Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference during the 2016 presidential election was seeded by a highly secretive FBI operation termed “Crossfire Hurricane” – and its early findings had the potential to stop Donald Trump’s campaign in its tracks.
According to The New York Times, information gleaned from an Australian ambassador regarding a Trump campaign advisor’s advance knowledge of Russian election meddling could have been pursued more aggressively; however, the investigation’s close proximity to the election led FBI officials to proceed more cautiously than usual.
Within hours of opening an investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia in the summer of 2016, the F.B.I. dispatched a pair of agents to London on a mission so secretive that all but a handful of officials were kept in the dark.
Their assignment, which has not been previously reported, was to meet the Australian ambassador, who had evidence that one of Donald J. Trump’s advisers knew in advance about Russian election meddling. After tense deliberations between Washington and Canberra, top Australian officials broke with diplomatic protocol and allowed the ambassador, Alexander Downer, to sit for an F.B.I. interview to describe his meeting with the campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos.
Rather than run with the information obtained, FBI officials opted for a more watchful approach, particularly once it became clear that the investigation would not reach conclusion prior to November.
Though interviewing key Trump campaign staff and associates was considered – a move that could have sped up the investigation – officials ultimately decided against it, fearful the case would be exposed.
In another effort to minimize risks to the investigation, certain political appointees within the Justice Department were kept in the dark:
Peter Strzok, a senior F.B.I. agent, explained in a text that Justice Department officials would find it too “tasty” to resist sharing. “I’m not worried about our side,” he wrote.
Only about five Justice Department officials knew the full scope of the case, officials said, not the dozen or more who might normally be briefed on a major national security case.
At that point, the FBI had information that could have spelled the end of Trump’s journey to the White House:
Mr. Trump’s future national security adviser was under investigation, as was his campaign chairman. One adviser appeared to have Russian intelligence contacts. Another was suspected of being a Russian agent himself.
The Times reported that, in hindsight, some Justice Department and FBI officials suspect they could have been more aggressive earlier in the investigation.
When they finally interviewed Papadopoulos in January 2017, officials were able to keep reports of the meeting from being leaked, indicating it was a step they could have taken much sooner.
Mary McCord, who put in 20 years at the Justice Department and was the top national security prosecutor during the first several months of the investigation, said caution is key in this line of work – and she strongly denied that the investigation was in any way the witch hunt Trump and Republicans have claimed.
“There is always a high degree of caution before taking overt steps in a counterintelligence investigation,” said Ms. McCord, who would not discuss details of the case. “And that could have worked to the president’s benefit here.”