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For nearly two years, the special counsel’s Russia probe has focused on a large cast of characters, from Republican aides to foreign hackers to presidents and pundits. Here’s a guide to who’s who

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The Presidents

Donald Trump

Even before he ran for office, the bouffant billionaire had a history of making surprisingly kind comments about Vladimir Putin. In 2013, he mused about whether the Russian President would become his “new best friend” on a trip to Moscow. During the election campaign, he openly called on Russia to hack the e-mails of his rival, Hillary Clinton, and said Mr. Putin had been a better leader than Barack Obama. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation sought to determine whether the apparent admiration was simply a strongman crush and an alignment of interests – or something more sinister.

Vladimir Putin

A former KGB agent, Mr. Putin has been Russia’s autocratic leader for almost two decades. His rule has been characterized by sham elections, the murder of political opponents and the enrichment of Mr. Putin and his cronies at the expense of Russian taxpayers. He became an international pariah after invading and annexing the Crimean peninsula of Ukraine in 2014 and backing separatist groups in the east of that country in a bloody civil war.

The investigator

Robert Mueller

A former marine who fought in Vietnam, Mr. Mueller is a career prosecutor who spent 12 years running the FBI. He was called back into service in the spring of 2017 as Deputy Attorney-General Rod Rosenstein tried to quell a firestorm over Mr. Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey. Mr. Rosenstein appointed Mr. Mueller special counsel in charge of investigating Russian attempts to tip the 2016 election and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign. He also has a broad mandate to investigate any other crimes he finds along the way, which led to charges against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort for money laundering not directly related to the campaign.

The Trump campaign

Paul Manafort

Mr. Manafort served as chair of the Trump campaign for three months in the spring and summer of 2016. But he made a living for decades as the Washington lobbyist and fixer for a string of foreign dictators. For several years he was on the payroll of Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Putin former president of Ukraine. Mr. Mueller charged him last year with laundering tens of millions of dollars in payments from Mr. Yanukovych and his allies. After a court convicted him, Mr. Manafort agreed to co-operate with Mr. Mueller, but the special counsel accused him of continuing to lie. Mr. Mueller also accused him of giving campaign polls to Konstantin Kilimnik, an associate in Ukraine believed to be a former Russian spy, and discussing plans with Mr. Kilimnik for ending Ukraine’s civil war on terms favourable to Mr. Putin.

Rick Gates

Mr. Gates pleaded guilty to his part in Mr. Manafort’s tax-evasion scheme and lying to investigators. He became a central witness in his former business partner’s trial.

Michael Cohen

Mr. Cohen was Mr. Trump’s lawyer and fixer for more than a decade and the point man on the unsuccessful attempt to build a Trump Hotel Moscow. During the election campaign, Mr. Cohen tried to enlist the Kremlin’s help securing land and funding for the project. He also arranged payoffs to two women who said they’d had extramarital assignations with Mr. Trump to buy their silence before the election. Mr. Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations over the payments and said he had acted on Mr. Trump’s orders. He also admitted lying to Congress over the hotel deal. He subsequently agreed to co-operate with Mr. Mueller.

Roger Stone

A political consultant with Richard Nixon’s face tattooed on his back, Mr. Stone allegedly tried to co-ordinate the campaign with the release by WikiLeaks of embarrassing Democratic Party e-mails hacked by Russian spies. According to court documents filed by Mr. Mueller, Mr. Stone used two intermediaries to ask WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange to pass him e-mails that could be damaging to Hillary Clinton and to get a heads up on when the anti-secrecy group planned to dump documents. Mr. Stone passed the information on to Trump campaign officials. He has pleaded not guilty to charges of lying to Congress.

Michael Flynn

A retired general who became best known during the campaign for leading a “lock her up” chant at the Republican National Convention, Mr. Flynn was briefly Mr. Trump’s national security adviser when he took office. He was forced to resign after he was caught lying about conversations with Russia’s then-ambassador Sergey Kislyak about lifting U.S. sanctions imposed for the invasion of Crimea. He ultimately pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and began co-operating with the investigation.

George Papadopoulos

Mr. Papadopoulos, a foreign-policy adviser on the campaign, dealt with three purported Kremlin intermediaries in the spring of 2016 as he tried (apparently without success) to arrange a meeting between Mr. Trump and Mr. Putin. One of his interlocutors, a Maltese academic named Joseph Mifsud, allegedly told him that Russia had hacked Democratic Party e-mails weeks before they were released by WikiLeaks. Mr. Papadopoulos’s advance knowledge of the e-mails may have triggered the initial FBI investigation into the Trump campaign in the summer of 2016.

Jeff Sessions

The former Alabama senator joined Mr. Trump’s campaign – and later his administration, as attorney-general – because of his hard-line views on immigration. During the campaign, Mr. Sessions spoke at least twice with Mr. Kislyak but falsely told a Senate hearing that he’d had no contact with the Russians. When his discussions with Mr. Kislyak were subsequently revealed, he recused himself from overseeing an FBI investigation into Russian interference in the election. Mr. Trump blamed his recusal for the appointment of Mr. Mueller as Special Counsel and never forgave Mr. Sessions, firing him late last year.

Donald Trump Jr.

When an intermediary told Don Jr. that the Kremlin wanted to give the Trump campaign incriminating documents on Ms. Clinton, he replied, “I love it” and arranged a meeting at Trump Tower in New York. Whether anything of consequence actually happened at that June, 2016, sit-down – at which Kremlin-connected lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya lobbied Don Jr., Mr. Manafort and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner to lift sanctions on Russia – is unclear. But Don Jr.’s apparent willingness to accept Mr. Putin’s help was striking.

Jared Kushner

The scion of a wealthy New Jersey real-estate family, Mr. Kushner is married to Mr. Trump’s favourite child, Ivanka, and serves as a top adviser to the President.

The lawmen

James Comey

As FBI director during the 2016 campaign, Mr. Comey quietly opened an investigation into contacts between Mr. Trump’s circle and the Russian government the summer before the election. After Mr. Trump took office, Mr. Comey has recounted, the President asked him to dial down the investigation and pledge his “loyalty” to him. Mr. Trump fired Mr. Comey in May, 2017, over what the President described as “this Russia thing.” The move has led to accusations that Mr. Trump was trying to obstruct justice and ultimately resulted in Mr. Mueller being brought in to take over the investigation.

Rod Rosenstein

Less than two weeks after taking over as Deputy Attorney-General, Mr. Rosenstein wrote a memo for Mr. Trump justifying Mr. Comey’s firing. Subsequent accounts have depicted Mr. Rosenstein as conflicted and emotional in the days that followed, telling subordinates he felt used by Mr. Trump. He ultimately appointed Mr. Mueller. A long-time government lawyer, Mr. Rosenstein worked for the special counsel investigation into Bill Clinton in the 1990s and subsequently spent more than a decade as the chief prosecutor for the state of Maryland.

The Russians

Internet Research Agency

Workers at this St. Petersburg-based “troll farm” created fake personas to push pro-Trump messages on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Posing as Americans, they flooded social media with memes, bought ads and even remotely organized rallies in the U.S. The company’s operations were funded by a company owned by Yevgeniy Priogozhin, a well-connected oligarch sometimes nicknamed “Putin’s cook” because he once owned a catering company with Kremlin contracts. The Internet Research Agency, 12 of its employees and Mr. Priogozhin have been indicted by Mr. Mueller.

The G.R.U.

Hackers at the Kremlin’s military intelligence agency stole tens of thousands of e-mails from the Democratic National Committee and staffers on Ms. Clinton’s campaign, including campaign chair John Podesta. Using the moniker “Guccifer 2.0,” G.R.U. agents distributed the documents to WikiLeaks and others for publication. Some of the e-mails, which showed ostensibly neutral party officials scheming to derail Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, embarrassed the Democrats enough that several of the party’s leaders resigned. Mr. Mueller has indicted the agency and 12 of its spies, all Russian military officers.

Konstantin Kilimnik

A Russo-Ukrainian political operative who worked for Mr. Manafort, Mr. Kilimnik is believed to be a former (and possibly current) G.R.U. agent. Based in Kiev during the presidential election campaign, Mr. Kilimnik allegedly received Trump campaign polling from Mr. Manafort and also discussed a “Ukraine peace plan” with him. Mr. Mueller has also accused Mr. Kilimnik of aiding Mr. Manafort’s efforts to tamper with witnesses during the latter’s criminal trial.

Natalia Veselnitskaya

A lawyer for Russian oligarchs, Ms. Veselnitskaya has also lobbied against the Magnitsky Act, which slapped sanctions on Russians accused of being involved in the killing of a lawyer who uncovered a massive government-backed financial fraud. She met in June, 2016, with Donald Trump Jr., Mr. Manafort and Mr. Kushner at Don Jr.’s Trump Tower office.

Sergey Kislyak

As ambassador to Washington, Mr. Kislyak met at least twice with Mr. Sessions during the campaign. During the transition period, he discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with Mr. Flynn. In May, 2017, during an Oval Office meeting with Mr. Trump and Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergey Lavrov, the President disclosed classified information about ISIS. Russia later released government photographs showing the trio laughing it up. Mr. Kislyak returned to Moscow in the summer of 2017.

And the rest

Julian Assange

The Australian computer hacker and WikiLeaks founder has long criticized Ms. Clinton for her hawkish views on national security. In the summer of 2016, his website published Democratic National Committee e-mails obtained by hackers at the G.R.U. shortly before Ms. Clinton’s formal nomination for president.

Jerome Corsi

A conspiracy theorist and pundit, Mr. Corsi is alleged to have acted as an intermediary between Mr. Stone and WikiLeaks. Mr. Corsi gave Mr. Stone some tips on what he believed would be in the next batch of e-mails WikiLeaks would release and how best to co-ordinate the campaign with the document dump.

Randy Credico

Another of Mr. Stone’s intermediaries with WikiLeaks, Mr. Credico is a comedian and radio host with a white, curly-haired “therapy dog” named Bianca. The two men, however, had a falling out after Mr. Stone urged Mr. Credico to “stonewall” a congressional Russia investigation and threatened to kidnap Bianca if he didn’t.

Joseph Mifsud

A Kremlin-linked Maltese academic once accused of bilking students by running a non-existent university, Mr. Mifsud reportedly tipped off Mr. Papadopoulos to the existence of hacked Democratic National Committee e-mails before they were published by WikiLeaks. Mr. Mifsud disappeared in the fall of 2017.

Christopher Steele

The former British spy was hired to dig up dirt on Mr. Trump by Fusion GPS, a political consultancy paid by Ms. Clinton’s campaign. He produced a dossier that alleged the Kremlin has video of Mr. Trump getting prostitutes to urinate on a hotel bed in Moscow in 2013.

Felix Sater

A Russian-born American real-estate magnate with Bayrock Group, Mr. Sater was once convicted of wounding a man with a broken margarita glass in a bar fight, pleaded guilty to involvement in a stock fraud with the Russian mafia and served as an FBI informant. He subsequently worked with Mr. Trump on an unsuccessful bid to build a Moscow Trump Hotel. Work on the plan continued throughout the presidential campaign, and Mr. Sater spoke with Kremlin officials about it.

Alex van der Zwaan

Mr. van der Zwaan is a London-based lawyer and son-in-law of Russian oligarch German Khan. He was hired by Mr. Manafort and Mr. Gates to help produce a report smearing Yulia Tymoshenko, the former Ukrainian prime minister and leader of the opposition to then-president Viktor Yanukovych. He pleaded guilty to lying to Mr. Mueller.

Richard Pinedo

Mr. Pinedo is a California man who ran a business selling stolen bank account numbers. Some of his customers were Russian hackers at the Internet Research Agency, who used the accounts to hide their identities when buying campaign advertising. Mr. Pinedo pleaded guilty to identity fraud and co-operated with Mr. Mueller’s investigation.

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Photos: AP, Reuters, AFP/Getty Images, New York Times

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