In a Friday night news dump, the New York Times revealed the FBI’s surprisingly flimsy justification for launching a retaliatory investigation into President Donald Trump, their chief adversary during their recent troubled era.
Admitting there is no actual evidence for their probe into whether Trump “worked for the Russians,” FBI officials instead cited their foreign policy differences with him, his lawful firing of bungling FBI Director James Comey, and alarm that he accurately revealed to the American public that he was told he wasn’t under investigation by the FBI, when they preferred to hide that fact.
The news was treated as a bombshell, and it was, but not for the reasons many thought. It wasn’t news that the FBI had launched the investigation. Just last month, CNN reported that top FBI officials opened an investigation into Trump after the lawful firing of Comey because Trump “needed to be reined in,” a shocking admission of abuse of power by our nation’s top law enforcement agency.
The Washington Post reported Mueller was looking into whether Trump obstructed the Russia investigation by insisting he was innocent of the outlandish charges selectively leaked by government officials to compliant media. Perhaps because such an obstruction investigation was immediately condemned as scandalous political overreach, that aspect was downplayed while Mueller engaged in a limitless “Russia” probe that has rung up countless Trump affiliates for process crimes unrelated to treasonous collusion with Russia to steal the 2016 election, and spun off various investigations having nothing to do with Russia in any way.
The latest Times report does provide more detail than these earlier reports, however, and none of it makes the FBI look good. In fact, it provides evidence of a usurpation of constitutional authority to determine foreign policy that belongs not with a politically unaccountable FBI but with the citizens’ elected president. More on that in a bit.
Criminalizing Foreign Policy Differences
Using leaked information and testimony from various former governmental officials, we learn that the FBI opened its aggressive, norm-breaking, and unconstitutional investigation, supposedly into whether Trump “worked for the Russians,” after he fired Comey and revealed how the agency was playing games with their spurious “Russia” probe.
The Saturday New York Times article appeared on page one, above the fold, with the almost laughable headline “F.B.I. Investigated if Trump Worked for the Russians.” The online version of the story was headlined “F.B.I. Opened Inquiry Into Whether Trump Was Secretly Working on Behalf of Russia.” Nine paragraphs into the story, the reporters admit that there is and was literally “no evidence” to support the idea Trump worked for Russia.
The top of the article, however, immediately presented the FBI-friendly interpretation of the agency’s motivations as fact — without evidence and despite strong evidence to the contrary — saying the FBI began its investigation because they were “so concerned by the president’s behavior” rather than saying it was because they were “so concerned he’d continue to expose their behavior” or “so concerned he’d hold them accountable for their political investigations.”
The article accepts FBI spin that arguing for better relations with the nuclear-armed Russia “constituted a possible threat to national security” that could only be explained if Trump was “knowingly working for Russia or had unwittingly fallen under Moscow’s influence.” Because FBI officials personally opposed Trump’s foreign policy, and that of the tens of millions of Americans who voted for him, the FBI was “suspicious” of him, we’re told. The reporters admit the reckless decision by FBI officials was “an aggressive move” that disturbs many former law enforcement officials.
The FBI never had a good reason to investigate Trump, according to information in the article, but even the justifications they use are erroneous. For example, all three items mentioned here are inaccurately framed and presented:
Mr. Trump had caught the attention of F.B.I. counterintelligence agents when he called on Russia during a campaign news conference in July 2016 to hack into the emails of his opponent, Hillary Clinton. Mr. Trump had refused to criticize Russia on the campaign trail, praising President Vladimir V. Putin. And investigators had watched with alarm as the Republican Party softened its convention platform on the Ukraine crisis in a way that seemed to benefit Russia.
First, Trump never called on Russia to hack Clinton, despite repeated media claims to the contrary. Clinton had already destroyed her server, along with 30,000 emails she claimed were about yoga, while she was under investigation for mishandling classified information. Trump was highlighting that tons of hackers could have already accessed her insecure server when it still existed and, if they had, those emails should be released so that Americans would know what foreign governments undoubtedly already did. It was a way to highlight her reckless handling of classified information and the global security concerns of that.
Second, having a foreign policy different from those who seek conflict with Russia is neither a problem nor any of the FBI’s business. In fact, it’s a big part of why the American people voted for Trump. The American people get to determine who sets foreign policy, and they do so through elections. The FBI does not get to set foreign policy by running criminal and counterintelligence investigations to punish those who step outside their preferred approach. They have no constitutional authority to do that.
Third, even if the Republican Party had changed its convention platform regarding Ukraine, which it had not, that is also neither a problem nor any of the FBI’s business. It’s shocking and scandalous that the FBI thinks it should criminalize foreign policy disputes.
The FBI argues, without evidence, that the president needed to be investigated as a threat to national security. Keep in mind that the FBI did not act this way during the previous administration, when many of Barack Obama’s detractors argued his foreign policy was a threat to national security. They didn’t investigate collusion with Iran, or the transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars in cash to the regime. Neither did they do such things with any previous president.
It’s good that they didn’t, because Article II of the U.S. Constitution gives the authority to determine foreign policy to the president, not the director or acting director of the FBI. Harvard law professor and former Comey deputy Jack Goldsmith expands on this:
One danger in the what the FBI apparently did is that it implies that the unelected domestic intelligence bureaucracy holds itself as the ultimate arbiter—over and above the elected president who is the constitutional face of U.S. intelligence and national security authority—about what actions do and don’t serve the national security interests of the United States.
Criminalizing Lawful Hiring And Firing Decisions
The article says that the FBI was, unbelievably, discussing whether they could go after Trump because he asked if Comey was loyal. It does not mention that Comey promised his loyalty or the context of Trump’s question, which was rampant leaking by the FBI, Comey’s blackmail attempt before Trump was inaugurated, and obvious game-playing against him and his administration with the Russia probe.
The FBI ultimately decided to act when Trump told the truth and revealed some of their game-playing with the Russia probe. He wanted to send a letter to Comey in which he thanked Comey for telling him he was not a subject of the Russia investigation. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein wanted him to hide that fact.
Rosenstein, it’s worth remembering, wrote the memo explaining why Comey was so bad at his job, a view that was completely confirmed by the inspector general’s report on the Clinton email probe. When Trump fired Comey, in part for his incompetent handling of political investigations such as those mentioned in Rosenstein’s memo, Rosenstein used that as the predicate to launch what became the special counsel investigation against Trump.
In any case, Trump told Rosenstein to tell the truth even if he wanted to keep it hidden. Rosenstein refused, irritating Trump, according to the New York Times. Trump told the truth to the American public — which Comey was later forced to admit under oath — that Comey had told him three times he was not under investigation.
According to the New York Times, by not going along with the FBI’s game — privately admitting to Trump that he wasn’t under investigation while publicly suggesting otherwise or leaking numerous snippets of information, selectively curated and framed to suggest he was — the FBI grew concerned that he was a Russian agent. Readers would be forgiven for thinking that makes no sense whatsoever and that it’s more plausible they were concerned their behavior against Trump would be exposed.
Their other justification for targeting their political foe was that Trump publicly flat-out said he didn’t like the game Comey was playing with the Russia investigation. They decided, we’re told, to interpret, or pretend to interpret, this as obstruction.
‘I was going to fire Comey knowing there was no good time to do it,’ he said. ‘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.’
Mr. Trump’s aides have said that a fuller examination of his comments demonstrates that he did not fire Mr. Comey to end the Russia inquiry. ‘I might even lengthen out the investigation, but I have to do the right thing for the American people,’ Mr. Trump added. ‘He’s the wrong man for that position.’
Angered by Trump’s critique of Comey’s double-dealing regarding the Russia probe, the FBI retaliated with an investigation.
While it’s not mentioned in the article, hours after Comey was fired, top FBI officials and paramours Lisa Page and Peter Strzok texted about the need to open a “case” against Trump they’d already been discussing in a “formal, chargeable way” and that it had to be done “while Andy is acting.” The texts also mention “Bill”–believed to be FBI counterintelligence head Bill Priestap–being in on the plot.
“Andy” is then-deputy director Andrew McCabe, who took over the bureau until Christopher Wray was confirmed as director in August 2017. McCabe was later fired for repeatedly lying under oath about just one of many of his rampant leaks to friendly reporters and is reportedly under criminal investigation by a federal grand jury. Strzok was also fired for his behavior, Page resigned, and Priestap announced his retirement last month. It is unclear which officials in the Department of Justice authorized the unconstitutional investigation into the president as a national security threat because he didn’t share their foreign policy views.
It was important for this group to launch the official investigation into Trump while McCabe was acting director because they reasonably understood it wouldn’t happen if an FBI director outside their control took over the agency. The opening of an investigation followed a pattern of shocking behavior by the FBI, including Comey telling Trump that there was information floating around about an alleged videotape showing prostitutes urinating on a bed while he watched (there is zero evidence that such a videotape exists or that the alleged event it memorialized ever took place).
Government officials leaked the fact of that briefing to CNN almost immediately, one of the key moments that got the outlandish Russia conspiracy story started. Even Comey admitted that his behavior looked a lot like a blackmail or extortion attempt, which he strenuously denied it was. The move backfired because Trump immediately realized the FBI was playing games. McCabe also launched an investigation of former attorney general Jeff Sessions, before Sessions recused himself from holding the FBI accountable for their handling of the Russia probe.
In sum, the framing of this New York Times article is either poorly conceived or outright disingenuous at every turn. Using the completely lawful and constitutional firing of the bumbling Comey as pretext for opening a criminal investigation into the president is a grand abuse of power by the FBI. Attempting to overtake the authority to determine U.S. foreign policy from the lawfully determined president of the United States is a violation of the U.S. Constitution.
For one of the nation’s largest newspapers to suggest that this makes the president — and not the FBI — look bad actually validates two of Trump’s biggest complaints: the media are hopelessly biased, and there really is a “deep state” out to to overturn the 2016 election.