Credit: Marc Nozell-Flickr

Keeping Matt Taibbi’s warning in mind that there may not ultimately be any there in the investigation into Donald Trump’s Russian connections, what would an ordinary person infer from the following which just appeared on the New York Times website?

WASHINGTON — With questions still swirling over President Trump’s unsubstantiated claims that he was wiretapped on orders of President Barack Obama, the Justice Department on Thursday declined to confirm statements a day earlier from the White House that Mr. Trump was not the target of a counterintelligence investigation.

Officials also said the White House had not relied on any information from the Justice Department in offering a statement denying the existence of an investigation.

The White House spokesman, Sean Spicer, told reporters on Wednesday that “there is no reason to believe there is any type of investigation with respect to the Department of Justice” or “that the president is the target of any investigation whatsoever.”

But a Justice Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said that there was no indication that anyone at the Justice Department had given the White House that assurance.

Asked whether Mr. Trump was in fact the target of an investigation, the official offered a “no comment.”

Keep in mind that language is very important in all these discussions and that neither reporters nor their sources are always that vigilant about being precise. In this article, the question is whether there is an active counterintelligence investigation, and that is a different kind of animal from a criminal investigation. For example, it’s not a crime to get blackmailed and you could have other reasons than hiding a crime for being susceptible to blackmail. Maybe there’s something you don’t want your spouse to know. Maybe there are things you don’t want the whole world to know. Maybe you’re a politician and the revelations would endanger your career. Maybe you’re a policy maker and the revelations would cripple your agenda.

A counterintelligence investigation will look not just for evidence of crimes, but for evidence that you are being blackmailed or are susceptible to being blackmailed. They’ll look to see if you are taking money in exchange for policies. In these respects, there need be no crime for the investigation to conclude that you shouldn’t be entrusted with a security clearance or hired by the federal government.

Another thing to be careful about is the word “target.” That can have a specific meaning, too, although it’s usually only specific in the case of criminal investigations. It means that there is reason to believe that you have committed a crime, and it could mean that warrants have been issued or a grand jury convened.

In a counterintelligence investigation, I think it would just mean that you were the subject of the investigation.

As a result, saying that “Mr. Trump was not the target of a counterintelligence investigation” is very imprecise and opens up avenues for denial on various grounds that could be badly misleading.

For example, it could be that he’s not a “target” because the investigation isn’t criminal in nature, but he or his campaign or his associates are still under investigation. It could be that there are targets, for example Roger Stone, but that Donald Trump is not one of them.

Yet, there’s still an overall picture here, which is that the Department of Justice is very pointedly refusing to say that Trump isn’t being investigated in some manner. Sean Spicer said that there’s no evidence that Trump isn’t being investigated (in any way) by the Department of Justice and the the DOJ simply won’t verify that. But, they do verify that they didn’t assure the White House that they aren’t being investigated.

So, as sloppy and confusing as the language is here, it sounds like there is something going on.

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Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at