Donald Trump unleashes Twitter torrent to deny claim he was a secret Russian spy
FBI set up probe into whether president was acting for the Kremlin, says New York Times
Donald Trump sent a wave of misleading tweets while holed up at the White House with no official engagements yesterday to deny the stunning claim that he was secretly working on behalf of Russia. He then turned to the other subject dominating US politics: a partial government shutdown which, in its 23nd day, is now the longest in American history.
In a front-page story that was extraordinary even by the tumultuous standards of the Trump era, the New York Times reported that the FBI launched an investigation into whether the US president was acting as a Russian asset against his own country’s interests.
The investigation opened after Trump fired FBI director James Comey in May 2017, the New York Times said, citing anonymous sources. It was part counterintelligence to determine whether Trump was knowingly or unknowingly working for Moscow and posed a threat to national security. The inquiry was also part criminal to ascertain whether Trump’s dismissal of Comey constituted obstruction of justice.
The FBI effort was soon absorbed into special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and alleged collusion between Trump’s campaign and Moscow, the paper reported, adding that it was unclear whether the counterintelligence aspect was still being pursued.
Jesse McKinley, a New York Times journalist, tweeted: “It sounds like spy fiction … the FBI was investigating the president of the United States to see if he was working for the Russians.”
The president tried to fight back by firing off half a dozen intemper- ate tweets. The first said: “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!”
Trump went on to make baseless claims that the FBI mishandled an investigation into his election rival, Hillary Clinton, and proclaimed: “My firing of James Comey was a great day for America.” He suggested without evidence that Comey was being protected by Mueller, who has issued dozens of indictments and secured convictions of some of the Trump’s close associates.
And he insisted: “I have been FAR tougher on Russia than Obama, Bush or Clinton. At the same time, & as I have often said, getting along with Russia is a good thing. I fully expect that someday we will have good relations with Russia again!”
Trump’s warm relationship with Russian president Vladimir Putin has long set off alarm bells. The day after firing Comey, he hosted Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, in the Oval Office, and disclosed intelligence from an Israeli counterterrorism operation. In Helsinki last summer, Trump appeared to side with Putin over his own intelligence agencies on the question of election interference.
More recently, the president startled his own national security officials by suddenly announcing the withdrawal of troops from Syria, widely seen as handing a strategic victory to Russia and prompting defence secretary Jim Mattis to quit. He also bizarrely endorsed the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
While Trump was tweeting about the New York Times story, hundreds of thousands of federal employees were wondering when they would see their next pay cheque as the partial government shutdown continued.
Trump is demanding $5.7bn (£4.4bn) towards his long-promised wall on the US-Mexico border, claiming that it will solve a humanitarian and national security crisis there. Democrats, who control the House of Representatives, have passed measures to reopen the government but without funding for the wall. The result is a political stalemate that leaves a quarter of the government unfunded.
About 800,000 workers missed pay cheques on Friday, many receiving blank pay statements instead. Some posted photos of their empty earnings statements on social media and complained that they were unable to pay bills. Members of the House and Senate voted to give federal workers back pay whenever the federal government reopens, then left Washington for the weekend.
Miami’s airport will close one of its concourses most of today and tomorrow to make sure security checkpoints are adequately staffed as the shutdown begins to strain the aviation system. Security screeners who are not being paid are staying at home and safety inspectors are off the job.
With polls showing Trump getting most of the blame for the shutdown, Trump is toying with the idea of declaring a national emergency to bypass Congress and fund the wall from existing federal revenue. Republicans are divided on the move and it would face legal challenges.
Donald Trump at a border security meeting in the White House on Friday.