FBI Director James Comey, testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, Monday, March 20, 2017, before the House Intelligence Committee hearing on allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

President Donald Trump has been extremely adamant that former FBI director James Comey told him on three occasions that he, personally, was not under investigation for collusion with Russia during the 2016 campaign. Comey’s confirming that in sworn testimony today, but the reason is much more complicated than you think, and it has to do with actual espionage.

The difference is between what most people think of as a criminal investigation, and a counterintelligence investigation, Comey says:

Because the nature of the hostile foreign nation is well known, counterintelligence investigations tend to be centered on individuals the FBI suspects to be witting or unwitting agents of that foreign power. When the FBI develops reason to believe an American has been targeted for recruitment by a foreign power or is covertly acting as an agent of the foreign power, the FBI will “open an investigation” on that American and use legal authorities to try to learn more about the nature of any relationship with the foreign power so it can be disrupted.


So in that regard, no, Trump wasn’t under investigation as the FBI did not yet have reason to think he had been “turned” as a Russian spy. Which is why Comey re-assured Trump that he wasn’t under investigation for that:

In that context, prior to the January 6 meeting, I discussed with the FBI’s leadership team whether I should be prepared to assure President-Elect Trump that we were not investigating him personally. That was true; we did not have an open counter-intelligence case on him. We agreed I should do so if circumstances warranted. During our one-on-one meeting at Trump Tower, based on PresidentElect Trump’s reaction to the briefing and without him directly asking the question, I offered that assurance.


It’s very interesting that Comey immediately explains at the beginning of his opening statement that FBI counterintelligence investigations are not the same as common criminal investigations, suggesting this is a pretty big deal with significant national security implications.

Former CIA Director James Woolsey went into more detail with FOX Business about what criminal and a counterintelligence investigations are:

“They run counterintelligence investigations in which you often don’t talk to the person who is under suspicion… But in this more general counterintelligence investigation, looking to see where leaks are coming from… There is not obstruction of justice; you are not pursuing justice, you are just pursuing knowledge about what the enemy maybe doing,” he told FOX Business’ Trish Regan.

Woolsey explained how a counterintelligence investigation differs from a criminal investigation.

“Criminal investigations… If somebody interferes with one of those, obstruction of justice is a real possibility to be charged with it. It takes an element of corruption there are various things that make it kinda hard to prove, but obstruction of justice is a legitimate concern in criminal investigations,” he said.


The bureau’s job is to determine how foreign enemies use human assets and technical methods to harm the United States, he said. To repel the foreign state’s actions, the FBI could alert the person they suspect is being recruited or used by the foreign power. Or the FBI could even turn the targeted person into a double agent.

It would be interesting to know if Comey believes Trump is being targeted by the Kremlin, though it’s doubtful he will go that far during the hearing. But the whole thing does look shady as hell based on the memos Comey wrote.


We’ll see later today if Comey drops even more bombshells.

Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior reporter at The Root. He is currently writing a book proposal that analyzes US-Russia relations from a black perspective.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter