The theory that President Trump is or has been a Russian asset is a popular among his opponents. But for the first time we are learning that it is something that the FBI suspected of digging up enough.
The Washington Post confirmed that the FBI started a counter-espionage investigation into whether Trump worked for Russia shortly after Trump fired FBI director James B. Comey in February 2017. The news was first reported by the New York Times.
In practical terms, this may not mean very much. special board Robert S. Mueller III III was appointed only a few days later, which means that the evidence that the FBI collected was probably limited. It was Mueller's decision to continue the line of research and we do not know if he did it. But practical concerns aside, it is a shocking story: the idea that the leading law enforcement agency of the country investigated whether a seated US president was working for a hostile foreign nation. The decision itself was something that the FBI reportedly struggled with for months and still has its opponents.
But what has led to such an extraordinary step by the FBI – and what about the evidence?
Comey's firing was clearly the turning point. Researchers have allegedly shed their previous concerns about the investigation after Trump's television recording by NBC News, Lester Holt, that Russia's research had left him at heart when he did it. Another red flag was Trump's attempt to include a reference to the investigation into Russia in the letter from Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein who justified the firing.
We already know that these few days were a central event in Mueller's research on whether Trump hampered justice, but the idea that it also justified a counter-espionage investigation is remarkable. It is one thing to deliberately hinder the investigation; it is another to suspect that Trump may have done that on behalf of Russia. And should this ever lead to concrete conclusions, the interview with Holt would apparently have been an extraordinary misstep by Trump, who often seemed to fumigate useless statements about his true motives.
The other obvious thing here is the Steele file. The file contained an illuminating allegation that Russia had kompromat – or compromising material – on Trump thanks to supposedly reputable evidence that it was about the chase of Trump in a hotel room in Moscow. This claim has never been proven and Putin has denied it (as if he would confirm it), but Comey has suggested that it is not out of the question, and some lawmakers have gone so far as to have given the idea that Trump has been compromised.
"Millions of Americans will continue to wonder if the only possible explanation for this dangerous and unexplained behavior is the possibility – the very real possibility – that President Putin has malicious information about President Trump," Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (DN.Y. ) said last year on the Senate floor.
Added Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.): "I think it's likely." A then-retirement GOP congressman, Charlie Dent (Pa.), agreement.
The Times outlined a number of other events that played a role in the stumbling case and could have raised further suspicions about Trump's motivations, including his pro-Russia and pro-Putin campaign trail rhetoric and his public request that Russia Hillary Clinton & # 39 ; s trying to get emails. The GOP also changed its platform on Ukraine in a more pro-Russian direction.
What is not outlined here, however, are the proposed back channels between the Trump team and Russia.
A month before Comey was fired, The Washington Post reported that Trump ally and Blackwater founder Erik Prince had proposed such a secret communication channel between Trump and Moscow at a meeting in January in the Seychelles with a representative of Putin. The FBI was probably also aware (because it controls the calls of Russian officials on US soil) that the then Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak had told his superiors in Moscow that the son-in-law of Trump, Jared Kushner, had proposed a return channel during the transitional period. . (The Post reported this shortly after Comey's firing.)
Like Trump used to be If you work for Russia, it is logical to assume that he needs a way to actually learn what Russia wanted – which would be difficult through regular channels because they would be followed. We do not know where these back channels are in the Russia investigation, but if Mueller tried a potentially secret Trump-Russia alliance, you would think they would be of interest.
For similar reasons, Trump's meeting with Putin in Helsinki last year also raised his eyebrows. He met Putin for two hours, with no one other than interpreters, and apparently nobody in the US government really knows what they were talking about. Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats even seemed to express his concern about the lack of information. "I am not in a position to fully understand or talk about what happened in Helsinki," Coats said afterwards. Why Trump had to keep things that way has always been curious.
There are of course simpler explanations for all of this than the idea that Trump worked for Russia. Maybe he really admires Putin's leadership style – which fits very well with his outspoken admiration and cooperation with other authoritarian leaders. It was clear that Trump wanted to do business in Russia, so he seemed to have a positive talent for the country. And his efforts to obstruct the Russia investigation do not have to be about a secret pro-Russian agenda; it is also very logical to think that Trump simply regards the whole thing as a glare about his election and expresses his concern about the legitimacy of his presidency. Even if Trump wrongly tried to obstruct the investigation, it does not mean that he necessarily did it for Russia. In fact, Russia seems to be taking less advantage of such an obstruction than Trump himself would.
But there was apparently enough excuses and concern to have the FBI take an extraordinary step – even if it could be a short step. The idea that Trump's interests may not be "America First & # 39; in the last two years has largely flourished under the surface of American politics. It is still very speculative, based on public evidence, but as always the question is what Mueller knows we do not.