The Slow, Steady Path of a Presidential Investigation: Behind the Scenes in the Search for Evidence in Russiagate

If former FBI Director James Comey was examining the conduct of the Russians and the Trump campaign since July 2016, why is the Russiagate investigation taking so long?

The likelihood that US intelligence agencies already know exactly what the evidence shows about Trump campaign associates, and even the President himself, allegedly colluding, coordinating, aiding or abetting agents of the Russian government to interfere with the election is exceptionally high. If you cobble together the bits and pieces that have already been leaked, even though the public is continually being told that “the investigation is ongoing”, as a criminal trial attorney, I would bet right now that the Justice Department could recommend what charges are warranted and who should be held accountable.

But, over these many long months of waiting for answers, our expectations have been managed. We have been schooled by the talking heads from federal investigating agencies and Congressional subcommittees that we will have to be patient while the government does its due diligence to follow all leads and interview potential witnesses. So why is that the script? First, imagine the pressure on the FBI. The Bureau is investigating its boss. The dignity of Bureau and the preservation of our democracy are at stake. Imagine being on that hot seat-- a seat where James Comey got burned-- and required to produce a reliable result where government officials or past campaign operatives could be prosecuted. The FBI is carefully dotting its “I’s” and crossing its T's”, which means the agency is following every lead it has generated until the end of the trail.

Watergate took two years to investigate. That was essentially about a burglary case. Russiagate is far more complicated. It is the investigation to gather evidence and possibly substantiate a crime involving an alleged improper and perhaps corrupt relationship with a foreign enemy nation. The time it will take to properly get to the bottom of this, and substantiate the findings by combing through each crumb, is painstaking. There are likely millions of records and pieces of digital data that must be parsed to establish a paper trail, a digital trail, and a witness trail from Russia to the White House.

US Intelligence and now the Special Counsel must work silently to avoid any errors. They need many bodies to sift through the reams of data from ostensibly multiple layers of financial transactions, bank records, communications on servers and in telephone calls, Trump campaign records, and emails, Also relevant, is the examination of the public and private witness statements of the six or seven Trump associates who met or communicated with the Russians during the campaign and the transition.

Any investigation conducted by the US Department of Justice is always cloaked in confidentiality. Federal statutes prohibit agents and other federal employees from leaking information to the press, which can compromise the investigation. It's also illegal for the FBI to share information about an ongoing investigation with any potential witnesses, because they may turn into suspects. There’s a familiar expression in legal circles, in cases of a crime or cover up, " The guilty know who they are.” if word gets out that the government is looking at you, witnesses disappear, evidence leaves the country, burner phones are purchased, and hard drives get cleaned.

Despite the law, careful leaks have been happening in Russiagate, but in a limited fashion where the content points to a red flag, but not yet anything as substantive as a smoking gun. In practice and in principle, an intelligence agency’s incentive to share with the public the fruits of its research and stone un-turning before all the ducks are in a row is practically zero. And that is why the public only knows the tip of the iceberg even after the government has cracked a case.

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