The New York Times reports that “in the days after President Trump fired James B. Comey as F.B.I. director, law enforcement officials became so concerned by the president’s behavior that they began investigating whether he had been working on behalf of Russia against American interests.” The Times cites “former law enforcement officials and others familiar with the investigation.” They say the FBI investigation ended when Robert Mueller was appointed. If this specific charge remained under investigation, Mueller did the investigating.
If it’s true that the FBI undertook the investigation described by the Times, this tells us plenty about the FBI. It tells us nothing about Trump.
The Times doesn’t say who at the FBI ordered the investigation into whether Trump was (in the Times’ words) “knowingly working for Russia or had unwittingly fallen under Moscow’s influence.” Presumably, it was Andrew McCabe, the Trump-hating partisan who is now under criminal investigation. After all, he was the number two man under Comey.
Others who might well have been involved were Peter Strzok, Lisa Page, and Jim Baker, then the general counsel of the FBI. Baker had met with Democratic Party lawyers to talk about allegations of Donald Trump-Russia collusion weeks before the 2016 election, and before the bureau secured a search warrant targeting Trump’s campaign.
Clearly, Comey’s cronies, anti-Trumpers all, were outraged that Trump had fired their guy. The investigation reported by the Times looks like an over-the-top method of striking back at Trump.
The Times tries to make it seem like there was more to it than that. Its source[s] for the story informed the Times that two events in connection with the Comey firing triggered the decision to investigate whether Trump was an agent of Russia (or its stooge). As discussed below, these events provide no rational basis for such an investigation. The FBI’s reliance on them reveals its shocking bad faith.
The first bit of behavior was Trump’s draft of a letter to Comey thanking him for his service and for having told him he was not a subject of the FBI’s Russia investigation. It’s obvious what Trump was trying to do here. He was trying to memorialize and gain maximum mileage from the fact that Comey had told Trump he wasn’t a subject of the Russia investigation.
That Trump wanted it on the record that he wasn’t a subject of the Russia investigation isn’t evidence that he was working on behalf of the Russians. Any president who was operating under the cloud of collusion claims would want it known that he wasn’t a subject of the investigation into collusion.
Trump wasn’t trying to help Russia here, he was trying to help himself and his presidency. FBI leadership chose, in effect, to view Trump’s insistent denial of guilt as evidence of guilt — a ridiculous inference.
The second bit of behavior was the president’s interview with NBC News in which he said that the firing of Comey was related to the Russia investigation. It almost certainly was. As noted, Trump was furious that Comey wouldn’t say publicly what he had told him privately — that Trump wasn’t a subject of the investigation. He might also still have been angry about the treatment of Michael Flynn.
But how does this demonstrate that Trump was acting on Russia’s behalf? If Trump were a Russian agent, why would he admit that the firing was about Russia when Rod Rosenstein was offering a different justification — Comey’s handling of the Clinton email matter? I doubt this approach to espionage is part of the Russia spy handbook.
During the same interview, Trump said:
I might even lengthen out the investigation [by firing Comey], but I have to do the right thing for the American people. [Comey] is the wrong man for that position.
Thus, in the very interview the FBI relied on, Trump made it clear that the firing of Comey did not mean the end, or even the shortening, of the investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 election and possible collusion between the Russians and the campaign. At best, the interview was a pretext for going after Trump out of revenge for the Comey firing.
The deep state is real. Jack Goldsmith has acknowledged as much. It is also deeply partisan and utterly vicious. The Times’ story is yet another reminder of this sad reality.
Finally, I’d like to know whether top Justice Department officials outside of the FBI knew about this investigation. Rod Rosenstein, in particular.
We’re not likely to find out. Those who leaked this story to the Times don’t want us to know.