In a front page story extraordinary even by the tumultuous standards of the Trump era, the New York Times reported that the FBI launched an investigation into whether the US president was acting as a Russian asset, against his own country’s interests.
The investigation opened after Trump fired the FBI director James Comey in May 2017, the Times said, citing anonymous sources. It was part counterintelligence, to determine whether Trump was knowingly or unknowingly working for Moscow and posed a threat to national security. It was also part criminal, to ascertain whether Trump’s dismissal of Comey constituted obstruction of justice.
The FBI effort was soon absorbed into the special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and alleged collusion between Trump’s campaign and Moscow, the Times reported, adding that it was unclear if the counterintelligence aspect is still being pursued.
Jesse McKinley, a New York Times journalist, wrote on Twitter: “It sounds like spy fiction but it is not: the FBI was investigating the president of the United States to see if he was working for the Russians.”
The president tried to fight back in characteristic style, by firing off half a dozen intemperate tweets.
The first said: “Wow, just learned in the Failing New York Times that the corrupt former leaders of the FBI, almost all fired or forced to leave the agency for some very bad reasons, opened up an investigation on me, for no reason & with no proof, after I fired Lyin’ James Comey, a total sleaze!”
Trump went on to make baseless claims that the FBI mishandled an investigation into his election rival, Hillary Clinton, and proclaimed: “My firing of James Comey was a great day for America.” He suggested without evidence that Comey is being protected by Mueller, who has issued dozens of indictments and secured convictions of some of the Trump’s close associates.
And he insisted: “I have been FAR tougher on Russia than Obama, Bush or Clinton. Maybe tougher than any other President. At the same time, & as I have often said, getting along with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. I fully expect that someday we will have good relations with Russia again!”
Trump’s warm relationship with the Russian president Vladimir Putin has long set alarm bells ringing. The day after firing Comey, he hosted Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, in the Oval Office – and disclosed intelligence from an Israeli counterterrorism operation. At a summit in Helsinki last summer, Trump appeared to side with Putin over his own intelligence agencies on the question of election interference.
More recently, the president startled his own national security officials by suddenly announcing the withdrawal of troops from Syria, widely seen as handing a strategic victory to Russia and prompting the defense secretary James Mattis to quit. He also bizarrely endorsed the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.
In a statement later on Saturday, House intelligence committee chairman Adam Schiff did not “comment on the specifics of the New York Times report” but said “counterintelligence concerns about those associated with the Trump campaign, including the president himself, have been at the heart of our investigation since the beginning”.
His committee, he said, “has a responsibility to the American people to ensure that the president is working in our national interest and is not motivated by any other factor”.
Holed up at the White House, Trump turned his Twitter feed to the other subject dominating US politics: a partial government shutdown which, in its 22nd day, is now the longest in history, eclipsing the record set under Bill Clinton.
Trump is demanding $5.7bn towards his long-promised wall on the US-Mexico border, claiming it will solve a humanitarian and national security crisis. Democrats, who control the House of Representatives, have passed measures to reopen the government without funding the wall, which they regard as an expensive, impractical and immoral response to a manufactured crisis. The result is a political stalemate that leaves a quarter of the government unfunded.
About 800,000 workers missed pay cheques on Friday. The House and Senate voted to give federal workers back pay whenever the federal government reopens, then left Washington for the weekend.
Miami’s airport will close one of its concourses most of Saturday, Sunday and Monday to make sure security checkpoints are adequately staffed as the shutdown begins to strain the system. Security screeners who are not being paid are staying at home and safety inspectors are off the job.
Some national parks are closed while rubbish has been piling up in those that remain open. The Smithsonian museums and national zoo in Washington are shuttered. Nearly everyone at Nasa is being told to stay at home.
With polls showing Trump getting most of the blame, the president is toying with the idea of declaring a national emergency, bypassing Congress and funding the wall from existing federal revenue. Republicans are divided on the move and it would be certain to face legal challenges.
The president, who claims to be a master dealmaker, rattled off half a dozen tweets on Saturday, including the cryptic promise: “I do have a plan on the Shutdown. But to understand that plan you would have to understand the fact that I won the election, and I promised safety and security for the American people. Part of that promise was a Wall at the Southern Border. Elections have consequences!”
House speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has vowed to oppose any funding, said the president is seeking to divert attention from Mueller and other White House troubles.
“This isn’t a wall between Mexico and the United States,” the Democrat told reporters this week. “This is a wall between his failures of his administration. This is a big diversion and he’s a master of diversion.”