The firing of FBI director James Comey this week throws into turmoil the agency’s ongoing investigation into Russian involvement in the 2016 US presidential election, and raises doubts about how effective the FBI will be on the subject going forward.
In firing Comey, Donald Trump got rid of “the one independent person who was doing the most to investigate president Trump and his campaign over allegations of coordination with Russia,” representative Elijah E. Cummings of the House oversight committee said on May 9, a sentiment echoed by Democrats across Capitol Hill. Several Republicans also expressed surprise and dismay at Comey’s dismissal, saying it could make a complicated investigation more difficult.
And calls are increasing for a special prosecutor to run an investigation into Russia’s involvement in the US election.
But the FBI is not the only organization looking into Russian meddling and the circumstances behind former national security advisor Micheal Flynn’s firing in February. In fact, a wide range of US agencies, politicians, and individuals will continue their own investigations. Last spring, an informal “working group” of US agencies, including the National Security Agency and the Department of Justice, began investigating Russian interference in the US election. In January, the agencies said in a report that Russia aimed to undermine US faith in the democratic election process, denigrate Hillary Clinton, and showed a “clear preference” for Trump.
However, many outside investigations have lacked the manpower and experience of the FBI. Congressional committees in particular have been hampered by a lack of full-time staff and the refusal by the White House and former Trump campaign aides to cooperate. The chairman of one committee stepped down from his post after critics argued he was trying to sabotage the investigation. After Comey’s firing, Republicans are feeling a new sense of urgency.
On the other hand, Comey’s dismissal may already be making officials involved in the other investigations more determined. “It is definitely creating a renewed sense of urgency,” said a congressional aide working with the Senate intelligence committee, one of the investigating groups. “The Democrats never felt we were moving fast enough, but now the public pressure has increased on the committee and the Republicans are feeling this urgency as well.”
The FBI has been investigating Russia’s involvement since July 2016, and recently issued subpoenas to business associates of Mike Flynn. CNN reported that the subpoenas were “seeking business records,” an apparent escalation. Days before he was fired, Comey asked deputy attorney general Rob Rosenstein for a significant increase in funds and personnel for the investigation, the New York Times reports.
In March, CNN estimated that there could be 15 to 20 FBI agents assigned to the investigation.
Andrew McCabe, the deputy director of the FBI, is the new acting director and will presumably take charge of the investigation temporarily. As Comey was being fired, Trump was meeting with McCabe in the Oval office to “gauge” the deputy director before elevating him to acting director, CNN reported.
But a permanent FBI director will eventually have to be appointed by Trump and approved by the Republican-controlled Senate. This new leader could slow down or detour the investigation, Richard Frankel, a former FBI official, told ABC. The FBI agents assigned to the case are probably wondering whether “somebody’s gonna shut us down, somebody’s gonna hamper us, somebody’s gonna do something to make this case go away,” Frankel said.
The CIA’s investigation into Russia’s potential meddling in the US election reportedly began last year as well. While the FBI deals with domestic matters, the CIA deals with international ones, and is unable to act against US citizens.
The agency has also been providing “raw intelligence” to congressional investigating committees since March, when senators and representatives trekked out to the CIA headquarters in Virginia to view documents. This represents an unusual level of cooperation between Congress and the security agency.
The US Treasury Department
The Treasury’s financial crimes unit is investigating payments involving Trump campaign advisor Paul Manafort and bank accounts in Cyprus related to money-laundering allegations. Treasury secretary Steven Mnuchin is a Trump appointee.
The Department of Defense
The inspector general of the Defense Department started an investigation on April 4 “to determine if Lieutenant General (Retired) Flynn accepted payments in violation of the Emoluments Clause, implementing laws, or Department of Defense regulations,” according to Bruce Anderson, a spokesman for the Office of the Inspector General.
The Senate select committee on intelligence:
The committee is investigating Russia’s “active measures” and the spread of disinformation in the US. During its first public hearing in March, witnesses told the committee that Russian media outlets and trolls “worked to sideline” Trump’s Republican opponents during the US primaries. The committee has conducted dozens of interviews. After criticism that it had only seven full-time staff, the committee hired two more in late April. It also has several support staff members that do things like draw up subpoenas.
The committee asked Trump campaign aide Carter Paige on April 28 for documents related to its investigation, but said on May 5 that Paige may not be cooperating. It has also requested documents related to Trump from the US Treasury’s money-laundering department, NBC reports.
On May 10, it subpoenaed Flynn, after he declined to give the committee documents they had requested. Refusing to comply would put him in contempt of Congress, and he could be jailed. If Flynn refuses to respond to the subpoena, he could be jailed.
Comey was scheduled to testify during an open committee hearing May 11, but McCabe testified in his place, and Comey will testify in a closed-door session on May 16. McCabe said he “absolutely” would inform the committee of any effort to interfere with the FBI’s investigation.
The chairman and the vice chairman of the committee have already secured an “unprecedented” level of cooperation from the FBI, a congressional aide working with the Senate intelligence committee said, including “sharing sources and types of intelligence that have never been shared with Congress before.” This cooperation isn’t expected to end even though Comey no longer heads the FBI.
The committee intends to wrap up its investigation by the end of the year, said the congressional aide. The ultimate goal is to “create a picture for the American people of what happened in this election and what would happen again” if we don’t do anything about it, the aide said.
The Senate judiciary committee
The committee’s subgroup on “crime and terrorism” is investigating Flynn’s departure, the role of the Department of Justice in it, and the role of US government officials regarding various information leaks. Former acting attorney general Sally Yates told the committee this week that she advised the White House about Flynn’s lies because he could blackmailed, adding “you don’t want the national security adviser to be in a position where the Russians have leverage over him.”
Despite the high-profile topic, the committee has no professional staff assigned to the investigation.
The House intelligence committee
The House permanent select committee on intelligence’s investigation into Russian involvement in the US election has been delayed and sidelined multiple times. Not surprisingly, it has also yielded very little relevant information. Former chair Devin Nunes, a Republican representative, cancelled scheduled testimony by Yates, former national intelligence director James Clapper, and former CIA director John Brennan in March. Nunes also took a clandestine trip to the White House to discuss the committee’s findings with Trump.
In April, chairman Nunes stepped down. His replacement Mike Conaway, a Republican from Texas, has criticized Trump’s pro-Russia stance in the past, but has also been photographed wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat. Republicans on the committee boycotted a hearing organized by a Democrat last month.
The House oversight committee
The committee has limited its investigation to Flynn’s interactions with the Russian government, particularly his potential failure to declare payments from foreign governments ahead of his appointment as national security advisor.
After Comey testified at a closed-door briefing in January, Democrats said they were “outraged” by what they had learned, but could not share publicly. In March, the committee released documents showing that Flynn had been paid $45,000 by Russian state news outlet RT for his attendance at a dinner in 2015. In April, the committee said Flynn may have broken the law.
The White House has so far refused to comply with a committee request made in March to turn over documents related to Flynn and his contacts with foreign officials. Democrats say they’re having a hard time getting Representative Jason Chaffetz, the Republican chairman of the committee, to press the White House. After Democrats on the committee sent a letter to the chairman requesting that the committee seek a meeting with the White House to get these documents, “all we have heard is crickets,” said one Democratic staffer working on the committee.
Chaffetz has also refused to expand the investigation beyond Flynn, according to the staffer, and “lately seems to have plans to give this up, too.” Since Comey was fired, though, “we are now seeing small signs of increased bipartisan support for an independent commission,” the Democratic staffer said. The commission has no full-time staff dedicated to the investigation.
Numerous media investigations
At the same time as the US government is investigating the issue, media in the US and the UK have been doggedly pursuing the topic. Trump openly criticized the US intelligence community on the campaign trail and during his early days in office, and has few fans among their ranks. Factor in the numerous ongoing congressional investigations—and the White House’s own deeply divided staff—and the situation is ripe for leaks.
Ultimately, people involved in the investigations say, if Trump’s intention in firing Comey was to shut down investigations into his campaign and administration’s possible ties to Russia, that move may well have backfired.