Donald Trump and Russia: What we know, what we don't and what we need to know

Source: Getty Images
Source: Getty Images

What we know about Trump and Russia

The past 12 hours threaten to cast a shadow over everything that comes after: the upcoming inauguration, Trump's presidency — and his legitimacy and credibility in the eyes of Americans and the world. With a massive amount of information racing around the internet, as of early Wednesday morning, here is what we know.

According to multiple news outlets, top U.S. intelligence officials are investigating claims that Russian operatives have information they believe they could use to blackmail President-elect Donald Trump. First CNN, then the Washington Post, reported officials had briefed Trump and President Barack Obama on the potentially "compromising personal and financial information" that would be extremely embarrassing to the incoming president. 

BuzzFeed followed the CNN revelation by posting unverified documents that allege Trump has been cultivated and supported by Russia for five years. The allegations get specific — including that Trump paid for sex workers to urinate on a bed in a Moscow hotel where the Obamas had previously slept. (The documents can be read in full here.)

None of these allegations have been verified. But U.S. officials reportedly believe the source, a former British intelligence official, is credible enough to merit further investigation. (Mic) The documents — and claims Trump had been blackmailed by Russia — were first reported by Mother Jones a week before the election. Intelligence officials have shown Trump and President Barack Obama a two-page synopsis of allegations against the president-elect, which have also reportedly circulated between intelligence agencies and politicians.

The documents also claim there were exchanges of information between Trump's campaign and the Russian government prior to the election. The FBI is investigating these and other allegations to determine if any of the allegations against Trump are true. The Guardian reported that over the summer the FBI requested a warrant to monitor contact between four Trump staffers and Russian officials. The first request was denied, but a second request was reportedly granted in October.

Remember: Trump is scheduled to hold a news conference Wednesday at 11 a.m. It is unclear whether he will take questions — or if the news conference will go ahead as planned at all. If it does, expect fireworks.

Trump and his campaign have responded — on Twitter, of course. The president-elect tweeted "FAKE NEWS - A TOTAL POLITICAL WITCH HUNT!" Meanwhile, Trump press secretary Sean Spicer called the reports, "Just pathetic." Trump's lawyer, who is alleged to have been involved in some of the proceedings, emphatically denied all the allegations in an interview with Mic

The Russians have also weighed in. The Kremlin used the same language as Trump, calling the report a "witch hunt." (Wall Street Journal)

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What we don't know.

There is no proof that Trump paid for urinating sex workers in Moscow, that he has been blackmailed by the Russian government or that he is acting under the direction of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The 35-page memo posted by BuzzFeed and referenced by various media outlets is the result of opposition research by Republicans and Democrats — raising serious questions about its claims. 

What could Trump have done wrong? And would it result in him being unfit to be president? It's not clear. These allegations suggest Trump may not be an independent actor and, through alleged communication with the Russian state, could have been acting in coordination with Russian entities for years. For now, though, these are nothing more than explosive accusations.

What we need to know:

— Has the president-elect been quietly communicating with the Russian government? 

— Do the Russians have evidence of "perverted" — kinky, really — sexual acts, or other information that could be used to blackmail him? 

— Who is the British intelligence official who compiled this information? 

— If these allegations are partially or wholly true, do they in any way impact Trump's legal eligibility to be president?

— When did these allegations first become known to American intelligence officials? How long have they been under investigation? 

— Once he is inaugurated, what will Trump's oversight role be in investigating any of these allegations? 

— Will Trump's nominees for top intelligence and law enforcement positions become involved in these investigations?

Jeff Sessions and Gen. John Kelly on Capitol Hill

Trump's nominees to lead Justice and Homeland Security broke with the president-elect's campaign rhetoric on Tuesday. Jeff Sessions, the Alabama senator Trump nominated to become attorney general, said that he would support abortion access and oppose waterboarding and a ban on Muslim immigration into the United States. (Mic)

Retired Gen. John F. Kelly, the president-elect's pick for secretary of Homeland Security, said that building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico would not be enough to secure the border. (USA Today) Kelly also said Homeland Security does not have the capacity to deport all undocumented immigrants currently living in the country. 

Despite intense activity from minority rights groups and protesters at the Capitol, Democrats did not lob their most aggressive possible questions at Sessions. The Alabama senator aggressively rebutted charges that he is racist and said he "abhors" the Ku Klux Klan. Sessions' hearing will continue Wednesday. 

Nothing from Tuesday's testimony suggested Sessions or Kelly will have a problem being confirmed by the Senate. 

Wednesday's cabinet hearings

Rex Tillerson and Elaine Chao will also appear at the Capitol for their confirmation hearings. 

Tillerson, the outgoing ExxonMobil CEO Trump nominated to be secretary of state, will face intense questioning about his relationship with Russia. In the wake of the latest reports about Trump and his alleged connections to the country, Tillerson's hearing beginning at 9 a.m. Eastern will draw attention and pointed questions from senators. Chao, meanwhile, was secretary of labor during the George W. Bush administration. Her 10:15 a.m. Eastern hearing is likely to include questions about Trump's plans to invest in American infrastructure and Chao's relationship with Mitch McConnell, the GOP Senate majority leader. 

Republicans had originally scheduled to hold five hearings on Wednesday. But the GOP has delayed four hearings after criticism from Democrats that government ethics officials did not have enough time to clear potential cabinet members with a complex web of financial interests, like Betsy DeVos, Trump's nominee for education secretary. (New York Times)

And here's the latest from Trump on Twitter: 

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Will Drabold

Will Drabold is a policy writer at Mic. He writes Navigating Trump's America, Mic's daily read on Donald Trump's America. He is based in Washington, D.C., and can be reached at wdrabold@mic.com

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