NYT: FBI probing Russian intel contacts with several Trump campaign officials

Win by the leak … live with the leak? Democrats still blame the FBI for its very public investigation of Hillary Clinton’s e-mail system for her loss to Donald Trump in the presidential campaign, claiming that the constant leaks damaged her standing while leading to no prosecutable charges. The shoe may well and truly be on the other foot now, according to the New York Times report from last night about an FBI investigation into alleged contacts between Russian intelligence and Trump’s campaign:

Phone records and intercepted calls show that members of Donald J. Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign and other Trump associates had repeated contacts with senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election, according to four current and former American officials.

That sounds pretty bad — but so far, at least, the investigation hasn’t found much other than the contacts:

The intelligence agencies then sought to learn whether the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russians on the hacking or other efforts to influence the election.

The officials interviewed in recent weeks said that, so far, they had seen no evidence of such cooperation.

The probe started with the FBI concern over Russian hacking of the DNC and John Podesta as an attempt to sway the election. So far, though, the investigation can’t even determine if the contacts were about the election at all:

The officials would not disclose many details, including what was discussed on the calls, the identity of the Russian intelligence officials who participated, and how many of Mr. Trump’s advisers were talking to the Russians. It is also unclear whether the conversations had anything to do with Mr. Trump himself.

The problem for the FBI in this case is that at least one of their investigative targets, Paul Manafort, has done business in Russia and Ukraine for some time — a point that did arise during the campaign, too. That undoubtedly put Manafort in contact with Russian intelligence operatives, and even Manafort concedes that probability, because Russian intelligence embeds itself much more broadly in private-sector commerce. That’s why Manafort quipped to the NYT that “It’s not like these people wear badges that say, ‘I’m a Russian intelligence officer,’” likely out of frustration over the continuing questions.

If Trump campaign officials cooperated with Russian intelligence contacts, that’s obviously a very big deal. However, as the Times points out fairly close to the top of the story, the FBI hasn’t found any evidence to suggest it, or that the contacts related to the election at all as opposed to other intelligence gathering or potential grooming. If these officials simply had unknowing contact with Russian intelligence agents, that’s amateurish and careless, but not actionable. Having this probe’s details leak out like this looks at least as careless, and potentially the start of a whispering campaign against the Trump administration from the FBI. Given the leaks that went in the other direction in 2015-16, though, it’s going to be difficult for the Trump White House and Republicans to gripe about it.

That won’t stop them from trying, though:


Trump’s not entirely wrong to complain about this (although it’s not “just like Russia”), but neither were Clinton or her supporters when leaks were spilling out of the FBI during the active phase of its probe into her e-mail system and handling of classified materials. Consider it political karma, but at some point, the FBI needs to get a leash on its agents and restore the confidential nature of its investigations.

Update: As Zaggs reminds us on Twitter, we’ve seen this story before. The New York Times reported on it just before the election in late October:

For much of the summer, the F.B.I. pursued a widening investigation into a Russian role in the American presidential campaign. Agents scrutinized advisers close to Donald J. Trump, looked for financial connections with Russian financial figures, searched for those involved in hacking the computers of Democrats, and even chased a lead — which they ultimately came to doubt — about a possible secret channel of email communication from the Trump Organization to a Russian bank.

Law enforcement officials say that none of the investigations so far have found any conclusive or direct link between Mr. Trump and the Russian government. And even the hacking into Democratic emails, F.B.I. and intelligence officials now believe, was aimed at disrupting the presidential election rather than electing Mr. Trump. …

F.B.I. officials declined to comment on Monday. Intelligence officials have said in interviews over the last six weeks that apparent connections between some of Mr. Trump’s aides and Moscow originally compelled them to open a broad investigation into possible links between the Russian government and the Republican presidential candidate. Still, they have said that Mr. Trump himself has not become a target. And no evidence has emerged that would link him or anyone else in his business or political circle directly to Russia’s election operations.

At least one part of the investigation has involved Paul Manafort, Mr. Trump’s campaign chairman for much of the year. Mr. Manafort, a veteran Republican political strategist, has had extensive business ties in Russia and other former Soviet states, especially Ukraine, where he served as an adviser to that country’s ousted president, Viktor F. Yanukovych.

But the focus in that case was on Mr. Manafort’s ties with a kleptocratic government in Ukraine — and whether he had declared the income in the United States — and not necessarily on any Russian influence over Mr. Trump’s campaign, one official said.

Comparing the two stories, it would appear that the FBI has substantiated some of the contacts, but still has found no cooperation with Russian intelligence. Otherwise, it doesn’t look like the story has advanced much in any direction, except toward the media.