Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s criminal probe into potential conspiracy between Trumpworld and Russia is over. The head of the House intelligence committee wants to know if that means the FBI’s counterintelligence probe into the same question has also concluded.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) told The Daily Beast on Wednesday that he’s begun negotiations with the intelligence agencies to get an answer to one of the many unknowns about the Mueller probe currently hidden behind the veil of Attorney General William Barr’s letter on Sunday purporting to summarize it.
“At this point, we don’t know whether any of the counterintelligence findings are part of the Mueller report,” Schiff said. “We have initiated discussions with the intelligence community to make sure that we obtain whatever is found in the counterintelligence investigation, or whether that [inquiry] is still ongoing.”
In January, The New York Times, citing in part the FBI’s former top lawyer, James Baker, reported that the bureau opened a counterintelligence inquiry into Trump’s ties to Russia in May 2017 after the president fired Director James Comey, who was then in charge of the overall Russia probe. Mueller, soon empaneled as special counsel, inherited that investigation.
Current and former FBI and Justice Department officials have characterized a counterintelligence probe into a sitting president—with its implication that the president, wittingly or not, posed a threat to national security—as unprecedented. For the same reason, the Times reported that the decision to open the probe was internally controversial.
The bureau’s counterintelligence investigations seek to understand the surreptitious activities of a foreign power and their possible connections to Americans. Since their objectives are not necessarily to bring charges, their standards of evidence are well below those of criminal inquiries. It is possible that Mueller closed the counterintelligence inquiry, and it is possible that Mueller passed it back to the FBI. Schiff wants to know either way.
Frank Figliuzzi, a former FBI counterintelligence chief, said it was more likely that a continued counterintelligence probe would focus more on the Russian side of the investigation than on the Trump side.
“It’s possible that Mueller’s findings with regard to the counterintelligence aspects could have caused the FBI to remove the president’s name from the Russian counterintelligence investigation. Or it’s also still possible that the president’s name remains as a subject of the Russian counterintelligence investigation, but it’s unlikely, given based on what we’re seeing in the attorney general’s summary,” Figliuzzi said.
“What is more likely is that, based on the attorney general’s assertion that multiple overtures were made to the campaign by Russians, the FBI cases on those Russians will remain open for quite some time,” Figliuzzi continued.
“The FBI clearly would not have shut down all its Russian counterintelligence operations in deference to the special counsel investigation, which would have been primarily a backward-looking inquiry,” added former FBI special agent Mike German. “Where there was overlap they would have shared information, and where there is ongoing work it will revert back to normal FBI procedures. It is most likely that information gathered by one would be available to the other.”
The FBI and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence declined to comment.
“Obviously we have the deepest interests in the counterintelligence aspects of the investigation,” Schiff said Wednesday.
“I can tell you there are certain things that are of grave counterintelligence concern even if they’re not criminal,” he said. “The one that comes most prominently to mind was Donald Trump’s efforts to build Trump Tower Moscow during the presidential campaign, to consummate that deal, to seek the Kremlin’s support to make that happen while concealing it, and while advocating a different relationship with Russia and praising Putin. Putin’s approval may have well been necessary for that project but at a minimum, his opposition would have been impossible to overcome. If that was shaping the views of candidate Trump, if that shapes the views of President Trump, if there’s still a desire to make that deal in the future, that obviously has profound counterintelligence ramifications.”
Schiff said the committee had yet to determine who to bring in for a briefing on the counterintelligence aspects of the Mueller probe, “whether that is Bob Mueller, whether that is [FBI] Director [Christopher] Wray, whether that is someone leading the counterintelligence probe for Bob Mueller we don’t know.” It’s unclear to Schiff if the intelligence agencies and the Justice Department “have a plan yet,” but he noted that the intelligence agencies are under a “statutory obligation...to fully inform us on intelligence and counterintelligence activities. We’ll expect them to meet the requirements of the way.”
However that plays out, Schiff said, it would not substitute for the public release of Mueller’s full report.
“Any effort to publish less than the full report is a dealbreaker,” he said. “So that’s our primary focus right now, and we want to make sure nothing gets in the way of that.”