Piecing Together More Details on Trump and Russia

A journalist  writes a material as she watches a live telecast of the U.S. presidential election standing at portraits of Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in the Union Jack pub in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Nov. 9, 2016. Russia's lower house of parliament is applauding the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)
Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

We’ve had a flurry of articles this week about the Trump/Russia story. I want to flag some details which are now apparent as we look at each of the articles together.

Let’s start with the news that Carter Page was surveilled by the FBI using a FBI warrant obtained in the summer of 2016. The Washington Post and New York Times stories on this tell a slightly different story on the precise timing of the first warrant. The Times says August. The Post at least seems to say July. I wouldn’t make too much of this disagreement. It’s possible the Post story is speaking loosely in one case or I over-interpreted a key sentence

In any case, here’s the point to focus on.

The Post article, based on its government sources, reported that Carter Page was the only Trump associate to be surveilled with a FISA warrant during 2016. That was notable, if only to rule out others. Was Paul Manafort or Mike Flynn ever the subject of a FISA warrant? Apparently not, since Page was the only one, according to these sources. Good information to have. But it’s also notable in this sense. Carter Page seems like a real clown. You don’t have to be a genius to be a spy or operating at the behest of a foreign government. But if it’s only Page, a clownish figure who clearly wasn’t that closely involved with the campaign, maybe this whole story is a bit more tenuous than many imagine.

Let’s put a pin in that for a second. Because I don’t think that’s the only read of these facts. But the Times includes another detail.

According to the Times, the FBI waited until August when there were clear indications that Page was no longer working with the campaign to get a warrant. In other words, the FBI believed they had probable cause to believe Page was knowingly working as the agent of a foreign power but still refrained from seeking a FISA warrant because of the inherent and quite understandable sensitivities and problems of surveilling an American citizen working for a Presidential campaign.

That raises an interesting possibility. Were there other people tied to Trump the FBI might have wanted to surveil but did not because they remained associated with the campaign? This is just an inference. But it’s a possibility worth considering when we ask why Page and why just Page.

(One small footnote to this point. The Times article reads: “The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court issued the warrant, the official said, after investigators determined that Mr. Page was no longer part of the Trump campaign, which began distancing itself from him in early August.” That’s not when he left the campaign officially. Page resigned from the campaign at the end of September. This isn’t necessarily a contradiction. It sounds like they felt they could move ahead once active contact had stopped and the Trump campaign was publicly distancing themselves from him.)

But here’s the final point, which may shed light on each of the questions above. The Guardian published a story today suggesting that the first red flags about the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russia came from Britain’s GCHQ, the British analog of the NSA. We already knew that there were key early reports came from friendly intelligence agencies in northeastern Europe. But this is more specific. In addition to details, which I’ll note in a moment, what appear to be UK sources say that US intelligence and law enforcement was behind the curve and somewhat laggard on finding out what was happening. If that is accurate, that’s key information.

Here’s a key passage.

The Guardian has been told the FBI and the CIA were slow to appreciate the extensive nature of contacts between Trump’s team and Moscow ahead of the US election. This was in part due to US law that prohibits US agencies from examining the private communications of American citizens without warrants. “They are trained not to do this,” the source stressed.

“It looks like the [US] agencies were asleep,” the source added. “They [the European agencies] were saying: ‘There are contacts going on between people close to Mr Trump and people we believe are Russian intelligence agents. You should be wary of this.’

“The message was: ‘Watch out. There’s something not right here.’”

The story goes on to say that the then-head of GCHQ, Robert Hannigan, went directly to John Brennan, then Director of the CIA, with the information. (In other words, no bureaucratic intermediaries: the top intel person in the UK going to the top person in the USA.) That was in the summer of 2016. (Again, a much vaguer time frame than we’d like.) This appears to have kicked off that feverish round of calls and meetings Brennan had with the bipartisan “gang of eight” congressional leaders – leadership and heads of intelligence committees.

Let’s begin by saying that even if it had negative consequences in this particular case, we want our intelligence agencies to be very reticence about surveillance in the US, particularly when it comes to political officials and political campaigns. So this seems not only plausible but not really a bad thing, or at least a negative outcome from a generally good thing. But it could provide some explanation of the FBI’s and CIA’s seemingly laggard approach to this case. It might also explain why only Page was actively and directly surveilled. Remember too that Page had also come up as a target of recruitment by Russian intelligence agents three years earlier. If you were going to look at anyone, Page seems like he was low hanging fruit in terms of being a good place to start and probably the easiest to get a warrant on. Of course, reporting on this suggests there was other more direct evidence on Page.

I’ll end on a somewhat different point. I’ve noted earlier that the FBI especially and likely the CIA too had direct information about Trump’s business associations with people involved with Russian and post-Soviet organized crime. From my read, which I’ve set forth here, the FBI clearly had pretty deep institutional knowledge of Trump’s ties to oligarchs and organized crime figures in Russia well before he ran got into the 2016 presidential race. While the FBI is the agency leading the current investigation, I think will still need to know much, much more about what the FBI knew prior to 2016, what its relationship was with Trump going back to the 1980s and how all this played into the progress of the investigation in 2016 and particularly the critical summer and fall months of that year.

Correction: This post has been updated to reflect that Brennan received info from GCHQ, not James Clapper.

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