returns in an effort to discredit the ongoing investigation. Wikileaks was also claimed just yesterday to be a “non-state hostile intelligence service often abetted by state actors like Russia” by CIA Director Mike Pompeo, despite his own support of the service one year prior.

The press generally uses these leaks as starting points for broader investigative journalism. Depending on the news outlet, these are scrutinized to varying degrees, including attempts to verify the credibility of document sourcing, cited evidence, and supporting evidence brought to light by the presence of new information. In general, the more evidence, the better, with anonymity neither crediting nor discrediting the veracity of the evidence presented.

We can thus understand that a leak is not itself factual evidence. It is up to the verifiable evidence presented within that leak, the procedures under which that evidence is carefully scrutinized by its recipient, and any supporting evidence that it brings to light to determine the efficacy and veracity of the data presented. In a real sense, this means news agencies must act as scientists to verify the factual basis for evidence presented to them — with varying degrees of success.

An additional impact of a leak is it is an ipso facto declassification of that information. Especially if the information is highly classified or typically never seen by the public (such as the FISA warrant on Carter Page), this has the impact of making the information public and, thus, potentially admissible to legal proceedings that follow.

What is open-source intelligence (OSINT)?

Open-source intelligence is information derived from publicly available sources. This is the information you find in Google, find in the library, and find in reading online publications and social media like Twitter.

This article only uses these open materials, both because I do not have access to any privileged information, and because so much of this information has been placed in the public eye in a very short period of time.

The Christopher Steele Dossier

One of the largest and most controversial developments in the Trump-Russia scandal came in January with the release of a 35-page dossier to BuzzFeed News by the former MI6 intelligence officer Christopher Steele.  Also known as the “golden showers” dossier for its salacious personal information about Trump himself, this dossier implicates multiple individuals of the Trump campaign as having colluded with Russia. Many of the claims present in the dossier have yet to be publicly substantiated, despite at least one key claim having been reportedly verified by US officials and circumstantial evidence supporting its claims about a 19.5% sale of Rosneft.

In the ensuing mêlée of leaks that followed parallel to this dossier, it was discovered that Trump national security advisor Michael Flynn had discussed sanctions with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak before the Trump campaign took office. This quickly led to his resignation, as well as a broader inquiry into meetings with Kislyak by other members of the Trump campaign (useful infographic here).

The Steele dossier and the leaks subsequently following it blew the entire investigation of the Trump campaign open between January 10th and February 13th of 2017, notably surrounding Trump’s January 20th inauguration. Damaging leaks would continue in subsequent months, up to and inclusive of the present day (and presumably, into the days and weeks that follow this summary article).

Who are the key players implicated in the Trump-Russia scandal?

Ignoring Donald J. Trump himself (whose connections are cited at the end), the key players in the scandal follow. Because an incredible amount of information continues to come out about this scandal daily, these are covered in alphabetical (instead of chronological) order:

  • Michael Flynn, now-former National Security Advisor
  • J.D. Gordon, former foreign policy advisor and Pentagon spokesman, and former national security advisor to the Trump campaign
  • Jared Kushner, son-in-law (married to Ivanka Trump) and senior advisor to Trump
  • Paul Manafort, former campaign manager for the 2016 Trump campaign
  • Carter Page, oil industry consultant and former Trump advisor
  • Wilbur Ross, former US investor and politician, now US Secretary of Commerce
  • Jeff Sessions, former politician and lawyer, now US Attorney General (who lied under oath at his own confirmation hearing)
  • Roger Stone, Republican lobbyist with alleged private contacts to Guccifer 2.0
  • Rex Tillerson, former ExxonMobil chairman and CEO, now US Secretary of State
  • Donald Trump, Jr., son of the president and one of the trustees of the Trump estate

You can find an approximate list of their involvement in the ongoing scandal here.

Other notable names adjacent to the scandal that you may also hear (appearing in no particular order):

In short: it’s a fucking mess.

What about Donald Trump?

In addition to all of the links cited above, it was recently discovered that Paul Manafort received $13 million in loans from two of Trump’s businesses after Manafort’s ties to Ukrainian money laundering emerged. This would potentially place this payment by Trump in violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, with Manafort later registering as an agent of a foreign power.

This places criminal proceedings onto a stack of already voluminous evidence for impeachment before Trump even took office. It also establishes a direct link between Trump himself and aiding and abetting the hacking of the 2016 election, given Manafort’s involvement in the Trump side of the 2016 hacking (as alleged in the Steele dossier).

Needless to say, if proof of the relevant Steele dossier claims is established, it would mean that the Trump campaign itself, including Trump himself, were directly involved in the 2016 DNC and Podesta hack.

And for all of the reasons listed above: that’s a pretty big deal.

What motivated this scandal? (OR: why did this insanity happen in the first place?)

In extreme brevity: money and power.

While speculation rages about the palace intrigue of connections and factions in the ongoing scandal and its investigation, nearly all ties point back to the US side being corrupted by financial self-interest and consolidation of power. On the Russian side, the motivation appears to be destabilization of Western order to further its own political agenda, including protecting its interests as a petrostate.

And these are only the motivations observed or speculated so far: it’s very likely additional motivators will be found as the investigation continues.

What about Vice President Mike Pence?

Of all of the individuals involved in the scandal, almost nothing is said of Pence. However, given his direct involvement in the Trump campaign and his decisions to confirm many of the individuals listed above, charges of conspiracy are very likely.

Given the illegitimacy of the 2016 election should any of the above evidence turns into indictments or convictions, his political career is also likely to be over when the Trump-Russia scandal breaks, regardless of whether any criminal charges stick.

What about Hillary, Bernie, Stein, or [your favorite candidate here]?

I’m not touching that with a 100 foot pole.

Regardless of which running candidate was your favorite, I would argue that the Trump-Russia scandal overshadows the entire election proceedings. What if scenarios about other candidates are of far less importance at the present time.

Why are you (the author) writing this?

Mostly, to keep my own facts and evidence straight and so I can save the energy of explaining this individually to friends and family. If you find this post useful, feel free to share it widely.

Note that I’m putting myself at risk here if this administration outpaces attempts to hold it accountable. Should that occur, further attempts to suppress the truth are likely. Exercise extreme caution if this post disappears from the public Internet before the ongoing scandal concludes.


To you for reading this, and also to the many, many, many investigative journalists and other individuals sharing these articles on social media.  The strongest resistance begins with championing corroborated facts and evidence that get us as close to the truth as possible. Thank you to everyone out there fighting the good fight.

Edit: the original version of this post erroneously stated the leaked tax return pages as originating from 2015. They are from 2005.