Investigation of Trump’s ties to Russia is critical; impeachment is not — yet

Investigation of Trump’s ties to Russia is critical; impeachment is not — yet

The disclosure by “The New York Times” that the FBI launched a secret counter-intelligence investigation into President Donald Trump’s possible covert relationship with Russia produced the predictable attacks on the FBI, political opponents and the media by the White House and Trump zealots. Given the president’s statements and actions at the time, the FBI was right to open a counter-intelligence probe before the special counsel was in place.

The possibility that Trump was compromised by Russia is the most serious allegation against a U.S. president in history and must be investigated completely. Protecting the security of the United States against espionage is a fundamental responsibility of the FBI, and as unprecedented and incredible as the allegations may be, the FBI would have been negligent if it did not independently initiate an investigation into the actions of the president. 

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Any experienced intelligence professional who follows the public information on the actions and statements of Trump and his close advisors can see that the president and some close associates could well have acted on behalf of Russia, a hostile foreign power, to damage American democracy.

As smoking guns go, the amount of public information available so far on Trump and Russia is not a puff of smoke from a starter pistol. It is a billowing cloud from a cannon. In coming months, sensitive intelligence and FBI source information yet to be revealed might very well expose presidential crimes that make Richard Nixon’s Watergate offenses look like parking tickets.

From his refusal to disclose his finances to the cowering performance alongside Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, President TrumpDonald John TrumpJimmy Carter: 'I hope there's an age limit' on presidency White House fires DHS general counsel: report Trump to cap California trip with visit to the border MORE and many of his closest advisors have acted as if they were guilty. 

Circumstantial evidence of collusion with Russia to help Trump win the 2016 election is everywhere and in the open. Yet the president and his supporters constantly deny it, while some of his defenders argue that, even if true, collusion is not a crime. The legality of collusion not the point. If the Mueller probe concludes that the president conspired with Russia to help win the 2016 U.S. national election, collusion would be an outrageous conspiracy to undermine the very foundation of American democracy. Political, if not legal, accountability would be required if evidence to validate those allegations is convincing.

A more disturbing possibility is that the Russians have successfully compromised Trump financially or personally to gain influence over U.S. policy. In this case, the Watergate imperative to follow the money applies. Given Trump’s tendency to play fast and loose with money and the recent action to lift U.S. sanction on a Russian oligarch, financial compromise is at least conceivable. Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation of the president and Russia must include a full examination of Trump’s financial relationship with the Putin regime, or the special counsel’s investigation will not be complete.

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An even more sinister concern is that the president and some advisors may have acted as Russian agents of influence within the United States government. Such a prospect, as hard as it is to imagine, cannot be discounted without a thorough counter-intelligence and legal investigation of the highest order.

If some of the worst allegations against Trump turn out to be true, Putin will have greatly over-played his hand in the U.S. with serious long-term consequences for Russia. Should damaging linkages to Russia be discovered by Mueller, Putin will be guilty of tying his country to erratic covert agents who are out of control and who seem to have left evidence of their conspiracy all over the place. Putin’s image as a master KGB spy would be shattered, and his image as an effective leader of Russia would be seriously damaged.

Given public information available thus far, proper investigation of the Trump administration and Russian influence in the United States is a national security imperative. The facts produced by a full investigation are the critical issue moving forward. Only when Mueller presents his findings, can Congress and the American people judge for themselves the fitness of Donald Trump to represent the nation as its president.

The new leadership in the House of Representatives is wise not to jump blindly into impeachment procedures. The House majority should make sure the professionals in the justice system can do their job without interference, let them complete their investigation and then deal with their findings. Perhaps the Mueller report will absolve the president of wrong-doing, even if current information suggests that outcome is unlikely.

James W. Pardew is a former US ambassador to Bulgaria and career Army intelligence officer. He has served as Deputy Assistant Secretary General of NATO and is the author of Peacemakers: American Leadership and the End of Genocide in the Balkans.