Senior FBI officials were concerned then director James Comey would appear to be blackmailing then President-elect Trump – using tactics notoriously associated with J.Edgar Hoover – when he attended a fateful Jan. 6, 2017, meeting at which he informed the real estate magnate about allegations he had consorted with prostitutes in Moscow, according to Jim Baker, the bureau’s chief counsel at the time.
“We were quite worried about the Hoover analogies, and we were determined not to have such a disaster happen on our watch,” said Jim Baker, then the FBI’s top lawyer in an interview with the Yahoo News podcast Skullduggery. But he and Comey determined the bureau had an obligation to tell Trump of the uncorroborated allegations because “the press has it; it’s about to come out. You should be alerted to that fact.”
Baker’s comments came during an interview in which he shed new light on the internal bureau debates over how to handle the Russia investigation in its early stages and how much to tell Trump about it. In the podcast interview, Baker also pledged to cooperate with a new investigation into the origins of the Russia probe, emphasizing that he believes he and his FBI colleagues did nothing wrong.
Attorney General William Barr appointed the U.S. Attorney in Connecticut John Durham this week to conduct the new probe.
“I welcome scrutiny,” said Baker. “I plan to fully cooperate with the department to help them figure out what happened. Because I believe what happened was lawful, at least based on every piece of information that I have.”
Baker, who served for more than 20 years in sensitive Justice Department and FBI positions, is among those former FBI and U.S. intelligence officials who have come under scrutiny since the release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report. As Trump and his allies see it, these officials conspired to launch a baseless investigation against him and his campaign that was influenced by an uncorroborated dossier paid for by Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
“It was the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the people of this country, and you know what, I am so proud of our attorney general that he is looking into it,” President Trump told reporters on Tuesday. “I think it’s great.”
But Baker insisted that the FBI would have been derelict in its duty if it did not investigate the allegations about Trump campaign’s ties to Russia during the 2016 election.
“It was pretty alarming,” Baker said about intelligence the bureau had about possible links between the Trump campaign and various Russian actors. “The thought that somehow somebody in either one of the campaigns might have had some connection to that or some awareness of it that they didn't inform the FBI about was … quite concerning and disorienting.”
The issue was so sensitive that when Comey was preparing to brief Trump after the election, Baker and the director were directly at odds about how to handle the matter. The meeting was crucial: It was the moment that the U.S. intelligence chief — including Comey — were to brief Trump, then the president-elect, about their findings about the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the election that Trump had just won.
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Baker strongly urged Comey not to go through with his plans to reassure Trump by telling him he was not under investigation by the FBI. “I didn't think it was accurate to say that he wasn't under investigation,” said Baker.
As Baker saw it, Trump was clearly a “subject” of the investigation because, as head of his own campaign, he was among those whose activities were being examined by the FBI.
But Comey thought explaining that distinction to the president-elect would have been “too confusing.” It would have been “hard to understand, be misinterpreted and he just didn't think it was the right thing to do,” Baker said about Comey’s view about what to say.
In the end, Comey told Trump he was not under investigation—a comment that came back to haunt Comey when he later refused to say the same thing publicly, a key factor that led to Trump’s decision to fire him.
In the wide-ranging interview, Baker also made these observations about the Russia probe:
He defended the bureau’s handling of the so-called dossier by former British spy Christopher Steele, saying after the bureau received it in 2016, “we took it seriously. We didn't necessarily take it literally like it was literally true in every respect. But it was something that we were obligated to ... assess.” When the bureau that October included Steele’s information in the application to wiretap former Trump campaign advisor Carter Page it was because “at the end of the day the FBI believed [Steele] to be reliable” even though questions were later raised about the credibility of some of his allegations.
He said the FBI decided against giving a “defensive” briefing to the Trump campaign about the Russia probe during the summer of 2016 — warning the then candidate about Russia’s efforts — because “it was just simply we didn't know enough at the time to assess what was going on, who was connected to what, who was responsible … Can you imagine the criticism that we might have gotten had we given briefings precipitously to people that we later thought were actually suspects in some fashion then? So you've tipped them off about the investigation. ... We only knew the tip of the iceberg.”
He said “it’s been horrible” to be publicly criticized by President Trump in his tweets. “It was very unnerving and sort of an out-of-body experience to have the president of the United States tweeting about you and in what I perceived to be a negative light,” he said. But at the same time,”in a strange way … when the president first started to attack me, and throughout this period, my friends have rallied around me. And so I've been extremely fortunate and lucky to, to have that. I've made the analogy to feeling like Jimmy Stewart at the end of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’”
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