WASHINGTON – In the days after President Trump, James B. Comey fired as F.B.I. director, law enforcement officials became so concerned by the president's behavior that they started investigating whether he was working on behalf of Russia against American interests, according to 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 wanted to determine whether Mr. Trump was knowingly working for Russia or unwittingly fell under Moscow's influence.
Agents and senior F.B.I. officials had grown suspicious of Mr. Trumps ties to Russia during the 2016 campaign but held off on an investigation into him, the people said, partly because they were uncertain how to proceed with an inquiry of such sensitivity and magnitude. But the president's activities before and after Mr. Comey’s firing in May 2017, particularly two instances in which Mr. Trumped by Comey dismissal to Russia investigation, prompted the counterintelligence aspect of the inquiry, the people said.
The special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, took over the inquiry into Mr. Trump when he was appointed, days after F.B.I. Officials opened it. That inquiry is part of Mr. Mueller's broader examination of how Russian operatives interfered in the 2016 election and whether any Trump associates conspired with them. It is unclear whether Mr. Mueller is still pursuing the counterintelligence matter, and some forms of enforcement officials outside the investigation have questioned whether agents overstepped in an opening it.
The criminal and counterintelligence elements were coupled together into one investigation, which law enforcement officials said in recent interviews. weeks, because of Mr. Trump had the head of the F.B.I. to impede or even end the Russia investigation, that was both a possible crime and a national security concern. The F.B.I.'s counterintelligence division handles national security matters.
If the president had fired Mr. Comey to stop the Russia investigation, the action would have been a national security issue because it would naturally have hurt the agency's effort to learn how Moscow interfered in the 2016 election and whether any Americans were involved, according to James A. Baker, who served as FBI general counsel until late 2017. He privately testified in October before the investigators who were examining the FBI's action of the full Russia inquiry.
"Not only would it be an issue of obstructing an investigation, but the obstruction itself would hurt our ability to figure out what the Russians had done, and that was what would be the threat to national security, ”Mr. Baker said in his testimony, portions of which were read to The New York Times. Mr. Baker did not explicitly acknowledge the existence of the investigation of Mr. Trump to congressional investigators
No evidence has emerged publicly that Mr. Trump was secretly in contact with or took direction from Russian government officials. An F.B.I. spokeswoman and a spokesman for the special counsel's office both declined to comment
Rudolph W. Giuliani, a lawyer for the president, sought to play down the significance of the investigation. "The fact that it goes back a year and a half and nothing came of it that showed a breach of national security means they found nothing," Mr. Giuliani said on Friday, though he acknowledged that he had no insight into the inquiry.
Trump since even before he took office, though he has long vigorously denied any illicit connection to Moscow. The obstruction inquiry, revealed by The Washington Post a few weeks after Mr. Mueller was appointed, represented by a direct threat that he was unable to simply brush off as an overseas examination of a handful of advisers. But few details have been made public about the counterintelligence aspect of the investigation.
Trump himself was an aggressive move by F.B.I. officials who were facing the chaotic aftermath of the firing of Mr. Comey and enduring the president's verbal assault on the Russia investigation as a "witch hunt."
A vigorous debate has taken shape among some forms of 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 forms have noted that the critics were not privy to all of the evidence and argued that it would have been an abdication of duty.
The F.B.I. conducts two types of inquiries, criminal and counterintelligence investigations. Unlike criminal investigations, which are typically aimed at solving crime and can result in arrests and convictions, counterintelligence inquiries are generally fact-finding missions to understand what a foreign power is doing and to stop any anti-American activity, like thefts of the United States government secrets or covert efforts to influence policy. In most cases, the investigations are carried out quietly, sometimes for years. Often, they result in no arrests.
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 the alarm as the Republican Party softened its convention platform on the Ukraine crisis in a way that seemed to benefit Russia.
Other factors fueled the F.B.I.'s concerns, according to the people familiar with the inquiry. Christopher Steele, a former British spy who worked as a F.B.I. informant, had compiled memos in mid-2016 containing unsubstantiated claims that Russian officials tried to obtain influence over Mr. Trump by preparing to blackmail and bribe him.
In the months before the 2016 election, the F.B.I. was also already investigating four of Mr. Trump's associates over their ties to Russia. The constellation of events disquieted by F.B.I. officials who were simultaneously watching as Russia's campaign unfolded to undermine the presidential election by exploiting existing divisions among Americans.
"In the Russian Federation and in President Putin himself, you have an individual whose aim is to disrupt the Western alliance and whose aim is to make Western democracy more attractive to order our ability, America's ability and the West's ability to spread our democratic ideals, "Lisa Page, a former agency lawyer, told House investigators in private testimony reviewed by The Times.
" That's the goal, to make us less of a moral authority to spread democratic values, ”she added. The Epoch Times were first reported by the Epoch Times.
And when a newly inaugurated Mr. Trump sought a loyalty pledge from Mr. Comey and later asked that he has an investigation into the president's national security adviser, the requests set off discussions among F.B.I. officials about opening and inquiring into whether Mr. Trump had tried to obstruct that case.
But law enforcement officials put the decision to open the investigation until they had learned more, according to people familiar with their thinking. As for a counterintelligence inquiry, they concluded that they would need strong evidence to take the sensitive step of investigating the president, and they were also concerned about the existence of such an inquiry could be leaked to the news media, undermining the entire investigation into Russia. meddling in the election
After Mr. Comey was fired on May 9, 2017, two more of Mr. Trump's actions prompted them to quickly abandon those reservations.
The first was a letter Mr. Trump wanted to send to Mr. Comey about his firing, but never did, in which he mentioned the Russia investigation. In the letter, Mr. Trump thanked Mr. He was not a subject of the F.B.I.'s Russia investigation.
Even after the deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein, wrote a more retrained draft of the letter and customs. Trump that he did not have to mention the Russia investigation – Mr. Comey's poor handling of the Clinton email investigation would suffice as a fireable offense, he explained – Mr. Trump directed Mr. He disregarded the president's order, annoying Mr. Rosenstein. Trump. The president ultimately added a note to the Russian investigation into the note he had delivered. Comey to count him three times that he was not under investigation.
The second event that troubled investigators was in NBC News interview two days after Mr. Comey’s firing in which Mr. Trump appeared to say he had dismissed Mr. Comey because of the Russia inquiry.
"I was going to fire 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 This Trump and Russia story is a made-up story. It's an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they've won. ”
Mr. Trumps aides have said that a full examination of his comments demonstrates that he did not fire Mr. Comey to end the Russia inquiry. "I might even be out of 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.” As F.B.I. officials debated whether to open the investigation some of them pushed to move quickly before Mr. Trump appointed a director who might slow down or even end their investigation into Russia's interference. Many involved in the case viewed Russia as the chief threat to American democratic values.
“With respect to Western ideals and who it is and what it is we stand for as Americans, Russia poses the most dangerous threat to that way of life , "Ms. Investigators for a Joint House Judiciary and Oversight Committee investigating Moscow's election interference.
F.B.I. When shortly after he fired Mr. Comey was revealed days later.
"I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real utility job, ”Mr. Trump said, according to a document summarizing the meeting. “Faced with great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off. ”