FBI probe of Trump-Russia ties began 3 months before election

The FBI’s counterintelligence investigation into possible coordination between the Trump campaign and the Russian government, confirmed by FBI director James Comey in congressional testimony Monday, began as early as late July — just weeks after a former British spy briefed bureau agents about evidence he had collected about such ties, sources tell Yahoo News.

Christopher Steele, a former British MI-6 intelligence officer who specialized in Russian operations, had been hired as an investigator by an opposition research firm (initially retained by Trump’s Republican primary opponents and later by supporters of Hillary Clinton). According to one of the sources, it was Steele who first alerted FBI agents on July 5 to evidence he had compiled that advisers to the Trump campaign and Kremlin officials were in contact about the 2016 election.

As first reported by Yahoo News, Steele’s information was taken seriously because he had a pre-existing relationship with the FBI, having worked as a consultant for the FBI’s Eurasian organized crime section, helping to develop information about ties between suspected Russian gangsters and FIFA, the international soccer governing body.

The early contact between Steele and the bureau now appears to have set in motion a chain of events that led to Monday’s extraordinary testimony by Comey that the bureau has been actively investigating possible links between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin since “late July” — or more than three months before Election Day.

“I’ve been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI, as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election,” Comey told members of the House Intelligence Committee in a prepared opening statement. “That includes 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.”

Comey’s testimony appeared to stun Republicans on the committee, one of whom, Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, said the existence of the investigation means “there is now a cloud that undermines our system.”

It is not a cloud that is likely to be lifted any time soon. Comey said there was no timetable on the probe, that he couldn’t predict how long it would take, and wouldn’t commit to giving any “updates” to the Congress about the status of the probe. When asked directly by Rep. Teri Sewell, D-Ala., “Was Donald Trump under investigation during the campaign?” Comey responded: “I’m not going to answer that.” He added quickly that the members shouldn’t draw any “inferences” from his answer.

FBI Director James Comey testifies on March 20, 2017, before the House Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, on allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. (Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Photo)
FBI Director James Comey testifies on March 20, 2017, before the House Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill, on allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. (Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Photo)

The public confirmation of an investigation into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and a foreign government was only one of the many stunning moments during Comey’s testimony. Comey testified that he did not inform congressional leaders about the existence of the probe “until recently” because “of its sensitivity.” Along with NSA director Mike Rogers, who also testified, the FBI director disputed President Trump’s contention in tweets on March 4 that his predecessor, President Barack Obama, had wiretapped him. Both said they had “no information” to support that.

In yet another development likely to anger the White House, a senior Justice Department official confirmed to Yahoo News that Comey received permission to publicly disclose the probe now from acting deputy attorney general Dana Boente, an Obama administration holdover.

Comey presumably made sure to leave the decision to reveal the existence of the investigation up to the Justice Department because of the intense criticism he faced last fall when, in the closing days of the presidential election, he publicly told Congress that the bureau had new evidence in the Hillary Clinton email probe. That disclosure, which some Clinton officials believe cost them the election, was made against the advice of senior Justice Department officials and has since triggered an investigation by the department’s inspector general’s office.

But President Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has formally recused himself from investigations of the Trump campaign, in which he played a leading role, and did not participate in the decision about what Comey should say.

That left the call to Boente — a career federal prosecutor who served as Obama’s U.S. attorney in Louisiana and later in northern Virginia. Asked the basis for Boente’s decision, and whether he had consulted others in the department, a senior department official declined to comment about “internal” deliberations.

Comey declined to say what precipitated the probe or to identify which individuals were under investigation for possible links to Moscow. But his acknowledgment that the probe dates to late July means that it began during a hectic month in which one of Trump’s foreign policy advisers, Carter Page, flew to Moscow and, according to Steele’s report to the bureau, allegedly met with senior Kremlin operatives close to President Vladimir Putin. It also came shortly after media reports that Trump campaign officials, during the Republican National Convention, which ended on July 20, changed the GOP platform to remove a plank calling for the U.S. government to provide weapons to Ukrainian forces resisting Russian-backed troops in that country.

Page has repeatedly derided the Steele dossier claims as “fake news,” even writing letters to Comey and the Justice Department to dispute them. Yahoo News reported that the FBI was investigating the Page allegations in September in a story that was the first to disclose the existence of a bureau investigation into any links between the campaign and the Russian government.

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