For months, the public has known about Donald Trump’s extensive ties with individuals inside and adjacent to the Russian government. A handful of his closest aides have already testified under oath about their connections to Russian officials, and his own lawyer has admitted Trump had close financial ties to Moscow as recently as the middle of 2016.
But on Friday evening, an explosive report in the New York Times escalated the scope of special counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation to an almost unimaginable degree: in 2017, the FBI opened a counterintelligence investigation into Donald Trump himself, out of concern that the president of the United States was secretly working on behalf of Russia.
The Times spoke with several former intelligence officials about the inquiry, which began shortly after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. The circumstances of Comey’s dismissal were known to be of interest to the special counsel’s office, which is looking into whether Trump tried to obstruct justice by firing the person responsible for overseeing the entire Russia investigation. But until Friday, the public was unaware of just how seriously the intelligence community viewed Comey’s abrupt departure.
True to form, Trump responded to the revelation via Twitter, painting the investigation as a “Witch Hunt” and lying about his own record on Russia. He suggested he has been tough on Moscow, instead of leaking state secrets to Russian agents and doing their bidding in Syria, to name just a few examples.
Wow, just learned in the Failing New York Times that the corrupt former leaders of the FBI, almost all fired or forced to leave the agency for some very bad reasons, opened up an investigation on me, for no reason & with no proof, after I fired Lyin’ James Comey, a total sleaze!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 12, 2019
FBI interest in Trump’s ties to Russia predated his presidency. The agency was already keeping tabs on several Trump campaign officials, including his campaign manager Paul Manafort. And intelligence officials were also probing the extent to which Russian officials attempted to interfere in the 2016 presidential campaign, prompted in part by Trump himself, who publicly called on Russia to hack into Hillary Clinton’s emails.
But the agency was hesitant to open a formal investigation into Trump, mindful of how sensitive an investigation into a sitting president would be — to say nothing of what the reaction would be if the existence of such an investigation were leaked.
According to The Times, the manner in which Comey was fired and the admission by Trump that the firing was an attempt to disrupt or disband the Russian inquiry was enough to greenlight the counterintelligence operation. Within days, it was folded into Robert Mueller’s larger investigation. The Times gave no indication that the special counsel ever closed the counterintelligence portion of its investigation.
The concern by the agency coalesced around two equally jarring possibilities: that Donald Trump was acting on behalf of Russia, either willingly or as a result of blackmail; and that Trump posed a national security risk to the United States by trying to end the agency’s probe into Russian interference.
Whether or not the FBI found hard evidence to justify their concerns, the notion that there was enough suspicion to launch a counterintelligence operation on a sitting US president is as astonishing as it is unsettling.