Donald Trump published the most consequential tweet of his presidency on March 4, 2017. “How low has President Obama gone to tapp [sic] my phones during the very sacred election process,” the chief executive pondered. “This is Nixon/Watergate. Bad (or sick) guy!”
The response from Trump’s opposition was outrage. The Washington Post fact checker gave it four Pinocchios. The director of the FBI, James Comey, rebuked Trump and said such a thing had never happened. James Clapper, Obama’s director of national intelligence, assured NBC’s Meet the Press that no warrants had been issued in 2016 to surveil members of the Trump campaign.
In a narrow sense, the pushback against Trump’s tweet was correct; Trump himself was never personally the target of an FBI wiretap. In any case, the president doesn’t order such a thing; the FBI applies for a warrant to eavesdrop on Americans from a secret court. No such warrant was issued to bug the president’s offices.
But the furious denials were misleading. To paraphrase a cliché from 2016, Trump’s tweet should have been taken seriously, not literally. Obama did not tap Trump’s phones. But his FBI did spy on Trump’s campaign. That fact is no longer in dispute. The question is whether the FBI was justified in treating the Trump campaign itself as a suspect in this crime against the 2016 election.
The answer is messy. A comprehensive survey of all available information about the matter shows there were grounds in the summer of 2016 for American intelligence and law-enforcement officials at the FBI to turn their attention to the peculiar behavior of some Trump campaign advisers. But as the bureau learned more about them, it should have reassessed its theory of the case. Indeed, it was obliged to do so—by law, and custom, and elementary standards of fairness.
Instead, the FBI relied on lurid, sketchy, and sleazy opposition research generated by former British spy Christopher Steele—information so spurious that even liberal news organizations briefed on the so-called Steele dossier before the 2016 election wouldn’t touch it with a 10-foot pole. And it used that information in a specious, circular, and misleading manner to keep that investigation afloat and active into the first two years of Trump’s presidency. Even after the bureau had good reason to doubt its veracity, it didn’t share the exculpatory information it had uncovered—not with the public, not with the courts, and not even with the Justice Department lawyers who were supposed to check its work.
The result was a debacle. What had been teased as the greatest espionage scandal in American history—a U.S. president conspiring with Russia to steal an election—today should be seen as a cautionary tale about the fallibility of our lawmen and spies, the credulity of our press, and the hubris and hysteria of Trump’s resistance.
Here is what happened.
In the wake of the Republican National Convention in July 2016, the FBI launched “Crossfire Hurricane,” a probe of the Trump campaign’s possible collusion with Russia. Over the course of a few months, the bureau sent informants and undercover agents to record five of Trump’s campaign advisers surreptitiously through conversations those informants and undercover agents set up on the FBI’s behalf.
A counterintelligence briefing the FBI offered to the Trump campaign was used as an occasion to assess and record the reactions of General Michael Flynn, the former Defense Intelligence Agency director who would later go on to serve very briefly as Trump’s first national-security adviser.
Most significant, at the FBI’s request, was the behavior of the secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The FISC granted four successive warrants to eavesdrop electronically on the communications of a low-level Trump foreign-policy adviser named Carter Page. This was a highly unusual step in a matter involving a U.S. citizen because Page was working for the presidential campaign of the party out of power.
To get those warrants approved, the FBI submitted uncorroborated opposition research that had been paid for by Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign without fully informing the court about the origins of the information—and while knowingly using news stories entirely based on the information as supplemental evidence to convince the court to extend the warrants. And while the electronic surveillance of Page did not begin until after he had left the campaign in October 2016, the FBI was given license to comb through his past texts, emails, and phone records.
We first learned the broad outlines of all this in February 2018 from the former chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Devin Nunes. At the time, though Nunes claimed that the Page warrants had relied on sketchy information, his findings were disputed by the FBI and derided by Democrats on Nunes’s committee and by the elite press.
Alas for Nunes’s many vociferous critics, Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz released a devastating report in December 2019 on the origins of the FBI’s investigation that vindicated him in retrospect. Horowitz confirmed much of what Nunes had reported and provided more detail on the omissions and falsehoods the FBI’s agents and lawyers had passed on to the Justice Department and the FISC to obtain the Page warrant. After the report’s release, the FISC itself issued a rare public statement demanding reforms and questioning the veracity of the bureau’s other surveillance warrant applications.
According to the Horowitz report, Crossfire Hurricane was triggered by a tip from Australia’s former foreign minister, Alexander Downer, on July 28, 2016. Downer informed the U.S. government that a low-level Trump campaign aide named George Papadopoulos had bragged to him over drinks earlier in the year that the Russians might have had dirt on Hillary Clinton.
At the time, Downer hadn’t thought much of it, but the conversation took on new meaning for him once Wikileaks began publishing internal Democratic National Committee emails. After receiving his tip, FBI counterintelligence chief Bill Priestap needed only three days in consultation with the FBI’s leadership to launch the most important investigation in the bureau’s history.
Horowitz’s account here is disputed by a handful of conservative writers who believe that the FBI had its sights on Trump well before July 28; they claim Downer’s warning was a pretext. U.S. Attorney John Durham, who is investigating the U.S. government’s probe of the Trump campaign, and Attorney General William Barr have offered a milder but potent criticism. They have argued that the tip from Downer was not proper predication for a full investigation into the presidential campaign of the opposition party.
Their assertion has some merit. We know that Papadopoulos had relayed a rumor that he had heard in April from a mysterious Maltese professor named Joseph Mifsud, but what he had told Downer was very vague. Horowitz says Papadopoulos “suggested the Trump team had received some kind of suggestion from Russia that it could assist this process with the anonymous release of information during the campaign that would be damaging to Mrs. Clinton (and President Obama).” Papadopoulos made no mention of Clinton’s deleted emails or hacked DNC emails.
Who exactly is Joseph Mifsud? Some of those who think the case against the Trump campaign was ginned up by the “deep state” say he was a Western intelligence asset sent to set up Papadopoulos. For its part, the FBI has said there was and is good reason to suspect that Mifsud was working for Russia. In a 2018 op-ed, former FBI director Comey asserted Mifsud was a Russian agent. And the final report from Special Counsel Robert Mueller says Mifsud had been a one-time employee of Russia’s Internet Research Agency—the organization that deployed bots, trolls, and fake social-media accounts on behalf of the Kremlin to meddle in the election.
That said, the full story on Mifsud has not yet been told. For example, Mueller’s report accuses Mifsud of lying to investigators—but Mueller did not charge Mifsud with a crime. Nor did Horowitz have access to files from the CIA or allied foreign intelligence services. Durham does have that kind of access, and we may find out more when he completes his investigation.
We do know that Mifsud has been a frequent guest at conferences in Western capitals, including Washington. In 2019, Nunes raised this issue in a letter to the heads of the CIA, FBI, State Department, and National Security Agency. “If Mifsud has extensive, suspicious contacts among Russian officials as portrayed in the Special Counsel’s report,” Nunes wrote, “then an incredibly wide range of Western institutions and individuals may have been compromised by him, including our own State Department.”
In other words, if what Comey and Mueller say is true, they may have revealed a much more significant counterintelligence problem for the U.S. government than anything Papadopoulos might have said to anybody. At the same time, this does not disprove Mifsud’s links to the Kremlin. It’s possible that the FBI was able to confirm these ties only as the Crossfire Hurricane investigation progressed.
Mifsud’s meeting with Papadopoulos did not occur in a vacuum. It was part of a larger mosaic. By the time it received Downer’s tip, the FBI was already collecting evidence on how Russia’s military intelligence agency, the GRU, had gone hunting around the computers of the Democratic National Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee earlier in the spring.
And the FBI had also opened an investigation early in 2016 into Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign manager at the time, for money laundering before he formally joined the Trump campaign in March. Manafort was forced out of the Trump campaign in August when the New York Times reported on a black ledger found in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv that supposedly showed millions in secret cash payments Manafort had received while working as an adviser to ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich. The former president fled to Russia after a democratic uprising in 2014.
Carter Page was also on the FBI’s radar. Page was a longtime energy consultant with extensive contacts in Russia. Horowitz reveals that Page cooperated with the FBI in 2014 and 2015 in a case against three Russian intelligence officers who tried to recruit him. A March 2015 indictment of those spies refers to Page as “Male-1”; the Russian spies in the indictment complained that Page, the man they were trying to recruit, was an idiot. In early 2016, in an act of extraordinary recklessness, Page told the FBI that he had confirmed to a Russian intelligence officer that he was “Male-1.” Based on this admission that Page was still in contact with known Russian spies, the bureau’s New York field office opened a counterintelligence investigation into him in March 2016.
Michael Flynn, too, had raised suspicions. In 2015, he had attended a gala for the Kremlin’s English-language propaganda outlet known as RT where he was seated a table with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin—an astonishing thing for the former head of the Defense Intelligence Agency to do, no matter how embittered Flynn might have been due to the fact that he was fired by Barack Obama.
And don’t forget Trump himself. Here was a major-party candidate who told the press that he didn’t see the point of NATO. He suggested that Russia had been within its rights to dismember Ukraine. He sounded like the kind of “useful idiot” (Lenin’s term) that the Russian federation and its precursor Soviet Union had notoriously cultivated in the West.
In the summer of 2016, the FBI knew the Russians had been hacking Clinton’s campaign and her opponent seemed to be surrounding himself with people who had suspicious connections to Russia. In this context, Downer’s information had been a “tipping point,” former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe told Horowitz.
“Not only was there information that Russia was targeting U.S. political institutions,” Horowitz writes, “but now the FBI had received an allegation from a trusted partner that there had been some sort of contact between the Russians and the Trump campaign.”
Crossfire Hurricane initially targeted four Trump campaign officials: Flynn, Ma-nafort, Page, and Papadopoulos. And in its initial weeks, the investigation yielded new information—exculpatory information.
For example, when Stefan Halper, a Cambridge University professor acting as an informant for the FBI, approach-
ed Papadopoulos in September 2016 to ask whether the campaign would be receptive to Russian help in the election, Papadopolous said the campaign would not. It would be “illegal,” Papadopoulos said, according to the Horowitz report.
The bureau opened its case against Page on August 10, 2016. A week later, the CIA informed the FBI that Page had a source relationship with the agency, meaning he had reported on his meetings with Russian intelligence officers between 2008 and 2013. The case agents could have also learned this information by checking Page’s existing file at the FBI. Page had told the FBI earlier during their investigation of the three Russian intelligence officers that he worked with the CIA.
And yet the FISA warrant application for Page filed in October 2016 included his past contacts with known Russian intelligence officers to argue that there was probable cause to suspect that Page himself was a foreign agent. Probable cause for a FISA warrant in a counterintelligence investigation demands that the bureau include exculpatory information because the target of the surveillance is not represented in the process.
Worse still, the Crossfire Hurricane team failed to follow up on Page’s relationship with the CIA until June 2017, while it was seeking the fourth consecutive warrant to eavesdrop on Page. After it did and learned about Page’s cooperation with the CIA, an FBI lawyer named Kevin Clinesmith altered the email from the agency to say the opposite—that no such relationship existed. Horowitz has referred Clinesmith for criminal prosecution.
The fact that Page was surveilled at all by the FBI is a scandal. Indeed, when FBI agents and lawyers first proposed a surveillance warrant against him in August 2016, they were rebuffed by the Justice Department for lacking probable cause. And that same month, an FBI informant recorded Page in a conversation in which he said he had never met Manafort.
This piece of information was crucial because on September 19, the Crossfire Hurricane team received an explosive series of reports on Russia’s coordination with the Trump campaign.
THE STEELE DOSSIER
Those reports constituted the so-called Steele dossier. Christopher Steele’s intelligence alleged that Page and Manafort were at the center of a “well developed conspiracy” with Russia. Page, according to Steele, served as the conduit for Russian dirt on Hillary Clinton from the Kremlin, which he supposedly passed on to Manafort.
The dossier became the central piece of evidence in the surveillance warrant on Page. Without it, the FBI would have never sought the warrant at all, according to Horowitz. Without question, the FBI should have been more skeptical of Steele’s reporting before submitting it to the surveillance court. After all, Page had not only said he had never met Manafort, he also told the FBI informant that he had never met with the senior Russian officials with whom Steele reported he had met. Page said these things in conversations with someone he did not know was working for the FBI and did not know was surreptitiously recording him. Oh, the Page warrant did contain elements of Page’s conversation with the informant, such as his prediction of an October surprise against Hillary Clinton’s campaign and his hope that he would get Russian funding for a think tank he wanted to start. It just failed to include the parts of the conversation that exonerated him.
This was a pattern. The FBI did not include Page’s assertion that he had never met Manafort in any of the three subsequent renewal applications for the surveillance warrant. Over time, agents tried to corroborate Steele’s claims but couldn’t. That fact, too, was missing from the Page warrants. One of Steele’s main “sub-sources” (most of his reporting relied on people in Russia with whom he spoke who were relaying information from their own sources) told the FBI there was no corroboration for his most salacious claim—that Trump had paid prostitutes for a disgusting sexual show in a Moscow hotel room. This, too, was omitted from the Page warrant.
Throughout the process, Horowitz concludes, “the FBI was unable to corroborate any of the specific substantive allegations against Carter Page contained in the election reporting and relied on” in the warrant applications. It “was only able to confirm the accuracy of a limited number of circumstantial facts, most of which were in the public domain, such as the dates that Page traveled to Russia, the timing of events, and the occupational positions of individuals referenced in the reports.”
Indeed, in the fall of 2016, many mainstream reporters were far more responsible with Steele’s information than was the FBI. The FBI didn’t bother to corroborate the Steele dossier before it included its information in Page’s FISA warrant application in October. Most of the country’s A-list national-security reporters, on the other hand, declined to publish a story touting Steele’s claims without such corroboration.
The story is inadvertently revealed in a new book, Crime in Progress, by the researchers who pitched Steele’s stories, Peter Fritsch and Glenn Simpson. The two former Wall Street Journal reporters co-founded the Fusion GPS firm in 2011 and built up a business doing research for litigants in high-profile lawsuits and the kind of political dirt-digging called “opposition research.”
At first, Fusion was retained by the center-right Washington Free Beacon to find negative information on Trump and his campaign and to brief reporters. (Full disclosure: I received one of those briefings at the time). After Trump won the nomination, Fusion took its anti-Trump brief to a new client, Marc Elias, a partner at the Perkins Coie law firm, who hired Fusion on behalf of Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Steele was not hired by Fusion until the project was being financed by the Clinton campaign.
The Trump work that Fusion did before Steele was standard opposition research. The firm combed through court documents, news clippings, and other material on Trump scandals such as his phony university and his hiring of illegal immigrants to work in his hotels. The benefit of this kind of work is that it’s easy to check.
Steele did something very different. His dossier purported to disclose the secrets from one of the hardest targets in the world, the Kremlin. He warned of a “crime in progress,” a Trump-Russia conspiracy to hack the 2016 election. And he provided extraordinary details to back up this claim. He said Trump’s long-time lawyer and fixer, Michael Cohen, had traveled to Prague to receive the dirt. He said Page had been offered a significant stake in one of Russia’s largest energy firms in exchange for relaxing U.S. sanctions on Russia if Trump became president. He said the Russians held “kompromat” over Trump through a videotape of prostitutes urinating on a hotel-room bed.
In their book, Simpson and Fritsch try their hardest to put the best spin on this now-discredited series of allegations. They insist that Mueller merely failed to corroborate the Steele dossier’s findings, not that he found no evidence to charge any Americans. In some cases, the authors insist that up is down, such as their claim that Steele was right all along about Page and that Page’s partially declassified FISA application released in 2018 confirms the accuracy of Steele’s information. It doesn’t. In fact, the Mueller report clears Page of the grave crime Steele alleged Page had committed—and this fact was in the public record before Crime in Progress was published.
Simpson and Fritsch say that Steele insisted on taking his information to the FBI; he had been a source for the bureau since 2013. Steele had assisted the bureau’s investigation into corruption in international soccer and probes into Russian oligarchs—and his firm, Orbis, had been paid well for this work. Nonetheless, Horowitz found that the quality of his reporting was overstated in the Page FISA warrant application. None of it, according to the inspector general, was used in actual criminal prosecutions. The FBI’s own source verification system found that Steele’s information had been “minimally corroborated.”
As a rule, FBI confidential sources stay far away from the media because the disclosure of evidence in an ongoing investigation can tip off its targets. Besides that, in counterintelligence investigations, leaking raw and unverified intelligence about U.S. citizens in the media risks slandering the innocent. This was a hallmark of J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, which used reporters to air suspicions about Americans before they were charged.
Simpson and Fritsch write that they held off on even telling the Clinton campaign about Steele’s earlier contacts with the FBI. They say he had worked with his FBI handler, who was not on the Crossfire Hurricane team, to alert the bureau to what Steele was finding. But Steele grew frustrated that the bureau was not moving as fast as it should. So he decided, with Fritsch and Simpson, to brief the media as well.
The big pitch came on September 22, three days after the Crossfire Hurricane team received Steele’s first reports at a meeting in Rome. Fritsch reserved two conference rooms at the Tabard Inn, a restaurant and hotel in Washington. There, Steele gave separate briefings to top reporters from the New York Times, the New Yorker, ABC News, and Yahoo News. Later in the day, Fritsch and Simpson escorted Steele to the Washington Post, where he delivered his findings. Throughout the day, Fritsch and Simpson made sure the reporters would not know that their competitors were getting the same briefing.
The journalists were told they would not find out who was paying for the opposition research and could attribute the information only to a “former Western intelligence official.” The Fristch-Simpson book says the reporters wanted to know whether or not the FBI was investigating Steele’s allegations. Fritsch and Simpson claim they did not want to compromise the investigation (a claim they later contradict), so they say they kept it vague: “It would be fair to assume the U.S. government was aware of Steele’s information,” they told the reporters
One reporter, Yahoo’s Michael Isikoff, pressed harder than his competition in those briefings. That day, Isikoff managed to get Steele to confirm that he had briefed the FBI about Carter Page and other matters. His September 23 piece, “U.S. Officials Probe Ties Between Trump Adviser and Kremlin,” was the first to report on the bureau’s investigation into Page. Nonetheless, he did not repeat Steele’s most explosive claim, that Page was the go-between for the Trump-Russian conspiracy. He did report that Page had met with both Igor Sechin, the chief executive of Russian energy conglomerate Rosneft, and senior Kremlin official Igor Diveykin—and he reported Page’s denial of the charges against him. The story was promoted on Twitter by Hillary Clinton’s account, and it caused a minor stir. The other reporters at the briefing held back.
The New York Times did not write a piece right after the Steele briefing as Isikoff did. Nonetheless, its team kept digging. On October 31, the paper published a story by Eric Lichtblau and Steven Lee Myers that has aged far better than Steele’s theory of the Trump-Russia conspiracy. The headline said it all: “Investigating Donald Trump, the FBI Sees No Clear Link to Russia.” The story claimed that over the summer the bureau had begun the probe, but “law enforcement officials say that none of the investigations so far have found any conclusive or direct link between Mr. Trump and the Russian government.”
Needless to say, that was not the story Simpson and Fritsch had wanted. In a follow-up meeting after Trump won the election, Simpson unloaded on Lichtblau in front of his colleagues, calling it “an abortion of a story.” Simpson continued, contradicting the book’s account of the Tabard Inn briefings: “You f–king blew it. We told you a lot about how the FBI was investigating Russia, but your story made it sound as if they found nothing to it. We’re quite sure that is wrong.”
As Election Day approached, Steele and Fusion grew more desperate. They believed in the veracity of the dossier. At one point, they considered having Steele give a press conference on the steps of the Capitol. Instead, the Fusion team opted to brief David Corn, a senior reporter at the left-wing Mother Jones.
Unlike the mainstream reporters, Corn is a partisan journalist. But even Corn at first did not know what to do with Steele’s material. “This is crazy stuff,” Corn told Simpson. “But how am I supposed to know if it’s true?” Corn wanted to speak to Steele. After arranging a phone call, the Fusion authors say Corn was satisfied that Steele was legitimate. His story came out on October 31, under the headline “A Veteran Spy Has Given the FBI Information Alleging a Russian Operation to Cultivate Donald Trump.” Corn’s article would set the template for the coverage of Trump-Russia for the next two and a half years. It also prompted the FBI to end its source relationship with Steele.
AFTER THE 2016 ELECTION
After Trump won, the Obama administration panicked. It was one thing to suspect that Trump may have colluded with Russia when everyone believed he would lose the election. But now he was going to be the next president. Had the Russian plan actually worked?
With two months between the election and the inauguration, the panicked emotions led to frenzied actions. National Security Adviser Susan Rice unmasked dozens of redacted names of Americans in intelligence reports dealing with the Trump transition team. While she violated no law, the practice of unmasking Americans incidentally picked up in U.S. government eavesdropping is extraordinarily rare for senior officials, particularly when those Americans are preparing the presidential transition of the party out of power.
The White House instructed the U.S. intelligence community to push raw intelligence to as wide an audience as possible inside the government and Congress, making it much easier to leak. “As Inauguration Day approached, Obama White House officials grew convinced that the intelligence was damning and that they needed to ensure that as many people as possible inside government could see it,” the New York Times reported on March 1, 2017.
Details about Flynn’s private phone calls with the Russian ambassador to the United States, the kind of information that is almost never made public, were leaked to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius. Obama’s deputy attorney general, Sally Yates, opened a new investigation against Flynn for violating the Logan Act, a 1799 law that bars private citizens from conducting foreign policy. Flynn was weeks away from becoming national-security adviser, so he was hardly an ordinary private citizen. In any case, the Logan Act has never been successfully prosecuted and is likely unconstitutional.
Obama also instructed the U.S. intelligence community to assemble both a public and classified assessment of the Russian interference in the 2016 election, to be completed before he left office. The assessment proved important for two reasons. First, it’s what prompted Nunes to begin investigating the investigators. As chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, he received a classified briefing around Thanksgiving about Russian interference, according to journalist Lee Smith’s book, The Plot Against the President. Nunes said he was not told of any assessment at the time that Russians had actively wanted Trump to win, only that the goal of the Russia operation had been to sow chaos and undermine faith in democratic institutions.
The intelligence-community assessment also set the stage for the public disclosure of the Steele dossier. It came down to a familiar Washington trope: The FBI and the CIA had an argument. At the FBI, Comey and McCabe believed Steele and pushed to include the dossier’s findings in the classified assessment. But the CIA’s top analyst balked. Horowitz writes that he considered Steele’s dossier to be “Internet rumor.” The compromise: The Steele allegations were included in a separate appendix.
When the assessment was finally completed in January, the leaders of the intelligence community—Comey, CIA director John Brennan, Clapper, and National Security Agency chief Mike Rogers—briefed Obama and Trump on its findings. When it came to the Steele appendix, Comey briefed Trump alone. Comey recounted his version of that conversation in handwritten notes he took after the meeting—notes he leaked to the New York Times after Trump fired him a few months later. The article based on Comey’s leak was a key element in the campaign to name Robert Mueller as an independent counsel, which is what it was intended to do.
To Comey’s credit, he told Trump that the dossier was both salacious and unverified. But if he truly believed what he told the president-elect, his insistence on including it in an official assessment of Russian interference in the 2016 election was peculiar. The FBI had already received a lot of evidence that Steele had gotten it wrong. Page had told an informant in August that he had never met Manafort. Steele himself told FBI agents that one of his main sources was prone to embellishment. The bureau had been unable to verify it. The FBI had learned that Page had informed the CIA about his contacts with Russian intelligence officers before.
Horowitz does not say whether Comey or his deputy, Andrew McCabe, were aware of this exculpatory information when they pushed to include the Steele dossier in the assessment. Comey told Fox News’s Chris Wallace after the release of the Horowitz report that he had never intervened in investigations seven layers down from his perch as director.
McCabe, however, was intimately involved. He handpicked the three teams of agents that rotated in and out of the Crossfire Hurricane investigation. That investigation was not being run out of a field office. It was deliberately run out of FBI headquarters—in part to keep it from going public and in part because it was so sensitive that it demanded close oversight from the bureau’s leadership. It’s all but impossible that McCabe, who was regularly briefed on the status of the investigation, was unaware that Steele’s information wasn’t checking out.
Comey’s briefing sent Trump into a rage. Trump already had people in his circle such as Flynn and Nunes who were advising him to be wary of Obama’s intelligence-community leaders. After Comey’s dossier briefing, with tales of golden showers and collusion, Trump’s distrust became contempt.
Nonetheless, he asked Comey if the FBI could investigate the urination tape in order to clear him. Comey recounts that he counseled Trump against this by saying it was not something the FBI normally did. It wasn’t? At that very moment, his own FBI was trying to verify that exact story. And as Horowitz says, and as I recounted above, agents would interview an important subsource for Steele who said there was no corroboration for the pee-tape story. When Chris Wallace confronted Comey about this on Fox News, Comey said it was possible the source was being dishonest the second time around because the story had already exploded in the international media. It seems that the reason Comey told Trump that the FBI didn’t work to clear people is that he believed, without evidence, that Trump was guilty.
Before the Trump briefing, many journalists knew the details but believed that the Steele dossier was just a jumble of unverified allegations. Now journalists came to learn that the U.S. intelligence community believed that the dossier was important enough that both Trump and Obama needed to know about it. The dossier was no longer a bunch of dirt peddled by Democrats. It was now something the U.S. government had included in a briefing for both Trump and Obama. It was news.
CNN got the scoop about the briefings and ran with it on January 10, 2017. The network reported the story with some caution and didn’t provide many details about what the dossier actually said. After CNN’s story, the cat was out of the bag. The first outlet to publish Steele’s dossier in its entirety was Buzzfeed, a few hours later. At the time, the online news site made sure to say that the claims were unverified and in some cases appeared to get basic names of places and institutions wrong. But Buzzfeed reasoned that if the dossier was important enough for the intelligence community to brief the outgoing and incoming presidents, its readers deserved to read it.
After Buzzfeed published the story, the anti-Trump resistance went wild. Rachel Maddow began devoting much of her top-rated MSNBC program to speculation about whether the Russians could blackmail the incoming president. The Center for American Progress opened a website called the Moscow Project, which featured a photo of Page in the section that reproduced the dossier. Grifters posing as counterintelligence experts launched podcasts and Twitter feeds.
Behind the panic was a glaring irony. In its application for the FISA warrant against Page, the FBI used Isikoff’s Yahoo story as verification of Steele’s reporting. Horowitz reports that the first draft of the warrant acknowledged that Isikoff likely obtained his information from Steele. But the final version did not.
The FBI has said the Isikoff story was included because it included Page’s denials. That beggars belief. What the FBI did, quite simply, was use a piece of reporting on Steele’s findings and claim that it independently confirmed Steele’s findings, when it knew that Isikoff’s story had done no such thing.
Which means that the cloud over Trump’s presidency was the product of journalists and G-men using themselves to confirm a falsehood.
SCHIFF AND COMEY
To get a sense of what the Russia-collusion theory did to the Washington mainstream, consider the case of Adam Schiff, the current Democratic chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Schiff was a fairly moderate Democrat until 2017. As the committee’s ranking minority member, he had worked cooperatively with Nunes on the committee on a number of issues—from legislation on the authorization for the War on Terror to oversight of the National Security Agency process for unmasking U.S. citizens caught up in wiretaps of overseas targets. Schiff ended up supporting Obama’s Iran nuclear deal, but he did so with prudent reservations.
After Trump was elected, Schiff turned into a cyber-age Joe McCarthy. The latest example came in November, in a report to Congress on impeachment, when he published phone logs of journalist John Solomon and Nunes himself. He obtained those records through subpoenas of shady Ukrainian Americans and the president’s lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani. Nonetheless, that was an extraordinary breach of a journalist’s privacy, not to mention decorum. The fact that most journalists didn’t rush to Solomon’s defense—because they disliked the pro-Trump thrust of Solomon’s work—was a sign of how deeply the Resistance mindset had penetrated the mainstream.
Back in 2017, Schiff also hyped Steele’s allegations. At a hearing on March 20 of that year, he repeated most of the ex-spy’s allegations in his opening statement. He asked openly whether Page, Flynn, Roger Stone, and others in Trump’s orbit were all part of an elaborate quid pro quo to relax sanctions against Russia in exchange for assistance during the 2016 election. Schiff was careful to say he did not yet know these things to be true—which made raising the question a perfect example of irresponsible innuendo. But because Schiff was the ranking Democrat on the intelligence committee, his innuendo appeared to be informed by state secrets. Over time, Schiff repeated these charges—particularly against Page—and he has never apologized for issuing them. Indeed, after Mueller’s report found no evidence of this conspiracy, Schiff then suggested that Mueller had never delved into the counterintelligence dimensions of the Trump-Russia investigation. Like all conspiracy theorists, Schiff was suggesting that the failure to find a conspiracy was proof that the investigation must go on.
When Schiff was not working as a prosecutor of the Trump campaign, he was serving as the FBI’s defense counsel. In early 2018, Nunes pressed the Justice Department to declassify a Republican memo that first flagged the FISA abuse that Horowitz’s report detailed in December 2019. In response, Schiff and his staff prepared their own memo. It said FBI officials would have been “remiss in their duty to protect the country had they not sought a FISA warrant and repeated renewals to conduct temporary surveillance of Carter Page.”
After the Horowitz report’s release, Schiff has said that he was unaware of much of the information contained in it. The FBI and Justice Department leadership also objected to the Nunes memo in 2018, saying it painted an inaccurate picture of the investigation. But Schiff’s job on the Intelligence Committee was and is to perform oversight of those institutions. Instead, he went along with a cover-up, even as the chairman of the committee at the time was uncovering abuse that Horowitz would confirm in greater and more alarming detail.
The March 20, 2017, hearing was also notable because Comey confirmed publicly for the first time that the FBI was investigating “the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.”
Comey said that he was breaking with precedent again in announcing the existence of an ongoing counterintelligence investigation. This made it appear that the bureau was gathering more evidence to support and go beyond the Steele dossier. The reality was the opposite. FBI agents had already accumulated significant evidence by March 20 that Steele’s reporting should not have been trusted. And while it’s unclear whether Comey knew it at the time, he did know that the CIA’s top analyst considered Steele’s dossier to be “Internet rumor.”
And yet when he was asked at the hearing about Steele’s report, Comey said, “I’m not going to comment on that.” In this respect, the FBI was not just gaming the surveillance court. It was also gaming the public.
Comey’s testimony sealed his fate with Trump. Privately, Comey had assured the president that he was not a target of the investigation. Publicly, he was creating the impression that Trump was such a target by confirming that his campaign was being probed. So it’s not surprising that Trump would fire Comey a few weeks later.
Everyone knows what happened next. After Trump fired Comey, he then baffled even his supporters by boasting about the firing to Russia’s ambassador and foreign minister during a visit to the White House. Then he came out and told NBC News the next day that he had fired Comey because of the Russia investigation. Trump said this after Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein wrote a memo justifying Comey’s dismissal based on his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server.
This induced more panic in Washington. The NBC interview led McCabe to make Trump himself a formal suspect in the FBI’s Russia investigation. Rosenstein, who became the lead Justice Department figure in all matters involving Trump and Russia due to Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s decision to recuse himself, considered wearing a wire to secretly record the president. They discussed whether Trump could be removed through the 25th Amendment, which is supposed to hand power to the vice president if the president is mentally or physically debilitated. Eventually, Rosenstein appointed Mueller to oversee the FBI’s Russia investigation that Trump acknowledged he was trying to kill.
Comey may have been fired, but part of his mission was accomplished.
MUELLER AND BEYOND
The Mueller investigation ended up being a mixed bag. On the one hand, his team issued a damning public indictment of Russian agents and hackers, detailing how they had paid for Facebook ads, created fake identities, and hacked Democrats. That work was a real public service. His team also uncovered financial crimes and illegal behavior involving figures around Trump. His final report shows how his campaign tried very hard to obtain Clinton’s deleted emails and how it welcomed the disclosure of the leaked DNC and campaign emails published by Wikileaks and made them part of its campaign strategy.
Some of Mueller’s targets told brazen falsehoods, such as longtime Trump political intimate Roger Stone, who was convicted late last year for lying to Congress and investigators. Nonetheless, Mueller’s indictment of Stone still shows that he was in the dark about what Wikileaks had on Trump. Stone tried to get advanced knowledge of the stolen emails, but he didn’t.
Finally, Mueller found many examples of how Trump tried to obstruct the Mueller investigation. Trump asked a former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, to persuade Sessions to un-recuse himself from the investigation. Lewandowski then tried to get someone else to do that for him. Trump threatened to fire Mueller in 2018, but White House counsel Don McGahn threatened to resign if he did, and Trump backed down.
On the question of the underlying crime, though, Mueller’s final report says flatly that the investigation did “not establish that members of the Trump campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
One might think that this would have put an end to the Trump-Russia collusion narrative. It hasn’t. To this day, prominent Democrats and pundits insist that Mueller either found that the Trump campaign tried to collude with Russia or that Trump’s obstruction of that investigation prevented Mueller from getting to the truth. Now, this is not entirely without foundation, because the report leaves the impression at times that the Steele conspiracy theory still may be true, even though it never mentions Steele or the opposition research. For example, the Mueller report offers this bit of casuistry: “A statement that the investigation did not establish particular facts does not mean there was no evidence of those facts.” Such a thing could be said about any investigation into any subject at any time that does not deliver the goods.
What we do know, after the Mueller investigation and the Horowitz report, is this:
Obama’s FBI and former intelligence-community leaders kept open an investigation into Trump after that investigation yielded exculpatory evidence. Following Trump’s election, Comey, Brennan, and a host of Obama national-security officials weaponized the allegations against Trump by becoming pundits themselves on cable news channels and suggesting by their very presence that they had inside information about the Trump-Russia conspiracy—information they did not have. With few exceptions, members of Congress and the press who should have scrutinized their false assertions acted as an echo chamber to amplify them.
Is it any wonder that no Republican voted to impeach Trump in the House on the Ukraine matter? This cannot just be explained away as political and moral cowardice. It’s a response to the failure of the party leading the impeachment to acknowledge the falsehood of its initial conspiracy theory about Russia.
But it also must be said that this debacle is not evidence of a deep-state coup, as so many on the right have alleged. There are two important reasons for this. First, there is no singular “deep state.” Horowitz also showed in his report that there were FBI agents at the New York field office who were rooting for Trump. Certainly the key deep-state figure here would be James Comey—and if he were, why would he have mortally damaged the campaign of Trump’s rival 10 days before the election by briefly reopening the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private server? In any case, the “deep-state” theory suggests there is a governmental hive mind, an unelected bureaucracy that runs things while officials like Comey sit on top, clueless and imagining themselves powerful.
You can see how the “deep-state” theory might let the actual saboteurs off the hook. Comey, McCabe, Brennan, and others had a mix of motivations for making the decisions that they did. To say they were acting on behalf of an unelected bureaucracy is to absolve them.
The deep-state theory also leads those who espouse it to overreact. If the institutional rot is this profound, then why not eliminate the FBI and CIA altogether? But that’s a bit like calling for the abolition of a police department after a brutality scandal. The country needs spies and lawmen to protect us against real foreign threats. The problem with the Trump-Russia investigation is that at the moment the investigators were receiving exculpatory evidence, the false collusion theory became the hottest story in the world. And that happened because the most important evidence the FBI leadership believed was true was also briefed to media.
This should never happen again. And, in normal times, it would not have happened. Journalists would have maintained their initial skepticism about the dossier. FBI lawyers would have been more vigilant about including exculpatory information in the Page surveillance warrant. Congressional leaders would have been more restrained in publicly questioning the loyalty of Americans who worked for a rival political campaign. Former intelligence officials would not have deployed innuendo to imply that the legitimately elected president of the United States was a traitor.
But Trump was perceived to be such a threat to the republic that resistance was required. That resistance became a permission structure to break longstanding rules and norms. Just consider Clinesmith, the FBI attorney who altered an email from the CIA to make it appear that Carter Page was not assisting the agency when he really was. In a footnote, Horowitz quotes an instant message from Clinesmith to a colleague the day after Trump won the election in 2016. “I am so stressed about what I could have done differently,” he wrote. Two weeks later he tapped out a message that ended with “Viva le [sic] resistance.”
It’s rare that law-enforcement scandals involve officials who acknowledge bad motives to themselves. They are almost always the result of cops and lawyers who justify their infractions and misconduct as a necessary means to a more noble end. From Comey to Clinesmith, the investigators responsible for the Russia investigation really believed that Trump was a unique threat to the republic and that they were justified in taking the steps that they did. The problem is that their theory about Trump and Russia was wrong, and the shortcuts they took to prove the theory true blinded them from seeing their folly sooner.
That folly has deformed our politics. Now, in 2020, voters are faced with a choice between two parties led by conspiracy theorists and gaslighters. Instead of saving America from Trump, the Resistance may have reelected him.
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