After President Trump fired FBI director James Comey in May 2017, the bureau opened a counterintelligence investigation into whether Trump was working on behalf of the Russian government and its President Vladimir Putin, the New York Times reported Friday night.
FBI agents were “alarmed” by Trump’s behavior and decided to investigate whether the president “was knowingly working for Russia or had unwittingly fallen under Moscow’s influence,” the Times said, citing former intelligence agents and others familiar with the investigation.
Days after that inquiry started, Robert Mueller was appointed special counsel and absorbed it into his own probe of whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to swing the 2016 election, the Times said. It’s not clear how far the FBI’s probe progressed before Mueller took it over.
This is the first time a sitting U.S. president has been investigated by the FBI on suspicion of acting as an agent for a hostile foreign power.
Experts immediately reflected on the landmark nature of the story, coming as it has after two years of reporting about Trump associates’ interactions with Russians and their attempts to cover them up; Trump’s solicitous behavior toward Putin, despite the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that Russian hackers, under Putin’s direction, had interfered in the 2016 election; and Trump’s repeated public rejections of that assessment, including his refusal to implement sanctions against Russia that were near-unanimously passed by Congress.
“In a way it’s surprising to learn this, and in a way it is not,” said former CIA director John McLaughlin on MSNBC Friday night, about the FBI opening their investigation. If they hadn’t done so, “it would be a little bit like sitting in a room full of smoke and not getting up to learn whether there was a fire,” he added.
Other intelligence analysts said it was likely the FBI had more information that is publicly known, which convinced them to open the investigation. Still others had blunter predictions. “We are going to learn that Donald Trump is a wholly owned subsidiary of Vladimir Putin,” said former U.S. counterterrorism agent Malcolm Nance.
In a statement Friday night, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders called the Times story “absurd.”