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Ex-FBI Agent Puts 'New York Times' Report On Trump In Perspective


The FBI is reported to have formally investigated whether President Trump, quote, "had been working on behalf of Russia against American interests." That's according to The New York Times. Clint Watts is a former FBI agent, now senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and joins us. Mr. Watts, thanks for being with us.

CLINT WATTS: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: The Times says that this came after President Trump fired James Comey, then director of the FBI, and after a long suspicion. The White House, we will note, calls it absurd. President Trump says on Twitter today that it was an investigation, quote, "for no reason and with no proof." What distinguishes the FBI's concerns from lots of different reports or cable news heads talking about this?

WATTS: Yeah. It's not that surprising, I don't think, to hear this, especially after we've seen several different things. If you remember back to the summer of 2016, it sounds like the FBI was already investigating several members of the Trump campaign. And there was suddenly a Ukraine policy change on the Republican platform, which was odd. If you look at the General Flynn call, it was allegedly about sanctions, that he had, you know, been found by the FBI to be talking about sanctions or sanctions relief or some sort of exchange. And that was what prompted that investigation. And then to see the president fire the FBI director and on several occasions mention that the Russia investigation was on his mind when he made that decision, this would seem to provide at least a basis for opening up an inquiry. That's not a full investigation. That's essentially to move forward and try and see, is there evidence of a covert plan to influence U.S. policy?

SIMON: So - and let's remind ourselves, this was Paul Manafort, who was then campaign manager for then-candidate Donald Trump, who was influential in trying to make those changes in the Republican platform, right? And I think...

WATTS: That's absolutely right.

SIMON: ...We know more now about, obviously, his ties to Russia-backed Ukraine. I have to ask, Mr. Watts, as we always do in a case like this, is there any reason to think that this move was motivated by hard feelings on behalf of some bureau employee or some kind of embarrassing firing of the agency's leader?

WATTS: I would be shocked if that were the case. These decisions are usually made by collectives probably numbering in 10 to a dozen different people. There would have to be widespread agreement sort of to move forward on this. And I thought it was important the article noted that the reason they moved forward was some people in the FBI were nervous about it, but the ones that were close to the investigation said they weren't privy to all the information. And I think that really points to what we need to take as a grain of salt, with both this article and everything, is we just don't know what the special counsel Mueller probe knows. And I think that it's important for America and everybody as a whole to get to the bottom of this so we can move forward as a country. So it sounds like the special counsel investigation has taken over this function or whatever it was in terms of an inquiry. And I think it's important for, you know, all of the facts to sort of bear themselves out over the next few months.

SIMON: Thirty seconds we have left - do you have any concern, as apparently some people at the FBI did, that this investigation being leaked could somehow undermine Mr. Mueller's investigation?

WATTS: I don't think at this point it would. I think if this had happened early on in 2017, you know, after Comey's firing, I think it would have had that, you know, effect. But at this point, the investigation has already been going on for well over a year, you know, going on a year and a half. And I think whatever is needed to be discovered is really down to the very end of the investigation at this point. It'd be hard to derail it or really taint it at this point.

SIMON: Former FBI agent Clint Watts now at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, thanks so much for being with us.

WATTS: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.