The pattern of his pro-Putin, pro-Russia, anti-FBI, anti-intelligence community actions are so one-sided, and the lies and obfuscation surrounding every single Russian meeting and conversation so consistent that if this president isn’t actually hiding a massive conspiracy, it means the alternative is worse: America elected a chief executive so oblivious to geopolitics, so self-centered and personally insecure, so naturally predisposed to undermine democratic institutions and coddle authoritarians, and so terrible a manager and leader that he cluelessly surrounded himself with crooks, grifters, and agents of foreign powers that he’s compromised the national security of the US government and undermined 75 years of critical foreign alliances, just to satiate his own ego.
In short, we’ve reached a point in the Mueller probe where there are only two scenarios left: Either the president is compromised by the Russian government and has been working covertly to cooperate with Vladimir Putin after Russia helped win him the 2016 election—or Trump will go down in history as the world’s most famous “useful idiot,” as communists used to call those who could be co-opted to the cause without realizing it.
At least the former scenario—that the president of the United States is actively working to advance the interests of our country’s foremost, long-standing, traditional foreign adversary—would make him seem smarter and wilier. The latter scenario is simply a tragedy, or maybe a farce for everyone involved.
We’re left here—in a place unprecedented in American political history, wondering how much worse the truth is than we already know—after four days of fresh revelations in the public drip-drip-drip of the Russia investigation. The past two months have seen the public understanding of the case advance into almost unthinkable territory. Now we’re simply trying to figure out how bad things really are.
Consider: On Friday, The New York Times reported that the FBI opened a counterintelligence investigation of the president himself in 2017; on Saturday, The Washington Post published a story saying that Trump has gone to great lengths to cover up and hide—even from his own aides—his interactions with Putin; on Sunday, columnist Max Boot outlined the case for Trump as a Russian asset; and on Tuesday the Times came back with an authoritative recounting of Trump and Putin’s interactions, a recounting that included a bizarre telephone call from Air Force One where the president tried to argue off the record that contrary to the unanimous conclusion of his own intelligence community, “that the Russians were falsely accused of election interference.”
Like so much of the strangeness of the Trump era, these new revelations are simultaneously shocking but not surprising. Of course the FBI wondered why Trump’s actions toward Russia and the intelligence community were so aberrant and felt compelled to investigate. But to fully understand why these revelations matter so much in the grand scheme of the special counsel’s investigation and the Russia probe, it helps to understand a bit about spies and the unique, dual mission of the FBI—which is tasked not just with enforcing federal criminal laws, but also with protecting the nation’s secrets, politics, and economy from undue foreign influence.
I’ve said before that one of the most misunderstood aspects of this investigation—from the start and to this day—is that it began by targeting the Trump campaign and Americans like Carter Page and George Papadopoulos. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Page and Papadopoulos (and more recently, Michael Flynn) have shouted from the rooftops in recent months that they were entrapped and targeted by the Deep State FBI—that’s even the name of Papadopoulos’ forthcoming, fever-dream-inspired book—but the FBI started with their best interests at heart: Agents saw people with ties to the Russian government circling around the Trump campaign, and so the bureau stepped in, entirely appropriately, to monitor that activity.
The FBI was apparently alerted to this activity by their own intelligence and from tips provided by friendly foreign intelligence overseas. It wasn’t like these Russia-affiliated characters were necessarily new to the FBI: In 2013, agents in New York had watched as undercover officers from the Russian SVR, its foreign intelligence service, akin to the CIA, tried to recruit Page as an asset—only to determine he was too scatterbrained to be of any use.
The FBI’s investigation during the 2016 presidential campaign, which we know now was codenamed Crossfire Hurricane, began as an attempt to protect Trump, to protect a political neophyte and the bizarre assortment of advisers who had surrounded him (the political equivalent of the Star Wars bar scene) from what the FBI believed were the nefarious efforts of Kremlin-linked players.
Now counterintelligence investigations, as shadowy as they are, are just that; their singular goal is to counter the specific activities of foreign intelligence services. Counterintelligence cases are markedly different than criminal cases, because when they begin the ultimate goal isn’t necessarily a pair of handcuffs and a courtroom—the goal is simply to counter the targeted actions. That can mean an arrest in some cases, but it also can mean simply watching—monitoring a suspected intelligence officer’s or agent’s routines and meetings, as the FBI evidently did with the NRA’s Russian friend, Maria Butina, for years.
It can also mean covertly disrupting or neutralizing the activity in some way, which can be as simple as showing up unannounced in US offices to warn unwitting Americans that they might have interacted with—or are about to interact with—a suspected undercover intelligence officer. (The Trump campaign did, in fact, receive so-called “defensive” briefings from the FBI to be wary that it might be the target of outreach and attempted influence from foreign powers—warnings the campaign pointedly ignored, either stupidly or conspiratorially.) At their most advanced, counterintelligence investigations can lead to the recruitment of double agents, triple agents, or the feeding of false intelligence or information back through identified spy channels.
Counterintelligence cases come with special authorities, including powerful FISA warrants for monitoring communications, along with special oversight, coordinated nationally through the Justice Department’s National Security Division—because they’re vital to the security of the United States and meant to help protect both ordinary, unwitting Americans as well as the nation’s political and military leaders.
The evolution of the FBI’s inquiry—from starting out in the spring of 2016 by attempting to protect the Trump campaign and realizing by the fall that the Trump campaign was open for business with Russia, to wondering by the spring of 2017 whether the candidate-turned-president himself was in on or even directing the plot—must have been head-spinning for the bureau and its allies in the Justice Department.
We still don’t understand nearly enough about what transpired inside the ironically paired FBI’s J. Edgar Hoover Building headquarters on one side of Pennsylvania Avenue and the Justice Department’s Robert F. Kennedy building across the street during the 10 days between FBI director James Comey’s firing and the appointment of Mueller as special counsel—the panic on the part of acting director Andrew McCabe, the befuddlement of deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, and the horror among agents and prosecutors. (We might know more when McCabe’s memoir comes out later this spring.)
But we know that there was evidence that deeply concerned both McCabe and Rosenstein. And we know too that we haven’t yet seen that evidence. It’s easy to forget how much of this case the FBI and Mueller know that we don’t.
For just one example: We know thanks to the bumbling of Representative Devin Nunes of California that Carter Page was targeted with a FISA warrant that was renewed three times, each for an additional 90 days, by two successive deputy attorneys general: Sally Yates and Rod Rosenstein. Each time the FISA warrant was renewed, the Justice Department would have had to demonstrate to a court that it had uncovered new intelligence showing that Page was having contact with foreign agents. What was this new intelligence? What was Page doing during this whole period, which stretched from a couple weeks before the November 2016 election right through the transition and the beginning of the Trump presidency? We don’t yet know.
Nearly all of the revelations we’ve seen thus far from the Mueller probe and the Russia investigation have focused on the “what.” Some of the whats we know so far: Paul Manafort—a money launderer, deeply indebted to Russian oligarchs, who was working for free as Trump’s campaign chair—passed polling data to someone tied to Russian intelligence. The Trump Tower Moscow project continued well into the campaign. National security adviser Michael Flynn tried to cover up his conversations with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. The attack on the 2016 election by Russian intelligence, approved by Putin himself, shifted over the course of 2016 from merely attacking Hillary Clinton to actively boosting Trump himself. Kremlin-linked figures sat down with Trump’s campaign leaders in June 2016. Trump confiscated the notes of his government interpreter after meeting with Putin in Hamburg.
What we haven’t seen in any of these instances (and many others) is the “why.” That’s where we’ll ultimately learn the truth about which scenario we face: An incredibly hapless and easily coopted president—or an active criminal conspirator? Why was Manafort funneling campaign polling data through Konstantin Kilimnik? Why does Mueller believe Kilimnik is tied to Russian intelligence? Why does the US believe the Russian president himself approved the attack?
So now we can add the following whys: Why has Trump covered up his interactions with Putin from his own government? Why has he sought out Putin for private conversations? Why did he confiscate the notes from his interpreter?
Presumably, the FBI and Mueller uncovered all these “whats” relatively quickly and easily. The investigation has stretched on to document and understand the “whys.”
As Esquire’s Charlie Pierce noted this week, The New York Times’ carefully written story on the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation includes a deeply pregnant phrase: “No evidence has emerged publicly that Mr. Trump was secretly in contact with or took direction from Russian government officials.” No evidence has emerged publicly. But there are plenty of bread crumbs pointing to the idea that such evidence exists secretly, with investigators.
Understanding and answering those “why” questions will mark this final phase of Robert Mueller’s investigation. Only then will the nation and the world know the answer to the one big, honking “what” question that’s left: What is Trump’s motives for all his inexplicable actions? It’s hard to know which answer will be worse for the country.
Garrett M. Graff (@vermontgmg) is a contributing editor for WIRED and the co-author of Dawn of the Code War: America’s Battle Against Russia, China, and the Rising Global Cyber Threat. He can be reached at email@example.com.