Mueller is investigating ties between the Trump campaign and Republican activist Peter W. Smith, who stated that he tried to obtain Hillary Clinton's emails from Russian hackers, and that he was acting on behalf of Michael Flynn and other senior Trump campaign members. Trump campaign officials have denied that Smith was working with them. In fall 2017, Mueller's team interviewed former Government Communications Headquarters cybersecurity researcher Matt Tait, who had been approached by Smith to verify the authenticity of emails allegedly hacked from Clinton's private email server. Tait reportedly told House Intelligence Committee investigators in October 2017 that he believed Smith had ties to members of Trump's inner circle—including Flynn, Steve Bannon, and Kellyanne Conway—and may have been helping build opposition research for the Trump campaign. Smith committed suicide in May 2017, several days after talking to The Wall Street Journal about his alleged efforts. Aged 81 and reportedly in failing health, he left a carefully prepared file of documents, including a statement police called a suicide note. An attorney for Smith's estate said in October 2017 that some of Smith's documents had been turned over to the Senate Intelligence Committee. The Wall Street Journal reported on October 7, 2018, that Smith had raised at least $100,000 from donors in his pursuit of the Clinton emails, that his estate had provided documents to the Mueller investigation, and that associates of Smith had been questioned by Mueller's investigators or a grand jury. The Wall Street Journal reported on October 10, 2018, that Smith had established a "professional relationship" with Flynn as early as 2015, and during the campaign was using Flynn's contacts to assist with his search for the Clinton emails. The Journal reported on October 19, 2018, that the Mueller investigation has evidence Smith may have had prior knowledge of the Guccifer 2.0 hacks. The Mueller report later confirmed significant aspects of Smith's efforts to locate the Clinton emails, including his communications about it with Flynn and campaign co-chair Sam Clovis, as well as Flynn's actions to spearhead the effort at Trump's repeated requests. In May 2019, an unredacted version of a December 2018 government sentencing memo for Flynn showed he had advised investigators that members of the Trump campaign had discussed whether to contact WikiLeaks about the release of emails.
The special counsel appointment on May 17, 2017, came after protests, mostly from Democrats, over President Trump firing the FBI Director James Comey on May 9, 2017. In Congress, in reaction to Comey's firing, over 130 Democratic lawmakers called for a special counsel to be appointed, over 80 Democratic lawmakers called for an independent investigation, while over 40 Republican lawmakers expressed questions or concerns. Complicating the situation, Comey arranged to leak to the press classified information, notes from an interview with the president where Trump asked him to end the probe into Michael Flynn. Comey would later be rebuked by the Department of Justice's Office of Inspector General for this action. Trump fired Comey on the recommendations of Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein.More Info
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, in his role as Acting Attorney General for matters related to the campaign due to the recusal of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, appointed Mueller, a former Director of the FBI, to serve as Special Counsel for the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) with authority to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections, including exploring any links or coordination between Trump's 2016 presidential campaign and the Russian government; "any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation"; and any other matters within the scope of 28 C.F.R. § 600.4(a).More Info
U.S. intelligence agencies in January 2017 concluded "with high confidence" that the Russian government interfered in the election by hacking into the computer servers of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and the personal Gmail account of Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta and forwarding their contents to WikiLeaks, as well as by disseminating fake news promoted on social media, and by penetrating, or trying to penetrate, the election systems and databases of multiple U.S. states. de Volkskrant reported on January 25, 2018, that Dutch intelligence agency AIVD had penetrated the Russian hacking group Cozy Bear in 2014 and in 2015 observed them hack the DNC in real time, as well as capturing the images of the hackers via a security camera in their workspace. The New York Times reported on July 18, 2018, that American, British and Dutch intelligence services had observed stolen DNC emails on Russian military intelligence networks. NBC News reported on March 1, 2018, that Mueller was assembling a case for criminal charges against Russians who carried out the hacking and leaking. Those charges were brought on July 13, 2018.More Info
The New York Times reported, on March 28, 2018, that former Trump campaign deputy chairman Rick Gates had, in September and October 2016, frequently communicated with a man that the FBI believes is a former agent of GRU, Russia's largest foreign intelligence agency, and who had maintained active links with Russian intelligence during these communications; this disclosure was written into a court sentencing document for Alex van der Zwaan, submitted by Robert Mueller. Identified in the document as "Person A", The Times reported that the man matched the description of Konstantin Kilimnik, who, for years, was Paul Manafort's "right-hand man" in Ukraine. Gates reportedly told an associate that he knew "Person A" was a former GRU agent, although Manafort told associates he was not aware of such a connection. The Times reported on January 8, 2019, that in spring 2016 Gates and Manafort gave polling data, some of which was private to the Trump campaign, to Kilimnik, asking he pass it to Ukrainians Serhiy Lyovochkin and Rinat Akhmetov. During a closed-door court hearing on February 4, 2019, regarding false statements Manafort had made to investigators about his communications with Kilimnik, special counsel prosecutor Andrew Weissmann told judge Amy Berman Jackson that "This goes, I think, very much to the heart of what the special counsel's office is investigating," suggesting that Mueller's office continued to examine a possible agreement between Russia and the Trump campaign.More Info
CNN reported on September 19, 2017, that Manafort had been a target of a FISA wiretap both before and after the 2016 election, extending into early 2017. Some of the intercepted communications caused concerns among investigators that Manafort had solicited assistance from Russians for the campaign, although the evidence was reportedly inconclusive. The wiretaps began sometime after Manafort became a subject of an FBI investigation into his business practices in 2014. The Mueller investigation was provided details of these intercepts.More Info
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