Over the last three days we’ve witnessed a furious debate over just how and why the Russia probe (“Crossfire Hurricane”) began and whether political “bias” played a role in that decision. You will note that even in his statements and report, Inspector General Michael Horowitz stated that while he found no evidence of political or anti-Trump bias he could not rule out that it had played a role. Meanwhile Bill Barr suggested that Horowitz simply didn’t have the tools or perhaps sufficient aggressiveness to unearth it. Like the force of gravity that remains unseen but clearly forces all matter to fall downward, not finding any visible evidence doesn’t mean it’s not there. But the whole conversation assumes that there is a problem or deficiency that must be explained when in fact that whole premise is simply absurd.
What was eventually proven about the Trump campaign’s actions may remain a matter of controversy. But the idea that there wasn’t enough evidence or “predicate” to start the probe is simply bizarre and only makes any sense in a climate of long-term distortion, gaslighting and organized lying. It is important to shake those off and see the matter in a clear light.
Let’s go back to the time in question, absent everything that has happened in the subsequent three-and-a-half years and see what information counterintelligence officials had on July 31st, 2016 when they made the decision to launch the investigation.
This isn’t an exhaustive list and I’ve left out developments which had already occurred but investigators appear not to have known about. Again, this is not an exhaustive list, but it is an instructive one.
March 21st: Trump announces a five-man foreign policy team. One member had already been surveilled by the FBI as a potential agent of Russia. Indeed, the FBI has prosecuted Russian intelligence officers for attempting to recruit him. Carter Page had already been the target of FISA surveillance in 2013 and 2014. That surveillance requires probable cause to believe that the target is working as the agent of a foreign power.
March 28th: Trump hires Paul Manafort, first as delegate manager and eventually as campaign manager. Manafort had spent the previous decade working for the Russia-aligned President of Ukraine who had been overthrown in 2014. Manafort’s longtime deputy and business partner had already been assessed by the FBI — rightly or wrongly — as being tied to Russian intelligence. Manafort had himself already been the subject of a counterintelligence investigation and FISA surveillance beginning a year prior to joining the campaign.
April: Russian intelligence is discovered to have hacked into the servers of the Democratic National Committee. It is important to note that intelligence services routinely try to spy on or surveil U.S. political campaigns. It’s in the nature of intelligence gathering. In other words, it did not necessarily seem like that big a deal until a couple months later. The news became public on June 14th when the Washington Post first published news of the attack on the DNC network.
July 18th: Josh Rogin publishes first account of Trump campaign intervening to weaken the Ukraine plank in the GOP convention platform. This was in the context of relative indifference to most aspects of the document.
July 22nd: Wikileaks releases first tranche of DNC emails. Russia is immediately suspected as the culprit both inside and outside the U.S. government. Donald Trump Jr. is forced to deny Russian involvement in a TV interview on July 24th just two days later.
July 26th: In response to the Wikileaks email release, the government of Australia contacts the FBI to alert them that in early May, a second member of Trump’s five-person foreign policy team had told the Australian Ambassador to the UK that Russia had thousands of emails stolen from Hillary Clinton that would be used against her in the campaign. There’s great controversy over precisely what George Papadapoulos told Alexander Downer (a former leader of the Liberal Party then serving as High Commissioner or ambassador in London). But this was the second of member of Trump’s five-person foreign policy team and third member of his campaign about whom there was substantial evidence of ties to Russian intelligence when Russia had just covertly intervened in the election apparently in Trump’s favor. Papadapoulos, operating overseas, appeared to have advance word of the Russian actions.
July 27th: Confronted with questions about Wikileaks and probably Russian involvement, Trump mockingly invites Russia to continue its hacking campaign against Hillary Clinton. “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you can find the 33,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
Two other backdrops are important. Trump was publicly known to have extensive business ties to oligarchs from the former Soviet Union. And he had spent the previous year praising and pressing for better ties to Russia, including ending post-2014 sanctions and recognizing the annexation of Crimea. There’s nothing illegal about the first and the second was entirely within Trump’s rights as a candidate advocating policy for the U.S. government. But both were clearly probative backdrops for making sense of these other events.
Note that I’m not including here things the FBI does not seem to have known at the end of July — that a month earlier top, campaign officials had met with a Russian emissary offering campaign assistance as part of the Russian government’s explicit stated support for Trump’s campaign; the fact that Trump was secretly trying to negotiate a multi-hundred million dollar business deal which required the support of the President of Russia; or the fact that numerous members of the campaign had been secretly meeting with various Russian officials, intelligence cut outs and more. Much wasn’t known yet and some of what was known became fuzzier or less clear as the investigation proceeded.
But at the time, the FBI knew that Russia was overtly intervening in the U.S. presidential campaign on Trump’s behalf, that the campaign had taken at least some overt actions in favor of the Russian government and that no less than three (!!!) members of his very small campaign staff, including his campaign manager, appeared to have ties or connections of some sort to Russian intelligence. A counterintelligence probe is not a criminal probe. They are defensive in nature rather than seeking criminal charges.
The idea that this did not create strong, strong grounds to launch a counterintelligence investigation is simply baffling, ignorant and almost certainly one advanced in bad faith. There’s simply no other way to put it. Attorney General Bill Barr has sought to suggest that the investigation was launched just based on the report about Papadapoulos and dismissed that report as a “suggestion of a suggestion.” But that’s nonsense, willful nonsense. Clearly that was one piece of evidence and one that appeared to bring together concretely the overt Russian intervention in the campaign with contacts or ties connecting the campaign with Russia.
The events happened, the investigation was launched and we know most of the outcomes. That information is all out there. My point here isn’t so much to argue that the investigation was legitimate (a point which frankly seems obvious) as to note how the public conversation has been wrenched away from the President’s wrongdoing and continuing record of subservience to Russian interests toward a truly nonsensical and mendacious debate about the origins of the investigation. Only by turning the facts of the matter totally on their head do we get to this question about searching for “bias” when in fact only some sort of pro-Trump bias or a decision to bury heads in the sand could have led to any other decision.
In my next post I will discuss the sheer uncharted territory FBI and other intelligence officials had to navigate investigating a major party presidential campaign for ties to a foreign power during the final contentious months of a presidential campaign. It’s true. You really don’t want domestic law enforcement or counterintelligence agents probing a presidential campaign during a campaign. The situation was dicey, dangerous and fraught with all kinds of potential risks of affecting the campaign itself. But again, that was largely, really entirely a situation Donald Trump had create by his own actions. And counter-intelligence officials had little guide or map for how to navigate a situation Donald Trump had put them and indeed the entire country in.