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How the big new New York Times scoop changes our understanding of the Trump-Russia probe

In May 2017, the FBI opened an investigation into whether President Trump was working on Russia’s behalf.

Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Getty
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

The FBI officially opened a counterintelligence investigation into whether President Donald Trump was compromised by Russia in May 2017, according to a new report from the New York Times.

Per the Times, this investigation was meant to determine whether Trump was either “working on behalf of Russia against American interests” or “had unwittingly fallen under Moscow’s influence” in a way that placed national security at risk.

We’ve known for some time that the FBI launched a counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign’s Russia links in July 2016, and that they began investigating the president for obstruction of justice in May 2017.

But this is the first outright confirmation that at a certain moment, the FBI explicitly began investigating Donald Trump’s Russia ties — including whether, as president, he was acting on Russia’s behalf.

In one sense, the new story by the New York Times’s Adam Goldman, Michael Schmidt, and Nicholas Fandos is completely unsurprising. Of course the “Trump-Russia investigation” has been about getting to the bottom of Trump’s links to Russia — your head would have to have been in the sand for years for you to think otherwise. (“My concern with this story is that it felt, to some extent, like it was a ‘duh’ story,” Goldman told the New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner.)

Still, if we take a step back, it’s rather incredible that the FBI officially opened an investigation into whether the president of the United States was compromised by Russia, as Natasha Bertrand of the Atlantic points out:

Now, this news is about an event that occurred a year and eight months ago, before Robert Mueller was even appointed special counsel — so it gives us little insight into what the investigation has found since that point.

Yet the report does suggest that Mueller will be tasked with answering the question of whether Trump was working on Russia’s behalf by the time his work concludes.

“Mueller inherited this, and he will have to end it,” Goldman told the New Yorker. ”And it seems to me he will have to articulate, if he hasn’t already, why there wasn’t evidence to support this idea — or maybe there was.”

New information about the Russia investigation’s timeline

To understand how the information in the new Times report fits into what we knew about the probe, it’s helpful to keep the timeline of the investigation in mind:

  • In July 2016, the FBI opened its counterintelligence investigation into whether various Trump campaign officials were linked to Russia. This probe would focus particularly on four campaign advisers: George Papadopoulos, Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn, and Carter Page.
  • In late 2016 and early 2017, the FBI was “suspicious” of Trump’s Russia links as well, per the Times. But they did not yet choose to explicitly name the president as a focus of their investigation, alongside those four advisers — perhaps out of fear of political controversy.
  • In May 2017, after Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, that changed. The bureau then quickly approved an investigation into not only whether Trump had criminally obstructed justice (which we learned of long ago) but also whether Trump had been acting on Russia’s behalf. Shortly afterward, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein appointed Mueller as special counsel to take charge of the probe.

So why did the FBI suddenly move to open this investigation into Trump?

Partly, it may have been because events that the FBI had long been aware of now appeared more suspicious. The Times report says investigators were also influenced by two new developments: that Trump urged Rosenstein to mention the Russia investigation in his letter recommending Comey’s firing, and that Trump publicly tied Comey’s firing to the Russia probe in an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt. (Trump’s lawyers have since claimed his interview with Holt has been misinterpreted.)

Additionally, Trump met with two top Russian officials in the Oval Office the day after he fired Comey. In that meeting, the president disclosed classified information. He also told the Russian officials that by firing the “nut job” Comey, the “great pressure” he’d faced about Russia had been “taken off,” according to notes of the meeting that later leaked. (The Times report implies investigators only learned of these comments after the probe was open.)

“My understanding is that people felt the evidence to open this was quite strong,” Goldman told Chotiner. “I know some of the thinking; I haven’t seen the full predication. This is a highly classified document. They would have had to lay out in detail their reasons for opening this.”

People are now rethinking what the “obstruction” investigation into Trump has been about

Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel to take over the Russia investigation in May 2017.

Then about a month later, the Washington Post reported that Mueller was investigating Trump for obstruction of justice, related to Comey’s firing and other matters.

After that, the conventional wisdom in Washington quickly formed: The true interest of Mueller’s probe, at least as it related to President Trump, was obstruction of justice — not Russian collusion.

This judgment was somewhat understandable. After all, no reporting had explicitly confirmed Trump was under investigation for his Russia ties. FBI Director James Comey had even confirmed Trump wasn’t under investigation before he was fired.

But as Lawfare’s Benjamin Wittes writes, the new Times report certainly appears to suggest that the obstruction probe of Trump was closely connected to interest in his Russia ties all along.

“Observers of the Russia investigation have generally understood Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s work as focusing on at least two separate tracks,” Wittes writes: collusion and obstruction. But, he says, he now believes those two “are far more integrated with one another than I previously understood.”

“What if the obstruction was the collusion — or at least a part of it?” Wittes asks.

That is: Many have long wondered whether some of Trump’s actions — like him asking Comey to “let” a Russia-related investigation into Michael Flynn “go,” and eventually firing the FBI director when he didn’t — were part of an effort to obstruct justice.

But the FBI seems to have also been wondering whether they were part of an effort to obstruct justice to Russia’s benefit.

The Times reporting, Wittes writes, suggests “the FBI did not think of the Comey firing simply as a possible obstruction of justice. Officials thought of it, rather, in the context of the underlying counterintelligence purpose of the Russia investigation.”

In his interview with the New Yorker, the Times’s Adam Goldman suggested another implication — that the counterintelligence probe into the president was central to Mueller’s appointment in the first place, and will likely be central to whatever findings the special counsel puts together at the conclusion of this investigation.

“I think Mueller is going to have to address this,” Goldman said. “Which, by the way, is the question the American public expects him to answer. You don’t need me to tell you that the American public expects an answer to ‘Is Trump working with Russia?’ It’s the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question.”

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