No, Really: How, Why, and When Did the Feds' Russia Probe Into Trump Associates Actually Begin?

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Posted: Jun 04, 2018 10:45 AM
No, Really: How, Why, and When Did the Feds' Russia Probe Into Trump Associates Actually Begin?

Let's begin by reviewing a few points as a backdrop to this post: First, as I've written numerous times, Robert Mueller's team must be allowed to complete its work without interference -- though I've also said that it would behoove the special counsel not to stray too far from the core mission, and I agree with ranking Senate Intelligence Committee Democrat Mark Warner that it's likely in the nation's interest for the probe to wrap up sooner rather than later.  I also analyzed Rep. Trey Gowdy's significant public comments last week regarding the "spy gate" controversy surrounding the Trump campaign informant with whom the FBI worked during the early stages of the Russia/collusion probe Mueller inherited.  In short, I thought it was meaningful that Gowdy, who was one of the few members of Congress to receive a classified briefing on the matter, effectively endorsed the Bureau's actions on that front, also highlighting that investigators were not targeting Donald Trump. I'll turn to my skepticism of the feds' official account in a moment, but first, I'd like to address a few criticisms of Gowdy I've seen: 

(1) I find the more outlandish line of accusation that Gowdy has been taken in by the "deep state' to be utterly ludicrous on its face.  Gowdy is a fair-minded and committed conservative who gave the Obama administration fits over his pursuit of the truth on Benghazi and other issues.  It's true that as a former federal prosecutor, he may be more defensive of the FBI than other observers.  But let's not forget his intense cross-examination of then-FBI chief James Comey about his controversial decision not to recommend criminal charges over Hillary Clinton's email scandal.  He was hardly obsequious or overly deferential during that exchange.  I also find this comment from Gowdy's former close colleague and friend Jason Chaffetz to be an important contribution to the debate about the South Carolinian's credibility.  Bear in mind that Chaffetz has been an outspoken Trump defender in many cases and hasn't pulled punches about the Russia matter and the FBI:


(2) Two people worth following on all of these issues are former federal prosecutor Andy McCarthy and The Federalist's Mollie Hemingway.  Both have pushed back against Gowdy, and their analyses can be found here and here.  Hemingway is correct that Gowdy apparently still hasn't seen some of the key underlying documents House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes is still fighting to access, so Gowdy's view of the 'big picture' remains incomplete.  McCarthy may also be right that Gowdy was playing word games (or at least describing things very calculatingly) by insisting that the FBI's interaction with the informant was targeted at the Russians and not the Trump campaign.  Click through to read why.  A number of analysts who agree with this line of thinking have also asked: If this was a counterintelligence probe, not a criminal probe, and if Trump wasn't under suspicion, why wasn't he briefed in real time about the FBI's specific worries (not generalized warnings) about attempts by a hostile foreign power to infiltrate his campaign?  I think that's a fair question, and I don't think James Clapper's vague, recent punt is sufficient.  

That said, it's worth pointing out that even if you quarrel with Gowdy's framing, and even if you concede that he hasn't seen every key document, it's still indisputable that he has more access to more facts on these issues than nearly anyone on earth.  He's been read into this case with a tiny handful of people, so his lack of alarm over how it was predicated and executed shouldn't be idly dismissed.  And as I mentioned last week, Nunes falling quiet after attending the same briefing at least appears to be telling on some level, given his established lack of media shyness. I'm not treating these clues and developments as entirely dispositive, but they're also relevant data points, and they're certainly not evidence that Gowdy has somehow been co-opted. With all of that context in place, let's examine Wall Street Journal columnist Kimberly Strassel's latest piece, which cuts to the heart of a core question about all of this that I haven't seen properly or convincingly put to rest -- especially in light of some of the new information she brings to light:

To hear the Federal Bureau of Investigation tell it, its decision to launch a counterintelligence probe into a major-party presidential campaign comes down to a foreign tip about a 28-year-old fourth-tier Trump adviser, George Papadopoulos. The FBI’s media scribes have dutifully reported the bare facts of that “intel.” We are told the infamous tip came from Alexander Downer, at the time the Australian ambassador to the U.K. Mr. Downer invited Mr. Papadopoulos for a drink in early May 2016, where the aide told the ambassador the Russians had dirt on Hillary Clinton. Word of this encounter at some point reached the FBI, inspiring it to launch its counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign on July 31...

That's the official story, of which we were informed when suspicions were flying around over whether the questionable Steele dossier had been the catalyst.  Not so, we've been told; the counterintelligence probe began independently of Christopher Steele, due to George Papadopoulos' drunken boasting (a claim reinforced by House Intelligence Republicans' own memo, I should add).  But does the 'official story' really add up?  Strassel goes on:

When did all this happen, and what came next? Did the info go straight to U.S. intelligence? Or did it instead filter to the wider State Department team, who we already know were helping foment Russia-Trump conspiracy theories? Jonathan Winer, a former deputy assistant secretary of state, has publicly admitted to communicating in the summer of 2016 with his friend Christopher Steele, author of the infamous dossier. Something [else] doesn’t gel between Mr. Downer’s account of the conversation and the FBI’s. In his Australian interview, Mr. Downer said Mr. Papadopolous didn’t give specifics. “He didn’t say dirt, he said material that could be damaging to her,” said Mr. Downer. “He didn’t say what it was.” Also: “Nothing he said in that conversation indicated Trump himself had been conspiring with the Russians to collect information on Hillary Clinton.”

For months we’ve been told the FBI acted because it was alarmed that Mr. Papadopoulos knew about those hacked Democratic emails in May, before they became public in June. But according to the tipster himself, Mr. Papadopoulos said nothing about emails. The FBI instead received a report that a far-removed campaign adviser, over drinks, said the Russians had something that might be “damaging” to Hillary. Did this vague statement justify a counterintelligence probe into a presidential campaign, featuring a spy and secret surveillance warrants? Unlikely. Which leads us back to what did inspire the FBI to act, and when? The Papadopoulos pretext is getting thinner.

Interesting points and non-trivial questions -- although I'd add that elsewhere in her column, Strassel writes that her own reporting contradicts at least one major assertion Mr. Downer made in print, which should color his credibility (at least in her mind).  Nevertheless, in a segment on Fox News, the Washington Examiner's Byron York followed up on another strand of Downer's interview with The Australian:

"The scenario was that a man named Downer, who was the top Australian diplomat in London, had reached out to George Papadopoulos, as Papadopoulos, a low-ranking sort-of volunteer member of the Trump foreign-policy advisory team. (He) reaches out, they meet, and the story is Papadopoulos is drunk, and he tells Downer about 'the Russians have all these emails from Hillary Clinton,' (and) they might drop them in the campaign. Well what has happened is, Downer has returned to Australia, and gave a long interview to The Australian, the publication down there, and basically said, 'Well, nobody was drunk,' there was one drink consumed, that wasn't a drunk thing, and he never talked, he Papadopoulos, didn't talk about emails. So this has really raised a bunch of questions about the story of how this investigation has started."

As a strong skeptic of the "deep state" conspiracies -- remember, Trump won, and the multi-pronged federal counterintelligence investigation into members of his campaign didn't leak before the election -- I do find it strange and curious that we clearly still do not know how and why, precisely, the Russia/Trump probe started. If what we've been told about Papadopoulos bragging while inebriated about having advanced knowledge of Russia's hacking of Hillary/DNC emails isn't accurate (twice over, no less) and isn't the complete answer, why wouldn't I question my skepticism a bit?  And speaking of sketchy accounts, I'll leave you with the latest credibilty-damaging admission from the White House -- finally correcting the record about the president's role in damage control efforts over the infamous Trump Tower meeting episode (suspicious on several levels) that most resembles collusion, and about which they had previously not told the truth:


The "unreliable narrator" crisis feels as acute as ever.

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