FBI said to have be­gun in­quiry into whether Trump was work­ing on be­half of Russia

Star-Telegram - - Front Page - BY ADAM GOLD­MAN, MICHAEL S. SCH­MIDT AND NI­CHOLAS FAN­DOS

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 ex­plo­sive 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 spokes­woman 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.

The FBI con­ducts two types of in­quiries, crim­i­nal and coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence in­ves­ti­ga­tions. Un­like crim­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tions, which are typ­i­cally aimed at solv­ing a crime and can re­sult in ar­rests and con­vic­tions, coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence in­quiries are gen­er­ally fact-find­ing mis­sions to un­der­stand what a for­eign power is do­ing and to stop any anti-Amer­i­can ac­tiv­ity, like thefts of U.S. govern­ment se­crets or covert ef­forts to in­flu­ence pol­icy. In most cases, the in­ves­ti­ga­tions are car­ried out qui­etly, some­times for years. Of­ten, they re­sult in no ar­rests.

Trump had caught the at­ten­tion of FBI coun­ter­in­tel­li­gence agents when he called on Russia dur­ing a cam­paign news con­fer­ence in July 2016 to hack into the emails of his op­po­nent, Hil­lary Clinton. Trump had re­fused to crit­i­cize Russia on the cam­paign trail, prais­ing Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin. And in­ves­ti­ga­tors had watched with alarm as the Repub­li­can Party soft­ened its con­ven­tion plat­form on the Ukraine cri­sis in a way that seemed to ben­e­fit Russia.

Other fac­tors fu­eled the FBI’s con­cerns, ac­cord­ing to the peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the in­quiry. Christo­pher Steele, a for­mer Bri­tish spy who worked as an FBI in­for­mant, had com­piled memos in mid-2016 con­tain­ing un­sub­stan­ti­ated claims that Rus­sian of­fi­cials tried to ob­tain in­flu­ence over Trump by pre­par­ing to black­mail and bribe him.

In the months be­fore the 2016 elec­tion, the FBI was also al­ready in­ves­ti­gat­ing four of Trump’s as­so­ciates over their ties to Russia. The con­stel­la­tion of events dis­qui­eted FBI of­fi­cials who were si­mul­ta­ne­ously watch­ing as Russia’s cam­paign un­folded to un­der­mine the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion by ex­ploit­ing ex­ist­ing di­vi­sions among Amer­i­cans.

“In the Rus­sian Fed­er­a­tion and in Pres­i­dent Putin him­self, you have an in­di­vid­ual whose aim is to dis­rupt the Western al­liance and whose aim is to make Western democ­racy more frac­tious in or­der to weaken our abil­ity, Amer­ica’s abil­ity and the West’s abil­ity to spread our demo­cratic ideals,” Lisa Page, a for­mer bureau lawyer, told House in­ves­ti­ga­tors in pri­vate tes­ti­mony re­viewed by the Times.

“That’s the goal, to make us less of a moral au­thor­ity to spread demo­cratic val­ues,” she added.

And when a newly in­au­gu­rated Trump 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

‘‘

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, a lawyer for the pres­i­dent

IN THE MONTHS BE­FORE THE 2016 ELEC­TION, THE FBI WAS ALSO AL­READY IN­VES­TI­GAT­ING FOUR OF TRUMP’S AS­SO­CIATES OVER THEIR TIES TO RUSSIA.

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 made-up story. It’s an ex­cuse by the Democrats for hav­ing lost an elec­tion that they should’ve won.”

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