Spying, treason and politics: President Trump ups the stakes in Russia probe battle despite scant evidence

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump is significantly raising the stakes in his public battle with the law enforcement and intelligence agencies that spent two years investigating him and his campaign.

In the past two weeks alone, Trump has charged that federal investigators “conclusively spied” on his campaign, accused perceived political enemies of treason, and signaled that he will make these allegations a major talking point in his reelection bid. Then he gave his attorney general broad power to probe – and reveal – intelligence secrets as part of a new review into how the federal investigation on Trump and his campaign began.

The flurry of accusations has produced a lot of noise – at times in the form of “lock them up” chants at Trump’s campaign rallies – but scant evidence of wrongdoing.

Attorney General William Barr told lawmakers two months ago that he was conducting his own examination of whether the government improperly “spied” on Trump’s campaign, at least the third examination by the department of its conduct around the 2016 election. So far, Barr has not said he has found misconduct, but in an interview with CBS News, he said the investigation of Trump's campaign crossed “a serious red line” and he wants to know how and why the FBI conducted its work.

Another inquiry, by Justice’s inspector general, is due to conclude this month.

Barr’s examination took on a level of urgency in May when Trump gave him “full and complete” authority to declassify information related to the Russia investigation – a departure from the Justice Department’s traditional and legal role. The move alarmed former officials who say it could set of a power clash between Barr and the country’s intelligence chiefs and risk exposing sensitive sources to score political points.

“There’s nothing the CIA or NSA, for example, guards more jealously than sources and methods. It is not hyperbole to say that lives are at stake,” said Larry Pfeiffer, former chief of staff at the Central Intelligence Agency and for the Director of National Intelligence.

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Jeremy Bash, former chief of staff at the CIA during President Barack Obama's administration, said the move abandons the history, tradition and legal role of the Justice Department and risks turning the agency into “a political arm” of Trump’s administration as the president seeks re-election.

The Justice Department, first through the FBI and later through special counsel Robert Mueller, spent more than two years scrutinizing Russia’s efforts to help Trump win the 2016 presidential election, as well as ties to his campaign. The inquiry revealed a “sweeping and systematic” effort by the Russian government to intercede in the election, but said neither Trump nor his campaign participated in that effort.

President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr attend the 38th Annual National Peace Officers' Memorial Service at the U.S. Capitol, May 15, 2019, in Washington.
President Donald Trump and Attorney General William Barr attend the 38th Annual National Peace Officers' Memorial Service at the U.S. Capitol, May 15, 2019, in Washington.

Trump and some of his closest allies in Congress have spent just as much time questioning how the FBI and the Justice Department began the investigation, suggesting investigators abused their authority as part of a political plot to target the Trump campaign and undermine his presidency. The Justice Department’s inspector general, Michael Horowitz, has been probing those allegations March 2018; several congressional committees also have investigated. So far, they have not revealed evidence to support the president’s claims.

Spokespersons for the Justice Department and the FBI declined to comment.

The impact of those reviews turns on what they find. At stake for the FBI is its credibility at a time when even small deviations could have a damaging political impact, said former U.S. attorney Harry Litman.

“On the other hand, the AG has made it clear that in his preliminary investigation, he's getting left with more questions than answers and seems quite troubled by what he's determined so far and feels he has to delve even deeper, so obviously there's some conduct there that he thinks is worrisome,” Litman said.

An investigation and accusations

The president and his political allies have portrayed Barr's new investigation as a validation of their complaints that there was something untoward about the FBI's conduct as it began investigating Russian election meddling and possible links to the Trump campaign.

Republicans have long asserted that the FBI targeted Trump's campaign for political reasons using improper surveillance and have raised alarms about leaks to the media during the Russia investigation. A few have adopted more extreme claims, suggesting there was a deep-state government conspiracy to frame Trump.

Some of the FBI officials who supervised the early months of the Russia investigation were privately — and, later, publicly — disdainful of Trump. The inspector general in 2017 revealed text messages between former FBI supervisor Peter Strzok and former FBI lawyer Lisa Page that were sharply critical of Trump, describing him during the campaign as “loathsome.” In one message, Page wrote: “(Trump's) not ever going to become president, right?” In response, Strzok wrote, ”No. No he's not. We'll stop it.”

The messages fueled suspicions that officials had used their investigative powers to intercede in the campaign.

But the investigations that followed, including one by the inspector general, did not show that those views impacted the FBI's work, and a succession of the agency's top officials told lawmakers in private testimonies that political views did not taint the investigation on Trump.

“And I can say for the counterintelligence division, if I got a whiff of it, it absolutely would not be tolerated, period,” Bill Priestap, then the head of the FBI's Counterintelligence Division, told the House Judiciary Committee in a closed interview in June 2018. That division conducted the early investigations of Russian election meddling.

FISA: FBI releases records on Carter Page surveillance

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Part of that probe involved a secret wiretap of former Trump campaign aide Carter Page. Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee complained last year that the FBI's application to conduct that surveillance concealed the government's reliance on Christopher Steele, a former British spy conducting opposition research for Democratic rival Hillary Clinton's campaign.

But copies of those applications released after USA TODAY and others sued showed investigators disclosed to judges that Steele was seeking information to "discredit" Trump, and that investigators had broader suspicions about page's ties to the Russian government. Page has not been charged with a crime and Mueller's investigators ultimately said they could not confirm those suspicions.

Barr has intimated that there could be more to uncover, telling lawmakers at one point that a counterintelligence investigation consisting of a handful of wiretaps and a single informant would be "fairly anemic." And Trump's allies say they expect more.

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said he wants to know what prompted the Obama administration’s surveillance of Trump campaign aides and “the extent to which improper partisan motivations drove that decision.”

“Which political players made the remarkable decision to actively surveil the president’s political opponents? What was the basis? Who made the decision? And to what extent was it simply a partisan abuse of power?” Cruz said.

Barr hasn’t said whether he will try to answer those questions.

Caroline Polisi, an attorney for former Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos, said he expects to play “a major role” in Barr’s inquiry, but would not elaborate. Papadopoulos has publicly accused the FBI of plotting with the governments of Australia, the United Kingdom and others to frame Trump before the 2016 election.

Foreign policy advisor to President Donald Trump's election campaign, George Papadopoulos and his wife Simona Mangiante Papadopoulos leave a federal court in Washington after his sentencing on September 7, 2018.
Foreign policy advisor to President Donald Trump's election campaign, George Papadopoulos and his wife Simona Mangiante Papadopoulos leave a federal court in Washington after his sentencing on September 7, 2018.

Trump appears to have adopted some of Papadopoulos’s claims, telling reporters that he hopes Barr would look into Australian and British involvement.

Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators about conversations in which he was told the Russian government had obtained “dirt” on Clinton. Former officials have testified that his boast about those conversations with an Australian diplomat weeks before Democratic political organizations revealed they had been hacked by Russian intelligence was the reason the FBI opened an investigation into Trump’s campaign.

Another of his lawyers, John Pierce, said the results of Barr’s work “will help clarify Mr. Papadopoulos’s role in the Russia investigation.”

Former officials dismiss spying claims

Former officials involved in the investigations have called such allegations ridiculous.

“There’s no conspiracy to unseat Mr. Trump or defeat him. There was no treason. There was no sedition. All of these things, in my opinion, are false. Totally false. I would never have allowed such a thing,” said James Baker, the FBI’s former general counsel who oversaw the launch of the Russia investigation.

Baker, who retired from the FBI last year after he was replaced as general counsel, said he is not aware of any irregularities related to the FBI’s use of surveillance during the early days of the Russia probe, and eavesdropping on someone like Page, who raised suspicions among investigators, isn’t a departure from surveillance protocols.

“We obtain many FISAs on people like that,” Baker said, referring to warrants issued under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Former FBI director James Comey, who declined to be interviewed, echoed these sentiments in a recent Washington Post op-ed. “We investigated. We didn’t gather information about the campaign’s strategy. We didn’t ‘spy’ on anyone’s campaign. We investigated to see whether it was true that Americans associated with the campaign had taken the Russians up on any offer of help,” Comey wrote.

Comey: James Comey called Trump a 'chronic liar.' What his anti-Trump politics mean for the FBIOther former officials, including former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe, Strzok and Page, declined to comment.

Barr has tapped Connecticut U.S. Attorney John Durham to assist in his review. Besides Barr and the Inspector General, whose office is examining whether the FBI abused its authority when it sought court-ordered surveillance of Page, another federal prosecutor, Utah U.S. Attorney John Huber, had been asked to look into questions related to Clinton.

It remains unclear what progress Huber has made, which has frustrated some Republicans. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Florida, said Barr's appointment of Durham suggests the attorney general's desire to accelerate the process.

Greg Brower, who was the FBI’s assistant director for the Office of Congressional Affairs, said he would trust only the inspector general's findings.

“Whenever an IG looks at something thoroughly, it will find something even if it’s minor. I would be shocked if the IG found anything significant with respect to the Page FISA process just because of the multilayers of review and scrutiny that goes into those things,” said Brower, who was inspector general at the U.S. Government Publishing Office.

“These other investigations are not normal,” Brower added, referring to Barr and Huber’s inquiries. “Both of those, I have to say in my view, are just political investigations.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Spying, treason and politics: President Trump ups the stakes in Russia probe battle despite scant evidence