One of the many oddities of the now-terminated Robert Mueller probe into Russian election interference and its links to various members of the Trump campaign and family, and in fact of all known federal probes into Russia's Trump-related actions, has been the seeming lack of any counterintelligence probe on Donald Trump's myriad, longstanding financial connections to Russia—and what role those financial ties have played both in the Russian government's actions on behalf of Trump and their possible leverage over the now-president.
A new story from The New York Times' Michael Schmidt reports that that's because in the first months of the new Trump administration, former deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein shuttered that investigation—then ordered special counsel Robert Mueller to steer clear of it himself. It's not that the counterintelligence investigation into Trump's known ties to Russian crime figures, to money laundering, and his family's stated reliance on Russian cash has been kept closely-held: It never existed. And it still doesn't.
The accusation being leveled by acting Federal Bureau of Investigation director Andrew McCabe against Rosenstein goes further, suggesting that Rosenstein intentionally misled him. Schmidt reports that McCabe launched a counterintelligence probe into Trump's Russian ties immediately after Trump's firing of former FBI director James Comey, a move that was widely publicly speculated to be a Trump move to quash investigations into Russian election actions and into numerous of Trump's top advisers and allies. The fear within the intelligence community was that Trump's behaviors could be impacted by unknown Russian pressures, representing an immediate national security threat.
Rosenstein, however, ordered the probe shut down. Rosenstein did not tell McCabe that directly, says Schmidt, but instead left McCabe "with the impression that the special counsel would take on [that] investigation" as part of Mueller's overall Russian interference inquiry.
But separately, Rosenstein told Mueller that he wasn't to pursue the counterintelligence concerns either.
That means no federal investigation into Trump's Russian cash have been undertaken during his presidency, despite numerous papers and journalists themselves identifying significant ties between Donald Trump's finances and individuals close to the Russian government. Not by intelligence officials, not by the special counsel's team, and not the Senate's own Russia probes. Through the entirety of Trump's term, all probes of financial ties to Russian interests—which he has retained, even in the presidency—have each been blocked.
Schmidt's claims here seem impossible to fully believe. It would require that federal law enforcement officials turn a blind eye to a potentially massive national security threat—the very real chance that Trump was and is being intimidated into, or merely bribed into, pursuing Putin-preferred policies damaging to the United States. Trump's moves to weaken NATO, his pressure on allies to weaken Russian sanctions and re-elevate Russia as economic leader, and his mostly-successful sabotage of the Ukrainian government's ability to push back Russian forces during a key Russian military push have each been contrary to longstanding U.S. interests. None have been competently explained, not even by Trump's own national security officials.
As expert Marcy Wheeler suggests, that both Rosenstein and Sen. Richard Burr specifically chose, in their probes, "not to look into the most obvious source of compromise suggests that someone knows what they would find." After Trump's continued pattern of gleeful lawbreaking, it's now more plausible to believe Trump is acting for personal financial gain in his dealings with Russia than it is to believe his actions rest on any supposed ideological foundation. The Senate and Justice Department both continue to make rigorously sure, however, to leave those questions intentionally unanswered.