It’s no accident your phone lights up nearly every night with new revelations about Team Trump’s connections to Russia. So many different investigators with so many different agendas are looking into so many different parts of that nexus, it would be almost impossible for word not to leak out.
But there’s an explanation for at least some of the leaks that’s a little more cunning than the rest—one that might bring some actual resolution. Four current and former law enforcement officials believe prosecutors have been treating Trump and his associates like a criminal network, and subjecting them to an array of time-tested law enforcement tricks.
One of those tricks involves floating names of potential targets of the investigation, to try and get potential co-conspirators to turn on one another. Another, called “tickling the wire,” entails strategically leaking information to try and provoke targets under surveillance into saying something dumb, or even incriminating.
“You want people to freak out, to say, ‘are they talking about me? Is this me? What do they know?’—and you want them to do this in a way that is captured,” one former FBI official said about the Russia investigation.
“Now we wait for the cover up.”
Trump and his associates are facing an array of potential legal troubles. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, former national security adviser and retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, and Trump’s son-in-law and top aide Jared Kushner all failed to mention their meetings with Russian officials on their security clearance applications; such omissions are considered felony crimes. Flynn and former campaign chair Paul Manafort declared only after the fact their lobbying work advanced the interests of foreign governments, despite regulations requiring the immediate disclosure of such lobbying work. Federal and local investigators are examining Manafort’s real-estate transactions, and a grand jury is now looking into Flynn’s influence-for-hire business. Then there’s the specter of obstruction of justice charges over Trump’s firing of FBI director Jim Comey—the man who was leading the investigation into his Russia ties. (Robert Mueller, his predecessor at the FBI, has been named as a special counsel and is now helming the case, which has expanded to encompass Flynn and Manafort’s lobbying.)
Trump’s new lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, may say his client has been “totally vindicated” by the written testimony of Comey, who noted, in as narrow language as possible, that Trump wasn’t personally under investigation. That doesn’t make Kasowitz’s statement true.
“We are only at the beginning of this. There’s too much smoke for there to be no fire. Criminal acts and cover ups usually unfold just like this. This doesn’t mean there was collusion. It means crimes were committed somewhere along the way and now people are trying to find ways to distance themselves while keeping appearances like they are all friends,” a former FBI official said.
One technique for pulling those friends apart: Leak information on who may be a target of the investigation. “It’s a way to get other rats to run in and say, ‘me first, me first,’” said Charles Clayman, a veteran New York City criminal defense attorney who began his career as a local and federal prosecutor. “There’s always a race to the courthouse, because there’s no honor among thieves. The idea is to make other co-conspirators think the race has already begun.”
Stories that don’t name names—like a recent Washington Post piece noting that a senior Trump adviser was a subject of interest in the Russia probe—can be particularly helpful in provoking targets and getting tips, according to three current and former FBI sources.
“It is not a coincidence that those stories [about the subjects of interest] hit as Air Force One was wheels up on a very long flight to Riyadh,” said a former FBI official with knowledge of aspects of the current investigation.
“That’s of course about turning up the heat. You create friction between Trump’s people while they’re stuck in a confined space for 16-plus hours.”
By the end of the trip, Kushner had not only been identified in other press reports as that White House subject of interest but the White House then all but confirmed that he had proposed a secret backchannel to the Kremlin—using the Russians’ own communication gear.
(The FBI and Justice Department didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story.)
The prosecutorial leaks can become doubly effective when the targets are undisciplined, and under surveillance.
That’s what happened in 1989, when federal prosecutors sent subpoenas to Gambino crime boss John Gotti and his associates to testify in an incoming trial. The feds were hoping Gotti would flip out—and he did, all-but-admitting to obstructing justice while agents listened in. “Nobody is taking the stand!” Gotti screamed, according to the book Mob Star by Gene Mustain and Jerry Capeci. “You go in there and break their fuckin’ heads. Don’t worry about us. Go in and fight!”
It was a classic example of tickling the wire—pushing out information to skittish targets, and then listening to what they say next. And in Gotti’s case, it worked. The so-called Teflon Don was arrested on charges of murder, bribery, loansharking, tax evasion, and obstruction of justice in late 1990, and sentenced to life in prison in 1992.
Former federal prosecutor Edward McDonald worked on public corruption and mob cases, including the famous Lufthansa heist case. He recalled another example of tickling the wire, from back in 1986, while building a public corruption case against Bronx Congressman Mario Biaggi and Brooklyn Democratic leader Meade Esposito. “You can’t conduct electronic surveillance forever,” he explained; ordinarily, a judge only authorizes such eavesdropping for a few weeks or months at a time. On the final day of the surveillance they had the FBI go into the congressman’s office and ask about his relationship with Esposito. Panicked phone calls followed, which were captured on the wiretaps.
Such methods have continued to be used in public corruption, organized crime, and insider trading cases, McDonald said.
But he added that it’s unlikely Trump is under similar pressure at this moment.
“If you’re tickling the wire you have to have a wire,” McDonald said. In a criminal investigation, at least, a judge would have to find probable cause that people in the Trump orbit were discussing criminal acts. “I don’t know if they are that stupid.”
FBI officials, current and former, disagreed. “Absolutely they’re dumb enough to talk,” said one current FBI employee about the men and women surrounding Trump.
Even if the targets are somewhere south of genius, tickling the wire can be a risky proposition, noted David C. Gomez, a former assistant special agent in charge of the FBI’s Seattle field office. Leak the wrong information, and the target now knows that he or she is under surveillance.
“You can jeopardize an investigation that way,” he said. And Mueller, who is now leading the Justice Department’s FBI probe, has a reputation for being careful—and tight-lipped. “I don’t think Mueller would want to be that provocative until all his i’s are dotted and his t’s are crossed.”
But Trump and his team have previously made multiple claims of being monitored (or “tapped,” as the president so famously tweeted). And of course, this is no ordinary criminal probe.
Over the past year, at least a half-dozen different organizations have deployed investigators to look into the potential nexus between Team Trump and Camp Putin. There’s the House and Senate Intelligence Committees, each with its own separate probe; the corporate intelligence shops, like the one that eventually compiled the infamous “Golden Showers” dossier; the cybersecurity firms who found much of the technical evidence linking the hacking of the DNC to Russian crews; the U.S. intelligence agencies, which have uncovered previously-undisclosed contacts between Trump confidants and Russian government officials; and finally, the multi-pronged, far-flung Justice Department investigation, now under Mueller’s direction.
Any one of these outfits—or any combination of them—could contribute to any single leak about the Trump-Russia axis.
Take another recent story in The Washington Post, chronicling how the Russian ambassador to the United States Sergei Kislyak called his superiors in Moscow about the highly unusual proposal—a call that eavesdroppers in U.S. intelligence apparently picked up. Did that mean someone in American intelligence compromised their surveillance program? Or was Kislyak talking about Kushner, knowing an American ear was listening in? In other words, Gomez wondered, “Was Kislyak doing his own version of tickle the wire?”
Gomez isn’t the only law enforcement professional who raised that possibility, but he was the only one willing to say so on the record.
The two former law-enforcement officials said “the deluge of leaks” about Trump and Russia since Comey’s firing is about trying to shake things loose, to pressure White House staffers still in Washington, D.C., to come forward and report criminal activity.
Those leaks, sources said, played to Trump’s ego, appetite for cable news, and tendency to veer toward paranoia.
“Who is under investigation… and who is cooperating and are their conversations being monitored? Those are the questions you’d want the president to be thinking about,” said one government official, declining repeatedly to offer answers to any of those questions.
Could this all change as Mueller takes full control of the investigation? Or if Christopher Wray, Trump’s pick to run the FBI, gets installed atop the bureau? Sure it could.
For now, however, the drip-drip-drip continues. One intelligence official and one law enforcement official, both currently serving, said that government officials have openly talked about using leaks to undermine the performance of the president, and to create infighting and a distracted senior staff. Given the president’s ham-fisted responses to the—like his near-admission that he leaked sensitive Israeli intelligence to top Russian officials—it’s a tactic that appears to have worked rather well.
As one former FBI official said, “Trump just went way too far.”