F.B.I. Opened Inquiry Into Whether Trump Was Secretly Working on Behalf of Russia

WASHINGTON — within the days after President Trump fired James B. Comey as F.B.I. director, law enforcement officials became so concerned by the president’s behavior of which they began investigating whether he had been working on behalf of Russia against American interests, according to former law enforcement officials as well as others familiar with the investigation.

The inquiry carried explosive implications. Counterintelligence investigators had to consider whether the president’s own actions constituted a possible threat to national security. Agents also sought to determine whether Mr. Trump was knowingly working for Russia or had unwittingly fallen under Moscow’s influence.

The investigation the F.B.I. opened into Mr. Trump also had a criminal aspect, which has long been publicly known: whether his firing of Mr. Comey constituted obstruction of justice.

Agents as well as senior F.B.I. officials had grown suspicious of Mr. Trump’s ties to Russia during the 2016 campaign however held off on opening an investigation into him, the people said, in part because they were uncertain how to proceed with an inquiry of such sensitivity as well as magnitude. however the president’s activities before as well as after Mr. Comey’s firing in May 2017, particularly two instances in which Mr. Trump tied the Comey dismissal to the Russia investigation, helped prompt the counterintelligence aspect of the inquiry, the people said.

The special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, took over the inquiry into Mr. Trump when he was appointed, days after F.B.I. officials opened This particular. of which inquiry is usually part of Mr. Mueller’s broader examination of how Russian operatives interfered within the 2016 election as well as whether any Trump associates conspired with them. This particular is usually unclear whether Mr. Mueller is usually still pursuing the counterintelligence matter, as well as some former law enforcement officials outside the investigation have questioned whether agents overstepped in opening This particular.

The criminal as well as counterintelligence elements were coupled together into one investigation, former law enforcement officials said in interviews in recent weeks, because if Mr. Trump had ousted the head of the F.B.I. to impede or even end the Russia investigation, of which was both a possible crime as well as a national security concern. The F.B.I.’s counterintelligence division handles national security matters.

If the president had fired Mr. Comey to stop the Russia investigation, the action would likely have been a national security issue because This particular naturally would likely have hurt the bureau’s effort to learn how Moscow interfered within the 2016 election as well as whether any Americans were involved, according to James A. Baker, who served as F.B.I. general counsel until late 2017. He privately testified in October before House investigators who were examining the F.B.I.’s handling of the full Russia inquiry.

“Not only would likely This particular be an issue of obstructing an investigation, however the obstruction itself would likely hurt our ability to figure out what the Russians had done, as well as of which is usually what would likely be the threat to national security,” Mr. Baker said in his testimony, portions of which were read to The completely new York Times. Mr. Baker did not explicitly acknowledge the existence of the investigation of Mr. Trump to congressional investigators.

No evidence has emerged publicly of which Mr. Trump was secretly in contact with or took direction through Russian government officials. An F.B.I. spokeswoman as well as a spokesman for the special counsel’s office both declined to comment.

Rudolph W. Giuliani, a lawyer for the president, sought to play down the significance of the investigation. “The fact of which This particular goes back a year as well as a half as well as nothing came of This particular of which showed a breach of national security means they found nothing,” Mr. Giuliani said on Friday, though he acknowledged of which he had no insight into the inquiry.

The cloud of the Russia investigation has hung over Mr. Trump since even before he took office, though he has long vigorously denied any illicit connection to Moscow. The obstruction inquiry, revealed by The Washington Post a few weeks after Mr. Mueller was appointed, represented a direct threat of which he was unable to simply brush off as an overzealous examination of a handful of advisers. however few details have been made public about the counterintelligence aspect of the investigation.

The decision to investigate Mr. Trump himself was an aggressive move by F.B.I. officials who were confronting the chaotic aftermath of the firing of Mr. Comey as well as enduring the president’s verbal assaults on the Russia investigation as a “witch hunt.”

A vigorous debate has taken shape among some former law enforcement officials outside the case over whether F.B.I. investigators overreacted in opening the counterintelligence inquiry during a tumultuous period at the Justice Department. some other former officials noted of which those critics were not privy to all of the evidence as well as argued of which sitting on This particular would likely have been an abdication of duty.

The F.B.I. conducts two types of inquiries, criminal as well as counterintelligence investigations. Unlike criminal investigations, which are typically aimed at solving a crime as well as can result in arrests as well as convictions, counterintelligence inquiries are generally fact-finding missions to understand what a foreign power is usually doing as well as to stop any anti-American activity, like thefts of United States government secrets or covert efforts to influence policy. In most cases, the investigations are carried out quietly, sometimes for years. Often, they result in no arrests.

Mr. Trump had caught the attention of F.B.I. counterintelligence agents when he called on Russia during a campaign news conference in July 2016 to hack into the emails of his opponent, Hillary Clinton. Mr. Trump had refused to criticize Russia on the campaign trail, praising President Vladimir V. Putin. as well as investigators had watched with alarm as the Republican Party softened its convention platform on the Ukraine crisis in a way of which seemed to benefit Russia.

within the months before the 2016 election, the F.B.I. was also already investigating four of Mr. Trump’s associates over their ties to Russia. The constellation of events disquieted F.B.I. officials who were simultaneously watching as Russia’s campaign unfolded to undermine the presidential election by exploiting existing divisions among Americans.

“within the Russian Federation as well as in President Putin himself, you have an individual whose aim is usually to disrupt the Western alliance as well as whose aim is usually to make Western democracy more fractious in order to weaken our ability, America’s ability as well as the West’s ability to spread our democratic ideals,” Lisa Page, a former bureau lawyer, told House investigators in private testimony reviewed by The Times.

“of which’s the goal, to make us less of a moral authority to spread democratic values,” she added. Parts of her testimony were first reported by The Epoch Times.

as well as when a newly inaugurated Mr. Trump sought a loyalty pledge through Mr. Comey as well as later asked of which he end an investigation into the president’s national security adviser, the requests set off discussions among F.B.I. officials about opening an inquiry into whether Mr. Trump had tried to obstruct of which case.

however law enforcement officials put off the decision to open the investigation until they had learned more, according to people familiar with their thinking. As for a counterintelligence inquiry, they concluded of which they would likely need strong evidence to take the sensitive step of investigating the president, as well as they were also concerned of which the existence of such an inquiry could be leaked to the news media, undermining the entire investigation into Russia’s meddling within the election.

After Mr. Comey was fired on May 9, 2017, two more of Mr. Trump’s actions prompted them to quickly abandon those reservations.

Even after the deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein, wrote a more restrained draft of the letter as well as told Mr. Trump of which he did not have to mention the Russia investigation — Mr. Comey’s poor handling of the Clinton email investigation would likely suffice as a fireable offense, he explained — Mr. Trump directed Mr. Rosenstein to mention the Russia investigation anyway.

He disregarded the president’s order, irritating Mr. Trump. The president ultimately added a reference to the Russia investigation to the note he had delivered, thanking Mr. Comey for telling him three times of which he was not under investigation.

The second event of which troubled investigators was an NBC News interview two days after Mr. Comey’s firing in which Mr. Trump appeared to say he had dismissed Mr. Comey because of the Russia inquiry.

“I was going to fire Comey knowing there was no not bad time to do This particular,” he said. “as well as in fact, when I decided to just do This particular, I said to myself — I said, you know, This particular Russia thing with Trump as well as Russia is usually a made-up story. This particular’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election of which they should’ve won.”

Mr. Trump’s aides have said of which a fuller examination of his comments demonstrates of which he did not fire Mr. Comey to end the Russia inquiry. “I might even lengthen out the investigation, however I have to do the right thing for the American people,” Mr. Trump added. “He’s the wrong man for of which position.”

As F.B.I. officials debated whether to open the investigation, some of them pushed to move quickly before Mr. Trump appointed a director who might slow down or even end their investigation into Russia’s interference. Many involved within the case viewed Russia as the chief threat to American democratic values.

“With respect to Western ideals as well as who This particular is usually as well as what This particular is usually we stand for as Americans, Russia poses the most dangerous threat to of which way of life,” Ms. Page told investigators for a joint House Judiciary as well as Oversight Committee investigation into Moscow’s election interference.