The American people have a right to know if their president is a Russian agent.
Richard Nixon delivered a version of this line in November 1973, as the Watergate scandal gathered steam. Now President Donald Trump has had to tell reporters he is not a spy after the New York Times reported that the FBI had launched a counterintelligence probe into the president himself in May 2017. As former FBI general counsel James Baker told House lawmakers in October, the president’s obstruction of the bureau’s Russia investigation “itself would hurt our ability to figure out what the Russians had done, and that is what would be the threat to national security.”
Since the Times story hit, some of the president’s critics have interpreted the investigation itself as evidence of the president’s guilt. If the FBI believed in May 2017 that Trump may have been a Russian asset, the theory goes, then it must know something we don’t. And we already know a lot: that Trump has pressed his aides to withdraw from NATO, for example, and that his campaign manager shared polling data with a former business partner suspected of having ties to Russian intelligence.
Even if you find these facts disturbing — and I do — it must be said that Trump campaigned for the presidency openly seeking greater cooperation with Russia, and he never hid his affinity for Russian President Vladimir Putin. From this perspective, the bureau’s inquiry raises profound questions about who gets to decide questions of national security in a democracy.
Jack Goldsmith, who served as an assistant attorney general for President George W. Bush, argues that the bureau’s actions were unprecedented and a possible overstep of its authority. Goldsmith is careful: He concedes that there may be much stronger evidence, not included in the Times report, that influenced the FBI’s decision. And he allows that the FBI can have…