In the new abnormal that defines the Donald Trump era, FBI officials sit around debating whether they should tell the president of the United States whether he’s part of an investigation into Russian subversion.
Think about that. The story arc of the June 8 hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee may have been as simple to understand as the courtroom climax of any Law and Order episode: Who are you going to believe, the witness or the defendant? And make no mistake: Donald Trump was the off-stage defendant on Capitol Hill, while star witness James Comey all but pronounced the president a suspected accomplice of Moscow.
In the former FBI director’s telling, watched by nearly 20 million people, top bureau officials debated what to tell Trump about the progress of their multiple investigations into contacts between Russian intelligence and the president-elect’s associates. “One of the members of the [FBI] leadership team had a view that, although it was technically true [that] we did not have a counter-intelligence file case open on then-President-elect Trump...his behavior, his conduct will fall within the scope of that work.”
Translation: FBI counterintelligence agents sniffed a Russian mole heading into the Oval Office.
Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, a lawyer and one of the president’s most ardent apologists, asked Comey, “Do you think Donald Trump colluded with Russia?”
Cotton surely hoped to get a narrow legal response that would generate a headline exonerating the president. Comey, coldly seething over the “lies ” Trump had told about an FBI supposedly in disarray under his stewardship, refused the bait. Instead, he responded with a bazooka shot into the Oval Office. “That's a question I don't think I should answer in an open setting,” he told Cotton, intimating he would have plenty more to say behind closed doors, armed with classified information gathered via U.S. spies and electronic intercepts of Russian communications. “As I said, when I left [the FBI], we did not have an investigation focused on President Trump. But that's a question that will be answered by the investigation, I think. “
Translation: The investigations may not be “focused on” Trump, but the FBI’s bloodhounds are plenty focused on his close associates who had an odd affinity for Kremlin-backed hackers and Russian diplomats, spies and oligarchs close to Vladimir Putin.
Comey responded even more sharply to the same “collusion” question from SenatorJoe Mancin, the conservative Democrat from West Virginia. “I don't know,” he told Mancin. “That's Bob Mueller's job to sort that out,” referring to the special counsel that Attorney General Jeff Sessions was forced to appoint because of his messy entanglements with Moscow.
Translation: Trump and his circle may well be the subject of a foreign counterintelligence investigation—which could end up far more damaging to the president and his men than a criminal probe. A counterintelligence report from Mueller, who oversaw spy probes for 12 years as FBI director, implicating any of them in Russian intrigues to disrupt the 2016 presidential election could lead to charges of treason.
The attorney general could also be a target of Mueller, Comey suggested, when he told Democratic Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon that FBI officials anticipated months ago that Sessions was “inevitably going to recuse himself for a variety of reasons.” And what would those be? That involved “facts that I can't discuss in an opening setting that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic,” Comey said.
Again and again, Comey planted improvised explosive devices under the president’s path to a second term. “What do you know about the Russian bank VEB?” Maine’s independent Senator Angus King asked Comey, referring to the financial firm backed by the Kremlin and headed by a Putin crony and former intelligence officer named Sergey Gorkov.
“Nothing that I can talk about in an open setting,” Comey responded, which could mean bad news for Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner. The president’s top aide and confidante, the feds discovered, privately met with Gorkov after Trump’s election and failed to disclose it in his application for a top-secret security clearance.
Likewise, when Republican Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina, chairman of the intelligence committee, asked Comey about the infamous “golden shower” memo, written by a seasoned former British intelligence agent implicating Trump in unsavory sex and business relationships with the Russians, Comey again hinted at evidence the FBI had dug up. “If the FBI receives a credible allegation that there is some effort to co-opt, coerce, direct, employ covertly an American on behalf of the foreign power,” he responded, “that's the basis on which a counterintelligence investigation is opened.”
Burr, who had been slow to staff up the committee’s investigation, pressed Comey to declare that much of that report was a dog’s retch of unconfirmed allegations manufactured to derail the Trump candidacy. “And when you read the dossier,” he asked, “what was your reaction, given that it was 100 percent directed at the president-elect?”
Once again, Comey was sphinxlike. “Not a question I can answer in open setting, Mr. Chairman,” he said.
Apparently hoping to weave these threads in a coherent narrative, the FBI man, however, added: “It’s obvious, but if any Americans were part of helping the Russians do that”—tip the election—”to us, that is a very big deal.”
Trump, no doubt buoyed by his constituency’s steadfast support through the mounting attacks on his integrity, blithely dismissed Comey’s insinuations during a June 9 Rose Garden news conference with Romanian President Klaus Iohannis at his side
“No collusion, no obstruction.” the president responded, preferring to jab Comey for indirectly sharing his notes about his troubled meetings with Trump with a reporter. “Yesterday showed no collusion, no obstruction,” he repeated with a smile.
It’s unclear if the president and his men understand the mole-hunting culture of FBI and CIA operatives. These are not gumshoes who reluctantly close criminal probes because they haven’t got a case that will stand up in court, no matter the weight of accumulated evidence. They will tear down the White House in the search for “any little shred, any little clue” leading to the rat who is selling out their country, as Sandra Grimes, a legendary CIA mole hunter, once put it.
"The big story is Russian interference in our process," James Clapper, the recently retired director of national intelligence, told CNN's Anderson Cooper after Comey’s testimony. And he virtually named the president as a Russian accomplice.. "I think the president himself has undertaken—whether intentionally or not—assaults on our institutions," he added. Cooper, clearly taken aback, asked Clapper whether he was saying the president is a "threat to democracy."
Clapper paused, clearly weighing the implication of his remark. Trump, he said, is a threat to "our system."
Surely Comey and his top aides had that in mind last December, when they debated what to tell president-elect Trump about the progress of their Russia probes. In the end, Comey decided to tell him he was not a target of a counterintelligence investigation. That was literally true, but in the world of the mole-hunters, it means little. They will not stop turning over “any little shred, any little clue,” to out a traitor.
As for the FBI, there’s at least one senior official who believes that Trump should have been told last year that the counterintelligence probe could lead to “the campaign and the person at the head of the campaign...,” as Comey put it.
Trump should have little doubt about that now.