On Friday afternoon, I wrote a column in which I argued that Donald Trump wouldn’t be able to sustain for much longer his great diversion—the political fight over his demand for $5.7 billion in funding for a southern-border wall, or, in its latest incarnation, a slatted steel barrier. With hundreds of thousands of workers about to miss a paycheck, the blowback from the partial government shutdown was becoming too intense for Republicans to remain united behind the President, I suggested, and almost certainly he would soon be forced to re-open the government, either by caving on his funding demand or by declaring a state of emergency at the border. But I also pointed out that, from Trump’s narrow perspective, the shutdown had been successful. For three whole weeks, it had dominated the news, pushing aside stories about the President’s other troubles, such as the Robert Mueller investigation, the testimony of Michael Cohen, and the difficulty he was having finding people to accept senior jobs in his Administration.
A bit later on Friday, those other troubles returned to the top of the news agenda. The Times published a lengthy story that ran under the headline “F.B.I. Opened Inquiry Into Whether Trump Was Secretly Working on Behalf of Russia.” In May, 2017, shortly after Trump fired the F.B.I. director James Comey, the story said, F.B.I. counterintelligence agents quietly opened an investigation “to determine whether Mr. Trump was knowingly working for Russia or had unwittingly fallen under Moscow’s influence.” This counterintelligence probe, which hadn’t previously been revealed, was carried out alongside a separate F.B.I. investigation into whether Trump had obstructed justice by firing Comey. Eventually, both lines of inquiry were folded into the special counsel’s investigation.
The Times story didn’t say if the F.B.I. counterintelligence probe found any evidence, other than the firing of Comey and Trump’s subsequent statements tying it to the agency’s Russia probe, to support the hypothesis that the President was working on Moscow’s behalf. But the revelation that the F.B.I. took this possibility seriously enough to open a formal investigation generated an immediate reaction. “This is unprecedented,” Frank Figliuzzi, a former assistant director of counterintelligence at the F.B.I., told MSNBC’s Brian Williams. “This is not something done in a vacuum. If you’re going to look into the President of the United States, you’re going to the Department of Justice, you’re showing them your evidence, they are concurring with your concerns, and they’re allowing you to pursue this line of inquiry. To open even a preliminary inquiry in counterintelligence, you need to have a reasonable suspicion that someone is or may be an agent of a foreign power, or is being targeted by that foreign power.”
The political response to the Times report was predictable. Democrats seized upon it, and the White House dismissed it. “That’s the real national emergency, not the fake crisis Trump wants to distract us with at the border,” Robert Reich, a former Labor Secretary in the Clinton Administration, tweeted. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, issued a statement criticizing James Comey and his deputy, Andrew McCabe, who presumably authorized the counterintelligence investigation, and who was also eventually fired. “Unlike President Obama,” Sanders said, “who let Russia and other foreign adversaries push America around, President Trump has actually been tough on Russia.”
On Saturday morning, Trump himself sounded off on Twitter: “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!” Two hours later, he added, “Lyin’ James Comey, Andrew McCabe, Peter S and his lover, agent Lisa Page, & more, all disgraced and/or fired and caught in the act. These are just some of the losers that tried to do a number on your President. Part of the Witch Hunt. Remember the ‘insurance policy?’ This is it!”
The Times story seemed to anticipate the President’s reaction. “The decision to investigate Mr. Trump himself was an aggressive move by F.B.I. officials who were confronting the chaotic aftermath of the firing of Mr. Comey and enduring the president’s verbal assaults on the Russia investigation as a ‘witch hunt,’ ” the Times story noted. “A vigorous debate has taken shape among some former law enforcement officials outside the case over whether F.B.I. investigators overreacted in opening the counterintelligence inquiry during a tumultuous period at the Justice Department. Other former officials noted that those critics were not privy to all of the evidence and argued that sitting on it would have been an abdication of duty.”
Close followers of the Trump-Russia story are already all over the Times report. In an essay at the Lawfare blog, Benjamin Wittes, the site’s editor-in-chief, wrote that one of the Times reporters who broke the story, Michael Schmidt, consulted with him late last year about some of the documents that formed part of the basis for the reporting, including the transcript of an interview that congressional investigators carried out with James Baker, the former general counsel of the F.B.I., who worked alongside Comey and McCabe. Citing some of the statements that Baker made in this interview, Wittes argued that it was a mistake to separate the F.B.I.’s investigations into possible collusion and possible obstruction of justice, because they were both part of a single examination of Russian interference in the 2016 election and its aftermath. “In this construction, obstruction was not a problem distinct from collusion, as has been generally imagined,” Wittes wrote. “Obstruction was the collusion, or at least part of it.”
The reaction to the Times report won’t end here. House Democrats are likely to add it to the list of subjects they want to look into now that they have subpoena power. Meanwhile, the White House is busy preparing for Mueller to deliver a report to the Justice Department. (According to some accounts, this could happen as early as next month.) The legal regulations that Mueller is operating under say that, at the completion of his investigation, his office must provide the Attorney General with ”a confidential report explaining the prosecution or declination decisions reached by the Special Counsel.” Despite the term ”confidential report,” most people on both sides of the political divide are assuming it will eventually be made public in some form.
On Thursday, CNN reported that Mueller’s team may use some of Trump’s public remarks to make the argument that he sought to impede the Russia investigation and obstruct justice. “Prosecutors appear to be examining the President’s public statements,” the story said. “to determine whether there’s an effort to try to influence other witnesses and cause other administration and former campaign officials to make false public statements. That includes the President’s role in crafting the misleading Air Force One statement in the summer of 2017 on the now infamous June 2016 Trump Tower meeting with Russians attended by Donald Trump Jr., the President’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort.”
Rudy Giuliani, who is a member of Trump’s legal team, reacted to the CNN story by slamming the special counsel’s office and insisting that there was nothing wrong with Trump’s public statements. “According to this latest oppressive legal theory you can’t even defend yourself. But who says Mueller’s team doesn’t leak. Extremely unethical,” Giuliani said in a tweet. In an interview with The Hill on Thursday, he said that he and other lawyers working for Trump should be be allowed to examine, and possibly amend, Mueller’s report before it is released to Congress or the public. “As a matter of fairness, they should show it to you—so we can correct it if they’re wrong. “They’re not God, after all. They could be wrong.”
Good luck with pushing that argument, Rudy. In any case, the past forty-eight hours have demonstrated that, whatever happens in the next week or two regarding the government shutdown and the fight over the border wall, the White House cannot escape the Trump-Russia investigation. Until it is finally resolved one way or another, everything else is a sideshow.