A disquieting “constellation of events”
by Tom Sullivan
The New York Times reported last night that in the days after President Donald Trump fired F.B.I. Director James Comey, counterintelligence investigators launched a probe into whether Trump “had been working on behalf of Russia against American interests.”
Trump’s July 2016 call for Russia to hack into Hillary Clinton’s emails caught the attention of counterintelligence officials, plus his praise for President Vladimir Putin and the modification to the Republican platform to soften its stance on Ukraine. The F.B.I. was already investigating four Trump associates’ ties to Russia. But if the launch of a CI investigation into a sitting president were to leak, it would carry “explosive implications” and undermine the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. They needed stronger evidence to initiate such an investigation.
Two more Trump actions provided that after the Comey firing:
The first was a letter Mr. Trump wanted to send to Mr. Comey about his firing, but never did, in which he mentioned the Russia investigation. In the letter, Mr. Trump thanked Mr. Comey for previously telling him he was not a subject of the F.B.I.’s Russia investigation.
When Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein redrafted the letter omitting mention of Russia, Trump himself added a note “thanking Mr. Comey for telling him three times that he was not under investigation.”
These actions, added to the “constellation of events” involving Russia that had disquieted F.B.I. officials prior to the 2016 election, prompted opening a counterintelligence investigation “before Mr. Trump appointed a director who might slow down or even end their investigation into Russia’s interference.”
Their concerns only heightened when days later The White House, naturally, considers the Times story “absurd” and Trump himself no doubt will use the reporting to again condemn Justice as corrupt. But Lawfare blog’s Benjamin Wittes believes the focus on Trump misses a deeper point.
The Times notes the F.B.I. conducts two kinds of investigations: criminal, in which crimes might be prosecuted; and counterintelligence, “generally fact-finding missions to understand what a foreign power is doing and to stop any anti-American activity.” The assumption in Trump-Russia collusion coverage is the second is separate from the obstruction of justice criminal case. “But what if the obstruction was the collusion—or at least a part of it?” Wittes asks. The lines are perhaps fuzzier than that.
Former FBI General Counsel James Baker, a colleague of Wittes’ at Lawfare, wrote:
A lot of the criticism seems to be driven by the notion that the FBI’s investigation was, and is, an effort to undermine or discredit President Trump. That assumption is wrong. The FBI’s investigation must be viewed in the context of the bureau’s decades-long effort to detect, disrupt and defeat the intelligence activities of the governments of the Soviet Union and later the Russian Federation that are contrary to the fundamental and long-term interests of the United States. The FBI’s counterintelligence investigation regarding the 2016 campaign fundamentally was not about Donald Trump but was about Russia. Full stop. It was always about Russia. It was about what Russia was, and is, doing and planning. Of course, if that investigation revealed that anyone—Russian or American—committed crimes in connection with Russian intelligence activities or unlawfully interfered with the investigation, the FBI has an obligation under the law to investigate such crimes and to seek to bring those responsible to justice. The FBI’s enduring counterintelligence mission is the reason the Russia investigation will, and should, continue—no matter who is fired, pardoned or impeached (emphasis added).
This passage, Wittes writes, is consistent with Comey’s Mar. 20, 2017, congressional testimony in which he confirmed the F.B.I. was “investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election” as part of its counterintelligence mission. Wittes does not believe the agency simply opened a new criminal investigation in the wake of the Comey firing.
So when the president sought to impair the investigation, having declared both in the draft letter dismissing Comey and to Lester Holt that his action was connected in some way to the Russia investigation, that raised both potential criminal questions and major counterintelligence questions—questions that could only have been reinforced when Trump later announced to senior Russian government officials that he had relieved pressure on himself by acting as he did. It did so both because it threatened the investigation itself and because it fit directly into a pattern of interface between Trump campaign officials and Russian government actors that they were already investigating.
The pattern of Mueller’s indictments, too, suggests this is the central mission. Wittes summarizes:
It was about Russia. Full stop. It was always about Russia. And it still is about Russia.
The best way to understand this probe is as an umbrella Russia-related national security investigation in which the bureau opened subsidiary files, some with a counterintelligence focus and some with a criminal focus, on individuals who proved to have substantial “links” to the broader Russian activity.
That makes the sitting president a bit-player in an investigation that, whatever he thinks, is not about him.
Lisa Page, former assistant general counsel at the F.B.I., answered questions in closed-door meetings of a joint House Judiciary and Oversight Committee last July. Transcripts passed to The Epoch Times and published Friday afternoon may have prompted the New York Times to release its counterintelligence story Friday night.
Page, in her testimony to Representatives focused on Hillary Clinton emails, confirmed that her agency saw Clinton’s emails as “an entirely historical investigation” of lesser priority.
“In the assessment of the Counterintelligence Division,” Page stated, “they still don’t even come close to the threat posed if Russia had co-opted a member of a political campaign.”
“[W]ith respect to Western ideals and who it is and what it is we stand for as Americans,” Page continued, “Russia poses the most dangerous threat to that way of life.”
That’s not to say the predations of the current occupant of the Oval Office do not pose a threat. Just that they are not foreign ones. The threats posed by Trump’s continued tenure in office are domestic.