Stories to watch: The Russia connection

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·Chief Investigative Correspondent
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Donald Trump is in the White House, and Yahoo News is taking a look at the top stories to watch in his first 100 days. From the unusual role family members will play as White House advisers to his promises to aggressively transform U.S. trade policy, and from investigations into Russian interference in the election to his relationship with Paul Ryan, we’ll be rolling out 15 stories over five days — signposts for the road ahead.

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THE STAKES

Even as President Trump forms his administration, his White House is still haunted by a ghost from its past: the role Russia played in helping to elect him in the first place. At stake may be nothing less than the perceived legitimacy of his presidency.

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THE STORY

Just two weeks before Barack Obama left office, the U.S. intelligence community published an extraordinary document concluding that Russia had launched a wide-ranging campaign aimed at disrupting the U.S. presidential election — including the use of cyberattacks and state-run media outlets to wage a propaganda war against Hillary Clinton. Yet when President Trump had his first phone call with President Vladimir Putin, the subject of Russia’s meddling in America’s election never came up.

That does not mean the story is going away anytime soon. The FBI is reportedly investigating whether some Trump campaign officials may have had contacts with Russian officials, although it is far from clear at this point whether any crimes were committed.

More immediately, both the Senate and House intelligence committees have announced separate investigations into the Russian influence campaign — probes that could make life uncomfortable, or worse, for officials in the White House. Both panels have confirmed that their investigations will specifically include allegations — spelled out in a sensational, but unverified, dossier prepared by a British spy — that there were “links” between the Kremlin and Trump’s campaign. “We’re not taking that off the table,” a spokesman for California Rep. Devin Nunes, the House intelligence committee chairman, recently told Yahoo News when asked about the dossier.

Overhanging all these probes is a major policy issue that Trump will have to address early in his presidency: whether to scrap sanctions imposed by Obama against Russia over the election hack — or strengthen them, as GOP hawks such as Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham want to do.

There is no way to tell how long the FBI’s probe will last, or whether the public will ever know its resolution, if any. But the Senate intelligence committee set a tentative three-month deadline last week for its investigation. That’s not a lot of time for an in-depth probe of this nature. Still, if it drags on much longer than that, it could be a sign that the committee believes there is much more to learn about exactly what did happen in the 2016 election.

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THE PLAYERS

First and foremost is FBI Director James Comey. Still under fire from Democrats over his handling of the Clinton email probe, he’ll ultimately have to decide the resolution of his bureau’s counterintelligence probe into Russian meddling.

On Capitol Hill, Nunes and Rep. Adam Schiff, ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, and Senate Intelligence Committee Chair Sen. Richard Burr and ranking Democrat Sen. Mark Warner are the players to watch. McCain and Graham may be keys to the sanctions debate. And inside the White House, National Security Adviser Michael Flynn — who popped up on the FBI’s radar screen over his pre-inaugural talks with the Russian ambassador — may be the most significant player, both in setting policy and deciding how to respond to the committees’ requests for information and testimony.

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