In an interview on Wednesday, Donald Trump said the FBI should have told him about campaign staffers with links to Russia so he could have fired them.
“They should have come to me and said, ‘Sir, you’re dealing with people that may have something to do with Russia. We want to let you know.’ And I’d say, ‘I’m sorry whoever it may be, you gotta go, sorry,’ ” Trump said.
Trump also continued to maintain that the whole investigation into collusion between his campaign and the Russian government is “a hoax.”
But his suggestion that he would have responded if warned is a new line of defense that to some extent contradicts his absolute denials.
Trump’s comments came in an interview with John Solomon and Buck Sexton, two sympathetic media figures (the only kind Trump talks to.) Solomon, after a long and checkered journalism career that includes writing articles that spread right-wing conspiracy theories, works as executive vice president of The Hill in charge of digital video. Sexton is a right-wing talk-show host who coanchors The Hill’s new morning video offering.
It’s not the first time Trump has suggested that the FBI should have informed him earlier. In a May 26 tweet, he asked “why didn’t the crooked highest levels of the FBI or ‘Justice’ contact me to tell me of the phony Russia problem?”
And in a May 31 tweet, he tweeted a quote from right-wing talk-show host Rush Limbaugh suggesting that the FBI didn’t contact Trump because “they were pushing this scam” that was “targeting Trump.”
On July 22, he asked why President Obama hadn’t told him about it and replied: “Because it is all a big hoax, that’s why, and he thought Crooked Hillary was going to win!!!”
(Hat tip to the fabulous, searchable database of Trump statements at Factba.se.)
But in the past, Trump’s argument was that the lack of warning showed that the FBI investigation was a scam. This time, he said he would have fired people if he’d known about their Russian ties.
And to some extent, Trump was warned. NBC reported last December that soon after he became the Republican nominee, the FBI gave him a generalized warning that foreign adversaries, including Russia, would probably try to spy on and infiltrate his campaign.
After I posted a Tweet calling attention to Trump’s statement this morning, one reader replied:
Excuse me?!? RUSSIA warned the campaign they were trying to make the suspicious links! And the Trump campaign said – – – – >Okay! I love it!
— Cara Taylor (@CaraLTaylor) September 20, 2018
Michael German, a former FBI agent who is now a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, told me it appears Trump is using a tactic called “arguing in the alternative.”
Like: “I wasn’t there.” “If I was there I didn’t do it.” “If I did it I didn’t mean to.”
German also said there may have been many legitimate reasons why the FBI wouldn’t have given Trump a heads-up about their investigation.
It could have been they didn’t know very much at the time. “So to go to a presidential candidate and say ‘fire him,’ ‘fire him,’ ‘fire him,’ may have been premature from what I know.”
And then there’s a question of “whether there was any indication there were actually higher people in the chain that you didn’t want to tip off.”
Frank Figliuzzi, a 25-year FBI veteran who retired in 2012 as assistant director for counterintelligence, said in an email that the “FBI warned him and told him to call if certain things were happening.”
Furthermore, Figliuzzi wrote: “The lack of more briefings or more detailed briefings reflects they thought he was involved.”
In the interview, Trump raised, as a contrast, the case of California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein and her driver.
A Politico article in late July noted in passing a comment from a source “that Chinese intelligence once recruited a staff member at a California office” of Feinstein.
The San Francisco Chronicle then confirmed “that the FBI showed up at Feinstein’s office in Washington, D.C., about five years ago to alert the then-chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee that her driver was being investigated for possible Chinese spying.”
According to the Chronicle: “The FBI apparently concluded the driver hadn’t revealed anything of substance,” and Feinstein forced him to retire.
Trump on Wednesday complained that he didn’t get the same treatment: “They notify her, and she immediately fires the guy.”
Trump and Feinstein had a spirited Twitter exchange on the topic in early August.
(1/2) The FBI told me 5 years ago it had concerns that China was seeking to recruit an administrative member of my Calif staff (despite no access to sensitive information). I took those concerns seriously, learned the facts and made sure the employee left my office immediately. pic.twitter.com/qpVyPanpJk
— Senator Dianne Feinstein (@SenFeinstein) August 4, 2018
The FBI (now Robert Mueller’s) investigation is also not about an isolated incident with no apparent significance, it’s about potential collusion at the highest levels of the campaign.
During the interview, Trump also complained “I don’t have an attorney general,” and said he hopes to be able to cite his longtime battle with the FBI “as one of my crowning achievements that I was able to…expose something that is truly a cancer in our country.”
Trump’s interview with Solomon and Becker calls more attention to the curious transformation of The Hill, once a staid and reliable publication that has now become, in the words of Esquire’s Charles Peirce, “a shameless clickfarm… having a breakdown.”
Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple wrote in May about a number of troubling issues related to Solomon: some Solomon stories sparked complaints from inside The Hill’s newsroom; one was meticulously dismembered by the Huffington Post; and another Wemple himself described as “a rickety, flimsy mess of innuendo and insufficient connections.”
Wemple reported that Bob Cusack, editor-in-chief of The Hill, had told colleagues concerned about Solomon that “[E]ffective immediately when he writes for us, it will be as an opinion contributor.”
But the Hill didn’t put any such caveat on Solomon’s articles about the friendly Trump interview – in which Trump several times gave credit to Solomon’s articles.
A tweet and phone call to top editors at The Hill got no immediate reponse. I’ll update if they do.
Here is the full text of the question and answer, as transcribed (and apparently cleaned-up) by The Hill:
ON INTELLIGENCE COMMUNITY’S FAILURE TO ALERT HIM TO RUSSIA CONCERNS
President Trump: I’ve always said that the Russia hoax was an excuse for them losing the election. Even though actually, amazingly that started seven months before. That started when it looked like I may have a chance to win, OK? But see that didn’t do anything to me because I didn’t know about it.
One thing on that again, also, if they thought there was something with Russia, and I’m one of two people that are gonna be the president of the United States, they should have come to me and said, “Sir, you’re dealing with people that may have something to do with Russia. We want to let you know.” And I’d say, “I’m sorry whoever it may be, you gotta go, sorry.”
John Solomon: They never did that, did they?
President Trump: They never did it, no, they never did it. No, but wouldn’t you think they’d say hey, you know there’s two people that have a chance.
(There was a brief interruption in the interview.)
President Trump: They, they should have come to me and said “Hey, you know we have an obligation,” like they did with Dianne Feinstein with her driver. You have somebody that is possibly a Chinese spy, now she had the guy for 20 years. But they notify her, they don’t investigate her. They notify her, and she immediately fires the guy. They certainly did it with Hillary Clinton. I mean what, that, that’s the other thing that people are so upset about.