In the days following President Donald Trump’s decision to fire FBI Director James Comey, the FBI opened a counterintelligence probe to investigate whether the President was working for Russian interests, the New York Times reports.
The public has already been aware that special counsel Robert Mueller was looking at a possible criminal case against Trump over whether he obstructed justice when he fired Comey. But the new revelation that there also may be a national security component to the investigation brings the country into shocking new territory as it grapples with Trump’s relationship with a hostile foreign power.
The newly reported interest by federal counterintelligence officials into Trump’s relationship with Russia is the capstone to the concerns that have underlaid the Russia investigation from the start. Trump has long held views that are in alignment with Russia’s, from his anti-trade position, isolationist stance and skepticism of traditional Western allies.
But the association of some of his aides with Russian interests and his own surprisingly-friendly behavior towards Russian President Vladimir Putin during the 2016 campaign, even as it became clear that Russia was launching an attack on the core exercise of American democracy, raised alarms in the U.S. intelligence community. According to the New York Times, top FBI officials had already grown suspicious of Trump during the campaign but at first balked at starting a counterintelligence investigation, in part because they were “uncertain how to proceed with an inquiry of such sensitivity and magnitude.”
“We’ve really never had… a President of the United States who was considered to be possibly an asset of a foreign government,” presidential historian Jon Meacham told MSNBC of the report.
“This,” said Meacham, “is what the Founders were worried about.”
Trump and his allies reacted furiously to the bombshell report Saturday morning, with White House press secretary Sarah Sanders calling the story “absurd,” and Trump tweeting that the investigation was opened “for no reason and with no proof, after I fired Lyin’ James Comey, a total sleaze!”
According to the New York Times, Mueller took over the counterintelligence probe when he was appointed days after it was opened as part of his broader mandate to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether Trump or any of his associates colluded with Russia. It is not clear whether Mueller pursued the matter.
Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani told the Times, “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.” But Mueller has yet to finish his investigation or issue his final report, so it isn’t clear whether anything came of the counterintelligence inquiry. Counterintelligence investigations are typically carried out quietly over a long period of time, unlike criminal investigations.
During the campaign, Trump repeatedly refused to criticize Putin, and in a July 2016 news conference he called on Russia to hack his opponent Hillary Clinton’s emails. Once Trump became President, his firing of Comey added to the puzzling circumstances of his ties to Russia. Trump’s official reason for firing Comey had to do with his handling of the FBI’s investigation into Clinton’s emails, but the President has made multiple references to the bureau’s Russia investigation surrounding his decision.
“I was going to fire Comey knowing there was no good time to do it,” Trump said in an NBC interview two days after he fired Comey. “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.”
On Saturday morning, Trump responded to the Times report with several hours worth of tweets which rehashed familiar arguments that the FBI investigation was biased and unfair as he proclaimed his loyalty to America over Russia.
“I have been FAR tougher on Russia than Obama, Bush or Clinton,” Trump tweeted. “Maybe tougher than any other President.”