US & Canada

Russia-Trump: Who's who in the drama to end all dramas?

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin

It's more gripping than any box set we can get our hands on right now.

The investigations into Russian interference in the US election, and whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Kremlin, continue to deliver daily developments and drama worthy of anything seen in House of Cards.

Thirty-four people have now been charged by Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Here is a guide to the main characters in the first four seasons of the only political drama that matters.

Season One - The Election

This is the season in which Donald Trump, the reality TV star, takes centre stage in his own political drama by launching a presidential campaign. He's supported by his family and gets the attention of the Russians. The season ends with a cliffhanger - could Trump the outsider actually win?!

It's been a while since all of this happened, so let's remind you of the key players in this season.

Who is he? Donald Trump, the billionaire candidate (who by Season Three is the 45th president of the United States). If you really need a refresher, here's his life story.

Key plot line As Donald Trump is busy traversing the country canvassing for votes in Season One, Russia hacks into the emails of his Democratic rivals, investigators later say.

The question is why? Was the Kremlin trying to alter the outcome of the election, and what did Trump and his campaign know?

What, if anything, did Donald Trump do to try to cover things up in the ongoing Russia investigation?

Who is he? He was Trump's campaign chairman before being forced to quit over his ties to Russian oligarchs and Ukraine.

Key plot line He's one of the biggest dominoes to fall. When he ends up being arrested, it's a big season-ending shocker.

Manafort hangs around a bit in Season One, but then disappears from view for a while.

He quits the campaign after being accused of having links to pro-Russian groups in Ukraine. He also sits in on a crucial meeting with a Russian lawyer who may be trying to feed the Trump team classified information (more on that later).

After an FBI raid on his home in Season Three, Manafort is found guilty on eight charges of tax fraud, bank fraud, and failing to disclose foreign banks accounts and is sentenced to 47 months in prison.

In Season Four, he agrees to co-operate with a special counsel inquiry in exchange for a reduced prison term. But then, in a twist - prosecutors claim he breached his plea bargain by repeatedly lying to the FBI - something he denies.

Read more: The man who helped Trump win

Who is he? The president's eldest child. The Trump who we know did meet the Russians - the big question is why.

Key plot line The role of Donald Trump Jr in this unfolding saga all comes down to a meeting he had with a Russian lawyer, which was set up by a music publicist (the full details of which come out in Season Three). If it sounds random, then in many ways it is.

The publicist, Rob Goldstone, offers Trump Jr a meeting with lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, promising him dirt on Hillary Clinton.

This meeting is the key to much of our plot line because it raises several key questions. Does this amount to the campaign colluding with a foreign government? Why did he agree to the meeting?

Don Jr says the June 2016 meeting was about Russian adoption policy, but his father later says it was about political opposition research. Mr Trump's lawyers say he dictated his son's first misleading explanation, leading to questions of whether the president sought to obstruct a Justice Department inquiry.

What happened at the meeting is the scene investigators are playing over and over again as they try to work out if there was any impropriety.

Read more: Trump Jr's habit for making headlines

Season Two - The Transition

Donald Trump confounds his critics by winning the presidency. But the transition is as gripping as the season before it as Trump picks his cabinet, introducing key characters to the mix. The season ends with Trump taking the oath of office on a cold January morning - but there are more twists to come.

Who is he? The granite-faced former general who later became the shortest-serving member of Donald Trump's cabinet. He resigned after not being honest about his contact with a Russian official - and was later charged with making false statements to the FBI.

Key plot line Flynn is appointed national security adviser just days after the election, against the advice of then-President Obama, who warns Trump not to hire him. Flynn's starring role comes in December 2016, when he speaks to the Russian ambassador, Sergei Kislyak.

The Washington Post and New York Times say the men discussed Russian sanctions, and that Flynn later lied to the Vice President Mike Pence about the conversation (Mr Kislyak says the men discussed only "simple things").

The substance of those talks eventually leads to Flynn being prosecuted as part of the investigation led by special counsel Robert Mueller.

At the end of Season Three, in December 2017, Flynn pleads guilty to making "false, fictitious and fraudulent statements" to the FBI about what he and Kislyak discussed.

With that, the investigation has reached Trump's inner circle.

Read more: Out after 23 days - who is Michael Flynn?

Who is he? Many roads in this drama lead back to Sergei Kislyak, the jolly and charismatic figure, who up until July 2017 was the Russian ambassador to Washington.

Key plot line Kislyak's role in this drama is unclear - but many of the players in this drama had meetings with him, and that puts them in awkward spots. The key questions for investigators are: why were they drawn to him, and what was said? The Russian ambassador spoke to both Flynn and Jeff Sessions - meetings which both Trump officials didn't initially acknowledge took place.

Anything else we should know? Well, Russia fiercely fought back against claims on CNN that Kislyak was a "top spy and recruiter of spies".

Who is he? Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III hovered in the background during Season One, when he was an Alabama senator and a trusted Trump adviser, but we really got to know him during Season Two, when he became Trump's nominee for attorney general, a job he keeps for almost two years.

Key plot line Sessions is one of several Trump aides to meet Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak, and there are question marks over the nature of those meetings.

When the FBI investigation focuses on the Trump campaign, Sessions stands down from the inquiry, much to Trump's irritation.

That decision to step down dogs him to the end, and he is written out of the series at the end of Season Four, when Trump forces him to resign.

That move puts control of the Mueller investigation into the hands of a Trump loyalist...

Read more: An attorney general dogged by scandal

Season Three - The Presidency

This is where the drama really picks up and all the plot lines come together. A lot of the background characters we saw in Season One come back with a vengeance and the infighting gets nasty - and, don't look now, but the police are circling.

Who is she? A Russian lawyer with a fearsome reputation who has fought against US restrictions on Russia. But is she a Kremlin stooge?

Despite earlier denials, she admitted in April 2018 to being an "informant" for Russia's prosecutor general.

Key plot line Hers is a small but crucial role - she's the one who Trump Jr, Kushner and Manafort met in June 2016, the details of which begin trickling out a year later.

She says the meeting was to discuss adoptions - but those who helped set it up say she was offering dirt on the Democrats and Hillary Clinton's campaign. In June 2018 Mr Trump tweets that the meeting was "to get information on an opponent, totally legal and done all the time in politics".

That meeting would never have happened without...

Who are they? Emin Agalarov is Azerbaijan's biggest pop star, of course. Have you not heard Love is a Deadly Game? Emin helped bring Donald Trump's Miss Universe competition to Russia and the two are close enough to send each other birthday messages. His dad, Aras, is a billionaire who mixes in the highest circles of influence in Moscow.

Key plot line Emin is the man who sets the wheels in motion on that Trump Jr meeting. An email sent to Trump Jr suggests Emin was offering information on the Democrats (Emin says he didn't). The email also says Aras Agalarov had apparently met the "crown prosecutor" of Russia - a role that weirdly doesn't exist - and got information on Hillary Clinton.

Are you keeping up?

Read more: The tough-talking networker

Who is he? He became deputy attorney general under Jeff Sessions. In the TV drama of the Russia scandal, this is the sort of role that would go to a solid Broadway actor you recognise but can't put a name to.

Key plot line When Sessions stands down from leading the main investigation into the Trump-Russia ties, it falls to Rosenstein to do that job. In a major plot development, he appoints a special investigator - not a popular move with the White House.

Read more: Who is Rod Rosenstein?

Who is he? Married to Trump's daughter, Ivanka, Kushner is the character who is seen but very rarely heard.

Key plot line Amid cries of nepotism, he is given a plum White House job as senior adviser to the president with a wide-ranging portfolio. It's his contacts with the Russians during the election campaign and beyond that lead investigators to circle him. In June 2016, Kushner attends THAT meeting with Donald Trump Jr and the Russian lawyer. He says he was so bored he messaged his assistant to call him so he could leave.

Kushner is also another character who had repeated contact with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak - contact that he initially failed to disclose.

Read more: The son-in-law with Trump's ear

Who is he? A British former tabloid journalist, with a penchant for selfies in silly hats, is perhaps an unlikely addition to the cast, but in most good dramas there's always room for the slightly out-of-place eccentric.

Key plot line Rob Goldstone finds his way into Donald Trump's circle of trust thanks to his connections with Russian pop star Emin Agalarov.

Goldstone manages the pop star, and it is he who contacts Donald Trump Jr on behalf of his client to set up that now-infamous meeting at Trump Tower in June 2016. Goldstone sends an email to Trump Jr promising dirt on Hillary Clinton, in an email exchange that is a key piece of evidence in this inquiry.

Read more: The Music Man with a love for hats

Who is he? At 6ft 8in, James Comey is a towering figure, the character who gives little away about himself personally, but has a huge personal role in this story.

Key plot line He first enters this drama in Season One, when as head of the FBI he reopens the investigation into Hillary Clinton's emails - just weeks before the election. Democrats blame him for her loss, Republicans hail him a hero. That, we thought, was the last we'd seen of him.

Cue Season Three, when months into the Trump presidency, Comey is fired by the new president. In true television drama style, he learns of his sacking as he is watching TV news during a trip to LA. Up to then, Comey was heading up an investigation into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. Is this why he was given the heave-ho?

His testimony to the Senate is one of the most gripping scenes in this drama so far, as - under oath - he tells politicians he was asked to pledge loyalty to the president - but refused.

Read more: The FBI director who took centre stage

Who is he? A former election adviser to Trump, although you'd be forgiven if you didn't remember the face. He was in only a few scenes in Season Two, but he had a massive role to play in Season Three, becoming the first person to plead guilty as part of the investigation.

Key plot line In late October 2017, court documents emerge showing Papadopoulos had pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about the timing of meetings with alleged go-betweens for Russia.

After lying to the FBI, he deletes an incriminating Facebook account and destroys a phone.

His guilty plea has the potential to damage the US leader because it relates directly to his campaign, analysts say. It later turns out he has been co-operating with Mueller's investigation. What has he revealed? And who has he implicated?

Read more: Why Papadopoulos case matters

Who is he? The man who could decide the fate of the Trump presidency.

Key plot line Some characters wield a lot of power, but don't have a starring role, such as Robert Mueller, the tall chiselled figure who is appointed as "special counsel" to take over the Russia investigation in the wake of the dismissal of James Comey. Mueller comes from the same stock as Comey - both are former heads of the FBI.

There have been reports that the president has considered firing Mueller - but he's still in the job. With a large team, we see him working quietly behind the scenes amassing evidence.

Mueller's inquiry runs alongside similar ones being conducted by politicians in Congress - but he's the only one who can press charges against anyone.

He plays a big part in Season Four onward.

Season Four - The legal fight

After Season Three ended with the first charges being laid down by Robert Mueller, things really speed up in Season Four. The president's fury with the special counsel investigation increases and he fires his Attorney-General. Investigators continue to circle though...

Who is he? OK, he's not Putin's chef any more, but he once was - now he's the man accused of spearheading Russia's attempts to interfere in the 2016 election.

Key plot line A little out of the blue, Mueller announces charges against Prigozhin and 12 other Russians, accusing them of tampering with the US election by (among other things) organising and promoting political rallies in the US.

Weirdly, they're also said to have tried to buy a cage large enough to hold an actress dressed as Hillary Clinton in a prison costume.

Read more: Seven key takeaways from indictment

Who is he? The man who once said he would take a bullet for Donald Trump - but who instead ended up dumping him deep in trouble.

Key plot line Cohen, as Trump's long-time personal lawyer, lingers around the edges of the plot for the first three seasons, but becomes the big player of the fourth.

When Mueller's team begin looking into Cohen's finances, they pass on their concerns to investigators in New York.

Then the plot takes an unexpected new turn: Cohen, a long-time Trump loyalist, flips and begins co-operating with investigators. Not only that, but he ends up giving them a lot of help in exchange for a lighter sentence.

Cohen ends up admitting violating campaign finance laws, committing tax evasion and lying to Congress. But his help opens up a whole new plot line as Season Four comes to an end.

Who is he? A long-time Washington political operative who acted as an informal adviser to the Trump campaign. He has called himself an agent provocateur, and once defended his actions by saying: "One man's dirty trick is another man's political, civic action."

Key plot line Stone was one of those memorable bit-part characters in Seasons One and Two - a colourful character known for his fiery tongue, sharp suits and the Richard Nixon tattoo spread across his back.

Towards the end of Season One, he appeared to let the cat out of the bag, hinting on Twitter that there was damaging information coming out on Hillary Clinton. Soon after, that information (that we later learned was led by Russia) was made public.

After a bit of a lull in the middle of Season Four, investigators indicted Stone on seven counts of witness tampering, obstruction and false statements, although he wasn't charged with co-ordinating with Russia.

All the way through, he has denied any wrongdoing. He, like the president, has called the investigation a "witch-hunt" and once said the accusations of collusion with Russia were "a steaming plate of bull".

Text by Rajini Vaidyanathan and Roland Hughes; illustrations by Gerry Fletcher