Update: Trump has now denied ever having worked for Russia, after not doing so Saturday night. The below has been updated.
It’s been about 60 hours since it was first reported that the Federal Bureau of Investigation launched an inquiry into whether President Trump was working for Russia. And for all the bluster and tough words, until Monday morning we were still missing something: A firm denial.
The president took to the friendly airwaves of Jeanine Pirro’s Fox News show Saturday night to call the question of whether he is or was working for Russia “insulting” — without actually addressing the question — while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo decided to knock down a straw man when asked about all this.
Eventually Trump said Monday: “I never worked for Russia. And you know that answer better than anybody. I never worked for Russia. Not only did I never work for Russia, I think it’s a disgrace that you even asked that question because it’s a whole big fat hoax."
Let’s walk through each response individually.
Here’s Trump talking to Pirro (emphases added and addressed below):
PIRRO: Now, I want to move on to another subject. The New York Times reported that the FBI opened a counterintelligence investigation the day after you fired James Comey in May of ’17. And the investigation was whether you were actively working for Russia or unwittingly. So, I’m going to ask you: Are you now or have you ever worked for Russia, Mr. President?
TRUMP: I think it’s the most insulting thing I’ve ever been asked. I think it’s the most insulting article I’ve ever had written. And if you read the article, you’d see that they found absolutely nothing.
But the headline of that article — it’s called “the failing New York Times” for a reason, they’ve gotten me wrong for three years. They’ve actually gotten me wrong for many years before that.
But you look at what’s going on, you know, I fired James Comey. I call him Lying James Comey because he was a terrible liar, and he did a terrible job as the FBI director. Look at what happened with the Hillary Clinton and the emails and the Hillary Clinton investigation, one of the biggest screw-ups that anybody’s ever seen as an investigation.
And what happened after I fired him? Andrew McCabe, Peter Strzok, his lover, Lisa Page, they did it. And, you know, they’re all gone. Most of those people, many, many people from the top ranks of the FBI, they’ve all been fired or they had to leave. And they’re all gone. This is what they were talking about. And, obviously, nothing was found.
And I can tell you this, if you ask the folks in Russia, I’ve been tougher on Russia than anybody else, any other — probably any other president period, but certainly the last three or four presidents, modern-day presidents. Nobody’s been as tough as I have from any standpoint, including the fact that we’ve done oil like we’ve never done it, we’re setting records in country with oil and exporting oil and many other things. So, which is, obviously, not great for them, because that’s what they — that’s where they get their money for the most part. But many other things.
So I think it was a great insult. And the New York Times is a disaster as a paper. It’s a very horrible thing they said, and they’ve gone so far that people that weren’t necessarily believers are now big believers, because they said that was a step too far. They really are a disaster of a newspaper.
The first thing is that calling something an “insult” — even “the most insulting article” — isn’t technically denying it. Yes, you tend to be more insulted by ridiculous accusations, but Trump doesn’t technically say that what the FBI was investigating was untrue. It’s also notable that he repeated at the end that the article was an “insult” — which suggests this not-quite-denial was a predetermined talking point.
The other issue is, why attack the article itself? The article didn’t say “Trump was a Russian asset”; it said the FBI launched an inquiry into the matter. Trump’s hostility would seem better reserved for the FBI than for the newspaper that revealed what his backers have argued was an overzealous inquiry. This is both killing the messenger and changing the subject. And that just so happens to be a good way to rhetorically avoid the actual question Pirro was asking him: find the boogeyman, and make it about them.
At this point, I’ll say this: Even if Trump intended to not actually deny the accusation, that doesn’t mean it’s true. Whatever you think of Trump, one of his most successful base-rallying strategies has been to tempt his opponents and the media to overreach. In this case, he might very well have never worked for Russia, but he could be happy to have that speculation out there, because he knows how ridiculous it seems to his base (and perhaps to even more of the country).
And even if it were true, would the president who has falsely denied things many times before and uttered more than 7,000 falsehoods as president actually be worried about doing so again? If it turned out to be true, a false denial would be the last thing Trump would have to worry about. He would almost definitely be removed from office.
Whatever the case, though, Trump’s non-denial reportedly rubbed some Republicans close to the White House the wrong way — and they wished he’d more directly address the question. Now he has.
But his non-denial wasn’t even the most telling. Speaking of people who didn’t actually address the question that was asked of them, here’s Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on CBS’s “Face the Nation” in an interview taped Saturday:
MARGARET BRENNAN: I want to get to your trip through the Middle East, but I first want to ask you about this New York Times report that says, right after President Trump fired former FBI director James Comey, the FBI began investigating whether President Trump himself was a potential threat to national security and whether he’d been working for Russia or unintentionally influenced by Moscow. What is your reaction to this?
POMPEO: I’m not going to comment on New York Times stories, but I’ll certainly say this: The — the notion that President Trump is a threat to American national security is absolutely ludicrous.
BRENNAN: Just to clarify, since you were CIA director, did you have any idea that this investigation was happening?
POMPEO: Margaret — Margaret — Margaret. I’ve answered this question repeatedly, indeed on your show. The — the idea that’s contained in the New York Times story that President Trump was a threat to American national security is — is silly on its face and not worthy of a response.
Pompeo takes a similar tack to Trump: don’t address the actual question and instead focus on the messenger. But again, the Times didn’t say Trump was “a threat to national security,” and, in fact, nobody in the story did, either. The story merely said that the FBI was investigating whether the president was working for Russia.
Pompeo also, notably, is asked whether he knew about the probe, given he was CIA director at the time. He doesn’t answer — and instead pretends as if it was the same question as before, when it wasn’t.
So that’s two questions that Pompeo didn’t directly address. On the big one, it’s entirely possible he’s not answering the question because he simply doesn’t know for sure. If Trump were a Russian asset, it seems likely that people such as Pompeo don’t actually know about it — because if they did, you’d assume they would have done something.
But given Pompeo’s proximity to all this — as both secretary of state and then-CIA director — he’s in a unique position to offer the most ironclad denial of basically anybody not named Trump or Mueller.
And in fact, for all the reasons above, the fact that Pompeo wouldn’t quite go there might be more significant even than Trump’s non-denial-turned-actual-denial.