The FBI-led probe into whether Russian influence operations helped put Donald Trump in the White House is on a knife’s edge and could easily veer into either of two distinct directions.
One possibility is that investigators will feel galvanized by President Donald Trump’s abrupt firing of FBI director James Comey and burrow ever deeper into a probe in which they see the reputation of the bureau at stake.
Or, with the FBI temporarily rudderless, Trump loyalists in the Justice Department could put the brakes on the investigation in multiple ways.
“They could just say, ‘We’ve got 60 days to tie this up. I’m not spending more person power inside the bureau. . . . Let’s just say wrap it up unless we’ve got a smoking gun,’ ” said Christopher H. Schroeder, a former assistant attorney general who headed the Office of Legal Policy.
Agents could be reassigned, Schroeder said, “and you could slow walk it by starving it.”
New indications arose Wednesday that Comey, whom Trump axed Tuesday, ostensibly for the way he handled the probe into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while serving as secretary of state, was seeking to expand the investigation into Trump’s inner circle and its ties to Russia.
“It appears that Comey was fired because he was asking for more money,” said a former government official familiar with the probe and Russian influence in the elections, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, echoed that belief, saying he’d been told that Comey recently had asked newly installed Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein for more money for the probe.
“All I know is that I’m told that as soon as Rosenstein arrived there was a request for additional resources for the investigation and a few days afterwards he (Comey) was sacked,” Durbin said. “I have a general conclusion: I think that the Comey operation was breathing down the neck of the Trump campaign and their operatives and this was an effort to slow down the investigation.”
Justice Department spokeswoman Sarah Isgur Flores denied that Comey’s apparent desire to expand the investigation was the reason for his firing.
“This was a personnel decision about serious concerns about Director Comey’s leadership. Not about an ongoing or future investigation,” Flores said.
An FBI spokesperson declined comment.
The former government official, however, said FBI investigators “had reason to expand the investigation internationally,” including looking at “other business activities and holdings of Paul Manafort (Trump’s former campaign chairman) beyond his work in Ukraine.”
Other officials declined to comment on that assertion.
Manafort served as a consultant in Ukraine for almost a decade to some pro-Russia businessmen and a pro-Kremlin president who was ousted in early 2014. The official cited estimates that Manafort and associated businesses received between $80 million and $100 million for work done for more than a decade for political and business consulting involving Ukrainian and other foreign clients, including a Russian billionaire.
The former official stressed that whatever differences existed within the FBI about Comey’s handling of the Clinton investigation, “bureau agents are united in their contempt for how he was fired.”
Comey learned of his removal, three years into a 10-year term, from a television newscast while speaking to agents on a trip to Hollywood, California.
“People at the FBI are outraged and angry” over Comey’s firing, said Jeff Ringel, a 21-year FBI veteran who is now with the Soufan Group, a strategic security firm in New York City. “It was unprofessional, crass and cowardly the way that Comey was blindsided.”
“Comey was one of the last honest brokers in DC. Trump has potentially tainted the results of the investigation going forward,” Ringel said.
For now, a cloud remains over the FBI-led investigation, which by all accounts was managed closely by Comey, who spent much of his career as a federal prosecutor.
“This was obviously the most important, most sensitive, most critical investigation that the FBI is currently conducting,” Carrie Cordero, a former counselor to the assistant attorney general for national security, told a podcast by Lawfare, a blog on national security affairs. “So that means it is more likely than not that the director has been getting briefed probably every single day.”
Comey’s abrupt departure will knock the wind out of the sails of the investigation, at least temporarily, Cordero said.
“This is, in my opinion, going to cause delay, going to cause questions amongst the investigators in terms of their leadership,” she said.
Others echoed that a temporary slowdown in the investigation was likely.
“It’s undoubtedly going to cause some dislocation inside the FBI and to people in the National Security Division of Justice,” said Barry Coburn, a former federal prosecutor. “They have to get reorganized to figure out who will be the point person in the FBI and who will make key investigative decisions. It raises very substantial concerns about the possibility that whoever takes over from Comey might stop, subvert, divert or otherwise impact the investigative activity that otherwise would have been taken.”
Few professionals in the Justice Department believe that Comey’s firing was tied to anything other than the displeasure of the White House at the Russia probe.
“Everybody reads this as the White House wanting to send a warning shot across the bow of the Russia investigation and to slow it down,” said Schroeder, who now teaches at Duke University’s law school.
Some career investigators may not take kindly to the political pressure, said Alex Whiting, a former federal prosecutor who now teaches at Harvard Law School.
“If they feel like this was designed to push them back, they will be emboldened,” Whiting said, and may confront Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein, who has taken the reins of the Russia probe because Attorney General Jeff Sessions withdrew from involvement in the inquiry after it was disclosed that he met twice with Russia’s ambassador last year.
Whiting said he believes Rosenstein “is very weakened” as a result of his role in Comey’s “orchestrated firing,” and will soon feel pressure from senior Justice Department officials to name a special counsel to take over the Russia influence investigation.
“It’s very possible that in the next few days, the political pressure will be so intense that he’ll have little choice,” Whiting said.
He said many career Justice Department officials care deeply about its image and the perception that it remains free of political meddling.
“Any time that there’s a perception that the independence of the Justice Department may have been compromised by a political decision, that’s very damaging to the institution,” Whiting said. “And it’s a lasting damage.”
Experts on Russia who once worked in the federal government said they hoped an FBI investigation continued apace.
“It’s absolutely critical that the FBI investigation into the facts proceed impartially and apply the law to all matters relating to Russia’s actions during the elections,” said Jonathan Winer, who was the chief expert on Russia crime at the State Department during the Clinton administration.
UPDATE: This story has been revised to make clear that other officials declined to comment on whether Comey had reason to broaden the inquiry into Paul Manafort’s international dealings.
Greg Gordon and Lindsay Wise contributed to this report.
Stone is a McClatchy special correspondent.