Critical Context for the FBI Probe of Trump

Russian Foreign Ministry

So many things have happened over the last two-plus years that simply defy belief that it can be essential to review them, to see what light they shed on new developments when arranged in order. Last night the Times reported that in the immediate aftermath of James Comey’s firing the FBI launched a probe into “whether Mr. Trump was knowingly working for Russia or had unwittingly fallen under Moscow’s influence.”

It’s worth reviewing the precise chain of events.

Trump fired Comey on Tuesday, May 9th, 2017. The following day, May 10th, Trump received Russia Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak in the Oval Office. US press was barred from the event. But the Russian state news agency TASS was invited to cover the meeting. The photos that were later released came out of Russia.

The White House later confirmed that Trump had taken this meeting because Vladimir Putin had personally asked him to on a phone call a few days earlier. “He chose to receive him because Putin asked him to,” a White House spokesman told Susan Glasser the following day. “Putin did specifically ask on the call when they last talked.”

At the meeting, Trump told Lavrov and Kislyak that he had just fired Comey and that this had removed the “pressure” he was under because of the FBI investigation into possible Trump campaign collusion with Russia. “I just fired the head of the F.B.I. He was crazy, a real nut job. I faced great pressure because of Russia. That’s taken off,” Trump told the two men according to an internal US government summary document based on notes taken during the meeting.

WASHINGTON, D.C., USA – MAY 10, 2017: Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, US President Donald Trump, and Russia’s Ambassador to the United States Sergei Kislyak (L-R) during a meeting in the Oval Office at the White House. Alexander Shcherbak/TASS (Photo by Alexander ShcherbakTASS via Getty Images)

At the meeting, Trump also shared highly classified intelligence about the Islamic State with Lavrov, intelligence that apparently came from Israel and jeopardized field sources and operations in Syria.

The Times article says that FBI agents felt ‘validated” in their decision to act so quickly and decisively when these quotes from the President to Lavrov surfaced. This makes it seem like this wasn’t itself part of the decision but vindicated the decision after the fact. But that may be a bit misleading. The summary of the discussions was first revealed to The New York Times nine days later on May 19th, presumably after the FBI had already kicked off its investigation. It seems plausible that the FBI would have had access to this information before the Times. But if we take the Times‘ reporting from last night on its face, they only learned what the President said after they started the probe.

Even if that’s the case, which I assume it was, the fact of the meeting itself, held at President Putin’s request and with no US press allowed would have raised alarm bells throughout the US intelligence and counter-intelligence worlds and almost certainly figured into the decision to launch the investigation.

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