Justice Dept. Never Fully Examined Trump’s Ties to Russia, Ex-Officials Say ~ NYT

The former deputy attorney general maneuvered to keep investigators from completing an inquiry into whether the president’s personal and financial links to Russia posed a national security threat.

Credit…Anna Moneymaker for The New York Times
WASHINGTON — The Justice Department secretly took steps in 2017 to narrow the investigation into Russian election interference and any links to the Trump campaign, according to former law enforcement officials, keeping investigators from completing an examination of President Trump’s decades-long personal and business ties to Russia.

The special counsel who finished the investigation, Robert S. Mueller III, secured three dozen indictments and convictions of some top Trump advisers, and he produced a report that outlined Russia’s wide-ranging operations to help get Mr. Trump elected and the president’s efforts to impede the inquiry.

But law enforcement officials never fully investigated Mr. Trump’s own relationship with Russia, even though some career F.B.I. counterintelligence investigators thought his ties posed such a national security threat that they took the extraordinary step of opening an inquiry into them. Within days, the former deputy attorney general Rod J. Rosenstein curtailed the investigation without telling the bureau, all but ensuring it would go nowhere.

A bipartisan report by the Republican-led Senate Intelligence Committee released this month came the closest to an examination of the president’s links to Russia. Senators depicted extensive ties between Trump associates and Russia, identified a close associate of a former Trump campaign chairman as a Russian intelligence officer and outlined how allegations about Mr. Trump’s encounters with women during trips to Moscow could be used to compromise him. But the senators acknowledged they lacked access to the full picture, particularly any insight into Mr. Trump’s finances.

Now, as Mr. Trump seeks re-election, major questions about his approach to Russia remain unanswered. He has repeatedly shown an openness to Russia, an adversary that attacked American democracy in 2016, and refused to criticize or challenge the Kremlin’s increasing aggressions toward the West. The president has also rejected the intelligence community’s finding that Russia interfered in 2016 to bolster his candidacy and the spy agencies’ assessment that Russia is trying to sabotage this year’s election again on his behalf.

Mr. Rosenstein concluded the F.B.I. lacked sufficient reason to conduct an investigation into the president’s links to a foreign adversary. Mr. Rosenstein determined that the investigators were acting too hastily in response to the firing days earlier of James B. Comey as F.B.I. director, and he suspected that the acting bureau director who approved the opening of the inquiry, Andrew G. McCabe, had conflicts of interest.

Mr. Rosenstein never told Mr. McCabe about his decision, leaving the F.B.I. with the impression that the special counsel would take on the investigation into the president as part of his broader duties. Mr. McCabe said in an interview that had he known Mr. Mueller would not continue the inquiry, he would have had the F.B.I. perform it.

“We opened this case in May 2017 because we had information that indicated a national security threat might exist, specifically a counterintelligence threat involving the president and Russia,” Mr. McCabe said. “I expected that issue and issues related to it would be fully examined by the special counsel team. If a decision was made not to investigate those issues, I am surprised and disappointed. I was not aware of that.”

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