Hunter Biden, son of the man who will be America’s 46th president, tried to profit from his father’s name abroad—as we learned anew from some of the contents of a computer hard drive that were leaked in the weeks before the election. What is also true is that the tale we have been told about Hunter Biden’s computers stinks to high heaven. Hunter, who lives in Los Angeles, supposedly dropped three laptops off with a blind repair-shop owner in Wilmington, Delaware, then never came back to get them. The owner says he gave a laptop to the FBI and somehow linked up with Rudy Giuliani, who managed to get the goods to the New York Post three weeks before the 2020 election. The emails and photos from Hunter Biden’s computer appear to be real, but the story of how the laptop was obtained looks like a lie.
Put another way, Hunter Biden was both guilty and framed. His emails suggest that foreign interests were willing to pay him for access to his father. And yet the way the press came to know these details strongly suggests foul play.
Hunter Biden wasn’t the only figure in the 2020 election in this position. For Donald Trump was also guilty and framed—and so were many of the players in the so-called Russia scandal.
Trump lied and covered up the fact that, as he was running for president, he sought a deal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow. His second campaign manager funneled internal polling to a man with close ties to Russian intelligence. Trump dangled pardons to buy the silence of witnesses against him and, as an intimidation tactic, threatened to fire the special counsel who was investigating him. Trump defamed and demonized the bureaucrats, government lawyers, and agents that he perceived as his enemies. And Trump has consistently and publicly denied the fact of Russia’s political warfare against America, undermining his own government’s strategy to expose and shame the Kremlin for its skullduggery.
At the same time, Trump and his associates were the victims of two abusive investigations—an FBI hunt and a special-counsel probe. These two pursuits crushed lower-level public servants and obscure foreign-policy hands. Minor infractions of lobbying laws that the Justice Department had ignored for decades and entirely legal associations with admittedly sleazy Russian oligarchs were transmuted into high crimes. In the court of public opinion, former Justice Department officials took to cable television and shamelessly deployed their credentials to bolster slanderous charges of treason against a few ambitious and clueless 2016 Trump campaign aides. Trump also had to deal with a faction of the national-security bureaucracy that set out to undermine his presidency even before his inauguration. And the very journalists, analysts, and FBI leaders who guard the republic against Russian meddling were themselves unwitting victims of it.
This is the story of how America drove itself crazy over Trump and Russia.
THE RUSSIAN GAME
EVER SINCE Vladimir Putin ascended to the Russian presidency in 2000, successive U.S. leaders have tried to befriend him. But while America was cajoling Russia to behave, Putin was nursing a grudge against the West. And over the course of his tenure, he began to hone his grudge into a weapon. It became a new kind of Russian statecraft, one that combined the dirty tricks of the spy business and the dark arts of cyberwar with traditional military strategy. In 2014, Russia used this new doctrine in its stealth invasion of Crimea and eastern Ukraine. For months afterward, the Russians denied that their special forces had even crossed the border. They planted stories deflecting responsibility for the atrocities of their soldiers and proxies. They leaked the contents of an American phone call between State Department official Victoria Nuland and our ambassador to Ukraine in an effort to manufacture the idea of a conspiracy between the two. And they sought to discredit Ukrainian political parties that stood in the way of Russian dominance.
The same year, Putin also approved a plan against America that followed a similar model, which involved stealing authentic information and leaking it on the Internet while hyping disinformation on social media. Putin’s military-intelligence agency, known as the GRU, was in charge of the hack-and-leak part of the plan, as we learned in an indictment of GRU officers by special counsel Robert Mueller in July 2018. The indictment revealed how a dozen GRU officers used assumed identities and a network of computers all over the world to send deceptive emails to members of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, the Democratic National Committee, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. They used a common scam that works this way: A hacker sends someone an email with one letter off from the email address of a trusted correspondent to lure the recipient to click a link that gives the hacker access to his computer and accounts. This is what happened to Clinton campaign chair John Podesta in April 2016. He clicked on a link he believed was from Google, provided his password, and the Russians were off.
The emails, eventually publicized on Wikileaks and a GRU-fronted website called DCLeaks, did significant damage to Clinton’s campaign. For example, during the primary of that year, Clinton had declined to make public the speeches that she had given while out of office to Wall Street investment funds such as Goldman Sachs. The leaked emails featured those speeches. Other leaked emails disclosed how the DNC itself had not been neutral during the primary and had actively sought to harm the campaign of Bernie Sanders—a revelation that forced DNC chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz’s resignation during the Democratic convention. Most damning was a 2011 memo from longtime Clinton associate Doug Band, explaining how his consultancy had raised money for the Clinton Foundation while also arranging for the personal enrichment of Bill Clinton himself. Band estimated that between 2001 and 2011, Clinton had secured $30 million through private speeches and seats on corporate boards.
The disinformation prong of the Russian campaign was conducted by a separate entity operating outside the Kremlin’s direct control—the Internet Research Agency, or IRA. It had several departments filled with bright young Russians who flooded comment sections and other social-media platforms with propaganda. With the sponsorship of the oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, the IRA sent operatives to several states to gather intelligence for the upcoming 2016 election. The team got a crash course in how Americans argue with one another online and how those fights exposed the fraying bonds of American political life. The end result was a focused strategy that sought to stoke hot-button issues such as race and gun rights. It built up nodes of disinformation—false-flag websites, fake online personas, and troll farms—that manipulated the algorithms of social media to get more clicks while purchasing digital ads.
Russian trolls sought to enrage black voters by spreading false rumors about Clinton’s ties to racists. This was a tried-and-true disinformation method from the old Soviet Union days. In the 1960s, agents published pamphlets that sought to portray Martin Luther King as a pawn of the white establishment before his assassination, and then tried to pin his murder on that very same establishment after he was killed.
That kind of rumor was designed to be a slow-acting poison. In 2016, social media and the Internet more broadly made it so that foreign disinformation and propaganda could travel from the fringe to the center instantaneously. The IRA operation was fairly modest as far as political campaigns go. According to Mueller’s indictment, the IRA spent only $1.25 million a month during the election for the America desk, a pittance compared with the outlays of the Trump and Clinton campaigns, not to mention dark-money groups that seek to influence voters during an election.
The purpose of the disinformation campaign was to erode the trust Americans placed in institutions such as the government, elections, and the media. This is why so much of the IRA’s online propaganda did not seem to have a particular political message. The Trump campaign did not run on Texas seceding from the union, but a Russian Facebook page called The Heart of Texas managed to get more than 5.4 million likes, according to a Senate report. Meanwhile, another Russian Facebook page, the United Muslims of America, got 2.4 million likes. At one point, both fronts advertised rallies at the same time in the same location, potentially creating the conditions for street fights. It didn’t end up happening. Only a few people showed up.
What was the ideological purpose of the Russian campaign? The general line has been that it was designed to elect Trump; indeed, that was the conclusion of a 2017 intelligence-community assessment. But Former House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes says the assessment was incorrect and that the true Russian objective was to foment discord. Obama-era CIA director John Brennan acknowledges in his memoir that two members of the agency’s Russia team disagreed with the CIA’s claim of “high confidence” that Russia’s purpose was to get Trump into the White House. The National Security Agency looked at the same intelligence and said it had only “moderate confidence” in the conclusion. And Nunes says that intelligence briefings of Congress before the January 2017 assessment did not claim Russia had a clear preference. Brennan explains this away by saying that the CIA employee who briefed Nunes’s committee in early December 2016 was not privy to the most sensitive intelligence and “understated significantly what was known about the Putin-directed influence campaign.”
It’s easy to see why analysts would disagree on Putin’s objectives. In the Russian campaign, you have a mix of authentic and contrived information. Clinton’s stolen emails were real, and their publication helped Trump’s campaign. But the blinkered memes from Russian trolls were fake. Some of them, such as messages about Clinton’s failing health, reinforced the Trump campaign’s messaging. Others were designed simply to rile up the fringes.
Surveying the digital civil war in America these past four years, one is tempted to credit Putin with accomplishing his mission. But a better way to understand Russia’s influence operation is that it accelerated an unraveling that was already underway. Fiona Hill, who served as Trump’s first Russia director at the National Security Council, summed this up: “Russian operatives did not invent our crude tribal politics,” she wrote in October. “They invented Internet personas to whip them up.”
THE STEELE DOSSIER CATASTROPHE
IN THE TROUBLED interregnum between the Trump and Barack Obama presidencies, FBI director James Comey personally briefed both men on a summary of allegations that Trump’s campaign had colluded with Russia. The allegations came from the “Steele dossier,” a collection of raw opposition research that had been commissioned by the Democratic Party (a fact that the Clinton campaign and the party would deny to the press until November 2017).
Former British spy Christopher Steele’s dossier was wild and damaging. He claimed the Russians had a video of Trump enjoying a disgusting kind of private sex show at the Moscow Ritz Carlton in 2013. He claimed that a former adviser to the campaign, Carter Page, had been promised a significant stake in a Russian energy concern called Rosneft in exchange for favorable foreign policies if Trump won. He claimed that Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, had traveled to Prague in 2016 to coordinate with Russian spies.
During Comey’s briefing, Vice President Joe Biden asked, “How seriously should we take this?” Comey responded that the bureau hadn’t corroborated it, but portions of it were consistent with what it already had learned. He said the bureau had “confidence” in Steele. (These details come from reporting by the New Yorker’s Jane Mayer.) “If this is true,” Biden said. “this is huge.”
It wasn’t true.
In 2019, Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz found that much of Steele’s dossier was inaccurate, most of it could not be corroborated, and “the limited information that was corroborated related to time, location, and title information, much of which was publicly available.”
While Comey was more cautious in his public comments—he described Steele’s dossier as “salacious and unverified” in congressional testimony—his briefing of Obama and Biden showed him playing a disgraceful game. He left the impression that Steele’s information was solid without affirming that it was verified, which gave powerful Democrats reason to believe that Steele was on to something. Representative Adam Schiff actually read Steele’s allegations against Page into the congressional record during a hearing in March 2017. Other major media outlets did as well. In February 2017, CNN reported that investigators had corroborated some aspects of the dossier. They had not.
My February 2020 Commentary piece “The FBI Scandal” gets into more detail about how the Steele dossier was used by the FBI and later demolished by Horowitz. Since that essay’s publication though, evidence has emerged that Steele was not only wrong, but that he was actually a victim of his prey. It seems the Russians played him.
The first clues became public in April 2020 when the Justice Department declassified footnotes to the Horowitz report. The footnotes disclosed that FBI agents and others in the U.S. intelligence community had expressed worries that the dossier contained Russian disinformation. In June 2017, U.S. intelligence agencies received information that at least two people affiliated with Russian intelligence agencies were aware of Steele’s investigation in early July 2016. It was around this time that Steele had begun sharing with an FBI handler in Rome what he had supposedly uncovered. But the headquarters team assigned to Crossfire Hurricane, the code name for the Trump-Russia investigation, did not receive Steele’s material until September 2016.
Steele did not conduct the face-to-face collection for the dossier on Trump. He paid others to do it. The primary collector was a former researcher at the Brookings Institution named Igor Danchenko. In spring 2016, Danchenko traveled to Moscow on a shoestring budget and began pressing a network of friends and associates for what they knew about Trump’s business in Russia. This was when Danchenko heard that the Russian services had blackmail leverage over Trump in the form of a video recording of that 2013 sex show—and that Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, had traveled to Prague to meet with Russian election meddlers.
The source of that last bit of information was a former public-relations executive named Olga Galkina, according to the Wall Street Journal. The problem is that the allegation is almost certainly false. Cohen has resolutely denied any such meeting—even after he began cooperating with the Justice Department against his former boss and became determined to do whatever he could to destroy Trump’s presidency.
In the 2000s, Danchenko worked for Fiona Hill and Clifford Gaddy, the co-authors of the authoritative biography of Putin. At the time, the FBI investigated him for espionage (a detail that was also declassified over the summer). The bureau closed that investigation in 2010, Danchenko has denied categorically that he worked for Russian intelligence, and he has traveled to and from the U.S. in the years since, which suggests that the FBI no longer believes he is a suspect. Danchenko told me he believes that the information he collected for Steele was accurate, but he also understood that disinformation is a valid concern.
Fiona Hill suspects that Steele’s work was compromised. In 2019, she told the House Intelligence Committee during the impeachment hearings that she thought it was “very likely” that the Russians had fed Steele a mix of true and false information for his dossier. The Senate Intelligence Committee (in their fifth report on Trump-Russia) comes to a similar conclusion: “There was ample opportunity for Steele’s source network to be coopted by Russian security services, which would have allowed the service to shape the information that was eventually included in the dossier.”
One red flag in this respect is Steele’s own work on behalf of Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch and ally of Putin’s. The Senate Intelligence Committee report on Trump-Russia savages Deripaska for financing political-interference campaigns all over the world on behalf of the Kremlin. Steele worked for Deripaska between 2012 and 2017, “providing a potential direct channel for Russian influence on the dossier,” according to the Senate report. It also says there were indications that Deripaska was aware of Steele’s research for the Democrats at this time.
One aspect of Steele’s work for Deripaska was his assistance in the oligarch’s legal efforts to recoup money from Paul Manafort, Trump’s second campaign manager and Deripaska’s former business partner. The report also includes an email from early 2016 from Steele to Bruce Ohr, a senior Justice Department official, regarding a visa for Deripaska that the State Department had initially opposed. In that email, Steele writes that Deripaska was among the oligarchs being targeted by the Kremlin to fall in line with Putin, which, Steele said, suggested that Deripaska was “not the leadership tool some have alleged.” This is important for two reasons. Steele and Ohr were working on a side project, according to a 2018 report in the New York Times, to recruit Deripaska as a useful source of information for the United States on Russia. FBI agents once appeared at Deripaska’s New York home to ask him whether Manafort was a link between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin. The effort blew up in the FBI’s face because, counter to Steele’s expectations, Deripaska reported the encounter to the Kremlin.
The Steele dossier also includes a number of allegations about Manafort—but it makes no mention of his longstanding relationship with Deripaska, something Steele knew at the time and that would certainly have been relevant to the project. That is very suspicious. The opposition-research firm that hired Steele to research Trump, Fusion GPS, had itself been hired earlier that year by Steele’s firm, Orbis, to help track Manafort’s assets, according to the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Even Peter Strzok, the senior agent who oversaw both the Trump and Clinton investigations and whose improper behavior led to his firing in 2019, believes that Steele’s dossier was dodgy. In an interview with the Atlantic in September 2020, he said the dossier “comes from several sources, including some suspect sources. Some of it is bullshit, and some of it is rumor, and some of it is disinformation.”
Strzok does not go that far in his 2020 memoir, offering only that the FBI vetted the dossier to see whether it was Russian disinformation. He does not share the conclusion of that vetting. “My high-level assessment would be this,” he writes. “We never obtained information to suggest that Steele was lying to us. We learned things about his source network that improved our understanding of aspects of the information. And some of his information did ultimately prove false, although we had no reason to suspect he knew it was inaccurate when he gave it to us.”
All this suggests that Steele was both a vector for and a victim of Russian disinformation. He passed on false allegations about Trump and his campaign to the FBI, the Democratic Party, and the press—but these were allegations that Steele believed to be true. And at least some of that information was cooked up by the very Russians Steele thought he was exposing.
OF THE TRUMP OBSESSION
OCTOBER 7, 2016, was a busy day. In the morning, the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence released a statement confirming that Russia had hacked the Democratic National Committee. Just after, the Washington Post broke the tale of the 2005 Access Hollywood tape that featured Trump bragging about how his celebrity gave him license to grab women by their genitalia. And a few hours later, Wikileaks began publishing a new set of emails that the Russians had hacked from Clinton’s campaign. Trump cast doubt on who was behind those hacks. He also used those emails as a central part of his own strategy, reading them aloud at his rallies.
When you consider that he was a candidate with no access to intelligence reports, Trump can be forgiven for not knowing the full extent of Russia’s efforts to influence the election. We know that President Obama was reluctant to give the Russian-interference story too much oxygen because he believed Clinton would win anyway. In his memoir, CIA director John Brennan quotes Obama saying, “We need to prevent the Russians from affecting the vote itself without doing anything that might somehow help them achieve their goal of undermining the integrity of the election.”
But that’s as far as the excuse-making can go. Trump cannot be forgiven for denying Russian meddling in 2016 after his inauguration. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s second national-security adviser, has said that the president at times “aided and abetted” Russian disinformation in this respect. That assessment should be deemed especially damaging because McMaster was one of the few former administration senior officials to stay relatively neutral in 2020. In his memoir, Battlefields, McMaster writes that part of U.S. strategy against Russian political warfare was to shine a light on it. Russia doesn’t want to be blamed for its dirty tricks. As McMaster puts it: “Disinformation enables Russian deniability.”
There is little evidence that Trump’s denials were witting or purposeful, though. A key aspect of the 2019 impeachment inquiry over Trump’s efforts to get Ukraine to serve his political needs against Joe Biden focused on Trump’s private phone call in which he asked his Ukrainian counterpart to hand over Hillary Clinton’s private server. The idea that her server had been transported to Ukraine was itself an act of disinformation, a lie promoted by Russia to deflect responsibility for its role in the 2016 email hacks. If Trump had been in on Russia’s deception, why would he have bothered sticking to the script in a private phone call?
The worst moment in this regard was Trump’s performance in 2018 at a brief summit with Putin in Helsinki. Right before the meetings, the Justice Department indicted the GRU officers who had hacked the Democratic Party emails. But there was Trump at a press conference taking Putin’s side. “He just said it’s not Russia,” Trump said. “I will say this: I don’t see any reason why it would be, but I really do want to see the server.”
The most comprehensive account of the Helsinki debacle comes from John Bolton, Trump’s third national-security adviser. In his memoir, The Room Where It Happened, Bolton writes that as soon as Trump said he saw no reason why Russia would have hacked the emails, “it was obvious a major corrective action would be needed because of this self-inflicted wound.”
After the summit, Trump understood he needed to do damage control. He tweeted from Air Force One that he had faith in the intelligence community. Trump later clarified that he had meant to say he saw no reason why the hackers would not be Russian, thus entirely reversing the initial meaning of his statement. But there was no way to correct this one. Bolton writes that Condoleezza Rice called him to say, “You know, John, that Putin only knows two ways to deal with people, to humiliate them or dominate them, and you can’t let him get away with it.”
In the accounts of the former intelligence officials critical of Trump, the Helsinki moment comes up again and again as circumstantial proof that Trump had been compromised by Russia. Why else would he have said such a thing? Brennan said at the time that the president acted “treasonously.” When James Comey was asked in September 2020 by Senator Mike Lee why he was asserting that Trump still had ties to Russia, the former FBI director responded, “I have eyes and ears. . . . That’s how it strikes me watching the president in Helsinki take Putin’s side against his own intelligence committee and lots of stuff like that.”
Peter Strzok comes to a similar conclusion in his new memoir: “Part of me wondered darkly if [Putin] had a brief moment of panic regarding Trump, as in, ‘Hey buddy keep it cool, everyone’s going to figure out our secret.’” He writes that at least Putin, a former KGB officer, knows that he should trust his spies.
TRUMP VS. THE RESISTANCE
THERE ARE very good reasons why Trump never trusted the FBI or the CIA. During the 2016 campaign, former senior-national security officials such as Michael Morell, Mike Vickers, and John Allen all endorsed Hillary Clinton. Michael Hayden, who served as both CIA and NSA director under George W. Bush, opined during 2016 that Trump was acting like Putin’s “useful fool.” None of this was normal. Retired senior military and intelligence officials had never attacked a presidential candidate in this way.
Morrell later acknowledged the problem. “Let’s put ourselves in Donald Trump’s shoes,” he said in a 2017 interview with the New Yorker. “So what does he see? Right? He sees a former director of CIA and a former director of NSA, Mike Hayden … criticizing him and his policies. Right? And he would rightfully have said, ‘Huh, what’s going on with the intelligence guys?’”
Morrell was an exception. Most of the former national-security leaders continued in resistance mode. When Trump finally did take the oath of office, he inherited a federal government largely arrayed against him and his agenda. Within the first week of his presidency, portions of transcripts of his calls with the Australian prime minister and the Mexican president were leaked. Details of a top-secret counter-intelligence investigation into his campaign became front-page news the night before his inauguration, even though some of that reporting was not accurate.
The Washington Post reported that less than two weeks into the Trump administration, federal workers were “in regular consultation with recently departed Obama-era political appointees about what they can do to push back against the new president’s initiatives.” Some bureaucrats had set up social-media accounts to anonymously leak word of changes that Trump appointees were trying to make. Churches in Washington held seminars on civil disobedience for civil servants.
The hostility of the federal government toward the new president was not lost on his team. In his book Rage, Bob Woodward quotes Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner saying, “In the beginning 20 percent of the people we had thought Trump was saving the world, and 80 percent thought they were saving the world from Trump.”
And then there was James Comey. The FBI director’s announcement two weeks before the 2016 election that he was reopening his investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails delighted Trump and arguably was the final nail in her political coffin. Comey’s 10-year term at the FBI was supposed to keep him in office until 2022. But people in Trump’s inner circle, such as the incoming national-security adviser, Michael Flynn, advised the president-elect to cut Comey loose. Others, such as the incoming director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, urged Trump to give him a chance. Trump went with Coats.
Comey did not give Trump a chance.
From the very beginning of his relationship with the new president, Comey treated Trump like a suspect. He led Trump to believe that he was not a target of the bureau’s investigation, even though many of the FBI agents involved in that investigation understood that Trump would eventually become one, as Strzok writes in his memoir. Comey also recorded notes of his meetings with Trump and eventually leaked them, through an interlocutor, to the New York Times after he was fired in May 2017.
At the time, all of this looked terrible for Trump. Comey confirmed to Congress before he was fired that the FBI had been investigating Trump’s campaign in connection with the Russia investigation. The fired Comey then revealed the president’s ham-handed attempts to secure his loyalty and go easy on his allies. The day after Flynn’s resignation as national-security adviser on February 17, Trump confided to Comey, “I hope you can let this go.”
For the internal resistance, Comey’s notes were a bombshell. Trump is partially to blame for this. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein had drafted a public memo explaining that Comey had been fired because he had ignored longstanding precedent and Justice Department rules, first by discussing his decision not to prosecute Clinton in the email investigation and then by announcing that that investigation had been reopened before the 2016 election. It had the advantage of being an accurate summation of Comey’s actual wrongdoing.
But Trump couldn’t help but brag that he’d done it by himself. First in a meeting with Russia’s foreign minister and later in an interview with NBC News, Trump said he had fired Comey because of the Russia investigation. The fact that Trump had asked Comey to go easy on Flynn added to the perception of the president’s guilt. “It seemed distinctly possible that Trump had fired Comey to stifle the FBI’s investigation into Russian election interference,” Mueller deputy Andrew Weissmann writes in his new memoir, Where Law Ends, “and—we would soon learn—because Comey had refused to bow to the president’s request that he drop the investigation of Trump’s new national security adviser.” This, Weissmann explained, would have been evidence of obstruction of justice if it had been confirmed.
But where Flynn was concerned, there was really no justice to obstruct. The FBI had believed this as well. On January 4, 2017, it very nearly closed an investigation it had undertaken of Flynn’s connections to Russia, but it had kept the probe open on the dubious grounds that the incoming national-security adviser should not have been on the phone to the Russian ambassador during the transition period. I made this case in detail in the June 2020 issue of Commentary.1 In the months since, more evidence has emerged—in particular a Justice Department summary of an interview with William Barnett, the case officer on the Flynn probe, known as Crossfire Razor.
Barnett said that he and another analyst had had a text exchange on November 8, 2016, on the bureau’s Lync system. The analyst “believed the [Flynn] investigation was an exercise in futility,” the summary says. Barnett himself says he didn’t “understand the point” of it. By December, Barnett wanted to end it altogether and recommended conducting a closing interview with Flynn. His request was denied.
After the bureau learned of Flynn’s calls with the Russian ambassador that same month, the investigative tempo increased. But Barnett was cut out of key decisions and was not told that Strzok had been sent to interview Flynn four days after the inauguration. “Barnett,” the interview summary notes, “was not at the meeting on 01/30/2017 during which the FBI told DOJ that they did not believe Flynn was an agent of Russia.” Barnett lobbied his bosses to be transferred away from the Flynn investigation. The summary says Barnett told a superior that he believed the probe “was problematic” and could eventually result in an investigation of internal malfeasance by the Justice Department’s inspector general.
But Trump fired Comey. Then deputy attorney general Rosenstein appointed Robert Mueller as independent counsel. And everything changed.
THE MUELLER PROBE
DESPITE BARNETT’S wish, he remained on the Flynn probe but now was working for the special counsel’s office. There, he was the odd man out. He had believed for some time that there was no collusion case to be made. But the attorneys hired by Mueller believed otherwise. He joked about this with other colleagues, likening it to a board game—Collusion Clue. The summary quotes Barnett: “Investigators are able to choose any character conducting any activity, in any location, and pair this individual with another character and interpret as evidence of collusion.”
Barnett said he had briefed some of the Mueller attorneys about his Flynn investigation. In the middle of the briefing, one of the attorneys, Jeannie Rhee, interrupted Barnett to drill down on fees that Flynn’s speaker service received for a speech he gave in Russia. “Barnett explained logical reasons for the amount of the fee, but Rhee seemed to dismiss Barnett’s assessment,” the summary said. “Barnett thought Rhee was obsessed with Flynn and Russia because she had an agenda. Rhee told Barnett she looked forward to working together. Barnett told Rhee they would not be working together.”
It’s fair to point out that cops and prosecutors disagree all the time, and there’s nothing wrong with a U.S. attorney wanting to pursue an investigation with vigor. But Barnett had been probing Flynn for nine months at this point. The FBI had already informed the Justice Department that they did not believe Flynn was a Russian asset, and that was after Flynn was interviewed in late January about his calls with the Russian ambassador.
The new attorneys were on a trophy hunt.
Attorneys like Rhee and Weissmann directed the investigators, which was unusual. Ordinarily, it’s FBI agents who propose investigative steps and the prosecutors who sign off on them. Barnett said Mueller’s attorneys “were pushing for legal process and just wanted investigators to sign affidavits they prepared.” But Barnett believed there was no case against Flynn and that the legal pressure brought by the Mueller team against the retired general was a means to get the president.
Why did Mueller keep investigating Flynn? The answer was that the allegations against Flynn, Manafort, and two campaign foreign-policy advisers, George Papadopoulos and Carter Page, had been included in a detailed “scope memo” drafted in August 2017. That document had Rosenstein’s signature. But it was written by Mueller’s office. In effect, Mueller’s people were giving themselves permission.
In September 2020, Senator Lindsey Graham asked Rosenstein whether he regretted the August 2017 scope memo. By the time Rosenstein had issued it, there was no evidence that any of these Trump aides had colluded with the Kremlin. Rosenstein meekly said that he agreed with Graham’s “general statement.”
Rosenstein was supposed to serve as a check on Mueller’s ambitions. He wasn’t one. He was just a rubber stamp. In fairness to Rosenstein, he was in a difficult position.
If he had applied scrutiny to the special-counsel investigation, he would have opened himself up to charges of political interference. Rosenstein was also a victim of the FBI leadership’s lack of candor. Had the bureau dropped the Flynn prosecution after its determination at the end of January that he had not been a Russian agent, or had the bureau made a public statement about the credibility problems with the Steele Dossier, much of the public pressure on Rosenstein (and Trump) would have dissipated. But Comey and his deputy, Andrew McCabe, abetted this pressure and allowed the suspicions to linger.
For his part, Weissmann believed the Mueller investigation was, as he writes in his memoir, a “check on the president’s power.” This is a telling assertion of runaway authority; the probe was supposed to be an investigation into whether Trump and his campaign colluded with Russia. And while Weissmann is careful to say that he was just trying to get to the truth, it’s clear that he approached his investigation into Trump and his associates the way he had approached matters earlier in his career as a U.S. attorney working on the prosecution of the Mafia families in New York.
Much of this came out in one of the two trials of Trump’s second campaign manager, Paul Manafort. The judge who presided over Manafort’s trial for violating lobbying laws, T.S. Ellis, remarked from the bench that Mueller’s team was not interested in prosecuting Manafort for his crimes but was viewing him instead as a means to target the president. This suggestion angered Weissmann, as he says revealingly in his book: “Good prosecutors flip subordinate after subordinate, as far as the evidence leads, as a way of uncovering the full breadth of a criminal conspiracy and climbing toward whoever sits at its top.”
The Mueller team flipped Trump associates primarily by choosing to enforce the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA. This was how it prosecuted Manafort and his deputy, Rick Gates. It’s also the way the team pressured Flynn to cooperate—by threatening to prosecute his past FARA violations on behalf of Turkey. In 2019, Mueller’s prosecutors claimed that Russian troll farms had violated FARA as well.
The law in question dates back to 1938 and was initially used to unmask and prosecute Nazi and later Soviet agents of influence. Over time, the statute was loosened, and the Justice Department had largely stopped enforcing it. Weissmann is candid about this in his memoir. “There is little incentive for these lobbyists to register under the law because the law virtually never is criminally enforced or results in civil penalties,” he writes. Indeed, the Justice Department’s FARA unit has historically lacked enough staff for proper criminal investigations. But it was there to be exploited, and exploit it the Mueller team did.
Before he became Donald Trump’s second campaign manager in 2016, Paul Manafort was best known for representing Viktor Yanukovych, a notoriously corrupt former Ukrainian president with the distinct dishonor of being driven from power twice by democratic uprisings. Most Washington lobbyists would have taken a look at a guy like Yanukovych and politely declined his business. But Manafort was different. Throughout his career, he was happy to represent men with unsavory reputations, whether it was former Angolan rebel leader Jonas Savimbi or the Filipino dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
In the case of Yanukovych, Manafort had his work cut out for him. The Ukrainian president was seen in the West as Russia’s man in Kiev. So Manafort figured out a way to make him seem like a reformer. Between 2012 and 2014, he represented the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine in Washington, a think tank that was really a cutout for Yanukovych’s political party. He shared the contract with two other firms—a Democratic lobbying shop and a Republican communications concern. During this period, Manafort’s unregistered lobbying was well known. I wrote about it in 2012. But since no one bothered to enforce the FARA laws, it was also tolerated.
It was nice work while it lasted. But eventually Yanukovych had to flee to Russia when his citizens took to the streets demanding his ouster. So by the time Manafort had offered his services to the Trump campaign for free in January 2016, he was desperate for a chance to get back into the game. Trump was his ticket.
But he didn’t last long. On August 17, 2016, Trump fired Manafort after the New York Times reported that his campaign manager’s name appeared on a black ledger documenting cash payments to various Yanukovych cronies. Manafort has long denied the charge, claiming Yanukovych paid for his services by wire transfer. Regardless, it was one of the best decisions Trump ever made, because the investigation into Manafort was the closest Mueller got to proving collusion. He never charged Manafort for participating in a conspiracy with Russia, but he did uncover that Manafort had evaded paying his taxes through an elaborate money-laundering scheme.
And Mueller found that, during the two months Manafort was in charge of Trump’s campaign, he was also in close contact with a Russian national named Konstantin Kilimnik. His deputy, Rick Gates, regularly sent campaign polling data to Kilimnik, who himself had been Manafort’s deputy in Ukraine beginning in late 2004. After Manafort was fired, he remained in touch with Kilimnik, and they discussed how they might persuade Trump to endorse a “peace plan” for Ukraine after the election that would consolidate Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea, and how to counter the narrative that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.
According to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Kilimnik is a Russian intelligence officer, “part of a cadre of individuals ostensibly operating outside of the Russian government but who nonetheless implement Kremlin-directed influence operations.” He presents himself as a businessman and consultant, the committee says. But in reality, he works for Deripaska, whose side project is influencing foreign elections to advance the interests of the Kremlin.
The Senate report says Kilimnik studied languages at the Russian Military Institute of the Ministry of Defense, a school that trains GRU officers. And in a redacted section it says Kilimnik may have played a role in the GRU’s hack-and-leak operation against Clinton’s campaign and the Democratic Party. That evidence remains classified.
The report says Gates told the FBI that he suspected Kilimnik was a spy, recalling that he “did not believe that Kilimnik could afford his lifestyle solely based on his salary in Kiev.” Add to this that Kilimnik often used encrypted communications and techniques associated with intelligence tradecraft such as “foldering” (sharing an email account with someone else but communicating only through draft emails that are never sent).
Once Mueller’s team learned about Kilimnik and Manafort, they believed they were getting close to the target. They zeroed in on an August 2, 2016, face-to-face meeting between Manafort and Kilimnik at the Grand Havana Room in Midtown Manhattan. Weissmann and Rhee joked about the conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin being like the Michelangelo fresco of God giving life to Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. “With the Grand Havana meeting, we were potentially staring at a moment when those hands had eagerly stretched out toward each other,” Weissmann writes. “But a sliver of space between them was still occluded. We couldn’t see if the two had touched.”
By this point, Weissmann had flipped Gates and forced him to cooperate. Gates told the Mueller team that he had been at the meeting, though he had arrived late. They had talked about polling data Gates had been sending to Kilimnik and how states such as Minnesota and Wisconsin were more competitive for Trump than public polling suggested. The subject of Manafort’s debt came up. But there had been no discussion, at least according to Gates, of how Russian operatives could or would steer its digital influence campaign to help Trump.
A statement by Senator Kamala Harris and three other Democratic senators on the Senate Intelligence Committee regarding the report says: “This is what collusion looks like.” But that’s not what the report says. It says that Manafort’s presence on the campaign and closeness to Trump “created opportunities for the Russian intelligence services to exert influence over, and acquire confidential information on, the Trump Campaign.” Creating opportunities to “exert influence” and “acquire confidential information” may be highly reckless—but it is not the same as collusion.
For their part, Gates and Manafort have said they shared the campaign data as a way to persuade Kilimnik’s powerful friend, Deripaska, that it would be worth forgiving Manafort’s debt and paying him for services rendered back when Yanukovych was in power.
What we do know for certain is that, in this case at least, Weissmann’s bruising tactics uncovered a real national-security threat. Trump’s campaign manager, over the summer of 2016, was in debt to a dangerous Russian oligarch and in regular contact with someone who appears to be a Russian spy. If that’s not a counterintelligence risk, then nothing is. As for Manafort’s criminal convictions, he is guilty of money laundering and tax evasion, but framed for the rarely enforced crime of unregistered foreign lobbying. Even so, Manafort deserved his sentence.
THE NIGHT BEFORE Trump took the oath of office, the New York Times reported that intercepted communications of the incoming president’s associates were part of an FBI investigation into his campaign. There had been earlier reports hinting at this. But the scoop was the most detailed one to date.
The timing was significant not only because of the upcoming inauguration. Only a week before, Buzzfeed had published the Steele dossier. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius had also reported on Flynn’s phone call at the end of December with the Russian ambassador. The national-security bureaucracy was leaking like a sieve.
None of those leaks has been prosecuted. To this day, the Justice Department has not even named a suspect. Leaks are a part of the fabric of modern Washington, of course. But the FBI’s and Justice Department’s inaction on these leaks stands out. Under the Obama administration, the Justice Department actually approved electronic surveillance of the Associated Press Washington bureau and of James Rosen, then of Fox News. In October 2016, former vice chairman of the joint chiefs of staff James Cartwright pleaded guilty to lying to FBI investigators about his leaks to the media regarding U.S. cyber efforts to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program. Obama pardoned him before leaving office.
The FBI’s failure to find the anti-Trump sources is particularly conspicuous because the FBI itself is notoriously leaky. J. Edgar Hoover had a golden rolodex of reporters and columnists with whom he would share tips and nuggets. More recently, the Justice Department’s inspector general found in its review of the bureau’s investigation into Clinton’s private server that prohibitions on contacts with the media were widely ignored. The report identified “dozens” of FBI employees in regular contact with members of the press. It also found that many FBI employees regularly socialized with journalists, accepting tickets to sporting events and golf outings. Since that report was issued in 2018, two FBI employees have been disciplined for unauthorized contact or accepting gifts from members of the media.
The one leak the Justice Department has prosecuted involved the disclosure of details about the FBI’s investigation into the unjustly persecuted Carter Page. The Washington Post in April 2017 disclosed that the FBI had sought and received a surveillance warrant for Page because it had reason to believe he was a foreign agent. The leak was a profound violation of Page’s civil liberties. At the time, though, the news that Page was being monitored by the FBI was treated as another drip in the resistance narrative of Trump’s eventual undoing.
More than a year later, James Wolfe, the director of security for the Senate Intelligence Committee, was sentenced to two months in prison for lying to FBI agents in their investigation. In Wolfe’s plea agreement he said he never disclosed classified information, but the Justice Department did say he had passed on confidential information to two female journalists, one of whom was his mistress.
Wolfe’s fall is ironic because his job in part was to protect his committee’s classified information. It was Wolfe who often arranged for the witness interviews of people like Page and Papadopoulos. One might think the senators on his committee would be furious. But in a letter to the judge presiding over his case, the chair and vice chair of the committee at the time, Richard Burr and Dianne Feinstein, urged the court to show mercy. “Jim has already lost much through these events, to include his career and reputation,” they wrote. “And we do not believe there is any public utility in depriving him of his freedom.”
As a journalist, I am in favor of leaks. Not only do they keep reporters like me in business, but they can often be an important check on government agencies cloaked in official secrecy. That said, it’s also true that leaks can be deceptive. The story that Page was monitored by the FBI came out at a time when most observers believed that Page was guilty of colluding with Russia. This was a central part of the Steele dossier. But Page was never charged with a crime, and his surveillance warrants were so riddled with errors that the secret surveillance court admonished the FBI and Justice Department for seeking to renew them.
Another example of how leaks about Trump and Russia proved to be deceptive is the infamous story of the June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower New York between Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort, and a Russian lawyer named Natalia Veselnitskaya. The first story’s headline was “Trump Team Met With Lawyer Linked to Kremlin During Campaign.” This news was sourced to “confidential government records described to The New York Times.”
Trump, as is his pattern, made the initial story worse when he dictated a false statement for the White House press secretary that claimed the meeting had only been about adoptions in Russia. This was misleading. Veselnitskaya did want to press the Trump campaign on revoking sanctions against Russian officials, to which Putin had retaliated by banning Americans from adopting Russian children. But as subsequent stories from the Times made clear, the initial meeting was set up because Veselnitskaya had offered dirt on Hillary Clinton.
To the credit of the Times, it mentioned in its follow-up story that Veselnitskaya was representing Prevezon Holdings, an investment company prosecuted by the Justice Department for helping to launder money linked to a corruption scheme exposed by a Russian lawyer named Sergei Magnitsky. The sanctions that Veselnitskaya was lobbying against were named after Magnitsky, who had died in Russian custody. Prevezon, the Times reported, had also hired Fusion GPS, the same research firm that helped produce the Steele dossier.
What the Times did not report in these stories is that the dirt Veselnitskaya presented to the Trump campaign at that meeting was opposition research—that had been prepared by Fusion GPS. The Senate Intelligence Committee’s report says Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson testified he had been unaware Veselnitskaya planned to meet with the Trump campaign. But he acknowledged he had supplied “at least some of the research she presented to the June 9, 2016 meeting, the purported ‘dirt’ on Hillary Clinton’s donors.”
None of this is to say that the Trump Tower meeting was a setup. It wasn’t. It does, however, show the double standard that was at work throughout the Trump campaign and presidency when it came to Russiagate. Donald Trump Jr., Manafort, and Kushner took one meeting with a Russian lawyer peddling dirt on Clinton and realized a few minutes in that the whole thing was a waste of time. Yet to this day, Simpson and his firm are feted by the resistance as heroes even though they worked with Veselnitskaya to advance Russian interests for years.
THE HOAX THAT WASN’T A HOAX
AT THE END of his 2018 memoir, George Papadopoulos acknowledges a fundamental truth about the man whose campaign he briefly advised. “The movement to investigate Trump for collusion connections is, on a certain level, completely understandable,” he wrote. “There is now significant evidence that Trump did have business connections with Russia both before and during his campaign. The fact that he blatantly and repeatedly denied these things means he was, theoretically, in a position to be blackmailed and exposed as a liar.”
This is why Trump and his supporters are wrong to say the investigations that dominated his presidency were a hoax. Russia really did intervene in the 2016 election. Its spies really did hack Democrats. And its trolls really did seek to both stoke our divisions and denigrate Trump’s opponent. Trump’s failure to acknowledge this has helped obscure Russia’s authorship of the dirty tricks aimed at helping him win the election. His lies left himself open to coercion from foreign powers.
What’s more, Trump’s cruelty toward officials who investigated him or blew the whistle on his corruption was appalling. A man with as many devoted fans as Trump has a power to unleash digital mobs and even a few lunatics against his perceived enemies. The open trashing and vindictive treatment of public servants like Fiona Hill rank among the darkest moments of the U.S. presidency.
At the same time, Trump and his campaign did not conspire or collude with Russia. Congress and the press should have been more skeptical of leaks about the FBI investigation, not to mention the shabby opposition research commissioned by Clinton’s campaign. Mueller’s team did uncover valuable details about Russia’s active measures against the 2016 election. But it was also deeply unfair to people such as Flynn and Papadopoulos. Unregistered foreign lobbying was tolerated in Washington before Trump was elected. Mueller’s team turned the FARA law into a weapon to roll up a conspiracy it never proved.
Between the FBI’s deception of the surveillance court and Mueller’s weaponization of FARA laws, the federal government’s most powerful institutions turned against an elected president to discredit him, as a “check on his power,” to use Weissmann’s phrase. The dynamic of a rage-filled lying president and a dogged national-security bureaucracy set on taking him down has advanced Russia’s strategic goal of tearing our republic apart. Both sides should acknowledge their guilt as we move past a president who was both framed and guilty.
1 Under threat of prosecution for unrelated violations of lobbying laws regarding Turkey, Flynn ultimately pleaded guilty to one count of giving false information to the FBI in that interview, regarding his conversations with the ambassador. He would later rescind that plea, and the Justice Department dropped its investigation into him.
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