James Comey
Credit: Rich Girard/Flickr

The most confounding thing about the Trump-Russia affair is the behavior of the FBI, including it’s former director, James Comey. Specifically, the FBI did two things in the last weeks of the campaign that badly hurt Hillary Clinton’s chances. On Friday, October 28th, 2016, after “a series of ‘long grueling meetings’ with top FBI executives,” Comey decided that he needed to reopen the investigation into the private server Hillary Clinton used while serving as Secretary of State. He also decided that he needed to make this public, so he sent a letter to “eight Senate and House chairmen, who are Republicans, and copied the ranking Democrats on their panels.” This assured that the last eleven days of the election would be dominated by doubt about Clinton’s legal status.

The second thing that happened could be seen in a New York Times article that was published on Halloween: Investigating Donald Trump, F.B.I. Sees No Clear Link to Russia. The article amounted to a complete clean bill of health for the Trump campaign:

For much of the summer, the F.B.I. pursued a widening investigation into a Russian role in the American presidential campaign. Agents scrutinized advisers close to Donald J. Trump, looked for financial connections with Russian financial figures, searched for those involved in hacking the computers of Democrats, and even chased a lead — which they ultimately came to doubt — about a possible secret channel of email communication from the Trump Organization to a Russian bank.

Law enforcement officials say that none of the investigations so far have found any conclusive or direct link between Mr. Trump and the Russian government. And even the hacking into Democratic emails, F.B.I. and intelligence officials now believe, was aimed at disrupting the presidential election rather than electing Mr. Trump.

Given how close the election turned out to be, it’s not a stretch to suggest that these two decisions by the FBI were decisive in changing the outcome. It certainly corresponded with a late collapse for Clinton in the internal polling of the campaigns.

This might not be confounding at all if we could conclude that the leadership of the FBI actually wanted Donald Trump to win the election. But other than a faction in New York with close ties to Rudy Giuliani, there’s no evidence to support that the FBI preferred Trump, and plenty of subsequent evidence that the prevailing view in the leadership was that Trump was potentially compromised by the Russians. Perhaps it was people in the New York/Giuliani faction who served as the sources for the New York Times article, but otherwise it is hard to understand how that article was reported the way it was.

In fact, the article was so shocking to Christopher Steele that he concluded that the FBI had itself been compromised and decided to cut off all further communications with them after October 31st. At least, that’s what happened according to the testimony of Glenn Simpson, the man who hired Steele to look into Trump’s business ties to Russia.

It was nine days before the 2016 US election and Christopher Steele suddenly had a bad feeling about what was going on inside the FBI.

Two months earlier, the British former spy turned private investigator had decided to take his concerns about Donald Trump’s campaign and its alleged ties to the Kremlin to senior US law enforcement officials, mostly out of a sense of duty and worry about the Republican candidate for the White House.

The findings of his research and interviews with contacts seemed to corroborate what intelligence and law enforcement officials were already hearing.

Steele’s information seemed to bolster a case that had already been opened by the FBI. But according to the newly released transcripts, the former spy’s cooperation came to a sudden standstill on 31 October, shortly before the November election, after the publication of a New York Times scoop that suggested federal investigators had pored over the Trump campaign and vague allegations of connections to the Kremlin and found no conclusive links…

…Simpson’s testimony revealed that the NYT report so shocked Steele – because, a source has told the Guardian, it seemed so contrary to what he believed about the FBI’s investigation – that he was convinced the FBI had been compromised.

“I understand Chris severed his relationship with the FBI out of concern that he didn’t know what was happening inside the FBI and there was a concern that the FBI was being manipulated for political ends by the Trump people,” Simpson told congressional investigators. “We didn’t really understand what was going on. So he stopped dealing with them.”

The Democrats were understandably furious with James Comey, even before they realized that the October 31st article in the New York Times was completely wrong and based on FBI sources who were lying. This is why many months later Jared Kushner was able to convince President Trump that Comey could be fired without much backlash. But Comey and the FBI and the Department of Justice actually continued to investigate Trump’s potential collusion with the Russians and, after the inauguration, immediately moved to force Michael Flynn out as national security advisor based on their view that he was compromised.

It seems like the FBI’s investigation only picked up steam after the election, and perhaps this was a way to compensate for their previous error. All I know is that it makes it hard to build any unified theory of the case. The FBI did more to elect Trump and to wound Clinton than any other nonpartisan source, but then became the most dogged pursuers of Trump’s nascent presidency. How do we explain this?

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