’17 investigation of Trump told

Sources: FBI opened in­quiry into na­tional se­cu­rity threat


WASH­ING­TON — In the days af­ter Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump fired James Comey as FBI 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.

The in­quiry car­ried sig­nif­i­cant im­pli­ca­tions. Coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence in­ves­ti­ga­tors had to con­sider whether the pres­i­dent’s own ac­tions con­sti­tuted a pos­si­ble threat to na­tional se­cu­rity. Agents also sought to de­ter­mine whether Trump was know­ingly work­ing for Rus­sia or had un­wit­tingly fallen un­der Moscow’s in­flu­ence.

The investigation the FBI opened into Trump also had a crim­i­nal as­pect, which has long been pub­licly known: whether his fir­ing of Comey con­sti­tuted ob­struc­tion of jus­tice.

Agents and se­nior FBI of­fi­cials had grown sus­pi­cious of Trump’s ties to Rus­sia dur­ing the 2016 cam­paign but held off on open­ing an investigation into him, the peo­ple said, in part be­cause they were un­cer­tain how to pro­ceed with an in­quiry of such sen­si­tiv­ity and mag­ni­tude. But the pres­i­dent’s ac­tiv­i­ties be­fore and af­ter Comey’s fir­ing in May 2017, par­tic­u­larly two in­stances in which Trump tied the Comey dis­missal to the Rus­sia investigation, helped prompt the coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence as­pect of the in­quiry, the peo­ple said.

Special coun­sel Robert Mueller took over the in­quiry into Trump when he was ap­pointed, days af­ter FBI of­fi­cials opened it. That in­quiry is part of Mueller’s broader ex­am­i­na­tion of how Rus­sian op­er­a­tives in­ter­fered in the 2016 elec­tion and whether any Trump as­so­ci­ates con­spired with them. It is un­clear whether Mueller is still pur­su­ing the coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence mat­ter, and some for­mer law en­force­ment of­fi­cials out­side the investigation have ques­tioned whether agents over­stepped in open­ing it.

The crim­i­nal and coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence el­e­ments were cou­pled together into one investigation, for­mer law en­force­ment of­fi­cials said in in­ter­views in re­cent weeks, be­cause if Trump had ousted the head of the FBI to im­pede or even end the Rus­sia investigation, that was both a pos­si­ble crime and a na­tional se­cu­rity con­cern. The FBI’s coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence di­vi­sion han­dles na­tional se­cu­rity mat­ters.

If the pres­i­dent had fired Comey to stop the Rus­sia investigation, the ac­tion would have been a na­tional se­cu­rity is­sue be­cause it nat­u­rally would have hurt the bureau’s ef­fort to learn how Moscow in­ter­fered in the 2016 elec­tion and whether any Amer­i­cans were in­volved, ac­cord­ing to James Baker, who served as FBI gen­eral coun­sel un­til late 2017. He pri­vately tes­ti­fied in Oc­to­ber be­fore House in­ves­ti­ga­tors who were ex­am­in­ing the FBI’s han­dling of the full Rus­sia in­quiry.

“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,” Baker said in his tes­ti­mony, por­tions of which were read to The New York Times. Baker did not ex­plic­itly ac­knowl­edge the ex­is­tence of the investigation of Trump to con­gres­sional in­ves­ti­ga­tors.

No ev­i­dence has emerged pub­licly that Trump was se­cretly in con­tact with or took di­rec­tion from Rus­sian gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials. An FBI spokesman and a spokesman for the special coun­sel’s of­fice both de­clined to com­ment.

Rudy Gi­u­liani, a lawyer for the pres­i­dent, sought to play down the sig­nif­i­cance of the investigation. “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,” Gi­u­liani said Fri­day, though he ac­knowl­edged that he had no in­sight into the in­quiry.

When a newly in­au­gu­rated Trump re­port­edly sought a loy­alty pledge from Comey and later asked that he end an investigation into the pres­i­dent’s na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser, the re­quests set off dis­cus­sions among FBI of­fi­cials about open­ing an in­quiry into whether Trump had tried to ob­struct that case.

But law en­force­ment of­fi­cials 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 Comey was fired on May 9, 2017, two more of Trump’s ac­tions prompted them to quickly aban­don those reser­va­tions.

The first was a let­ter Trump wanted to send to Comey about his fir­ing, but never did, in which he men­tioned the Rus­sia investigation. In the let­ter, Trump thanked Comey for pre­vi­ously telling him he was not a sub­ject of the FBI’s Rus­sia investigation.

The sec­ond event that trou­bled in­ves­ti­ga­tors was an NBC News in­ter­view two days af­ter Comey’s fir­ing in which Trump ap­peared to say he had dis­missed Comey be­cause of the Rus­sia in­quiry.

“I was go­ing to fire Comey know­ing there was no good time to do it,” he said. “And in fact, when I de­cided to just do it, I said to my­self — I said, you know, this Rus­sia thing with Trump and Rus­sia is a madeup story. It’s an ex­cuse by the Democrats for hav­ing lost an elec­tion that they should’ve won.”

Trump’s aides have said that a fuller ex­am­i­na­tion of his com­ments demon­strates that he did not fire Comey to end the Rus­sia in­quiry. “I might even lengthen out the investigation, but I have to do the right thing for the Amer­i­can peo­ple,” Trump added. “He’s the wrong man for that po­si­tion.”

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