There are very few officials who understand the true extent of the F.B.I. investigation.
Early on Monday morning, a couple of hours before the start of the first House Intelligence Committee hearing on Russia’s involvement in the Presidential election, one of Donald Trump’s closest White House advisers made a startling—and completely erroneous—prediction: James Comey, the F.B.I. director, would testify that there was no collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia. “The Russian collusion thing has always been bullshit,” the official said. “I think Comey will come down and say there absolutely was no contact, collusion, or anything like that with the campaign.”
The official conceded that, in the early days of the Trump campaign, the candidate attracted some dubious figures. Sam Clovis, an Iowa talk-radio host who had been appointed as Trump’s senior policy adviser, strained to put together a serious team. Meanwhile, fringe political operatives, such as Roger Stone, a longtime Trump adviser, and Stone’s good friend and former business partner Paul Manafort, who became the campaign chairman, had easy access to the candidate. The White House official described these camps as “two converging sets of marginalia.”
“You had Sam Clovis, God bless him, who tried to put together an advisory group of people,” the official said. “Then you have the whole Manafort-Ukraine thing and Roger Stone running around doing whatever Roger Stone is doing.” He added, “This campaign, early on, had a lot of marginalia associated with it. Guys like Carter Page, Roger Stone. I have no earthly idea what those guys have been up to, right?”
Manafort, a longtime political lobbyist, worked for years in Ukrainian politics as a paid adviser for a pro-Putin party, before surfacing back in the United States as a Trump campaign operative, and later, the campaign’s chairman. Stone, who has known Trump for decades, had advance knowledge that WikiLeaks would release e-mails, later determined to have been stolen by Russian hackers, from the account of John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman. Page, an energy consultant and former Trump campaign adviser, travelled to Moscow last summer for a paid speech. Page, Manafort, and Stone, as well as Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national-security adviser, are reportedly part of an F.B.I. investigation.
The White House official’s attempt to separate Trump from the “marginal” figures who once ran Trump’s campaign isn’t likely to work. Later in the day, Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, echoed this spin publicly when he claimed that Manafort played a “limited role for a very limited amount of time” in the campaign. In fact, Manafort worked for Trump for six months last year, from March to August, the crucial period in which Trump secured the Republican nomination and fended off potential challenges at the G.O.P. Convention.
But the larger takeaway from the White House’s spin is that the top people around Trump may have no idea how much exposure the President has on the issue of Russian collusion. Two hours after the White House official confidently predicted Comey would vindicate the Administration, Comey did the opposite, saying:
I have been authorized by the Department of Justice to confirm that the F.B.I., as part of our counterintelligence mission, is investigating the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 Presidential election, and that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coördination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts. As with any counterintelligence investigation, this will also include an assessment of whether any crimes were committed.