We Need to Know Why the Intelligence Community Suspects Donald Trump

Over the weekend, I noticed that an outfit I am unfamiliar with called The Epoch Times had apparently received a copy of a transcript of the closed-door congressional testimony of a former assistant general counsel at the FBI named Lisa Page. I couldn’t find an actual copy of the transcript and The Epoch Times’ article only selectively quoted from it, so I decided not to use it as a source even though it fit in perfectly with what I did write about.

Now that CNN has reported that they too have obtained a copy of this testimony, I at least know that this isn’t some kind of disinformation. The Epoch Times is chasing what they perceive to be misconduct in the investigation of Hillary Clinton, so their analysis isn’t of much interest to me, although I did read it carefully. Near the end of their long piece, however, there is a section titled “A Possible Obstruction Case” that touches on something that they didn’t really understand at all until the story broke in the New York Times on Friday night. The Times reported that the FBI had responded to the firing of James Comey by opening a full counterintelligence investigation into the president of the United States.

As you’ll see, the congressional inquisitors couldn’t really imagine the seriousness of the situation and thought that the investigation was based purely on the possibility that Trump may have obstructed justice when he fired James Comey.  Armed with the knowledge from the Times blockbuster, it’s much easier to understand Page’s testimony and also why the FBI’s lawyer wouldn’t allow her to say much.

To set this up, I need to explain that Lisa Page was having an extramarital affair with senior FBI counterintelligence officer Peter Strzok. The two of them exchanged a lot of text messages on their government-issued phones, and some of those messages from 2016 expressed dismissive or hostile opinions about prominent American politicians, including then-candidate Donald Trump.  This is seen as evidence by many on the right that there was bias in the Russia investigation, and Special Counsel Robert Mueller seems to agree to at least the extent that (for appearance’s sake, if nothing else) he removed Strzok from his team.

The day after Comey was fired, the couple exchanged a message that has drawn the interest of Republicans. It said, “And we need to open the case we’ve been waiting on now while Andy is acting.” In her testimony, Lisa Page confirmed that “Andy” was a reference to newly-acting FBI chief Andrew McCabe.

In her testimony, Page attempts to provide context for the text. She confirms that “the case we’ve been waiting on” means that even prior to Comey’s firing, the FBI had been considering opening an investigation into the president specifically. This is confirmation of what I’ve said all along, which was that the intelligence community has long considered Donald Trump as a possible Russian agent. But, as you’ll see, the inquisitors didn’t understand what the investigation was about and Page was not allowed to tell them.

Notably, that text was sent the day after Comey had been fired by Trump. Unfortunately, a certain level of clarity remains lacking as FBI counsel was limited to noting that “the decision to open the case was not about who was occupying the director’s chair.” She continued…somewhat confusingly with, “if I was able to explain in more depth why the director firing precipitated this text, I would.”

One representative kept pursuing the question from multiple angles, asking, “Was that a fear that someone other than McCabe would eventually be put into that slot?” Page again consulted with counsel and noted she couldn’t answer that question.

The representative made the logical observation, “Well, that leads at least some of us to conclude that it may have been an obstruction-of-justice case.” Page responded, “That’s a reasonable inference, sir, but I cannot, sort of, confirm that that’s what we are referring to.”

As she noted, it was a logical inference to assume it was an obstruction of justice case, but it was actually far more than that.

Unidentified Representative: “So the firing of Jim Comey was the precipitating event, as opposed to the occupant of the director’s office?”

Page: “Yes, that’s correct.”

Rep.: “Well, other than obstruction, what could it have been?”

Page: “I can’t answer that, sir. I’m sorry.”

Rep.: “Is there anything other than obstruction that it could have been?”

Page: “I can’t answer.”

At another point, during her second day of testimony, this subject was explored in more detail:

Unidentified Representative: “Were there discussions about opening an obstruction-of-justice case or any other case against Donald Trump prior to the firing of Jim Comey on May 9th of 2017, as reflected in the Comey memos?”

FBI legal counsel: “Congressman, to the extent that goes into the equities of the ongoing investigation that the special counsel is now conducting, I will instruct the witness not to answer.”

[The Epoch Times commentary]: Normally, this line of questioning ends with inferences having to be made, but, in this case, what appears to be an honest error on the part of Page hinted firmly at the true answer:

Rep.: “I don’t want any of the details. I just want to know whether there was a discussion about the possibility of opening that prior to the firing of the director.”

Page: “Obstruction of justice was not a topic of conversation during the timeframe you have described.”

Rep.: “OK. Then—”

Page: “I think. One second, sir.”

[Discussion off the record.]

Page: “Sir, I need to—I need to take back my prior statement.”

Rep.: “Which one?”

Page: “Whatever the last thing I just said was. Sorry. That there were no discussions of obstruction, yeah. That is—I need to take that statement back.”

Rep.: “So there were?”

Page: “Well, I think that I can’t answer this question without getting into matters which are substantively before the special counsel at this time.”

Rep.: “Well, I think you’ve just answered it by not answering it. Was Andy McCabe privy to those same conversations?”

Page: “I can’t answer this substantively, sir. I’m sorry.”

Rep.: “Well, were these related to some charges, whether obstruction or other charges, potentially against Donald Trump?”

Page: “I can’t—I can’t answer that question, sir, without getting into the substance of matters that are now before the special counsel.”

Rep.: “Again, I think you’re answering it by not answering it.”

[The Epoch Times commentary]: At a later point in testimony, this issue was potentially further clarified:

Rep.: “Comey has admitted that he told the president, I think, that he wasn’t under investigation during that timeframe.”

Page: “That is not inconsistent, sir. … Somebody could not be under investigation, but there still could be discussions about potential criminal activity, and that is totally consistent with FBI policies and would not be unusual with respect to any investigation.”

In retrospect, it’s easy to see why Page needed to correct her testimony. The original question was “were there discussions about opening an obstruction-of-justice case or any other case against Donald Trump prior to the firing of Jim Comey.” The fact that they had opened a counterintelligence case on the president was such a closely guarded secret that it couldn’t even be hinted at, and if they hadn’t been discussing an obstruction of justice case prior to Comey’s firing, what else could it have been than a counterintelligence investigation? In addition to that, it simply wasn’t true that they weren’t concerned about obstruction. James Comey had been told to drop the investigation of Michael Flynn, and the possibility of an obstruction case had been discussed in that context.

The important thing is that “the case we’ve been waiting on” that needed to be launched before a permanent FBI director was appointed to replace Comey was indeed a counterintelligence investigation. There had been an understandable reluctance to take such a drastic step despite a mountain of suspicious evidence, but when Comey was fired because he was investigating Russian interference in the election, that was enough to overcome the Bureau’s reservations.

This becomes crystal clear when we look at the testimony of Lisa Page’s boss, then-FBI general counsel James Baker, which CNN has obtained:

In his congressional testimony, Baker said that he did not discuss with Comey the possibility that Russia had influenced his firing. But Baker met with a group of roughly a half-dozen officials, including McCabe and possibly Strzok and Page, to discuss it.

“Not only would it be an issue of obstructing an investigation, but the obstruction itself would hurt our ability to figure out what the Russians had done, and that is what would be the threat to national security,” Baker told lawmakers, according to an excerpt from the transcript first reported by the Times and confirmed by CNN.

Baker said the notion that Trump was acting at the behest of Russia was “discussed as a theoretical possibility.”

“I’m speaking theoretically. If the President of the United States fired Jim Comey at the behest of the Russian government, that would be unlawful and unconstitutional,” Baker said.

“Is that what happened here?” Rep. John Ratcliffe, a Texas Republican, asked Baker.

“I don’t know,” Baker responded, before the FBI lawyer cut off additional questions on that line of inquiry.

There have been a lot of false dichotomies in how the Russia investigation has been reported and understood, and we have three examples here. It’s true that a formal counterintelligence investigation of the president was not launched until after he fired James Comey, but the FBI had been pursuing the question of the president’s possible compromise by the Russians since they began their more general Crossfire Hurricane counterintelligence investigation in late-July 2016. So, the significance of the new investigation has been exaggerated even as its nature has been misunderstood.

The second false dichotomy is directly related to that misunderstanding. Over the weekend, Benjamin Wittes of Lawfare described this as the Obstruction Was the Collusion mistake. People simply weren’t getting that Trump was attempting to help the Russians just as much as he was attempting to help himself when he moved to shut down the investigation. By obstructing the investigation, he was colluding with the Russians after the fact.

And that gets to the third error. Collusion has been discussed almost wholly in the context of what happened during the election, but the collusion has been ongoing throughout the transition and actual administration.  In fact, it has been the behavior of Trump and his team since the election that has raised the most suspicion. Just the fact that, as president, Trump has met privately so often with Vladimir Putin while taking such extraordinary steps to hide the content of their discussions is enough to raise the highest level of alarm.

But that’s only one data point. Both before and after the election, Trump has encouraged Brexit. He’s talked about dismantling NATO (including disparaging new member, Montenegro), actively sought to weaken the European Union (while disparaging its leaders), said that Crimeans are happier under Russian occupation, moved to turn Syria over to Russian domination, followed Russian advice to stop military exercises with South Korea, sought to re-include Russia in the G8, slow-walked congressionally mandated sanctions of Russia, complained about reprisals that he has approved, and repeatedly accepted Putin’s denials that Russia intervened in the election.

It appears to the intelligence community that Trump is pursuing policies that are much more clearly in Russia’s interests than in the interest of America. They have been investigating why he’s behaving this way because it is seen as potentially more than a difference over policy preferences.

It has already been amply demonstrated that Russia knew things both during the campaign and subsequently that, if revealed, could have destroyed Trump’s political ambitions. They knew of the more than one hundred contacts they’d made with Trump-connected figures. They knew that Trump’s campaign chairman Paul Manafort owed a Russian oligarch nearly $20 million and was offering to give him private briefings. They knew that Trump was negotiating with them to build a tower in Moscow at the same time he was denying any business interests in Russia. They knew about the infamous Trump Tower meeting where the president’s son had eagerly sought dirt on Hillary Clinton. And that’s just a partial list of things that we’ve discovered without the Russians having told us. Trump has survived them primarily because of the delay between when we learned these details and when they were most relevant in the news cycle or campaign.  There are undoubtedly many additional things that Russia could divulge that would cause Trump severe problems.  Perhaps there is even a pee tape.

Former FBI agent Asha Rangappa wrote an important essay in the Washington Post on Sunday. Here’s part of what she said:

If the counterintelligence case against the president was eventually closed because it found that Trump did not pose a threat to U.S. national security, Trump should welcome Mueller’s report reaching Congress. This conclusion would stop the speculation about Trump’s relationship with Russia and reassure the American public that his loyalties remain with the United States. But if it wasn’t, and the threat to national security is ongoing, then informing Congress of the nature of the threat is paramount. This would be the only way that Congress can determine whether it should take the ultimate step to neutralize the damage that the president could inflict on the nation — through impeachment and removal from office.

She’s right on all counts. If the counterintelligence investigation wasn’t closed by Robert Mueller after he took it over, then the American people need to know. And Congress can’t be expected to act until they get an answer to the question of whether the Office of Special Counsel thinks the president is a threat to the nation’s national security because he is compromised by, or otherwise working with, the Russians. They need that information so they can act.

It’s not that I think the intelligence community prejudged this case so much as that it should not have come as a revelation that they suspect the president of the worst imaginable crimes. When they told him that Russia hacked the Democrats and interfered in our elections, and Trump called them liars and Nazis, it was pretty inevitable that they’d want to understand his bizarre hostility.

The intelligence community has long suspected Trump of being under Russian influence. Now we need them to make their case.

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Martin Longman

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