Criminal Justice & the Rule of Law Executive Branch

What If the Obstruction Was the Collusion? On the New York Times’s Latest Bombshell

Benjamin Wittes
Friday, January 11, 2019, 8:43 PM

Between Friday’s New York Times story and other earlier material, we might be in a position to revisit the relationship between the “collusion” and obstruction components of the Mueller investigation.

The FBI Headquarters in Washington. (Photo: Matthew Kahn)

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Shortly before the holidays, I received a call from New York Times reporter Michael Schmidt asking me to meet with him about some reporting he had done. Schmidt did not describe the subject until we met up, when he went over with me a portion of the congressional interview of former FBI General Counsel James Baker, who was then my Brookings colleague and remains my Lawfare colleague. When he shared what Baker had said, and when I thought about it over the next few days in conjunction with some other documents and statements, a question gelled in my mind. Observers of the Russia investigation have generally understood Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s work as focusing on at least two separate tracks: collusion between the Russian government and the Trump campaign, on the one hand, and potential obstruction of justice by the president, on the other. But what if the obstruction was the collusion—or at least a part of it?

Late last year, I wrote a memo for Schmidt outlining how I read all of this material, a memo from which this post is adapted.

Today, the New York Times is reporting that in the days following the firing of James Comey, the FBI opened an investigation of President Trump. It wasn’t simply the obstruction investigation that many of us have assumed. It was also a counterintelligence investigation predicated on the notion that the president’s own actions might constitute a national security threat:

In the days after President Trump fired James B. Comey as F.B.I. director, law enforcement officials became so concerned by the president’s behavior that they began investigating whether he had been working on behalf of Russia against American interests, according to former law enforcement officials and others familiar with the investigation.

The inquiry carried explosive implications. Counterintelligence investigators had to consider whether the president’s own actions constituted a possible threat to national security. Agents also sought to determine whether Mr. Trump was knowingly working for Russia or had unwittingly fallen under Moscow’s influence.

The investigation the F.B.I. opened into Mr. Trump also had a criminal aspect, which has long been publicly known: whether his firing of Mr. Comey constituted obstruction of justice.

The following is an adaption of the memo I sent Schmidt. I have updated it in important respects in light of the reporting in the Times’s actual story. The analysis remains, however, tentative; I want to be careful not to overread the threads of evidence I am pulling together here.

The analysis that follows is lengthy and takes a number of twists and turns before laying out what I think is the significance of the whole thing. Here’s the bottom line: I believe that between today’s New York Times story and some other earlier material I have been sifting through and thinking about, we might be in a position to revisit the relationship between the “collusion” and obstruction components of the Mueller investigation. Specifically, I now believe they are far more integrated with one another than I previously understood.

Because I am certain the disclosures in this story will give rise to questions of leaks, let me start by addressing at the outset the portions of Baker’s testimony which I discuss in this post. To be very clear, I did not receive information about this from Baker. I received it from the New York Times only. And while I don’t know who gave it to Schmidt, Adam Goldman and Nicholas Fandos, who share the byline on the story, I am very confident it was not Baker or anyone associated with him. My assumption is that this material reached the Times from congressional sources, since the overwhelming majority of leaks of material available to Congress come from Congress, but I don’t know that for sure. Exactly one thing in the material I discuss below did come to me from Baker, and was not until today a part of the public record—and I flag that very clearly. None of this material is classified. The reporting that Schmidt shared with me made clear that the FBI specifically permitted Baker to answer the questions he addressed.

The public understanding of and debate over the Mueller investigation rests on several discrete premises that I believe should be reexamined. The first is the sharp line between the investigation of “collusion” and the investigation of obstruction of justice. The second is the sharp line between the counter-intelligence components of the investigation and the criminal components. The third and most fundamental is the notion that the investigation was, in the first place, an investigation of the Trump campaign and figures associated with it.

These premises are deeply embedded throughout the public discussion. When Bill Barr challenges what he imagines to be the predicate for the obstruction investigation, he is reflecting one of them. When any number of commentators (including Mikhaila Fogel and me on Lawfare last month) describe separate investigative cones for obstruction and collusion, they are reflecting it. When the president’s lawyers agree to have their client answer questions on collusion but draw a line at obstruction, they are reflecting it too.

But I think, and the Times’s story certainly suggests, that the story may be more complicated than that, the lines fuzzier, and the internal understanding of the investigation very different along all three of these axes from the ones the public has imbibed.

Let’s start by reexamining the most fundamental question: What is this investigation about? In his congressional testimony this fall, as Schmidt and Goldman had discovered, Baker made an arresting comment: the investigation “was about Russia, period, full stop.” The purpose of the investigation, he explained, was to assess what the Russians were up to with respect to the 2016 election. The FBI was trying to learn what the Russians had done and whether any Americans had done things in support of those efforts, either knowingly or unknowingly, so that they could understand the full scope of what the Russians had sought to do.

This quoted testimony immediately above reminded me of a passage Baker had written elsewhere, a passing discussion in an essay on a different subject which Baker wrote for Lawfare but has not yet published. This passage was cleared in pre-publication review by the FBI some months ago when we at Lawfare thought the essay’s publication was imminent. Here, too, Jim stressed that the investigation was about Russian activity. Here is the relevant passage:

A lot of the criticism seems to be driven by the notion that the FBI’s investigation was, and is, an effort to undermine or discredit President Trump. That assumption is wrong. The FBI’s investigation must be viewed in the context of the bureau’s decades-long effort to detect, disrupt and defeat the intelligence activities of the governments of the Soviet Union and later the Russian Federation that are contrary to the fundamental and long-term interests of the United States. The FBI’s counterintelligence investigation regarding the 2016 campaign fundamentally was not about Donald Trump but was about Russia. Full stop. It was always about Russia. It was about what Russia was, and is, doing and planning. Of course, if that investigation revealed that anyone—Russian or American—committed crimes in connection with Russian intelligence activities or unlawfully interfered with the investigation, the FBI has an obligation under the law to investigate such crimes and to seek to bring those responsible to justice. The FBI’s enduring counterintelligence mission is the reason the Russia investigation will, and should, continue—no matter who is fired, pardoned or impeached (emphasis added).

There is a lot packed into this little paragraph, so let’s pause for a moment to unpack it. First, note the structure of Baker’s fundamental understanding of the investigation as fundamentally about Russia, with the U.S. component subsidiary to the investigation of Russian government activity. Note also that this construction is fully consistent with Jim Comey’s Mar. 20, 2017, congressional testimony in which he disclosed the existence of the investigation in the first place:

I have 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 and 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 (emphasis added).

Comey’s construction of the investigation here is really the same as Baker’s. The investigation is not at its core an investigation of Trump campaign “coordination” with Russia, much less of Trump himself. The core of the investigation is of Russian government activity; the U.S. side is subordinate to that. It is an investigation of a foreign target that includes any “links” to “individuals associated with the Trump campaign” and “coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.” Remember as well that throughout the winter of 2017, Comey felt able to assure President Trump that the FBI was not investigating him.

This construction as, in Baker’s words, “always about Russia” is also consistent with the pattern of indictments brought by Mueller. With the partial exception of the Paul Manafort cluster of cases, which were—in any event—the subject of an additional, clarifying referral letter to Mueller and appear to have resulted from a preexisting U.S. attorney’s office investigation, nearly all of the people prosecuted by Mueller are charged in connection with Russian government activity or their own links to that activity. The Internet Research Agency and hacking indictments both involve Russian activity itself. The Michael Flynn and George Papadopoulos cases both involve lies by “individuals associated with the Trump campaign” about their “links” to “the Russian government.” The portion of the Michael Cohen case that Mueller retained deals with lies about, among other things, interactions between the Trump Organization and the Russian government. Even the relatively obscure case against Richard Pinedo fits this pattern; Pinedo, after all, was accused of identity fraud in connection with Russian activity designed to interfere with the election. Anything that does not fit this pattern tightly—for example, the Turkish lobbying case against Flynn’s associates (spun off from the Flynn matter) or the Michael Cohen/Stormy Daniels matter—Mueller has kicked to other actors.

It was about Russia. Full stop. It was always about Russia. And it still is about Russia.

The best way to understand this probe is as an umbrella Russia-related national security investigation in which the bureau opened subsidiary files, some with a counterintelligence focus and some with a criminal focus, on individuals who proved to have substantial “links” to the broader Russian activity.

Second, let’s reexamine the relationship between the counterintelligence and criminal components of the investigation. People tend to draw a sharp line between the FBI acting as as criminal investigative agency and the FBI acting as an intelligence organization; this sharp line is a residue of the pre-9/11 period when there was, indeed, a high “wall” between the bureau’s two roles. That wall, however, came down in the now-famous FISA Court of Review opinion in 2002, after which the line between the counterintellingence and criminal functions became decidedly less stark. Put simply, an FBI investigation can be launched as a counterintelligence matter or it can be launched as a criminal matter, but when the bureau shows up, it shows up with all of its authorities, not just the ones associated with the particular type of investigation originally predicated. If FBI agents conducting a counterintelligence investigation find that a suspect has a kilogram of cocaine in his apartment, for example, they are empowered to make arrests under criminal authorities. People routinely describe separate cones of the Mueller investigation, a criminal cone and a counterintelligence cone; this is imagining a division significantly starker than the reality. 

The Attorney General’s Guidelines for Domestic FBI Operations are explicit in providing that “all of the FBI's legal authorities are available for deployment in all cases” in order to “protect the public from crimes and threats to the national security and to further the United States’ foreign intelligence objectives.” As David Kris explains in his landmark treatise on national security investigations, “these three strands of authority are now explicitly braided.” As a result, as the guidelines make clear, the FBI’s “information gathering activities” need not be “differentially labeled” as law enforcement, counterintelligence, or affirmative foreign intelligence, and its personnel need not be “segregated from each other based on the subject areas in which they operate.” The guidelines further explain that, “[i]n many cases, a single investigation will be supportable as an exercise of a number of these authorities—i.e., as an investigation of a federal crime or crimes, as an investigation of a threat to the national security, and/or as a collection of foreign intelligence.” There are separate investigative missions, and there are a variety of different authorities, but there is only one FBI.

Comey actually made this point with respect to the Russia investigation in his original announcement of the investigation before Congress. “As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed,” he said. And Baker makes it explicitly in the passage quoted above as well: “Of course, if that investigation revealed that anyone—Russian or American—committed crimes in connection with Russian intelligence activities or unlawfully interfered with the investigation, the FBI has an obligation under the law to investigate such crimes and to seek to bring those responsible to justice.”

Baker’s formulation (“or unlawfully interfered with the investigation”) also includes, importantly, an obstruction of justice component as an organic feature of the counterintelligence probe. The significance of these statements, put simply, is that the investigation was something of a criminal-counterintelligence hybrid from early on.

Again, this hybrid is visible in the pattern of cases Mueller has brought, which reflects a clear use of criminal authorities to achieve counterintelligence objectives. To go back to the FISA Court of Review opinion from 2002, Mueller’s is a textbook example—albeit in a non-counterterrorism context—of the sort of hybrid investigation that the court was contemplating when it dismantled the wall. As the court wrote:

The government argues persuasively that arresting and prosecuting terrorist agents of, or spies for, a foreign power may well be the best technique to prevent them from successfully continuing their terrorist or espionage activity. The government might wish to surveil the agent for some period of time to discover other participants in a conspiracy or to uncover a foreign power's plans, but typically at some point the government would wish to apprehend the agent and it might be that only a prosecution would provide sufficient incentives for the agent to cooperate with the government. Indeed, the threat of prosecution might be sufficient to "turn the agent."

(Interestingly, Baker was, at the time of this ruling, the Justice Department’s counsel for intelligence policy and review. His name is actually on the briefs in this case.)

So the second key point is not to get hung up on whether this is a counterintelligence or a criminal investigation. It is an investigation born out of “the FBI’s enduring counterintelligence mission,” which operates as a hybrid of the two.

Third, against the backdrop of a hybrid investigation which was “always about Russia,” let’s now revisit the sharp line between the collusion and obstruction investigations. Everyone’s working theory has been that there was this collusion (which is to say counterintelligence) investigation cooking along and then the president tried to interfere with it, first by putting pressure on Comey and then by firing him. The theory goes that this pattern of conduct predicated a separate criminal investigation of obstruction. If you’re Bill Barr or Alan Dershowitz or Josh Blackman or the president’s lawyers, this seems wrong because—as they have all argued—it would be an investigation predicated on an Article II-sanctioned exercise of presidential authority. If you’re one of the myriad commentators who take a broader view of obstruction vis a vis presidential conduct, it seems like a sensible predicate for a criminal probe.

But what if the factual premise is more complicated than that? What if the pattern that jumped out at the FBI officials was that the President of the United States had just sought to interfere in an investigation of Russian intelligence activity and then boasted on television that his action was connected in some way to the Russia probe? What if the FBI knew that by the time he did so, the president had drafted a never-sent dismissal letter to Comey, and this letter also made clear that the Russia probe was on his mind at the time he acted? These are the facts that, the Times reports, led the bureau to open a new file on Trump:

After Mr. Comey was fired on May 9, 2017, two more of Mr. Trump’s actions prompted them to quickly abandon those reservations.

The first was a letter Mr. Trump wanted to send to Mr. Comey about his firing, but never did, in which he mentioned the Russia investigation. . . .

Even after the deputy attorney general, Rod J. Rosenstein, wrote a more restrained draft of the letter and told Mr. Trump that he did not have to mention the Russia investigation — Mr. Comey’s poor handling of the Clinton email investigation would suffice as a fireable offense, he explained — Mr. Trump directed Mr. Rosenstein to mention the Russia investigation anyway.

He disregarded the president’s order, irritating Mr. Trump. The president ultimately added a reference to the Russia investigation to the note he had delivered, thanking Mr. Comey for telling him three times that he was not under investigation.

The second event that troubled investigators was an NBC News interview two days after Mr. Comey’s firing in which Mr. Trump appeared to say he had dismissed Mr. Comey because of the Russia inquiry.

“I was going to fire Comey knowing there was no good time to do it,” he said. “And in fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself—I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story. It’s an excuse by the Democrats for having lost an election that they should’ve won.”

The facts actually got worse over the next few days. Because even as the bureau was beginning its obstruction inquiry, Trump boasted about his action to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador, saying he had relieved pressure on himself by taking it.

Remember that all of this happened as the FBI was investigating “as part of [its] counterintelligence mission,” as Comey had only weeks earlier testified, “the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election,” an investigation that Comey had announced had criminal elements and “include[d] investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government.”

Would not a sequence of overt interferences in the investigation by Trump himself, culminating in the decapitation of the investigation’s leadership and boasted about both on national television and—later—in an Oval Office meeting to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak and flagged in a draft letter to Comey as specifically connected to the Russia probe, raise all kinds of red flags within the parameters of the existing investigation the FBI was already conducting? This was, after all, one heck of “link” between an “individual[] associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government”!

The reporting Schmidt shared with me about Baker’s testimony suggests rather strongly that the FBI did not think of the Comey firing simply as a possible obstruction of justice. Officials thought of it, rather, in the context of the underlying counterintelligence purpose of the Russia investigation. At one point, Baker was asked whether firing Director Comey added to the threat to national security the FBI was confronting.

“Yes,” Baker responds.

Later, having explained—as quoted above—that the investigation was “about Russia,” Baker explains what he means. To the extent that firing Comey was the result of a decision to shut down the investigation, he said, that would frustrate the FBI’s ability to ascertain what the Russians and their confederates had done. In other words, “not only would it be an issue about obstructing an investigation, but the obstruction itself would hurt our ability to figure out what the Russians had done, and that is what would be the threat to national security.”

Put simply, I don’t believe the FBI, having an open counterintelligence investigation, simply opened a new criminal investigation of obstruction in the wake of the Comey firing. I think there likely was—and still is—one umbrella investigation with a number of different threads. That one investigation was (and is) about Russia. And it had (and still has), as a subsidiary matter, a number of subsidiary files open about people on the U.S. side who had links to Russian government activity. Each of these files had (and still has) all of the counterintelligence and criminal tools available to the U.S. government at its disposal.

So when the president sought to impair the investigation, having declared both in the draft letter dismissing Comey and to Lester Holt that his action was connected in some way to the Russia investigation, that raised both potential criminal questions and major counterintelligence questions—questions that could only have been reinforced when Trump later announced to senior Russian government officials that he had relieved pressure on himself by acting as he did. It did so both because it threatened the investigation itself and because it fit directly into a pattern of interface between Trump campaign officials and Russian government actors that they were already investigating.

Remember that the standards of predication are quite low. To open an investigation, the FBI doesn’t need proof of a crime, or even probable cause of criminal activity. It need only see evidence that “An activity constituting a federal crime or a threat to the national security has or may have occurred, is or may be occurring, or will or may occur and the investigation may obtain information relating to the activity or the involvement or role of an individual, group, or organization in such activity” (emphasis added). “May” is a very flexible word. So ask yourself this: If you were the FBI and already investigating Russian activity and you saw the president’s actions in May 2017, would you believe that it “may” constitute a criminal offense or “may” constitute a threat to national security or both?

What is the significance of all of this? I have two big takeaways.

First, if this analysis is correct, it mostly—though not entirely—answers the question of the legal basis of the obstruction investigation. The president’s lawyers, Barr in his memo, and any number of conservative commentators have all argued that Mueller cannot reasonably be investigating obstruction offenses based on the president’s actions within his Article II powers in firing Comey; such actions, they contend, cannot possibly violate the obstruction laws. While this position is disputed, a great many other commentators, including me, have scratched their heads about Mueller’s obstruction theory.

But if the predicate for the investigation was rooted in substantial part in counterintelligence authorities—that is, if the theory was not just that the president may have violated the criminal law but also that he acted in a fashion that may constitute a threat to national security—that particular legal puzzle goes away. After all, the FBI doesn’t need a possible criminal violation to open a national security investigation.

The problem does not entirely go away, because as the Times reports, the probe was partly predicated as a criminal matter as well. So the question of Mueller’s criminal theory is still there. But the weight on it is dramatically less.

This possibility, of course, raises a different legal puzzle, which is whether and under what circumstances the president can be a national security investigative subject of his own FBI given that it is ultimately he who defines national security threats for the executive branch. But that’s a question for another day.

Second, if it is correct that the FBI’s principal interest in obstruction was not as a discrete criminal fact pattern but as a national security threat, this significantly blurs the distinction between the obstruction and collusion aspects of the investigation. In this construction, obstruction was not a problem distinct from collusion, as has been generally imagined. Rather, in this construction, obstruction was the collusion, or at least part of it. The obstruction of justice statutes become, in this understanding, merely one set of statutes investigators might think about using to deal with a national security risk—specifically, the risk of a person on the U.S. side coordinating with or supporting Russian activity by shutting down the investigation.

It was about Russia. It was always about Russia. Full stop.

Benjamin Wittes is editor in chief of Lawfare and a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of several books.

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