President Donald Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey continues to reverberate in the KremlinGate scandal, which threatens to consume the Trump administration. By abruptly removing Comey, then mangling his excuses for why he did so, Trump created a needless crisis for the White House which shows no signs of abating.
The impartial observer might think that Trump fired Comey because he feared what the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation of the president’s contacts with Russia might reveal—as the commander in chief has essentially admitted. Moreover, Trump’s inappropriate efforts to secure Comey’s personal “loyalty” had fallen flat—the FBI director rightly assured the president of his honesty but abjured any fealty to Trump personally—after which the president is reported to have developed a palpable fear of the incorruptible Bureau boss. To protect Team Trump, Comey had to go.
But cashiering Comey was insufficient. True to form, Trump seemingly took the offensive against the FBI. According to multiple reports, the president approached top intelligence bosses to coax them into joining Trump’s personal war with Comey. In particular, Trump is reported to have asked Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence (DNI), and Admiral Mike Rogers, director of the National Security Agency, to go public in denying that Team Trump had any ties to Russia during the 2016 election campaign.
The president’s take on the FBI investigation is well known, thanks to his frequent tweets castigating it as “fake news,” a “hoax” and even a “witch hunt.” However, asking top intelligence officials to publicly attack the FBI and its director isn’t just unusual—it’s unprecedented. Even President Nixon, in the depths of the Watergate scandal, which ultimately unraveled his administration, never went quite so far as to drag NSA into his public mess.
Admiral Rogers anecdotally flatly denied Trump’s request, which—if true—was inappropriate, unethical and dubiously legal, while Coats, a Trump appointee who’s only been in the DNI job since mid-March, likewise refused to back the president against the FBI. This was a stunning setback for Trump, who seems to view our nation’s top security officials as his personal employees who ought to follow his presidential whim rather than the law and the Constitution, which all of them take an oath to defend.
Last week, when he appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Coats declined to answer questions about the White House’s effort to undermine the FBI investigation of Team Trump, stating, “I don’t feel it’s appropriate to characterize discussions and conversations with the president” in open session. Presumably DNI Coats would be more forthcoming in a closed Congressional session, where classified information can be revealed.
Director Rogers, in contrast, has made no public statements about the president’s effort to enlist him in his anti-Comey campaign. This is typical of his famously tight-lipped agency—for decades, NSA was humorously said to stand for Never Say Anything—and why Trump approached Rogers is no mystery. As the nation’s signals intelligence force, NSA isn’t just the biggest source of intelligence on earth—it’s also the agency possessing the bulk of the classified information which establishes collusion between Trump and the Russians. Although whispers of such SIGINT have reached the media, the lion’s share remains hidden from public view, though it’s all known to the FBI.
If Trump could co-opt NSA in his fight with the Bureau, that would be a big win, protecting the White House from dangerous information, so it’s safe to assume that Rogers’ refusal burned Trump personally. Perhaps that’s why, early this week, Admiral Rogers took the unusual step of addressing the entire NSA workforce to tell them what transpired with the president.
This is not Rogers’ style. Indeed, his tenure as NSA’s director (called DIRNSA by insiders) has been characterized by distance from his employees, which has made things rockier than necessary. To be fair to Rogers—a career intelligence officer well equipped for his current position—when he became DIRNSA in the spring of 2014, he inherited an agency in crisis. NSA was still reeling from the disastrous Ed Snowden affair, the biggest theft of classified information in espionage history.
While Snowden has taunted NSA with tweets sent from his Russian hideaway, more security disasters have followed. The strange case of Harold Martin, yet another rogue defense contractor who stole gigantic amounts of classified information from the agency, constituted another Snowdenesque embarrassment, even though there’s no evidence that Martin was engaged in espionage.
Worse for Rogers was the theft of highly classified hacking tools from NSA by the so-called Shadow Brokers, which is widely believed to be a front for Russian intelligence. The dumping of those top-secret exploits online, after modification by rogue hackers, has resulted in worldwide cyberattacks impacting millions—yet another black mark on Rogers’ tenure as DIRNSA. In response to these very public setbacks, Rogers has seldom addressed the NSA workforce about them or much else.
This week’s town hall event, which was broadcast to agency facilities worldwide, was therefore met with surprise and anticipation by the NSA workforce, and Rogers did not disappoint. I have spoken with several NSA officials who witnessed the director’s talk and I’m reporting their firsthand accounts, which corroborate each other, on condition of anonymity.
In his town hall talk, Rogers reportedly admitted that President Trump asked him to discredit the FBI and James Comey, which the admiral flatly refused to do. As Rogers explained, he informed the commander in chief, “I know you won’t like it, but I have to tell what I have seen”—a probable reference to specific intelligence establishing collusion between the Kremlin and Team Trump.
Rogers then added that such SIGINT exists, and it is damning. He stated, “There is no question that we [meaning NSA] have evidence of election involvement and questionable contacts with the Russians.” Although Rogers did not cite the specific intelligence he was referring to, agency officials with direct knowledge have informed me that DIRNSA was obviously referring to a series of SIGINT reports from 2016 based on intercepts of communications between known Russian intelligence officials and key members of Trump’s campaign, in which they discussed methods of damaging Hillary Clinton.
NSA employees walked out of the town hall impressed by the director’s forthright discussion of his interactions with the Trump administration, particularly with how Rogers insisted that he had no desire to “politicize” the situation beyond what the president has already done. America’s spies are unaccustomed to playing partisan politics as Trump has apparently asked them to do, and it appears that the White House’s ham-fisted effort to get NSA to attack the FBI and its credibility was a serious mistake.
It’s therefore high time for the House and Senate intelligence committees to invite Admiral Rogers to talk to them about what transpired with the White House. It’s evident that DIRNSA has something important to say. Since Mike Rogers is said to have kept notes of the president’s effort to enlist him in Trump’s personal war with the FBI, as any seasoned Beltway bureaucrat would do, his account ought to be impressively detailed.
John Schindler is a security expert and former National Security Agency analyst and counterintelligence officer. A specialist in espionage and terrorism, he’s also been a Navy officer and a War College professor. He’s published four books and is on Twitter at @20committee.