Winston Churchill once famously described Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Speaking in 1939, his words perfectly captured Moscow as the West’s menacing yet inscrutable nemesis. “But, perhaps there is a key,” he said: “And, that key is Russian national interest.”
Some eighty years later, the director of the FBI James Comey would probably echo that sentiment. Testifying before Congress on Monday, he revealed that the bureau is officially investigating links between Donald Trump’s campaign team and the Kremlin in subverting last November’s US election.
The move marks an extraordinary and unprecedented standoff between America’s top intelligence agency and a sitting president. After dropping a criminal investigation on the White House’s doorstep, Comey told Congress that his office will pursue the issue “no matter how long it takes.”
It is important to note that the FBI needs “a credible allegation of wrongdoing or reasonable basis to believe that an American may be acting as an agent of a foreign power,” in order to launch a counterintelligence investigation.
And, although there is no proof of collusion between Trump’s associates and Moscow thus far, officials have uncovered evidence that points to repeated contacts between his team and Russian officials in the run-up to last year’s presidential race.
Moreover, according to CNN, Trump’s team “communicated with suspected Russian operatives to possibly coordinate the release of information damaging to Hillary Clinton’s campaign.”
Up until now, Trump has brushed off the Kremlin scandal as a politically motivated “fake news” story cooked up the Democrats and the “lying” media to undermine his presidency. But, yesterday’s statements from the FBI mark the first public acknowledgment of the case, adding fresh credibility to the allegations.
“There’s a smell of treason in the air,” says presidential historian Douglas Brinkley: “Imagine if J. Edgar Hoover or any other FBI director would have testified against a sitting president? It would have been a mind-boggling event.”
The bureau only publicly discloses its investigations in rare instances when it believes it is in the public’s interest to know: “This is one of those circumstances,” Comey said. The FBI has been examining the matter since last July.
But, if that’s the case, then why did Comey feel compelled to inform the public about his investigation of Hillary Clinton’s emails just one week before the election, whilst keeping the whole Russian affair completely under wraps?
Nevertheless, flanked by the director of the NSA, Admiral Michael Rogers, Comey also dismissed the president’s unsubstantiated claim that his predecessor Barack Obama had his phones wiretapped: “I have no information that supports those tweets, and we have looked carefully inside the F.B.I.”
Both moves mark a major blow for the fledgling Trump administration which has been in power for less than 100 days.
The news comes two months after an unsubstantiated dossier, penned by a former MI6 agent, claimed that Vladimir Putin not only helped the property tycoon to win last year’s presidential race, but he “has been actively cultivating, supporting and assisting Trump for at least 5 years.”
His aim: to “disrupt, divide and discredit” the entire western democratic order in favor of Moscow.
A few days later, US intelligence agencies concluded that the Russian president had personally orchestrated a covert operation to hurt Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The offensive included creating and circulating fake stories about the former Secretary of State, hacking the Democratic National Committee and releasing compromising emails via WikiLeaks.
Standing by those findings, Comey described Moscow’s meddling as “unusually loud”, saying it was almost like it wanted to be caught. He believes that Putin’s objective was to “freak” the American “people out” by undermining their faith in the US democratic process.
Comey told Congress that the FBI would continue to examine “whether any crimes were committed” and that the inquiry would include “investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government, and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.”
He said he had no idea how long the investigation would take, revealing only that it was “very complex,” and that the FBI would “will follow the facts wherever they lead.” But, as counterintelligence investigations are notoriously both complicated and drawn out, this could dog the Trump administration for years to come.
The widening scandal has already claimed the scalp of Trump’s national security advisor Michael Flynn. In February, it transpired that the retired general had lied about the nature of his conversations with the Russian ambassador. As a private citizen, Flynn had illegally discussed lifting sanctions on Moscow before taking office.
According to congressional investigators, two years ago Flynn also received over $65,000 from groups linked to Russia, including a US cybersecurity firm which reportedly has ties to the Kremlin.
A few weeks later, the scandal began to engulf the attorney general Jeff Sessions. He was forced to recuse himself from any investigations related to Moscow after failing to disclose that he had met the Russian ambassador in the months leading up to the election.
And, another longtime adviser to Trump, Roger Stone has also admitted being in contact with Guccifer 2.0, the hacker allegedly behind the Kremlin’s breach of the DNC.
The ranking Democrat on the committee, Adam Schiff said: “If Trump or his people cooperated with Russia’s so-called “active measures”, it would represent one of the most shocking betrayals of democracy in history … The stakes are nothing less than the future of our democracy, and of liberal democracy.”
In his typical defensive style, Trump vented his rage on Twitter, insisting that there was “no evidence” behind the allegations, and continued to blame the whole debacle on the Democrats as a poor “excuse for running a terrible campaign.”
Unsurprisingly, the White House dismissed most of Comey’s testimony. And, in a bizarre attempt to create a smokescreen, Trump has continued to peddle his wildly unsubstantiated claim that Obama had his phones wiretapped. The Tweeter-in-chief has even gone so far as accusing the UK’s GCHQ of being complicit in the whole affair. Appalled, the British intelligence outfit has branded the allegations as “utterly ridiculous.”
In spite of Trump’s erratic borderline behavior, “my gut is that he’s bulletproof with his base,” says Republican strategist Austin Barbour: “There’s just this massive distrust of Washington, and whether that’s fair or not — it’s just the reality outside of the Beltway.”
But, according to Brinkley who has written biographies on several US presidents, “This is the most failed first 100 days of any president. To be as low as he is in the polls, in the 30s, while the FBI director is on television saying they launched an investigation into your ties with Russia, I don’t know how it can get much worse.”