Days after Donald Trump fired FBI director James Comey, the bureau began to ask the question that had consumed much of the American public since it first learned of Trump’s Russian connections: could the president be working on behalf of Vladimir Putin, undermining American interests? According to a report from the New York Times, in May 2017, the FBI began to investigate if Trump was working – actively, or unknowingly – on behalf of the Kremlin while in office.
The inquiry took two modes: agents weighed if the president’s decision to fire Comey could be considered a threat to national security, and if the firing had a criminal aspect, constituting obstruction of justice. “Not only would it be an issue of obstructing an investigation, but the obstruction itself would hurt our ability to figure out what the Russians had done, and that is what would be the threat to national security,” said former FBI general counsel James A. Baker, who testified before the House in October 2018. While a potential obstruction of justice charge has already been reported, the detail of Trump as a target of a counterintelligence investigation is being made public for the first time.
During the campaign, FBI officials were troubled by Trump’s ties to Russia, and opened an investigation into the campaign in August 2016, two months after the Trump Tower meeting between campaign senior officials and Russian surrogates. But, according to the Times, the bureau decided not to open a file on Trump himself, because it was unsure of how to investigate a major party candidate for the president of the United States. It appears that the bureau’s knowledge of the Trump Tower meeting, and Trump’s July 2016 press conference request – “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing – wasn’t enough to pull the trigger on an inquiry.
When the special counsel was announced on May 17, 2017, Robert Mueller took over the FBI’s investigation, wrapping it into his larger pursuit of Trump-Russia collusion in the 2016 election. The Times reports that it’s unclear if the Mueller team is still on the counterintelligence angle, and that former law enforcement officials believe that the agents who opened it may have overstepped their bounds.
“The fact that it goes back a year and a half and nothing came of it that showed a breach of national security means they found nothing,” Rudy Giuliani told the Times, while also acknowledging that he didn’t have insight into the investigation. Earlier on Friday, Giuliani sounded a little less confident, requesting that the Trump administration get the opportunity to “correct” the final Mueller report: “As a matter of fairness, they should show it to you — so we can correct it if they’re wrong. They’re not God, after all. They could be wrong.”
As of Friday night, the president has yet to respond to the report, one of the most damning yet in the Russia-Trump saga. The smart bet would be that the phrase “witch hunt” and the caps-lock button would be involved.