The New York Times’ very fishy article about Trump and Russia

A story that might be too good to be true for James Comey.

CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik
CREDIT: AP Photo/Andrew Harnik

On Monday night, the New York Times published an article claiming that the FBI has “not found any conclusive or direct link between Mr. Trump and the Russian government.” The newspaper says intelligence officials have concluded that Russian efforts to covertly influence the U.S. election were “aimed at disrupting the presidential election rather than electing Mr. Trump.”

It was published just after a flood of stories raising questions about Trump’s connection to Russia, including two stories suggesting there were direct communications between Trump’s organization and the Russian government. Even more damaging from the FBI’s perspective was a report that FBI Director James Comey opposed releasing information about the investigation — or even announcing Russia was culpable for the email hacks — for fear that it would influence the presidential election.

The New York Times story served as a convenient rebuttal to these developments. Implicit is the suggestion that Comey did not reveal more about Russia’s desire to influence the election, or their connections to the Trump campaign, because there was nothing much to report.

ThinkProgress spoke with Kate Martin, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress*, who has spent decades studying U.S. intelligence and surveillance, to make sense of it all.

According to Martin, the circumstances of this article’s publication are suspicious and the information leaked to the New York Times raises more questions than answers.

Someone inside the government leaked this information to the New York Times. Did James Comey authorize this leak?

The New York Times attributes the leaks about the FBI’s thinking to “[l]aw enforcement officials,” which suggests — but does not definitively establish — that the leaks came from the FBI. Martin says this raises the question as to whether Comey himself authorized the leak. If he did, it could be evidence that he is seeking to influence the election through selective leaks favorable to Trump.

If Comey did not authorize the leak, is he investigating who leaked the information?

Leaking conclusion about a preliminary investigation, Martin says, violates the protocols of the FBI. If Comey is not investigating the source of the leak — and seeking to discipline those responsible — it suggests he tacitly approved of the leak, even if he did not directly authorize it.

The New York Times reported that ‘investigators’ have concluded the motive of the Russian government was just to create chaos, not to help Trump. Which agencies have reached that conclusion?

The story is vague about who concluded the Russians were not trying to help Trump and how people came to such a conclusion. Martin notes the report attributes that view to “investigators,” but does not say what agency made this conclusion. So it’s not entirely clear even the FBI, institutionally, believes it to be true.

An actual conclusion would involve, according to Martin, the participation of a variety of intelligence agencies under the supervision of the Director of National Intelligence. In particular, the investigators would need to look at the NSA intercepts of Russian communications and have those intercepts analyzed by a specialist in Russian intelligence. Have the “investigators” speaking to the New York Times reviewed that crucial intelligence? We don’t know.

Ultimately, the story does not reveal if even one agency has come to this conclusion, much less a consensus of the full constellation of relevant agencies. The FBI’s expertise, if this leak is coming from the agency, lies in establishing whether the law has been violated — not in establishing motivations of foreign governments.

The New York Times, meanwhile, quietly altered their story on Monday night adding the caveat “conclusive or direct” to a sentence that previously read “law enforcement officials say that none of the investigations so far have found any link between Mr. Trump and the Russian government.”

Later, the headline was changed from “After Lengthy Inquiries, Officials Doubt Trump Has Direct Link to Russia” to something far less definitive “Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia.”

*ThinkProgress is an editorially independent news site affiliated with the Center For American Progress Action Fund, the sister organization of the Center for American Progress.