Trump Asked Intelligence Officials To Push Back Against F.B.I. Russia Investigation
Late yesterday, The Washington Post reported that President Trump asked the Director of National Intelligence and the Director of the National Security Agency to push back against the ongoing F.B.I. investigation into Russian interference in the Presidential election and possible ties between officials in the Trump campaign and Russian officials:
President Trump asked two of the nation’s top intelligence officials in March to help him push back against an FBI investigation into possible coordination between his campaign and the Russian government, according to current and former officials.
Trump made separate appeals to the director of national intelligence, Daniel Coats, and to Adm. Michael S. Rogers, the director of the National Security Agency, urging them to publicly deny the existence of any evidence of collusion during the 2016 election.
Coats and Rogers refused to comply with the requests, which they both deemed to be inappropriate, according to two current and two former officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private communications with the president.
Trump sought the assistance of Coats and Rogers after FBI Director James B. Comey told the House Intelligence Committee on March 20 that the FBI was investigating “the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.”
Trump’s conversation with Rogers was documented contemporaneously in an internal memo written by a senior NSA official, according to the officials. It is unclear if a similar memo was prepared by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence to document Trump’s conversation with Coats. Officials said such memos could be made available to both the special counsel now overseeing the Russia investigation and congressional investigators, who might explore whether Trump sought to impede the FBI’s work.
White House officials say Comey’s testimony about the scope of the FBI investigation upset Trump, who has dismissed the FBI and congressional investigations as a “witch hunt.” The president has repeatedly said there was no collusion.
Current and former senior intelligence officials viewed Trump’s requests as an attempt by the president to tarnish the credibility of the agency leading the Russia investigation.
A senior intelligence official said Trump’s goal was to “muddy the waters” about the scope of the FBI probe at a time when Democrats were ramping up their calls for the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel, a step announced last week.
Senior intelligence officials also saw the March requests as a threat to the independence of U.S. spy agencies, which are supposed to remain insulated from partisan issues.
“The problem wasn’t so much asking them to issue statements, it was asking them to issue false statements about an ongoing investigation,” a former senior intelligence official said of the request to Coats.
The NSA and Brian Hale, a spokesman for Coats, declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation.
“The White House does not confirm or deny unsubstantiated claims based on illegal leaks from anonymous individuals,” a White House spokesman said. “The president will continue to focus on his agenda that he was elected to pursue by the American people.”
In addition to the requests to Coats and Rogers, senior White House officials sounded out top intelligence officials about the possibility of intervening directly with Comey to encourage the FBI to drop its probe of Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, according to people familiar with the matter. The officials said the White House appeared uncertain about its power to influence the FBI.
“Can we ask him to shut down the investigation? Are you able to assist in this matter?” one official said of the line of questioning from the White House.
Trump’s effort to use the director of national intelligence and the NSA director to dispute Comey’s statement and to say there was no evidence of collusion echoes President Richard Nixon’s “unsuccessful efforts to use the CIA to shut down the FBI’s investigation of the Watergate break-in on national security grounds,” said Jeffrey H. Smith, a former general counsel at the CIA. Smith called Trump’s actions “an appalling abuse of power.”
Trump made his appeal to Coats days after Comey’s testimony, according to officials.
That same week, Trump telephoned Rogers to make a similar appeal.
In his call with Rogers, Trump urged the NSA director to speak out publicly if there was no evidence of collusion, according to officials briefed on the exchange.
Rogers was taken aback but tried to respectfully explain why he could not do so, the officials said. For one thing, he could not comment on an ongoing investigation. Rogers added that he would not talk about classified matters in public.
As Amber Phillips at The Washington Post notes, there are at least three key elements of this report that are particularly bad for the President:
With every revelation, it feels as if current and former intelligence officials are being more candid with reporters about just how big of a deal all this is.
And to that effect, here are three paragraphs that raised my eyebrows (my emphasis added in bold):
- A senior intelligence official said that Trump’s goal was to “muddy the waters” about the scope of the FBI probe at a time when Democrats were ramping up their calls for the Justice Department to appoint a special counsel, a step announced last week.
- Current and former officials said either Trump lacks an understanding of the FBI’s role as an independent law enforcement agency or does not care about maintaining such boundaries.
- Trump’s effort to use the DNI and the NSA director to refute Comey’s statement and to say there is no evidence of collusion echoes former president Richard Nixon’s “unsuccessful efforts to use the CIA to shut down the FBI’s investigation of the Watergate break-in on national security grounds,” said Jeffrey H. Smith, a former general counsel at the CIA. Smith called Trump’s actions “an appalling abuse of power.”
Trump doesn’t care or doesn’t know about the rules. He’s abusing his power in a Nixonian way. He’s deliberately trying to muddy the waters. These are startling comments about the president of the United States, and some of them are coming from inside Trump’s own administration.
This report follows a month’s of news and reporting regarding the investigation that has seemingly made it clear that the White House was attempting to quash an investigation that was increasingly impacting its ability to advance the President’s agenda. It began with the seemingly out of the blue decision by the President to fire Director Comey just days after Comey had testified regarding the Bureau’s ongoing investigation, including that portion of the investigation regarding the Trump campaign itself. Initially, the Administration claimed that Comey’s dismissal was due to his conduct during the investigation of Hillary Clinton’s email server and the manner in which she handled classified information. This was detailed in a memorandum supporting Comey’s termination that specifically cited the press conference in which Comey announced that the investigation would be closed without charges being brought and the letter he sent Congress in October advising that the Bureau was reopening the investigation due to the discovery of additional emails from that server. The trustworthiness of that memorandum, however, was significantly undermined when it was revealed that it’s author, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein knew that Comey would be fired before he ever started drafting the memorandum. Fairly quickly it became apparent that Comey may have been fired due to Trump’s frustration with the Russia investigation, something that Trump himself seemed to confirm. Trump topped off this admission by appearing to threaten Comey with ‘tapes’ of conversations between the two men. Last week, we learned that Trump asked Comey to drop the investigation of Trump’s former National Security Adviser Lt. General Michael Flynn. Trump also apparently admitted to the Russian Foreign Minister and Ambassador to the U.S. that he had fired Comey due to the Russia investigation during an Oval Office meeting in which he also shared highly classified information apparently obtained from Israel with these same Russian officials.
Inevitably, this has all led to allegations that Trump had engaged in an effort to obstruct justice, which in turn has led to increased talk of impeachment, something that White House attorneys are apparently already investigation. Whether this constitutes an actual case of impeachment is something that legal analysts on both sides of the aisle have disagreed on, with many analysts, including some on the left side of the political aisle, arguing that as a matter of law proving obstruction or attempted obstruction is often not an easy matter. Other analysts have argued that the case in favor of labeling the conduct of the Administration in general and the President in particular as constituting legal obstruction is far easier. In reality, of course, we are at this time far from the point where we can properly answer the question one way or the other. For one thing, all we have in front of us are reports from unnamed sources claiming to recount the contents of private conversations between the President and top government officials, including the heads of some of the most important law enforcement and intelligence agencies. While that doesn’t necessarily mean the reports are untrue, it does mean that we need to hear directly from these officials, some of whom are still in their positions, regarding their conversations with the White House in general and the President in particular. That process will apparently start in the coming week or two given the fact that James Comey has apparently agreed to testify before a Senate committee investigating these matters at some point after Memorial Day.
As for all the impeachment talk, it still seems clear that it is far too early to be engaging in this type of conversation. The allegation that the President sought to undermine an ongoing investigation is a serious one that ought to be thoroughly investigated, of course, and if it turns out that this is indeed what is going on then Congress will have the unenviable responsibility of deciding whether or not impeachment is an appropriate action to take under the circumstances. As many have noted before, one of the more serious charges against President Clinton was the allegation that he sought to obstruct justice both with regard to the Paula Jones lawsuit and to the criminal investigation that developed when it was revealed that the President had apparently committed perjury in a deposition in that case when he was asked about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. It’s also true that obstruction of justice is among the charges that would have been brought in an impeachment proceeding against President Nixon. In both of those cases, though, the evidence was far clearer and more well-established than any evidence against President Trump at this point. More to the point, as I’ve noted in the past, impeachment is, in the end, a political act and it would be up to Congress to decide to pull the trigger on a process that would have a huge impact on the country going forward regardless of whether it succeeded or failed. As things stand right now, there simply isn’t sufficient evidence to justify such an act. With the revelations coming at such as dizzying pace, though, it’s hard to say that it’s an impossibility. In any case, we’re only at Day 124 of the Trump Administration and we’ve already come to the point where talk of impeachment isn’t just the talk of rabid political opponents, but something based on reports about things the President has actually done. Where we go from here is anyone’s guess.