Standby…a BOOM moment being introduced.
Lawfare Blog Benjamin Wittes poses a further question about whether the fact that the President sought to obstruct the Russian Investigation, via firing of Comey, which sent the FBI into another investigation about the President…is indeed at the core of what Mueller must be looking for.
Wittes had discussions w/ Michael Schmidt NYT and had a long interview for former FBI lawyer James Baker, who said the investigation is about…“It was about Russia. It was always about Russia. Full stop.”
Shortly before the holidays, I received a call from New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt asking me to meet with him about some reporting he had done. Schmidt did not describe the subject until we met up, when he went over with me a portion of the congressional interview of former FBI General Counsel James Baker, who was then my Brookings colleague and remains my Lawfare colleague. When he shared what Baker had said, and when I thought about it over the next few days in conjunction with some other documents and statements, a question gelled in my mind. Observers of the Russia investigation have generally understood Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s work as focusing on at least two separate tracks: collusion between the Russian government and the Trump campaign, on the one hand, and potential obstruction of justice by the president, on the other. But what if the obstruction was the collusion—or at least a part of it?
Late last year, I wrote a memo for Schmidt outlining how I read all of this material, a memo from which this post is adapted.
Today, the New York Times is reporting that in the days following the firing of James Comey, the FBI opened an investigation of President Trump. It wasn’t simply the obstruction investigation that many of us have assumed. It was also a counterintelligence investigation predicated on the notion that the president’s own actions might constitute a national security.
The analysis that follows is lengthy and takes a number of twists and turns before laying out what I think is the significance of the whole thing. Here’s the bottom line: I believe that between today’s New York Times story and some other earlier material I have been sifting through and thinking about, we might be in a position to revisit the relationship between the “collusion” and obstruction components of the Mueller investigation. Specifically, I now believe they are far more integrated with one another than I previously understood.
Put simply, I don’t believe the FBI, having an open counterintelligence investigation, simply opened a new criminal investigation of obstruction in the wake of the Comey firing. I think there likely was—and still is—one umbrella investigation with a number of different threads. That one investigation was (and is) about Russia. And it had (and still has), as a subsidiary matter, a number of subsidiary files open about people on the U.S. side who had links to Russian government activity. Each of these files had (and still has) all of the counterintelligence and criminal tools available to the U.S. government at its disposal.
So when the president sought to impair the investigation, having declared both in the draft letter dismissing Comey and to Lester Holt that his action was connected in some way to the Russia investigation, that raised both potential criminal questions and major counterintelligence questions—questions that could only have been reinforced when Trump later announced to senior Russian government officials that he had relieved pressure on himself by acting as he did. It did so both because it threatened the investigation itself and because it fit directly into a pattern of interface between Trump campaign officials and Russian government actors that they were already investigating.
Remember that the standards of predication are quite low. To open an investigation, the FBI doesn’t need proof of a crime, or even probable cause of criminal activity. It need only see evidence that “An activity constituting a federal crime or a threat to the national security has or may have occurred, is or may be occurring, or will or may occur and the investigation may obtain information relating to the activity or the involvement or role of an individual, group, or organization in such activity” (emphasis added). “May” is a very flexible word. So ask yourself this: If you were the FBI and already investigating Russian activity and you saw the president’s actions in May 2017, would you believe that it “may” constitute a criminal office or “may” constitute a threat to national security or both?
What is the significance of all of this? I have two big takeaways.
First, if this analysis is correct, it mostly—though not entirely—answers the question of the legal basis of the obstruction investigation. The president’s lawyers, Barr in his memo, and any number of conservative commentators have all argued that Mueller cannot reasonably be investigating obstruction offenses based on the president’s actions within his Article II powers in firing Comey; such actions, they contend, cannot possibly violate the obstruction laws. While this position is disputed, a great many other commentators, including me, have scratched their heads about Mueller’s obstruction theory.
But if the predicate for the investigation was rooted in substantial part in counterintelligence authorities—that is, if the theory was not just that the president may have violated the criminal law but also that he acted in a fashion that may constitute a threat to national security—that particular legal puzzle goes away. After all, the FBI doesn’t need a possible criminal violation to open a national security investigation.
The problem does not entirely go away, because as the Times reports, the probe was partly predicated as a criminal matter as well. So the question of Mueller’s criminal theory is still there. But the weight on it is dramatically less.
This possibility, of course, raises a different legal puzzle, which is whether and under what circumstances the president can be a national security investigative subject of his own FBI given that it is ultimately he who defines national security threats for the executive branch. But that’s a question for another day.
Second, if it is correct that the FBI’s principle interest in obstruction was not as a discrete criminal fact pattern but as a national security threat, this significantly blurs the distinction between the obstruction and collusion aspects of the investigation. In this construction, obstruction was not a problem distinct from collusion, as has been generally imagined. Rather, in this construction, obstruction was the collusion, or least part of it. The obstruction of justice statutes become, in this understanding, merely one set of statutes investigators might think about using to deal with a national security risk—specifically, the risk of a person on the U.S. side coordinating with or supporting Russian activity by shutting down the investigation.
It was about Russia. It was always about Russia. Full stop.