Dec. 4, 2018 – For more than a century, the FBI has worked to identify and counter the threat posed by foreign powers attempting to infiltrate and influence our nation. Although not as well known as the bureau’s counterterrorism or law enforcement missions, its counterintelligence function is no less important to our national security.
I first became familiar with the FBI’s work to defeat foreign spies in 1990, when, as an assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles, I successfully prosecuted former FBI agent Richard Miller for giving classified information to the Soviets. Miller worked in the counterintelligence section of the FBI and was seduced by a female asset of the KGB, who persuaded him to give her classified documents in a classic “sex for secrets” case. Miller was caught by the very counterintelligence division he worked for at the FBI.
Amidst the convictions of so many of the president’s associates, it is easy to forget that special counsel Robert Mueller is following a trail that began in 2016 not as a criminal probe, but as an FBI “counterintelligence” investigation.
A president vulnerable to Russian pressure
The most serious of these criminal cases, from a counterintelligence point of view, is that of former national security adviser Michael Flynn. As Acting Attorney General Sally Yates made clear in her testimony to Congress, she felt compelled to alert the White House that Flynn had been dishonest when he denied discussing sanctions with the Russians. Because Flynn had lied to the vice president, the FBI and potentially others about his communications with the Russian ambassador, and the Russians were aware of the lie, it created a “compromise situation,” in which Flynn could be “blackmailed.”
A national security adviser who could be subject to blackmail by Russia is nearly a worst case counterintelligence scenario. But this week, we learned that the potential for compromise was even more significant than we thought. Donald Trump’s longtime personal attorney, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to lying to the Intelligence Committee about his efforts on behalf of the Trump Organization to reach a deal and secure financing from a Russian bank under U.S. sanctions to build a Trump Tower Moscow.
In written testimony to our committee, Cohen minimized Trump’s personal involvement in the project, and claimed that the Trump Organization had abandoned the Trump Tower Moscow effort by January 2016, when in fact those efforts had continued well into the primary season and through June 2016. He also claimed that when he reached out to the Kremlin for help with the project, he never heard back. In fact, the office of Dmitry Peskov, a Kremlin spokesman close to Putin, did follow up on the Trump proposal, even though Peskov would later deny it in an effort to provide cover for the U.S. president.
Cohen stated in court that he made those false statements to be consistent with the president’s “political messaging,” namely Trump’s vociferous public denials of any business dealings with Russia. And in a recent sentencing memorandum, Cohen’s attorneys concede that he remained “in close and regular contact with the White House-based staff and legal counsel” to Trump in the weeks during which his false testimony to Congress was being prepared.
This means that the Russians knew not only that Flynn was lying about his outreach to them on sanctions, but also that the president, his business organization and associates were misleading the country about their dealings with the Russians. Flynn was compromised, but so too was the president of the United States.
The president’s deception about his pursuit of a Trump Tower in Moscow, his refusal to disclose his tax returns and his opaque finances present deeply concerning questions: What else does he have to hide and, more urgently, who else knows about it? Was the effort to consummate a deal in Moscow the only financial leverage the Russians had over the president, or is there more?
Money laundering and conflicts of interest
There have long been credible allegations that Russian money was laundered through the Trump Organization. If Russia could show that Trump, his business or his immediate family had benefited from tainted money or broken the law — or if Trump believed they could — it would mean that Russia could exert pressure on Trump to influence U.S. foreign policy.
The president’s behavior has done nothing to allay these concerns, including his inexplicable conduct in Helsinki, when he sided with Putin over his own intelligence agencies and appeared to accept Russia’s mendacious denial of involvement in the 2016 election.
But the concern goes beyond Russia, and extends to broader questions of financial conflict of interest. Following the murder of U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabia, Trump has sought to excuse Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. Is the president’s deference to Saudi Arabia based on geopolitical or security concerns, or is it based on his own financial interests? Although the president now denies having any financial ties to the Saudis, just a short time ago he was bragging about the many tens of millions of dollars the Saudis were spending on his apartments and how much he favored them as a result.
The American people deserve to know that our president is acting in their interest and not his own financial self interest, or because he has been compromised by a foreign power. Now, with a new Democratic majority in the House, we should be able to find out.
Published in USA Today: https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2018/12/04/donald-trump-michael-flynn-russia-national-security-blackmail-column/2196390002/ Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., is ranking member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Follow him on Twitter: @RepAdamSchiff