This Report Claims Trump May Have Acted In Russian Interests & It Raises The Stakes On The Russia Investigation
The saga of Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election is in its third year, and it is only ever ramping up. The latest major update is a New York Times report on Jan. 11 which claims that in 2017, the FBI had reportedly opened a counterintelligence inquiry on the president to determine whether he was acting on behalf of the Russian government (intentionally or not). The report brought an onslaught of questions, including what would it mean if Trump was an agent of Russia. The answers is, well, complicated. Elite Daily reached out to the White House and the FBI for comment on the Times' report but didn't receive a response at time of publication. The special counsel's office declined to comment on the matter.
Per the Times, the inquiry sought to determine whether the president was operating in Russian interests, and it began after Trump fired former FBI director James Comey in May 2017. The inquiry was reportedly part of the broader investigation led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into the president's 2016 campaign and possible collusion with Russia. That overarching investigation has not yet resulted in any public conclusion, and it's not clear if the counterintelligence inquiry is still ongoing. As of January 2018, the president has been neither formally accused of nor charged with any crime. The FBI did not immediately respond to Elite Daily's questions on the matter, including whether the reported inquiry had resulted in any conclusions, or if it was ongoing.
Throughout the weekend of Jan. 12, conversations and commentaries continued to swirl around the bombshell report and what it might mean. The speculation wasn't helped by Trump's response: on Jan. 12, Fox News' Jeanine Pirro asked Trump if he was, in fact, an agent of Russia, and he didn't explicitly deny it; rather, he called it the "most insulting thing" he'd ever been asked.
While the FBI's findings, if they exist, haven't been made public yet, that a counterintelligence inquiry may have been opened at all is major. Asha Rangappa, a lawyer and former FBI counterintelligence agent who's written extensively on this very topic, tells Elite Daily in an interview that counterintelligence investigations are primarily concerned with national security and thwarting any threats before they happen. So it's a big deal that the president may have had such an inquiry into him opened by the FBI — but it's also not definitive.
"I was startled," Rangappa tells Elite Daily, in reaction to the news. "What it told me was the FBI really possesses enough to believe that [Trump] poses a threat to the U.S., to the point where they need to open an investigation to determine whether there is in fact a threat. It told me, [Trump's] not just acting weird. Beyond what we've seen in public sphere, the [FBI] has gathered info that gives them cause for significant alarm."
But should the president be found to be acting in Russia's interests — and again, as of publication there has been no evidence to support this claim — it would mean that "the president by definition is unable to uphold his office to protect and defend the US and it puts the country at risk," Rangappa says. "It's a clear and present danger to the United States." All that matters because threats to national security and not working in country's best interest are exactly the sorts of things Congress could — hypothetically — impeach someone for.
In fact, crimes (or evidence of them) aren't necessarily required for impeachment, as expert Barbara Radnofsky previously told Elite Daily. Instead, Congress' chief concerns for impeachment are about an office holder's ability to uphold the office honorably and act in the nation's best interest. And this is where posing a danger to the country could put Trump squarely into impeachable territory.
As to why the FBI might have felt the need to push that proverbial big red button, it has a lot to do with how much power the president holds. "There's a lot of areas where he has almost sole discretion," Rangappa says, and adds that the president has a lot of leeway in his relationships with foreign leaders, as well as in other matters, like military decisions and declaring war. So it would be problematic if a president is wielding his powers, even unwittingly, in the wrong interest. It doesn't help that The Washington Post also reported on Jan. 13 that Trump has tried to keep his own administration from knowing the details of his in-person conversations with Putin. The White House did not respond to Elite Daily's request for comment on the matter.
However, that doesn't mean such actions would be illegal, in the technical sense. "In the case of the president, if he's compromised in some way ... and he is then exercising presidential powers in a way that benefits Russia, that wouldn't be a crime," Rangappa told the podcast On Topic on Jan. 13. "He has the legal powers to do that, but it's still a national security concern, obviously, if his main motivation in using those powers is to do it in the interest of a foreign adversary and not in the interest of the United States."
Crime or no, the possibility of a president working in the interest of a foreign power still a serious national security concern, and as with any other national security threats, it would be one that the FBI would want to neutralize. Normally, the FBI would take steps to stop that threat. But with a president? Things get more complicated, as no one really has the authority to tell the prez to simply knock it off.
So what might happen if the FBI does conclude there's a national security threat in the form of a president compromised by a foreign power? It's tricky.
"Their hands would be tied," Rangappa says. "In order to really take action, they'd have to prevent him from being to perform the duties of his office." In other words, the only way the FBI can effectively prevent or stop such a threat would be to disclose that threat to Congress and advise that they impeach and remove him from office. There's not much beyond that, she says, that the FBI could do.
Of course, whether or not the president would actually be removed by this process depends on whether the House would vote to impeach him, and then whether two-thirds of the Republican-held Senate would move to convict him — two large hurdles. Rangappa thinks that while there's a definite possibility this could happen, it really all depends on what Mueller's report reveals, and no matter what the DOJ doesn't have the authority to remove the president from office. As of now, there's no clear indication of when the Mueller report might be given to Congress. So until further notice, it's all up in the air.