Reprinted from consortiumnews.com
The New York Times and CNN led media coverage last month of discussions among senior FBI officials in May 2017 of a possible national security investigation of President Donald Trump himself, on the premise that he may have acted as an agent of Russia.
The episode has potentially profound political fallout, because the Times and CNN stories suggested that Trump may indeed have acted like a Russian agent. The New York Times storyon Jan. 11 was headlined, "F.B.I. Opened Inquiry into Whether Trump Was Secretly Working on Behalf of Russia." CNN followed three days later with: "Transcripts detail how FBI debated whether Trump was 'following directions' of Russia."
By reporting that Russia may have been able to suborn the president of the United States, these stories have added an even more extreme layer to the dominant national political narrative of a serious Russian threat to destroy U.S. democracy. An analysis of the FBI's idea of Trump as possible Russian agent reveals, moreover, that it is based on a devious concept of "unwitting" service to Russian interests that can be traced back to former CIA director John O. Brennan.
The Proposal That Fell Apart
The FBI discussions that drove these stories could have led to the first known investigation of a U.S. president as a suspected national security risk. It ended only a few days after the deliberations among the senior FBI officials when on May 19, 2017, Trump chose Robert Mueller, a former FBI director, to be special counsel. That put control over the Trump-Russia investigation into the hands of Mueller rather than the FBI.
Peter Strzok, who led the bureau's counter-espionage section, was, along with former FBI General Counsel James A. Baker, one of those involved in the May 2017 discussions about investigating Trump. Strzok initially joined Mueller's team but was fired after a couple of months when text messages that he had written came to light exposing a deep animosity towards Trump that cast doubt over his impartiality.
The other FBI officials behind the proposed investigation of Trump have also since left the FBI; either fired or retired.
The entirety of what was said at the meetings of five or six senior FBI officials in the immediate aftermath of Trump's firing of James Comey as FBI director on May 9, 2017, remains a mystery.
The CNN and Times stories were based on transcripts either obtained or, in the case of the Times, on portions read to it, of private testimony given to the House Judiciary and Government Oversight and Reform committees last October by Baker, one of the participants in the discussions of Trump as a possible Russian agent.
Excerpts of Baker's testimony published by CNN make it clear that the group spoke about Trump's policy toward Russia as a basis for a counter-intelligence investigation. Baker said they "discussed as [a] theoretical possibility" that Trump was "acting at the behest of [Russia] and somehow following directions, somehow executing their will."
Baker went on to explain that this theoretical possibility was only "one extreme" in a range of possibilities discussed and that "the other extreme" was that "the President is completely innocent."
He thus made it clear that there was no actual evidence for the idea that he was acting on behalf of Russia.
Baker also offered a simpler rationale for such an investigation of Trump: the president's firing of FBI Director Comey. "Not only would [firing Comey] be an issue of obstructing an investigation," he said, "but the obstruction itself would hurt our ability to figure what the Russians had done, and that is what would be the threat to national security."