In May 2017, the FBI opened an inquiry into whether Donald Trump was working on behalf of Russia, the New York Times has reported.
Citing unnamed former law enforcement officials, the paper reported on Friday that in the days after the president fired FBI director James Comey, law enforcement officials were so worried about his behavior that they began investigating whether the president was working against US interests and on behalf of Moscow.
Counterintelligence investigators were reportedly considering whether Trump’s actions constituted a national security threat, an extraordinary line of inquiry against a sitting president. They also sought to determine whether the president was knowingly working for Russia, the report said.
Trump responded on Saturday morning with a volley of tweets which did not question the Times’ reporting but lambasted “the corrupt former leaders of the FBI” for opening an investigation “for no reason & with no proof”.
“Funny thing about James Comey,” Trump said. “Everybody wanted him fired, Republican and Democrat alike. My firing of James Comey was a great day for America. He was a Crooked Cop.”
Of the leaders who opened the investigation, Trump claimed without offering evidence that “almost all [were] fired or forced to leave the agency for some very bad reasons”.
He then accused special counsel Robert Mueller of protecting Comey and made familiar attacks on Mueller’s ongoing investigation for failing to go after “the Real Collusion (and much more)” of Democrats with Russia in the 2016 election.
Comey, who last year published a bestselling memoir and has become a strident critic of Trump, responded on Twitter on Saturday.
“I ask you to judge me by the enemies I have made,” he wrote, slightly misquoting Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who actually said “My friends, judge me by the enemies I have made” in a speech in Portland, Oregon in September 1932.
On Friday, responding to the Times story, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said in a statement: “James Comey was fired because he’s a disgraced partisan hack, and his Deputy Andrew McCabe, who was in charge at the time, is a known liar fired by the FBI.
Sanders continued: “Unlike President Obama, who let Russia and other foreign adversaries push America around, President Trump has actually been tough on Russia.” Trump echoed those sentiments on Saturday.
Rudolph Giuliani, one of Trump’s attorneys, also sought to downplay the significance of the FBI investigation, telling the Times: “The fact that it goes back a year and a half and nothing came of it that showed a breach of national security means they found nothing.”
In an interview with CBS Face the Nation due to be broadcast on Sunday, secretary of state Mike Pompeo, director of the CIA at the time of the Comey firing, said the Times report was “silly on its face and not worthy of a response”.
The remarkable report is sure to ramp up the pressure for a White House already feeling the heat from months of investigations. In August, Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort was convicted of financial charges and later pleaded guilty to conspiring to defraud the US and conspiring to obstruct justice. Trump’s longtime lawyer and aide Michael Cohen is set to begin a three-year prison sentence in March after pleading guilty to fraud, campaign finance violations and lying under oath.
Manafort was charged as part of the investigation by the special counsel Robert Mueller into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. The deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein, appointed Mueller shortly after Comey’s firing in May 2017 to lead the investigation into Russian meddling and ties between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. Mueller is reportedly also investigating whether the president tried to impede the investigation into Russia’s role in the election.
It was reported this week that Rosenstein will soon step down. Trump’s acting attorney general Matthew Whitaker remains in place despite controversy over his view of the Russia investigation and qualifications for the role. The nominee to become attorney general, William Barr, is also the subject of debate about his fitness to oversee Mueller’s work.
Mueller took over the FBI counterintelligence investigation, the Times reported, just days after it was first opened. FBI spokespeople did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The report may also raise new questions for congressional investigators looking into Russian meddling. Newly in control of the House of Representatives, Democrats have vowed to further scrutinize Trump’s Russia ties.