Long-sought documents finally pried from U.S. intelligence agencies prove that the Obama administration used the occasion of providing a standard intelligence briefing for major-party candidates as an opportunity to investigate Donald Trump on suspicion of being a Russian asset.
I say investigate Donald Trump advisedly.
As I contended in Ball of Collusion, my book on the Trump-Russia investigation, the target of the probe spearheaded by the FBI — but greenlighted by the Obama White House, and abetted by the Justice Department and U.S. intelligence agencies — was Donald Trump. Not the Trump campaign, not the Trump administration. Those were of interest only insofar as they were vehicles for Trump himself. The campaign, which the Bureau and its apologists risibly claim was the focus of the investigation, would have been of no interest to them were it not for Trump.
Or do you suppose they moved heaven and earth, surreptitiously plotted in the Oval Office, wrote CYA memos to cover their tracks, and laboriously sculpted FBI reports because they were hoping to nail . . . George Papadopoulos?
My book was published a year ago. It covered what was then known about the Obama-administration operation. In collusion with the Clinton campaign, and with the complicity of national-security officials who transitioned into the Trump administration, the Obama White House deployed the FBI to undermine the new president, dually using official investigative tactics (e.g. FISA surveillance, confidential informants, covert interrogations) and lawless classified leaks — the latter publicized by dependable journalists who were (and remain) politically invested in unseating Trump.
Now the paper trail is finally catching up with what some of us analysts long ago surmised based on the limited information previously available.
You don’t like Donald Trump? Fine. The investigation here was indeed about Donald Trump. But the scandal is about how abusive officials can exploit their awesome powers against any political opponent. And the people who authorized this political spying will be right back in business if, come November, Obama’s vice-president is elected president — notwithstanding that he’s yet to be asked serious questions about it.
How to Conceal a Politicized Investigation
It seems mind-boggling that, for so long, the FBI and Justice Department were able to keep a lid on the documents now being released. President Trump could have directed their disclosure at any time over the last four years. But when you think about it, concealing the paper trail was the easy part. The real challenge was: How to continue the probe even after Trump had taken office and was, at least nominally, in a position to shut it down?
The Obama officials, including holdovers who transitioned into the Trump administration, pulled that off by intimidation: not-so-subtle suggestions that they could disclose damaging allegations at any time (e.g., the notorious “pee tape”), and that White House efforts to inquire into the scope of the investigation would be portrayed as criminal obstruction.
Prior to the 2016 election, the FBI intentionally concealed the existence of the Trump-Russia probe from the congressional “Gang of Eight” (the bipartisan leadership of both houses and their intelligence committees). Senior Republicans were thus kept in the dark regarding purported suspicions that the Republican presidential campaign was a Russian front, unable to pose tough questions about the probe’s gossamer predication.
Crucially, the Trump-Russia fabulists managed to sideline two Trump loyalists who would have been positioned to thwart the effort: national-security adviser Michael Flynn and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. That left in place Obama holdovers and Trump-appointed placeholders. They were indifferent to Trump himself and cowed by the prospect of being framed as complicit in a Trump–Russia conspiracy, or a cover-up.
The paper record is profoundly embarrassing, so it is only natural that the FBI and Justice Department resisted its disclosure. But documents about the investigation were demanded by congressional investigators starting years ago — particularly by the investigation led in the House by then–Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes (R., Calif.).
Congress’s investigation was stonewalled. The more revelation we get, the more obvious it is that there was no bona fide national-security rationale for concealment. Documents were withheld to hide official and unofficial executive activity that was abusive, embarrassing, and, at least in some instances, illegal (e.g., tampering with a document that was critical to the FBI’s presentation of “facts” to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court).
Democrats wanted this information suppressed all along. So of course, once Democrats took control of the House in 2019, there was no possibility of pressing the question of why the Justice Department and FBI failed to comply with House information demands back in 2017–18, when Republicans led the relevant committees.
One wonders, though, why the GOP-controlled Senate had so little interest in finding out why this paper trail stayed hidden despite repeated inquiries. Ditto the House Republican leadership in the first two years of Trump’s term. It is hard to draw any conclusion other than that the GOP establishment bought the “Russian interference in our democracy” hysteria.
Moscow always meddles in U.S. elections. The 2016 interference was par for the course and, as always, utterly ineffective. This time, though, Democrats were perceived as the victims, rather than the beneficiaries. For once, they and their media megaphone demanded that the political class treat Russia as a serious threat. On cue, Washington Republicans genuflected, lest they be portrayed as covering up for Trump, or as soft on Putin. Meanwhile Democrats, the party of appeasement (very much including appeasement of Moscow through the Obama years), were transmogrified into Russia hawks. And Russia hawks they’ll remain . . . right up until the moment Joe Biden takes the oath of office.
Exploiting Politics to Surveil the Opposition
Among the most significant of the newly declassified documents is a memorandum written by FBI agent Joe Pientka III, the case agent on Trump-Russia. It was Pientka who, at the FBI’s New York City headquarters on August 17, 2016, purported to brief Trump and two top campaign surrogates — the aforementioned General Flynn and then–New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who was slated to run the transition if Trump won.
In reality, Pientka and the FBI regarded the occasion not as a briefing for the Republican presidential nominee but as an opportunity to interact with Donald Trump for investigative purposes. Clearly, the Bureau did that because Trump was the main subject of the investigation. The hope was that he’d blurt things out that would help the FBI prove he was an agent of Russia.
The Obama administration and the FBI knew that it was they who were meddling in a presidential campaign — using executive intelligence powers to monitor the president’s political opposition. This, they also knew, would rightly be regarded as a scandalous abuse of power if it ever became public. There was no rational or good-faith evidentiary basis to believe that Trump was in a criminal conspiracy with the Kremlin or that he’d had any role in Russian intelligence’s suspected hacking of Democratic Party email accounts.
You didn’t have to believe Trump was a savory man to know that. His top advisers were Flynn, a decorated combat veteran; Christie, a former U.S. attorney who vigorously investigated national-security cases; Rudy Giuliani, a legendary former U.S. attorney and New York City mayor who’d rallied the country against anti-American terrorism; and Jeff Sessions, a longtime U.S. senator with a strong national-defense track record. To believe Trump was unfit for the presidency on temperamental or policy grounds was a perfectly reasonable position for Obama officials to take — though an irrelevant one, since it’s up to the voters to decide who is suitable. But to claim to suspect that Trump was in a cyberespionage conspiracy with the Kremlin was inane . . . except as a subterfuge to conduct political spying, which Obama officials well knew was an abuse of power.
So they concealed it. They structured the investigation on the fiction that there was a principled distinction between Trump himself and the Trump campaign. In truth, the animating assumption of the probe was that Trump himself was acting on Russia’s behalf, either willfully or under the duress of blackmail. By purporting to focus on the campaign, investigators had the fig leaf of deniability they needed to monitor the candidate.
Just two weeks before Pientka’s August 17 “briefing” of Trump, the FBI formally opened “Crossfire Hurricane,” the codename for the Trump-Russia investigation. The Bureau also opened four Trump-Russia subfiles, related to Trump campaign officials Paul Manafort, Carter Page, George Papadopoulos and Flynn.
There was no case file called “Donald Trump” because Trump was “Crossfire Hurricane.” The theory of Crossfire Hurricane was that Russia had blackmail information on Trump, which it could use to extort Trump into doing Putin’s bidding if Trump were elected. It was further alleged that Russia had been cultivating Trump for years and was helping Trump’s election bid in exchange for future considerations. Investigators surmised that Trump had recruited Paul Manafort (who had connections to Russian oligarchs and pro-Russia Ukrainian oligarchs) as his campaign manager, enabling Manafort to use such emissaries as Page to carry out furtive communications between Trump and the Kremlin. If elected, the theory went, Trump would steer American policy in Russia’s favor, just as the Bureau speculated that Trump was already corruptly steering the Republican party into a more pro-Moscow posture.
Get Them Talking
Besides obtaining FISA surveillance warrants against Page, the Bureau’s favored tactic — a common one in criminal investigations — was to create or exploit situations in which the suspects would be at ease. Either the settings would not seem investigative or, in Trump’s case, repeated assurances were provided that he was not under investigation. With no notice that the FBI was trying to catch them and even prompt them into making incriminating statements, Trump and his campaign advisers would be invited to talk about Russia. Agents parsed their statements and scrutinized their demeanor, searching for any indication of pro-Russia sentiment or uneasiness about the topic — anything that could be portrayed as incriminating. If the Bureau’s contacts with Trump officials were not covertly recorded (as they were, for example, when informants interacted with Papadopoulos), agents would generate written reports about them, the kind of reports the FBI routinely writes when building a criminal case.
This is exactly what Pientka did in connection with the August 17 “briefing,” under the supervision of Kevin Clinesmith, the rabidly anti-Trump FBI lawyer later found by the Justice Department’s inspector general to have tampered with a key email, and Peter Strzok, the rabidly anti-Trump counterintelligence agent who was later fired.
Pientka’s significantly redacted seven-page memo is worth reading. The point of it is not the national-security information provided to the candidate; that is just context for the Bureau’s documenting of statements made by Trump in response. For example, when the topic is differences in methodology between Russian and Chinese espionage, Pientka carefully notes that Trump asked, “Joe, are the Russians bad? Because they have more numbers [of FBI cases] are they worse than the Chinese?” After all, maybe we’ll find out he was reporting back to the Kremlin. When the topic turned to signals intelligence, Pientka notes that Trump interjected, “Yes I understand it’s a dark time. Nothing is safe on computers anymore,” and elaborated that his then-ten-year-old son had broken the code for access to a computer — you know, just the kind of badinage you’d expect from a co-conspirator in a Russian hacking scheme.
Pientka then recounts that when other intelligence-agency briefers took over to continue the briefing on other topics, Pientka did not leave; he stayed in the room “actively listen[ing] for topics or questions regarding the Russian Federation.” Here, in a classified report they figure no one will ever see, there is no pretense: FBI agents are monitoring Trump. Pientka notes that when one briefer said the U.S. was the world’s leader in counterterrorism, Trump interjected, “Russia too?” And when the discussion turned to cheating by Russia and China on the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, “Trump asked, ‘Who’s worse?’” When the briefer replied, “They are both bad, but Russia is worse,” Pientka took pains to relate, “Trump and Christie turned toward each other and Christie commented, ‘Im shocked’” [sic].
You’re thinking, “So what?” Yeah, well, that’s the point. They had nothing, but the agents were exploiting the U.S. political process to try to turn nothing into a federal case. And would any public official voluntarily attend a security briefing, ostensibly meant to help him perform his public-safety mission, if he thought the FBI might be spying on him and writing reports with an eye toward portraying him as a hostile power’s mole?
Just as we’ve seen in the Flynn investigation, Pientka’s official FBI report is marked in bold capital letters: “DRAFT DOCUMENT/DELIBERATIVE MATERIAL.” Why deliberate over a draft when the purpose is to document a suspect’s statements? After all, he said whatever he said; there shouldn’t be a need to edit it. Drafts and deliberations are necessary only if a report is being massaged to fit the perceived needs of the investigation. Observe that, although the briefing was August 17, the memo is dated August 30. Nearly two weeks later, and it’s still in the form of a deliberative draft, meaning they’re not done yet.
This is not materially different from the Obama administration’s plan on January 6, 2017. That is when the FBI’s then-director, James Comey, “briefed” Trump in New York City. This briefing came just a day after Comey met with his Obama-administration superiors — the president, Vice President Biden, national-security adviser Susan Rice, and Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates. They discussed withholding information about the Russia investigation from President-elect Trump and his incoming team.
Consistent with this White House strategy session, Comey did not actually brief Trump about the Russia investigation; he buzzed Trump with an allegation that the Putin regime might be in possession of blackmail material — the pee tape — that it could hold over Trump’s head in order to get him to do the Kremlin’s bidding.
The point was not to give information. It was to get information: to provoke Trump into making incriminating or false statements, or statements evincing consciousness of guilt. Outside Trump Tower was an FBI car equipped with a laptop so Comey could immediately write an investigative report. The director and his team treated this as an investigative event, not a briefing. Comey memorialized Trump’s statements, as well as his physical and emotional reaction to the suggestion that Moscow might have video of the soon-to-be president cavorting with prostitutes. If a case had ever been made on Trump, Comey could then have been a witness, with his investigative report available to refresh his recollection about Trump’s comments and comportment.
That is one of the main reasons such reports are done.
The FBI did the same thing with Flynn: a sandbag interview, against Justice Department and White House protocols, conducted after extensive planning about how to put him at ease, how to make sure he doesn’t think he’s a suspect, how to refrain from advising him of his rights. Then, knock him back on his heels by portraying a legitimate conversation between the incoming national-security adviser and the Russian ambassador as if it were nefarious. Don’t play him the recording or show him the transcript; just grill him and hope he says something incriminating or redolent of guilty knowledge. And then, instead of following the FBI rules for promptly completing interview reports, generate another “deliberative draft” that can be kneaded for a few weeks . . . with the help of a former prosecutor (Lisa Page) who serves as counsel to the second-highest-ranking FBI official (then–deputy director Andrew McCabe).
There is still plenty of paper trail to uncover. I haven’t even referred here to the Steele dossier, which investigators knew was bogus but relied on to seek — and obtain — court-authorized eavesdropping. I haven’t mentioned the unmasking of Trump officials indirectly targeted in foreign-intelligence collection. We haven’t considered the collaboration of American and foreign intelligence agencies in the scrutiny of Trump, or the collaboration of Obama officials and congressional Democrats, as well as the media, to promote the narrative that Trump was a Russian operative. There is much still to learn and to weigh.
But this much we know: In the stretch run of the 2016 campaign, President Obama authorized his administration’s investigative agencies to monitor his party’s opponent in the presidential election, on the pretext that Donald Trump was a clandestine agent of Russia. Realizing this was a gravely serious allegation for which there was laughably insufficient predication, administration officials kept Trump’s name off the investigative files. That way, they could deny that they were doing what they did. Then they did it . . . and denied it.