Russia Collusion Confusion: 5 Essential Unanswered Questions

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(Photo: REUTERS/Carlos Barria)U.S. President Donald Trump speaks with Russian President Vladimir Putin during their bilateral meeting.

After fingers pointed toward Russia when thousands of Hillary Clinton's emails were leaked by Wikileaks right before the 2016 election, Americans have been wondering and speculating if the Trump campaign colluded at all with the Russian government to influence the election.

But since it's been reported that the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee funded the research that was used in the highly controversial private intelligence dossier in January that alleged that the Trump campaign had possible coordination with the Kremlin, many don't know what to think about the web of confusion that has been spun around the Russia collusion storyline.

Here are five essential unanswered questions to ask about the Russian collusion confusion.

1. Did the Trump campaign collude with Russia?

Last week's announcement of the indictment of former Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort for "conspiracy against the United States" — for work he did between 2012 and 2014 — has seemingly added more fuel to the national conservation over whether or not the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller's indictment of Manafort seemingly has less to do with Manafort's involvement in the Trump campaign and more to do with an elaborate tax-evasion scheme by Manafort and his partner Rick Gates to hide millions in foreign income earned from his personal dealings with former Ukrainian President Victor Yanukovych and his pro-Russian Party of Regions from the U.S. government.

Conservative Trump critic David French notes in the National Review that on its face, the Manafort indictment has nothing to do with the Trump campaign. But as French adds, it remains to be seen whether Mueller will use Manafort's indictment "as leverage" to force Manafort to cooperate with the bigger investigation into alleged links between the Russian government and Trump campaign officials.

In trying to answer the question of whether or not the Trump campaign colluded with the Russian government, one might be better off looking at the "statement of offense" issued after former Trump campaign foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos admitted in early October that he provided false statements when interviewed by the FBI in January.

Papadopoulos admitted that he provided false information to the FBI about his dealings with a professor with ties to Russian government officials who later claimed to have "dirt" on Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton "in the form of 'thousands of emails.'"

According to court documents, Papadopoulos met with the professor and a woman believed to be Russian President Vladmir Putin's niece in London on March 24, 2016, right around the same time he joined the Trump campaign.

On April 26, 2016, Papadopoulos met the professor for breakfast in a London hotel where the professor told him that he had just met with a high level Russian official and learned that "Russians had obtained 'dirt' on then-candidate Clinton."

Although Papadopoulos' admission and statement of offense does not provide the smoking gun of proof that the Trump campaign colluded with Russians, French argues that it does "raise serious questions" and demonstrates "how little we truly know about the Mueller investigation."

"It seems from the statement of offense that the bulk of the contacts between Papadopoulos and his Russian intermediaries involved his efforts to set up the meeting between Trump and Putin, activity that's certainly legitimate," French wrote. "But [Papadopoulos] also pushed to set up a meeting between Trump-campaign representatives and 'members of president putin's office and the [Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs].'"

In June, The Wall Street Journal published reports that questioned whether Trump's former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who played a pivotal role in Trump's campaign, participated in efforts to contact hackers believed to have stolen emails from Clinton.

In August, it was reported that Mueller was looking to investigate the role, if any, that Flynn played in the effort to obtain Clinton's emails from hackers.

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REUTERS/Joshua RobertsU.S. President Donald Trump walks from Marine One upon his return to the White House in Washington, U.S., March 19, 2017.

2. Is President Trump guilty of obstruction?

Some are arguing that Trump is guilty of obstruction of justice by trying to obstruct the ongoing investigations surrounding Russia's involvement in the 2016 election.

A recent report produced by the Brookings Institution argues that "public record contains substantial evidence that President Trump attempted to impede the investigations of Michael Flynn and Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, including by firing FBI Director James Comey."

"There is also a question as to whether President Trump conspired to obstruct justice with senior members of his administration although the public facts regarding conspiracy are less well developed," the Oct. 10 report states.

Norman Eisen, a co-author of the Brookings Institution report and a former chief White House ethics lawyer under President Barack Obama, wrote in an op-ed for USA Today that Trump's interactions on Twitter following Papadopoulos' admission and statement of offense might also constitute obstruction.

On Tuesday, Trump posted a tweet calling Papadopoulos a "liar."

"To say the least, it is very unusual for the president of the United States to attack a witness who is cooperating with the United States an ongoing federal investigation. It raises obstruction of justice and witness intimidation questions, just as it did when the president similarly went after former FBI Directory James Comey," Eisen added. "Think about it: When you are a witness in a case that threatens the most powerful man in the world, and he attacks you publicly, that is scary.

"Trump's tweet also creates more problems for Trump with Mueller. By far the biggest personal danger to Trump is that Mueller moves against him for obstruction," Eisen added. "That decision could go either way, but there is already substantial evidence that he obstructed justice. The reason Trump's lawyers keep talking about the White House's efforts to cooperate with Mueller's investigation is to convince the special counsel of Trump's good faith, and so to limit further exposure of the president."

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REUTERS/Jim YoungHillary Clinton speaks at the Iowa Democratic Party's Hall of Fame dinner in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, United States, July 17, 2015.

3. Did the Clinton campaign collude with Russia?

Hillary Clinton has come under fire since it emerged that her presidential campaign and the DNC played a role in continuing funding of research that produced the infamous Fusion GPS Trump-Russia dossier compiled by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele.

The dossier, which is a compilation of 17 memos written by Steele between June 20 and Dec. 13, 2016, relied on information from Russian sources to make unverified accusations of misconduct between the Trump campaign and the Russian government during the 2016 presidential election. The dossier was first reported by BuzzFeed on Jan. 10, about two months after the election.

The Fusion GPS research was originally funded by the conservative news site Washington Free Beacon for Republican opposition research during the primary election. But after Trump emerged as the likely Republican nominee, the research began being funded by Perkins Coie — the law firm of Marc Elias, an attorney who represents the Clinton campaign and the DNC, which retained Fusion GPS for the research that led to the dossier.

According to The Washington Post, the dossier was written as "raw intelligence," which is "essentially high-grade gossip." The dossier purports that the Russian government was supporting Trump and was also piecing together compromising information against him.

Particularly, The Washington Post notes, the dossier claims that the Russian government was feeding the Trump campaign "valuable intelligence on Clinton."

The Trump administration has said that the Clinton campaign's connection to the dossier is proof that Clinton and the DNC "colluded" with the Russians.

"The evidence Clinton campaign, DNC and Russia colluded to influence the election is indisputable," White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders wrote in a tweet.

Clinton defended her campaign's involvement in funding the dossier in an interview with Comedy Central on Wednesday, saying that funding legal opposition research is much different than colluding with the Russian government to win the election, which many have accused the Trump campaign of doing.

"I think most serious people understand that," Clinton said in a late-night interview. "This was research started by a Republican donor during the Republican primary, and when Trump got the nomination for the Republican Party, the people doing it came to my campaign lawyer."

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(Photo: Reuters/Brian Snyder)U.S. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton holds an unscheduled news conference to talk about FBI inquiries into her emails after a campaign rally in Des Moines, Iowa, October 28, 2016.

4. Did the Russians bribe Hillary Clinton for the uranium deal?

The Hill reported last month that FBI had gathered substantial evidence that Russian nuclear industry officials had engaged in bribery, extortion and money laundering designed to help grow Russia's atomic energy business inside the United States.

According to The Hill, this scheme of bribery occurred at a time when the Obama administration approved a deal in 2010 that gave Rosatom, the Russian nuclear energy agency, a controlling stake in the Toronto-based Uranium One — a company that at the time had mining licenses for about 20 percent of the U.S. uranium extraction capacity.

In addition, The Hill reports that investigators obtained documents and eyewitness accounts indicating that Russian nuclear officials "routed millions of dollars to the U.S. designed to benefit former President Bill Clinton's charitable foundation during the time Secretary of State Hillary Clinton served on a government body that provided a favorable decision to Moscow."

Also in 2010, Bill Clinton received $500,000 from a Russian bank for a speech he gave in Moscow.

The accusations that the Clinton's were bribed by the Russians are not new. During the 2016 campaign, Trump claimed Clinton gave Russia "20 percent of our uranium" for a "big payment." Clinton's connection in the Uranium One deal was also discussed in a chapter of Peter Schweizer's 2015 book Clinton Cash.

It should be noted that the Uranium One deal also needed approval from a board made up of nine U.S. agencies, not just Hillary Clinton's State Department. The deal also received approval from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

According to Medium, Jose Fernandez, who served as assistant secretary of state for economic, energy and business affairs and was the State Department's principal representative to the commission that oversaw that Uranium One sale, has said that Clinton never "intervened with me on any C.F.I.U.S. matter."

As Medium notes in a 2015 factcheck, "U.S. regulators accepted a subsequent sale of the remaining stake in Uranium One to Russia after Clinton left the State Department."

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(Photo: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst)The exterior of the U.S. Department of Justice headquarters building in Washington, July 14, 2009.

5. Did the Obama administration use information from Fusion GPS dossier to get a judge to approve spying on the Trump campaign?

The Washington Post reported last February that the FBI had initially agreed to pay Steele to continue his research on Trump as it was investigating possible Russian interference in the 2016 election. However, the deal was scrapped and the FBI ultimately never paid for the research.

Yet, Republican investigators in Congress have been pushing the FBI and Department of Justice for answers as to what, if any, information federal government agencies might have used from the dossier as a basis for warrant requests before the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to spy on the Trump campaign.

"What did the FBI do with the dossier material? Did judges make surveillance decisions in the Trump-Russia investigation based in whole or in part on the dossier? To what degree is the 'salacious and unverified' dossier the source of what we think we know about allegations of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign?" conservative columnist Byron York asked in an op-ed.

On Tuesday, the Justice Department and the FBI showed classified documents related to the Steele dossier to investigators from the House Intelligence Committee. The documents were inspected behind closed doors pursuant to the subpoena issued by committee chairman Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif.

Fox News reports that Democrat Rep. Adam Schiff of California was among the first to see the documents from the committee. He attended the Tuesday session at the Justice Department along with two staffers of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.

Nunes said that Democrats' eagerness to see the documents is "bizarre behavior."

"When my investigators first got [to the Justice Department to review to documents], there were four other staffers from the other side of the aisle, including a member of Congress: The ranking member of our committee," Nunes said in an interview with Fox News. "Here's the bizarre part of this: They didn't support the subpoena. They said there was no reason to see this documentation — so I don't know why they would run down there and be the first people to review the information."

"That tells me that they're very, very nervous about this dossier, who paid for it, and what we Republicans are going to find out about it. ... And I'm sure that they want to know about this so they can figure out what narrative they're going to create to try to get us off the scent of what actually happened here," Nunes added.

Nunes stressed that "what we still have yet to determine is who from the Democratic Party knew about this dossier [and] who or what was this used for by the FBI."

"There has been obstruction be the media, by the Democrats, by the DNC," Nunes said. "This goes on and on and on. Including obstruction from the executive branch of government!"

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