In late October 2016, about a week before Election Day, Kellyanne Conway thought she’d come up with a line that would help Donald Trump’s candidacy. Targeting Hillary Clinton, Conway told Fox News, “If you’re under your second FBI investigation in the same year, then you do have a … corruption and an ethics problem.”
In hindsight, that might not have been the ideal standard for Conway to have set.
Throughout much of his presidency, Trump has repeatedly responded to the Russia scandal with the same four-word phrase: “I’m not under investigation.” We’ve known for quite a while that the assertion was wrong: Trump is the subject of an ongoing counter-espionage probe, which has explored, among other things, whether the president obstructed justice.What we didn’t know until Friday night, however, was that the FBI had another line of inquiry that pre-dated Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s efforts.
In the days after President Trump fired James B. Comey as F.B.I. 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 Mr. Trump was knowingly working for Russia or had unwittingly fallen under Moscow’s influence.
According to the Times’ reporting, which hasn’t been independently confirmed by MSNBC or NBC News, officials at the bureau had long been concerned about Trump’s Russian ties, but it was the circumstances surrounding Comey’s ouster – which the president admitted to NBC News’ Lester Holt was related to Trump’s concerns about the Russia investigation – that “helped prompt the counterintelligence aspect of the inquiry.”
The historic nature of this is quite breathtaking. Throughout much of the Cold War, the FBI launched plenty of investigations into Americans thought to be possibly working on behalf of a foreign adversary.
None of them was a sitting president of the United States.
For those inclined to support Trump and give him the benefit of the doubt, I suppose the obvious response to revelations like these is to argue that the president only appeared to be a Russian asset when the FBI opened its inquiry. That’s not, however, the White House’s argument.
“This is absurd,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said in a written statement in response to the article. “James Comey was fired because he’s a disgraced partisan hack, and his Deputy Andrew McCabe, who was in charge at the time, is a known liar fired by the FBI. Unlike President Obama, who let Russia and other foreign adversaries push America around, President Trump has actually been tough on Russia.”
Of course, this statement didn’t include any kind of denial about the existence of the apparent FBI investigation or the question the probe sought to answer.
On Saturday morning, the president published a series of borderline-hysterical tweets on the subject, in which Trump lashed out wildly at the Times, Comey, Clinton, the FBI, the Mueller investigation, his other perceived enemies at the FBI, and three presidential administrations that preceded his.
It was all a bit tiresome and stale, but just as importantly, the series of tweets didn’t include a denial, either.
Finally, on Saturday night, Trump did another interview with Fox News’ Jeanine Pirro, who asked a specific question that would’ve been unthinkable up until two years ago: “Are you now or have you ever worked for Russia, Mr. President?”
Trump replied, “I think it’s the most insulting thing I’ve ever been asked. I think it’s the most insulting article I’ve ever had written.”
He didn’t directly answer the question. The Associated Press reported that White House aides “expressed regret that the president did not more clearly and forcefully deny being a Russian agent.” I’m sure they did.
Meanwhile, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the new chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, told Fox News’ Chris Wallace yesterday that he saw the reporting and he’s going to demand answers – from the FBI.
“I’m going to ask the FBI director, was there a counterintelligence investigation opened up regarding the president as being a potential agent of the Russians?” Graham said. “I find it astonishing and to me, it tells me a lot about the people running the FBI, McCabe and that crowd. I don’t trust them as far as I can throw them. So, if this really did happen, Congress needs to know about it and what I want to do is make sure, how could the FBI do that? What kind of checks and balances are there?”
In other words, federal law enforcement feared the president had become a threat to American national security, and the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee is principally concerned with those who asked the questions, not the president about whom the questions were asked.
Update: In a brief Q&A with reporters this morning, Trump claimed, “I never worked for Russia.” He added that he considers the question itself “a disgrace.”