Can a news story be shocking and uneventful all at once? This one from last night is shocking…
Stepping back for a minute: If no other reporting existed on Trump/Russia, the fact that the FBI started a CI investigation to determine whether or not the sitting president of the US was either comprised by or an agent of Russia, it would be the biggest political story…ever. https://t.co/RRenfxbgmH
— Natasha Bertrand (@NatashaBertrand) January 12, 2019
…but uneventful inasmuch as everyone already assumes that Trump’s relationship with Russia is what Bob Mueller’s spent the past 20 months investigating. Technically he’s investigating whether there was collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign but of course the head of the campaign was Trump himself. The electric suspense surrounding the probe springs from the president’s own possible complicity. It’s a major scandal if Paul Manafort was sharing campaign information with the Russians. It’s an historic crisis if he was doing so at Trump’s behest.
The Times piece claims that Comey’s dismissal was the match that set fire to a pile of suspicion that had developed within the FBI over many months. That suspicion wasn’t based on secret evidence of a conspiracy they’d compiled — or at least there’s nothing in the Times story to suggest that it was, apart from one cryptic line citing former officials who defended the FBI’s decision to investigate Trump on grounds that “critics were not privy to all of the evidence and argued that sitting on it would have been an abdication of duty.” Hmmmm. Mainly, says the NYT, the FBI grew suspicious because of Trump’s relentlessly positive public statements about Russia, up to and including him half-jokingly inviting Moscow to “find” Hillary’s missing emails while on the trail in 2016. When he dropped the axe on their boss, James Comey, that’s when they allegedly begin to fear that Trump’s support for Russia was more than just rhetorical.
It’s counterintuitive but to me his public slobbering over Putin has always been a point in the “no collusion” column. An official who’s secretly working with Russia should be reluctant to make his Russian sympathies public. To believe that Trump’s pro-Russia blather is evidence of collusion you need to believe that he’s a clever tactical thinker who essentially hid in plain sight, expecting that people would be skeptical of collusion for exactly the reason I’m giving here. That would be the same brilliant tactical thinker who ignored funding for the wall for two years while Republicans controlled Congress only to decide that it was life-and-death the moment Democrats took over and the money became unavailable. Not likely. Anyway:
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, according to former law enforcement officials and others familiar with the investigation…
[L]aw enforcement officials [initially] put off the decision to open the investigation until they had learned more, according to people familiar with their thinking. As for a counterintelligence inquiry, they concluded that they would need strong evidence to take the sensitive step of investigating the president, and they were also concerned that the existence of such an inquiry could be leaked to the news media, undermining the entire investigation into Russia’s meddling in the election.
After Mr. Comey was fired on May 9, 2017, two more of Mr. Trump’s actions prompted them to quickly abandon those reservations.
The two actions to which the last line refers were Trump insisting on mentioning Comey’s Russia work in the letter he sent to him notifying him of his dismissal and the interview he gave to NBC a few days later in which he flagged the Russia probe as part of his thinking in deciding to fire him. Read the NYT piece for other examples of Trump verbiage about Russia that caught the feds’ attention, culminating in him telling Russia’s foreign minister in the Oval Office after Comey was fired that he was glad to be rid of that “nut job.” Was all of that evidence that Trump is a Russian agent? Or was it evidence that Trump is a autocrat-admiring blowhard who either doesn’t care or doesn’t grasp that his friendliness towards Russia before and after a Russian effort to influence an election that made him president looks hyper-suspicious to millions of Americans, including some at the FBI?
Interestingly, two key questions go not just unanswered in the Times piece but unaddressed. One: Who authorized the FBI to launch a counterintelligence investigation of the president of the United States? It wasn’t Comey, obviously. That probe didn’t begin until after he was fired. Was it his deputy, Andrew McCabe? Sean Davis has some dark suspicions about that:
Didn’t work out for McCabe in the end, if so. Also, an investigation of the president surely would have required approval from the top of the DOJ — presumably Rod Rosenstein in this case, after Jeff Sessions had recused himself from all things related to Russiagate. Did someone at the FBI, be it McCabe or someone else, go rogue in opening the probe into Trump without clearing it with their superiors first? Or did Rosenstein play a role here and that’s being kept quiet right now while he tries to hang on at the DOJ until Mueller wraps up his investigation? To put it very mildly, the thought of the Justice Department’s investigative arm opening a file on the president on their own initiative because they found his charm offensive towards Russia too insistent for their tastes is alarming in the extreme. It’s the “deep state” conspiracy come to life, unless there is in fact hard incriminating evidence against Trump that they’re privy to and we’re not.
Two, relatedly: Did the FBI’s suspicions about Trump play a role in Rosenstein’s decision to appoint Mueller? Comey was fired on May 9, 2017; Mueller was appointed just eight days later. The FBI counterintelligence probe of POTUS began and ended within those eight days, with Mueller then taking the baton. I’ve assumed all along that Rosenstein moved quickly to name a special counsel because (a) he was annoyed that Trump had used his own memo on firing Comey, which only made the case vis-a-vis Emailgate, in connection with firing him over Russiagate, and (b) he knew that public trust in the DOJ would crater if Trump tried to derail the Russiagate probe by firing Comey and the probe wasn’t immediately handed off to another respected investigator to continue it. But maybe, per the NYT piece, there’s another reason — (c) Rosenstein found out that the FBI was investigating the president, freaked out at the prospect of that fact leaking to the press and how the White House and the public might react, and moved quickly to yank the investigation out of the FBI’s hands before it did. Solution: Appoint a special counsel, hand the Trump/Russia matter off to him, and let his “independence” shield the Department from some (but not all) of the inevitable accusations that they were staging a slow-motion coup of the president.
POTUS is reacting to all of this as you’d expect:
Actually, via John Ziegler, one more question from the Times story which the paper (understandably) didn’t answer: Who leaked it now and why? Is there any reason why someone who’s anti-Trump would have shared this? After all, there’s no evidence in the Times piece that Trump is guilty of anything. The takeaway is that the FBI took a highly dubious step, possibly without proper authorization, to investigate a sitting president who’d just pissed them off by firing their boss. It reeks of retaliation and “deep state” chicanery. As Ziegler notes, it also sets Mueller fans up for major disappointment when he issues his final report by teasing them with the fact that Mueller is looking into whether Trump is some sort of Russian agent. Imagine the letdown if he comes up with nothing.
“I ask you to judge me by the enemies I have made.” — FDR
— James Comey (@Comey) January 12, 2019