Since the day he was elected, President Trump’s administration has been dogged by suspicions that his campaign staff colluded with the Russian government to tip the election in his favor—particularly through the intrusion into the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign by Kremlin hackers. Now, nine months since the earliest of those intrusions came to light, the FBI has confirmed that since July, it’s been investigating possible connections between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government.
In a hearing of the House of Representatives’ Select Intelligence Committee Monday into possible Russian interference in the election, FBI Director Comey stated for the first time that the agency he leads is investigating Russia-Trump ties. “I’ve been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the FBI as part of our counterintelligence mission is investigating the the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the United States’ 2016 presidential election,” Comey told the House 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.
Comey’s comments are the first he’s made since the election on the politically pressurized issue of Russian government’s alleged meddling in the US election—and the even more explosive question of whether the Trump campaign had any contact with the Kremlin that could be seen as collusion with any Russian hacking or disinformation operation. “Because it is an open ongoing investigation and is classified, I can’t say more about what we’re doing and whose conduct we’re examining,” Comey said.
The timing of the investigation no doubt raise the hackles of Democrats, given that while the FBI kept the Trump campaign investigation secret for months, it made repeated public statements about an investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server—including a letter Comey himself wrote to Congress about the investigation a week before election day.
Since the Democratic National Committee first announced that it had been hacked last summer, the growing consensus of the US security and intelligence community has been that Putin’s government was behind that intrusion, along with subsequent hacks of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and several state boards of election. In October of last year, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a statement that US intelligence agencies had determined with “high confidence” that Russia had planned that hacking campaign and the leak of stolen documents via WikiLeaks. In late December, the Obama administration issued new sanctions against Russia in retaliation for the attacks, and in January released a declassified report that tied the Kremlin to not only those hacker breaches but also a misinformation campaign that spanned social media and Russian propaganda outlets like RT.
As Russia’s meddling came into focus, however, Trump repeatedly denied the intelligence agencies’ findings—his own theories about the source of the attacks have ranged from blaming the DNC for hacking itself to “some guy in his home in New Jersey.” Last month, the revelation that Trump’s National Security Advisor Michael Flynn had lied about a conversation he’d had with the Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak on the day Obama announced new sanctions against Russia forced Flynn to resign. And earlier this month, attorney general Jeff Sessions admitted to having met with Kislyak, despite his statements to the contrary in his confirmation hearing. As a result, Sessions agreed to recuse himself from a Justice Department investigation into the Russian election operations.
Despite all of that, Trump himself continued to describe the Russia investigation as a fraudulent political diversion. “The Democrats made up and pushed the Russian story as an excuse for running a terrible campaign,” he tweeted Monday morning ahead of the hearing. “This story is FAKE NEWS and everyone knows it!”
Democratic representative Adam Schiff, a House Intelligence Committee chair, fired back. “Mr. President, the Russians hacked our election and interfered,” he wrote. “No one disputes this now, but you. This is what is called ‘fact.’”
In a lengthy opening statement in the Monday intelligence committee hearing, Schiff ran through the actions of a series of Trump staffers who communicated with Russia. The list went beyond Sessions and Flynn to include Russia-linked campaign staffers Paul Manafort and Carter Page, as well as Roger Stone, who recently admitted to having made contact with “Guccifer 2.0,” a pseudonymous hacker believed by US intelligence to be a front for Russian government spies.
“Many of the Trump campaign’s personnel, including the President himself, have ties to Russia and Russian interests. This is, of course, no crime,” Schiff said. “On the other hand, if the Trump campaign or anyone associated with it aided or abetted the Russians, it would not only be a serious crime, it would also represent one of the most shocking betrayals of democracy in history.”
It’s unclear which if any of those incidents fall under the purview of the FBI’s investigation. But what’s most striking is the confirmation that one exists.