As Durham closes in, FBI's Trump-Russia origin story is harder to believe
The available evidence calls into question the FBI's explanation for how its Trump-Russia conspiracy probe began. John Durham has already previewed that he will challenge it.
As he documents the role of Hillary Clinton’s campaign in generating false allegations of Trump-Russia collusion, Special Counsel John Durham has also previewed a challenge to the FBI’s claims about how and why its counterintelligence investigation of the Trump campaign began.
At stake is the completeness of the official reckoning within the U.S. government over the Russiagate scandal – and whether there will be an accounting commensurate with the offense: the abuse of the nation's highest law enforcement and intelligence powers to damage an opposition presidential candidate turned president, at the behest of his opponent from the governing party he defeated.
The drama is playing out against the clashing approaches of the two Justice Department officials tasked with scrutinizing the Russia probe's origins and unearthing any misconduct: Durham, the Sphinx-like prosecutor with a reputation for toughness whose work continues; and Michael Horowitz, the Department of Justice inspector general, whose December 2019 report faulted the FBI's handling of the Russia probe but nonetheless concluded that it was launched in good faith.
The bureau's defenders point to Horowitz's report to argue that the FBI’s Trump-Russia conspiracy investigation, codenamed Crossfire Hurricane, is untainted despite its extensive use of the discredited Clinton-funded Steele dossier. Though highly critical of the bureau's use of Christopher Steele's reports, Horowitz concluded that they “played no role in the Crossfire Hurricane opening," which he said had met the department's “low threshold” for opening an investigation.
But Durham has made plain his dissent. In response to Horowitz's report, the special counsel announced that his office had "advised the Inspector General that we do not agree with some of the report’s conclusions as to predication and how the FBI case was opened." Durham stressed that, unlike Horowitz, his "investigation is not limited to developing information from within component parts of the Justice Department" and has instead obtained "information from other persons and entities, both in the U.S. and outside of the U.S."
Durham’s office has not described the specific basis for its disagreement. But the Crossfire Hurricane advocates’ defense has a big problem: copious countervailing evidence in the public record – including in Horowitz's own report. A considerable paper trail points to Steele’s political opposition research playing a greater role in the probe than the FBI has acknowledged:
Numerous officials received Steele's allegations – some meeting with the ex-British intelligence officer himself – and discussed sending them up the FBI chain weeks before July 31, 2016, the Horowitz-endorsed date when the bureau claims it opened the Russia-Trump “collusion” investigation. These encounters call into question the FBI’s claim that Steele played no role in triggering Crossfire Hurricane and that its team only received the dossier weeks after their colleagues, on Sept. 19.
The FBI’s own records belie its claims that it decided to launch the Russia probe not because of the dossier, but instead on a vague tip recounting a London barroom conversation with a low-level Trump campaign volunteer, George Papadopoulos. Australian diplomat Alexander Downer’s tip, recorded in bureau records, was that Papadopoulos had merely "suggested" that Russia had made an unspecified "suggestion" of Russian help – a thin basis upon which to investigate an entire presidential campaign.
Upon officially opening Crossfire Hurricane on July 31, FBI officials immediately took investigative steps that mirrored the claims in the Steele dossier even though they were supposedly unaware of it. In August, the FBI team opened probes of Trump campaign figures Carter Page, Michael Flynn, and Paul Manafort – all of whom are mentioned in the dossier – based on predicates that are just as flimsy as the Downer-Papadopoulos pretext.
The FBI’s claim that Steele played no role in sparking the Trump-Russia probe is further called into question by top bureau officials’ previous false claims about the investigation, including Steele's role. They not only lied to the public and Congress, but to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
'Definitely of interest to the Counterintelligence folks'
Durham's November indictment of Igor Danchenko, Steele's main source, was the final nail in the coffin for the Clinton-funded dossier. But to sympathetic media amplifiers of the FBI's Trump-Russia probe, its origins were unscathed.
Horowitz's report, wrote Mother Jones reporter (and early Steele media contact) David Corn, "concluded that the FBI investigation of Trump-Russia contacts had been legitimately launched" thereby proving that "there was no hoax."
In an article attempting to demonstrate "Why the Discredited Dossier Does Not Undercut the Russia Investigation," Charlie Savage of the New York Times said Horowitz's report "established" that Steele's allegations did not reach the Crossfire Hurricane team until Sept. 19, 2016, meaning that "they did not yet know about the dossier" when they launched the probe on July 31.
But if the Crossfire Hurricane team really did not learn of Steele until Sept. 19, then those leading the Russiagate probe were among the few high-ranking officials in Washington intelligence circles unaware of the dossier.
The first known Steele-FBI contact about the dossier came on July 5, more than three weeks before the Trump-Russia probe officially launched. Days before, Steele – working for the Clinton campaign via the Washington-based opposition research firm Fusion GPS – contacted Michael Gaeta, the senior FBI agent he had worked with on other matters. Gaeta was then serving in Rome as a legal attaché.
Steele, Gaeta recalled in congressional testimony, informed him that “I have some really interesting information you need to see … immediately.” Gaeta jumped at the chance: “I said, all right, I will be up there tomorrow,” and immediately caught a flight to London. At Steele’s office on that early-summer day, the former British spy briefed his eager FBI handler on the Trump-Russia conspiracy theories he had generated and handed over a copy of his first “intelligence report.”
Steele’s allegations did not stay in London, as Gaeta quickly shared them with FBI colleagues. “I couldn’t just sweep it under the rug, couldn’t discount it just on its face,” he told Congress, adding that Steele “was an established source.” On July 12, Gaeta told a colleague in the FBI’s New York field office, the then-assistant special agent in charge, about Steele’s allegations. According to Horowitz -- the IG who concluded that Steele “played no role in the Crossfire Hurricane opening” – this agent then informed his superior about the Steele allegations “the same day.” The Steele material, Horowitz’s team was told, was seen by these FBI officials as "something that needs to be handled immediately" and "definitely of interest to the Counterintelligence folks."
On July 28, at his FBI colleague’s request, Michael Gaeta passed along copies of the two reports he had received from Steele. As Horowitz later found, the first one (dated June 20, 2016) provided by Steele to Gaeta, would later become “one of four of Steele’s reports that the FBI relied upon to support” its surveillance applications for Carter Page.
Steele’s conspiracy theories quickly made their way up the FBI chain. According to the inspector general’s report, Gaeta heard from a colleague that high-level officials were already “aware of the reports’ existence,” including at the “Executive Assistant Director (EAD) level” at FBI headquarters in Washington. This occurred, Gaeta told Congress, “on maybe the 1st of August, right around then,” or “either the 31st of July.”
“I was told by the [assistant special agent in charge] at a very high level, he goes at the EAD level at headquarters they have the reports,” Gaeta said. According to the IG report, Gaeta emailed an FBI supervisor on July 28 to report that Steele had told him that contents of two of his reports “may already be circulating at a ‘high level’ in Washington, D.C.”
Gaeta also discussed the Steele dossier claims with the legal attaché overseeing his work at the U.S. Embassy in Rome. The unidentified government lawyer told the inspector general that he signed off on Gaeta’s discussions with the New York field office, and also recalled having the “expectation” that "Steele’s reporting" would be provided "to the Counterintelligence Division (CD) at FBI Headquarters within a matter of days.”
Before making the trip to see Steele in London, Gaeta also received the approval of Victoria Nuland, a senior Obama administration State Department official who now serves under President Biden. By her own telling, Nuland’s office then received information directly from Steele “in the middle of July.” Steele, Nuland recalled in a 2018 interview, “passed two to four pages of short points of what he was finding, and our immediate reaction to that was, this is not in our purview. This needs to go to the FBI.”
Yet another senior U.S. government official also shared Steele’s information with the FBI. It helped that he had a personal connection: Then-senior Justice Department official Bruce Ohr, whose wife Nellie worked alongside Steele at Fusion GPS, first made contact with Steele right before the former British spy’s meeting with Gaeta on July 5, and then shortly after. This led to a July 30 breakfast between the Ohrs and Steele at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C. – one day before Crossfire Hurricane began. At this sit-down, Ohr recalled to Congress, Steele claimed that he had evidence that Russian intelligence “had Donald Trump over a barrel.”
According to Ohr, “I wanted to provide the information he [Steele] had given me to the FBI.” He immediately reached out to Andrew McCabe, the then-deputy director of the FBI. “I went to his office to provide the information, and Lisa Page was there,” Ohr recalled, referring to the FBI attorney who exchanged anti-Trump text messages with Strzok while both worked on the Trump-Russia probe. “So I provided the information to them.”
When exactly this pivotal meeting occurred has never been resolved, and all involved have a fuzzy recollection. The transcript of Ohr’s August 2018 House testimony shows him responding “Yes” to a question placing his meeting with McCabe and Page on July 30 – the same day he met Steele, and one day before the Trump-Russia probe officially began. Yet earlier in the deposition, Ohr guessed that he in fact met with McCabe and Page “in August.” When he spoke to the DOJ inspector general, Ohr “did not recall exactly when he contacted McCabe.”
Despite that testimony, Horowitz instead relied on an entry in Ohr’s calendar to determine the meeting did not take place until Oct. 18. McCabe, who was forced to resign from the department for lying about his contacts with the media, said he believes the meeting occurred in “fall 2016” and “did not remember Ohr calling him to set up the meeting or how it came to be scheduled.”
“Suggested … some kind of suggestion”
According to the official narrative, while top-ranking FBI officials shared and discussed the Steele dossier with everyone but Crossfire Hurricane team members, the counterintelligence division decided to investigate the Trump’s campaign’s potential ties to Russia on July 31 based on an unrelated tip from Alexander Downer, the Australian diplomat. At a London bar in May, campaign volunteer George Papadopoulos reportedly told Downer that Russia had offered to help the Trump campaign by anonymously releasing information damaging to Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. Although there was no evidence that the Trump campaign had pursued, received, or used this undefined material, FBI officials deemed this rumor sufficient grounds to investigate the campaign for potential involvement in Russia’s alleged theft of DNC emails published by Wikileaks.
“In other words,” Peter Strzok, the senior FBI counterintelligence agent who opened the Trump-Russia probe, wrote in his memoir, “Papadopoulos had somehow learned about the hacking operation before the public did and had advance knowledge of the Russian plan to use that information to hurt Clinton’s campaign. Even the FBI hadn’t known about it at that time.”
But when the Australian tip that reached the FBI in July 2016 was finally disclosed to the public in December 2019, Papadopoulos’ supposed “advance knowledge” about Russia’s alleged “hacking operation” turned out to be non-existent. The FBI’s tip from Downer contained no mention of the DNC hacking, a Russian interference campaign, or even the stolen emails handed to WikiLeaks. Nor did they even have any trace to suggest that a Russian intermediary had made an overture.
Instead, according to the FBI Electronic Communication (EC) that opened the Trump-Russia probe, the FBI only heard that Papadopoulos, in his conversation with Downer, "suggested" that “the Trump team had received some kind of suggestion from Russia” (emphasis added) that it could “assist” the Trump campaign “with the anonymous release of information during the campaign that would be damaging to Mrs. Clinton (and President Obama).”
The FBI document acknowledged that the nature of the “suggestion” was “unclear” and that the possible Russian help could entail “material acquired publicly” – in other words, not emails hacked from the DNC, which, as Horowitz noted, were “not mentioned in the EC.” The FBI also acknowledged that it had no evidence concerning the Trump camp’s receptivity to the “suggested… suggestion”: It was “unclear how Mr. Trump’s team reacted to the offer,” the EC stated, and that Russia could act “with or without Mr. Trump’s cooperation.” Although Papadopoulos’ October 2017 guilty plea with the Mueller team suggested that he had told Downer about “thousands of emails” obtained by Russia, Downer later stated that the Trump campaign volunteer had made no mention of any stolen emails, and fact “didn’t say what it was” that Russia had on offer.
In other words, what Strzok wrote in his own book was untrue — and what the FBI officially based its entire Trump-Russia counterintelligence probe on was a “suggestion.”
To accept that the FBI’s decision to open the Trump-Russia investigation was well-founded, one has to stipulate that the nation’s premier law enforcement agency decided to investigate a presidential campaign, and then a president, based on a low-level volunteer having “suggested”, during a barroom chat, “some kind of suggestion from Russia” that contained no mention of the alleged Russian hacking or stolen emails that the Trump campaign was supposedly conspiring over. One would also have to accept that the bureau was not influenced by the far more detailed claims of direct Trump-Russia connections – an alleged conspiracy that would form the heart of the investigation – advanced in the widely-circulating Steele dossier.
‘Insufficient basis' for FBI probe’s official predicate
Adding to the questions surrounding the FBI’s basis for opening a Trump-Russia counterintelligence probe is that, upon doing so, the Crossfire Hurricane team didn’t bother to contact the campaign volunteer whose vague “suggestion” supposedly triggered it. Instead, the FBI expanded the probe to multiple other figures in the Trump orbit. Although no intelligence connected them to Downer's vague tip, all three shared the distinction of being named as Russia conspirators or assets in the Steele dossier.
Rather than just focusing on Papadopoulos – who was never wiretapped and not even interviewed until January of 2017 – the FBI quickly opened parallel probes of campaign volunteer Carter Page, campaign adviser Gen. Michael Flynn, and then-Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort. According to Horowitz, Strzok described “the initial investigative objective of Crossfire Hurricane” as an effort “to determine which individuals associated with the Trump campaign may have been in a position to have received the alleged offer of assistance from Russia” (emphasis added) that Papadopoulos had “suggested.”
The FBI identified Page, Flynn, and Manafort as additional investigative targets, the IG found, not based on any new intelligence but because they had “ties to Russia or a history of travel to Russia.” They relied on a rarely used law – the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires Americans representing foreign governments to disclose these relationships – as the basis for their inquiries.
“Lacking any evidence — and admitting such in their own opening document — the team, nevertheless, proceeded to simply speculate who ‘may have’ accepted the Russian offer and subsequently opened up full investigations on four Americans,” Kevin Brock, the former FBI assistant director for intelligence and principal deputy director of the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC), opined in Congressional testimony in 2020. “This is unconscionable and a direct abuse of FBI authorities.”
When it comes to Papadopoulos, the FBI "initially considered seeking FISA surveillance of Papadopoulos" but quickly determined that it had "an insufficient basis" to do so, Horowitz found. But if the FBI felt that it had "an insufficient basis" to spy on Papadopoulos, how could the FBI deem him to be a sufficient basis for investigating and spying on members of the campaign that he worked for?
On Steele, a pattern of FBI 'factual misstatements and omissions'
Although Horowitz took the FBI at its word that Steele played no role in triggering Crossfire Hurricane, he did so after documenting multiple instances of FBI lies – including about Steele's role in the probe.
When the FBI used the Steele dossier to seek surveillance warrants on Trump campaign volunteer Carter Page, the bureau made 17 "factual misstatements and omissions" to the FISA court, Inspector General Horowitz found in his December 2019 report.
These abuses included embellishing Steele's established reliability as an FBI source; omitting information that undermined the credibility of Steele's main source, Igor Danchenko, and the fanciful claims he told Steele about prostitutes and billion dollar bribes; concealing that Steele was a source for a Yahoo News article that the FBI also cited as source material; omitting that both Page and Papadopoulos had made exonerating statements to FBI informants; and, most notably, omitting that the Clinton campaign was paying for Steele's services. The FISA court concurred with Horowitz, invalidating two of the four Page surveillance warrants on the basis of the FBI's "material misstatements."
When the FBI briefed the Senate Intelligence Committee on its use of the Steele dossier in 2018, it told similar falsehoods while presenting the Clinton contractor as credible. According to the FBI's prepared talking points, the Senate was erroneously told that Steele's main source Danchenko "did not cite any significant concerns with the way his reporting was characterized in the dossier." Danchenko, the FBI additionally claimed, also "maintains trusted relationships with individuals who are capable of reporting on the material he collected for Steele." The FBI also said that its discussions with Danchenko "confirm that the dossier was not fabricated by Steele."
But the FBI concealed – just as it did with the FISA court – that Danchenko had in fact told its agents that corroboration for the dossier's claim was "zero"; that he "has no idea" where claims sourced to him came from; and that the Russia-Trump rumors he passed along to Steele came from "word of mouth and hearsay" and "conversation that [he] had with friends over beers" that should be taken with "a grain of salt."
When the FBI's deceptive reliance on Steele was brought to light in a memo from then-House intelligence chairman Rep. Devin Nunes in early 2018, the FBI fought to prevent its release. Moreover, the FBI resorted to more deception: In an explosive Jan. 31 statement aimed at thwarting the Nunes memo's release, the FBI claimed that it had "grave concerns about material omissions of fact that fundamentally impact the memo’s accuracy."
The FBI's tactic failed, and the memo was released two days later. When the first of the FBI's Carter Page warrants was declassified in July 2018, it showed that the only material omissions of fact were made by the FBI. The FBI told the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court that it "believes that [Russia’s] efforts are being coordinated with Page and perhaps other individuals associated with" the Trump campaign. Its source for this belief was Steele, whom it described as "Source #1" and "credible" – all while omitting that the Clinton campaign was footing the bill.
In addition, unidentified intelligence and law enforcement officials went out of their way to bolster Steele's image via anonymous leaks to credulous news outlets. "U.S. investigators corroborate some aspects of the Russia dossier," a CNN headline proclaimed in February 2017, weeks after the dossier’s publication. The FBI is "continuing to chase down stuff from the dossier, and, at its core, a lot of it is bearing out," an unidentified "intelligence official" told The New Yorker later that month.
The FBI's faith in Steele extended to sharing classified information with him. According to Horowitz, at an October 2016 meeting in Rome, FBI agents gave Steele a “general overview” of Crossfire Hurricane, including its then-secret probes of Manafort, Page, Flynn, and Papadopoulos. The FBI was so eager to enlist Steele that it offered to pay him $15,000 “just for attending” the Rome meeting and a “significantly” greater amount if he could collect more information.
This early FBI enthusiasm for Steele – and lengthy record of lying about it -- is hard to square with the bureau’s subsequent claims that he only played a minor role.
Durham's dissent could become political flashpoint
Despite uncovering FBI deceptions, Horowitz acknowledged that he was relying largely on the word of the officials he was investigating. "We did not find information in FBI or Department ECs [Electronic Communications], emails, or other documents, or through witness testimony, indicating that any information other than the [Friendly Foreign Government] information" – Australia's tip from Downer -- "was relied upon to predicate the opening of the Crossfire Hurricane investigation," his report states.
As his dissenting statement made clear, Durham is not limited to one department nor to its employees' voluntary testimony.
Durham's grand juries have already yielded indictments of two Clinton campaign-tied operatives for deceptive attempts to influence the FBI's Trump-Russia probe. That Horowitz has already uncovered so many inconsistencies in the FBI's account – and that Durham has gone out of his way to question the FBI predication that Horowitz accepted – suggests that the Steele dossier and the Alfa Bank "secret hotline" story are far from the only fraudulent Trump-Russia activity in Durham's sights.
If Durham does unearth additional evidence that the FBI did not launch the Trump-Russia probe in the way that it claims, then that would be yet another devastating revelation for a bureau that has already been caught relying on Clinton-funded disinformation and lying about it. Given how hard the FBI and Democratic Party allies have fought to shield this conduct from scrutiny, Durham's probe could become a major political flashpoint as his probe reaches its final months and hones in on its final targets.
Published by Real Clear Investigations.
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