The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, has asked repeatedly to be briefed on the status of the FBI’s counterintelligence (CI) probe. The committee has even issued a subpoena to Attorney General William Barr for the information. But to date, that probe and the information surrounding it are entirely missing in action.
Where might it be? “We don’t know,” Schiff told The Washington Post‘s Philip Bump. “Just as a reminder, this all began as an FBI counterintelligence investigation into whether people around then-candidate Trump were acting as witting or unwitting agents of a foreign power. So it began as a counterintelligence investigation, not as a criminal investigation.”
Of course, the redacted report from special counsel Robert Mueller focused almost exclusively on the criminal aspects of whether Trump and his circle conspired with the Russians and/or obstructed the investigation into that potential conspiracy. But the Mueller report, while certainly touching on counterintelligence considerations such as the Trump Tower Moscow project, left the results of the underlying CI probe almost entirely a mystery. Yet the CI investigation was actually confirmed by former FBI Director James Comey during testimony in May 2017, several weeks before he was fired.
“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,” Comey told the House Intelligence Committee. “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.” Note Comey’s use of the word “authorized” there. The FBI, according to former FBI counterintelligence chief Frank Figliuzzi, cannot brief Congress without first getting permission from the Justice Department. That means Attorney General William Barr is now in charge of what information Congress receives from the FBI and what information it doesn’t receive.
Schiff said the so-called Gang of Eight (the majority and minority leaders of both chambers plus the committee chairs and ranking members of both Intelligence Committees) were briefed on the CI investigation up until Comey was fired in 2017. Following Comey’s dismissal, the eight lawmakers received quarterly intelligence briefings, but “they excluded the most important counterintelligence investigation then going on, that involving Donald Trump.”
Now, Schiff doesn’t know whether the CI case is still open or has been closed, which he called “concerning.” And no briefing has taken place since the redacted Mueller report was made public.
“We have had a number of discussions now with the Department of Justice and the FBI, but on this point, we still have not gotten clarity,” Schiff said, noting that there’s a statutory obligation for the Justice Department to keep the Gang of Eight “currently and presently informed” on significant counterintelligence matters. “And it’s hard to imagine one more significant than this,” Schiff added. “So I’m confident we will get an answer, but they’ve yet to be forthcoming on that point.”
Schiff called the Trump Tower Moscow deal a “counterintelligence nightmare of the first order” because Trump was overtly lying about the venture to the American public while his fixer Michael Cohen was actively trying to negotiate the deal.
“It may not be a crime for a candidate for a president to seek to make money from a hostile foreign power during an election and mislead the country about it,” Schiff said. “But the counterintelligence concerns go beyond mere violation of criminal law. They’re at one time not necessarily a criminal activity and at the same time potentially far more serious than criminal activity because you have the capacity to warp U.S. policy owing to some form of compromise.”
Schiff said he believes the FBI is “caught between a rock and a hard place” given the agency’s statutory obligations and the “fully obstructive” posture that has been adopted by Trump and Barr. He also confirmed that he and his colleagues have “deep concerns” about Barr potentially obstructing the CI case.
“It certainly ought to concern us that an attorney general who believes that the president at any time could shut down the special counsel’s investigation because he deemed it unfair could also shut down any counterintelligence investigation for the same reason,” Schiff explained. Still, he said his panel is talking to multiple potential witnesses about testifying on the CI investigation, and he has “every expectation” that Mueller will testify before the Intelligence panel, likely voluntarily. “I think he understands just how important it is for the country to hear directly from him, particularly when the attorney general has so badly misled the public about his report and its conclusions.”
Schiff added that there’s a lot more at stake than just oversight of the Russia probe. “If Donald Trump, through … obstructionist tactics, can thwart congressional oversight, it means that every president who follows him can do the same,” Schiff explained. “That will fundamentally alter the balance of power in a way that will make it far more difficult to ferret out corruption and malfeasance of any future president.”