Many people would admittedly have said that the “Russia Russia Russia” storyline imploded a long time ago, from sheer incoherence and obsessive tendentiousness.
But the most recent addition to the narrative, posted at the New York Times on 30 December, indicates it would now be hard for the incoherence to get any sheerer.
Either that, or there is something very seriously wrong at the FBI. (Which, again, one must admit is a possibility.) Perhaps it’s both. Plus the obsessive tendentiousness, which requires no tendentiousness-sniffing dogs to detect. Humans are well able to pick up on it.
With the new story, we are given to believe that the FBI decided to investigate members of the Trump campaign after it learned in July 2016, from the Australians, that sometime campaign aide George Papadopoulos had been told in late April by a Maltese professor that Russia had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of thousands of emails.
It was emphatically not the “dodgy dossier” that prompted the FBI’s decision.
It was not, as Mr. Trump and other politicians have alleged, a dossier compiled by a former British spy hired by a rival campaign. Instead, it was firsthand information from one of America’s closest intelligence allies.
It was the information on Papadopoulos, which NYT proceeds to outline.
The story itself is delightful, involving, for one thing, the Maltese professor. Joseph Mifsud appeared in the Papadopoulos story earlier, when it was necessary to outline what Papadopoulos was copping to in his process-crime plea (which reportedly involved not being straight with the FBI about his contact with an actual Russian, Olga Polonskaya, in March 2016. The meet with Polonskaya was said to be arranged by Mifsud).
But the gist of the new story is that the FBI decided it had to open an investigation – the implication being that it was an investigation of the Trump campaign (although the language in the NYT story is oddly elliptical) – based on what Papadopoulos told an Australian diplomat he had heard from Joseph Mifsud. For some reason, NYT makes a point of the detail that there was heavy drinking involved in the fateful discussion between Papadopoulos and the diplomat, a Mr. Alexander Downer.
The focus on justifying the investigation of the Trump campaign is a big factor in making this whole thing simply non-credible. But here you go:
Once the information Mr. Papadopoulos had disclosed to the Australian diplomat reached the F.B.I., the bureau opened an investigation that became one of its most closely guarded secrets. Senior agents did not discuss it at the daily morning briefing, a classified setting where officials normally speak freely about highly sensitive operations.
Besides the information from the Australians, the investigation was also propelled by intelligence from other friendly governments, including the British and Dutch. A trip to Moscow by another adviser, Carter Page, also raised concerns at the F.B.I.
On the face of it, the Papadopoulos information would be just about the last thing you would take as the catalyst for a full-blown investigation of the Trump campaign staff. The Australians said their guy heard from some low-level American that he heard from a Maltese fellow in London that some unnamed Russian said the Russians had emails that constituted dirt on Hillary.
Besides being at least triple hearsay, if not more (we have no way of knowing the bona fides of the Russian who talked to Mifsud, and neither did the FBI, if the Australians were their source on this), the clue from this would be that in April 2016, the Russians may have been trying to develop Papadopoulos – but that when Papadopoulos spoke to Downer, in May, nothing had come of it.
If NYT’s reporters have perused court documents on the Papadopoulos case, as they indicate, and this is all there was, it makes you wonder what’s been going on at the FBI. Apparently – if we take all this at face value – the Russians dropped one juicy tidbit with Papadopoulos, and he proceeded to blurt it out to an Australian a few weeks later at their first meeting. That’s it.
Granted, the FBI may not have known that’s all there was in July 2016, when we are told the Bureau opened the secret investigation. But, as Patrick Poole observed in a Twitter exchange yesterday, what the Australians were reportedly passing on to the FBI was nothing more than diplomatic RUMINT. Indeed, it was RUMINT of the silliest kind: a drunk guy talking big about what some other guy said the Russians told him.
Exactly right. If they opened an investigation on a presidential candidate based on diplomatic RUMINT, that looks even worse than the dossier.
— Patrick Poole (@pspoole) December 31, 2017
Darn tootin. Convo: FBI to Oz: Please characterize source? Oz to FBI: One of your drunk mates told our guy. FBI: Verification? Oz: None, just passing it on. Brilliant new tack, @nytimes
— J.E. Dyer (@OptimisticCon) January 1, 2018
To riff on James Carville’s infamous comment about Paula Jones: you could drag two thumbs of bourbon through any bar in London and get a similar story. (To be fair, London actually is crawling with Russians trying to develop foreign contacts for shady purposes.)
But let’s stipulate that it’s all true. The Australians really did take it seriously, and, according to NYT, finally decide two months later to tell “American officials” about it because of the WikiLeaks dump of Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and Hillary campaign emails that began on 22 July.
Exactly how much Mr. Papadopoulos said that night at the Kensington Wine Rooms with the Australian, Alexander Downer, is unclear. But two months later, when leaked Democratic emails began appearing online, Australian officials passed the information about Mr. Papadopoulos to their American counterparts, according to four current and former American and foreign officials with direct knowledge of the Australians’ role.
(Notice: NYT doesn’t specify which U.S. agency’s officials actually received the information. If you aren’t able to clarify such an important point, it’s standard journalistic practice to acknowledge to readers that you weren’t told that in a background disclosure. It matters because of what it says about who thought what was happening: was it an intelligence tip, a counterintelligence tip, or a law enforcement tip? Those are three different things. But for whatever reason, NYT simply glosses over it.)
An “investigation” is “opened”
Accept all that as given. Here’s what doesn’t make sense. The FBI had to know too much before 22 July 2016, to make a decision about opening “an investigation” based on the rather hilarious tip about Papadopoulos.
Indeed, if the Papadopoulos tip was the deciding factor, it seems to have led to an odd choice: a FISA warrant to conduct surveillance of Carter Page, obtained sometime in the summer of 2016.
The Washington Post told us in April 2017 that such a warrant was obtained:
The FBI obtained a secret court order last summer to monitor the communications of an adviser to presidential candidate Donald Trump, part of an investigation into possible links between Russia and the campaign, law enforcement and other U.S. officials said.
The FBI and the Justice Department obtained the warrant targeting Carter Page’s communications after convincing a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court judge that there was probable cause to believe Page was acting as an agent of a foreign power, in this case Russia, according to the officials.
This is the clearest evidence so far that the FBI had reason to believe during the 2016 presidential campaign that a Trump campaign adviser was in touch with Russian agents.
This is reportedly what impelled the FBI to seek the warrant:
The government’s application for the surveillance order targeting Page included a lengthy declaration that laid out investigators’ basis for believing that Page was an agent of the Russian government and knowingly engaged in clandestine intelligence activities on behalf of Moscow, officials said.
Among other things, the application cited contacts that he had with a Russian intelligence operative in New York City in 2013, officials said. Those contacts had earlier surfaced in a federal espionage case brought by the Justice Department against the intelligence operative and two other Russian agents. In addition, the application said Page had other contacts with Russian operatives that have not been publicly disclosed, officials said.
So the FBI knew all that about Page, and yet had not “opened an investigation” until after the Australians passed on the Papadopoulos tip.
Perhaps the Papadopoulos information prompted the FBI to expand its efforts to a full-blown investigation of the Trump campaign? The NYT article of 30 December is coy about that, never clarifying what “opened an investigation” means. But maybe it meant seeking surveillance authority on other individuals connected with the campaign?
Not according to WaPo in April:
Page is the only American to have had his communications directly targeted with a FISA warrant in 2016 as part of the Russia probe, officials said.
So the FBI wasn’t seeking to conduct surveillance of anyone but Carter Page, and according to NYT, no interviews were done at the time.
With so many strands coming in — about Mr. Papadopoulos, Mr. Page, the hackers and more — F.B.I. agents debated how aggressively to investigate the campaign’s Russia ties, according to current and former officials familiar with the debate. Issuing subpoenas or questioning people, for example, could cause the investigation to burst into public view in the final months of a presidential campaign. …
Ultimately, the F.B.I. and Justice Department decided to keep the investigation quiet, a decision that Democrats in particular have criticized. And agents did not interview Mr. Papadopoulos until late January.
We are left to wonder what, exactly, this investigation consisted of, if there was no electronic surveillance of anyone but Carter Page, and there were no interviews.
Fold in the Russian hacking and the emails
But there is also an oddly placed assertion in the NYT article to contend with. It seems to be there to bolster the case that the FBI suddenly had a blinding flash in July, when the DCCC/Hillary campaign emails started flooding out from WikiLeaks, and the Australians passed on the Papadopoulos tip.
The nugget is the emphasis on the point that the public was unaware the DNC email system had been hacked, at the time in late April when Joseph Mifsud reportedly told George Papadopoulos that the Russians had thousands of emails with dirt on Hillary Clinton.
In late April, at a London hotel, Mr. Mifsud told Mr. Papadopoulos that he had just learned from high-level Russian officials in Moscow that the Russians had “dirt” on Mrs. Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails,” according to court documents. Although Russian hackers had been mining data from the Democratic National Committee’s computers for months, that information was not yet public. Even the committee itself did not know.
In other words, the implication is that when the FBI, in July, eventually learned about this interlude from April, its analysts knew Mifsud couldn’t have simply concocted the tale about the “thousands of emails” from what he read in the New York Times. There had been no public report on the DNC hacking at that point. The first public report was the one from WaPo on 14 June 2016.
Now, the FBI knew in April that the DNC email system had been hacked. Besides the FBI telling the Democrats in 2015 that the Russians were trying to breach their system, we have it from Nancy Youssef and Shane Harris at the Daily Beast that the FBI informed the DNC in April 2016 that its system had been breached:
The FBI first notified the DNC in April that it had been breached, said two individuals who are familiar with the matter. U.S. law enforcement and intelligence officials had been aware of two Russian hacker groups that have been linked to the intrusion …
So the FBI had had quite a while to think about all this when the Australians rolled in with their tip sometime after 22 July. Before 22 July, the FBI analysts had had their suspicions about Carter Page – again, according to the narrative – and there’s no escaping the point that they had the first portions of the Steele dossier in hand as early as 5 July.
The holes in the theory
But the real holes in the theory are these other two. First, it was by no means necessary to know about the DNC hack, to propound a story in April 2016 about the Russians having dirt on Hillary from thousands of emails.
The information had been public since 2013 that Hillary had used a private, non-secure email server for government business while she was secretary of state. We found that out because the email account of one of her correspondents, Sidney Blumenthal, was penetrated. The reason and the opportunity to hack Hillary directly – bypassing Democratic organizational systems altogether – had been out there for a long time, and the Russians were just the posse to do it.
Not only that, but it had been reported publicly in 2015 that the Russians had tried to penetrate Hillary’s private server on five known occasions, and that the Russians were trying to breach the systems of the Democratic and Republican organizations (which the FBI later confirmed the organizations were warned about).
NYT never says the Papadopoulos story was about the Hillary dirt being gleaned through a DNC intrusion – but if it was, anybody could have made that part up too.
Maybe law enforcement excludes such highly plausible possibilities in its consideration of where information came from, and what retailing it means about someone’s access and connections. But intelligence certainly doesn’t.
Forget the Russians, or a Maltese professor: anyone on the planet could have made up a plausible story in April 2016, using only publicly-available information, about the Russians having dirt on Hillary from thousands of emails.
The point here is which piece of information was thought by the FBI to be dispositive enough to prompt an investigation of the Trump campaign. And if the Papadopoulos tip – as described – was it, we need to be worried about the FBI.
But there’s a second hole, and it’s a glaring one. The FBI, remember, did know the history of the DNC email hack, by the end of July 2016. They knew that one group of actors had penetrated the system in late 2015, and that a second group had gotten into it in March 2016. By 10 June at the latest (but possibly before that), they knew from the cyber security firm CrowdStrike that thousands of DNC emails had been exposed, along with opposition research on Donald Trump.
By 5 July, they had the first of the Steele dossier memos in hand, and already had suspicions about Carter Page that went back to 2013. Indeed, they had enough about Page (although none of it has turned into anything) to justify a FISA warrant around the same time.
But it was supposed to be the Papadopoulos tip that caused the FBI to make the connection on the Trump campaign and the DNC hack, and “open an investigation.”
Yet the Papadopoulos tip involved a third party telling Papadopoulos the Russians had dirt on Hillary from emails.
In other words, there is zero evidence of collusion by the Trump campaign. At the absolute most, there is evidence of a classic hook being baited by Russia for Papadopoulos – at a time when the nefarious deed, the DNC hack, had already happened. What we can conclude from this sequence of events is not that there was something awfully suspicious about Papadopoulos, as regards Hillary and emails, but that he was a low-level guy who knew nothing, and wasn’t in anyone’s loop.
Since the DNC hack had already happened, moreover, and Youssef and Harris reported that the FBI knew about it at the time of the Papadopoulos-Mifsud discussion in April 2016, we are justified in wondering what the FBI had done about that.
We know they weren’t given access to the DNC’s server. But they knew about the Russian attempts, and reportedly had told the DNC in April that the system was penetrated. They also had the information CrowdStrike provided, which presumably could have been checked out. Moreover, they were said in July (see links above) to be investigating the DNC hack.
Had the FBI done nothing by late July that would have set the Papadopoulos tip in a more informative context? Were they really flying blind, as regards the provenance of the DNC intrusion, to the extent that they “opened an investigation” of some kind – implicitly into the Trump campaign – based on the silliest of all the tips they had received?
What Democratic operatives were saying, at the time of the FBI’s investigation decision
Now that you have in your mind the story we are to believe about how the FBI came to investigate the Trump campaign, I’d like for you to just listen to the voices of Democratic political operatives – and NBC, which is here retailing claims not sourced to law enforcement about personnel in the Trump campaign– on 25 July 2016. This is three days after the WikiLeaks dump of emails from the DCCC.
The timing of the embarrassing leak on the eve of the Democratic National Convention put fresh attention on relations between Trump and Russian president Vladimir Putin, who have praised each other, and on close ties between key members of Trump’s inner circle and Russian businesses and officials.
Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager alleged over the weekend that the leak was designed to help Trump after his campaign operatives pushed changes to the Republican convention platform “to make it more pro-Russian” — reportedly removing language in support of sanctions for Russia and new weapons for Ukraine. …
Both Trump and his son Donald Jr. have traveled to Russia for business many times, and wealthy Russians have invested in Trump properties and ventures.
The candidate’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, is a longtime adviser to senior pro-Russian leaders in Ukraine, including ex-president Viktor Yanukovych, and has worked for a billionaire oligarch there.
Trump adviser Carter Page has advised Russian energy giant Gazprom and says the U.S. is too anti-Russia. A former adviser, Michael Caputo, had a contract with Gazprom’s media arm in 2001 to improve Putin’s image in the United States.
Other Trump advisers with business ties to Russia include Richard Burt and Howard Lorber, who has traveled with Trump to Russia.
Here is NBC building its own highly slanted editorial case, in the same “news” article, about why the Russians, or Trump, or both, or something, would be motivated to see Trump in office and not Hillary.
Trump has repeatedly praised Putin as a great leader even as Republicans and Democrats have labeled him a thug and threat to global security. Putin, in response, has called Trump the “absolute leader of the presidential race” and “a very bright and talented man.”
Trump has downplayed Putin’s invasions of other countries and alleged assassinations of enemies. “At least he’s a leader,” he told MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” in December.
Trump’s position that he would not automatically support NATO allies is also appealing to Putin, who has threatened some of them. Trump has also said the U.S. should not lead an international effort to help Ukraine fight Russian intervention — and he advocates letting Russia fight ISIS in Syria despite Russia’s support for the Bashar al-Assad regime.
Michael McFaul, who was U.S. ambassador to Russia while Clinton was secretary of state, said there’s no question in his mind about who Putin would like to see in the White House.
“Both he himself and his media outlets, and his surrogates, and people in his party have made it very clear they prefer Trump over Clinton,” he told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes.
Some of that support is because of Trump’s policy statements, but some is personal, McFaul said, noting that Putin has accused Clinton of fomenting opposition protests by criticizing Russian elections in 2011.
“Ever since, he has had a vendetta against Clinton,” McFaul said. …
Retired Adm. James Stavridis, former head of U.S. European Command and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Europe, who was reportedly vetted as a possible Clinton running mate, called the Trump-Putin dynamic “a total romance.”
A “news” article like NBC’s is drive-by impressionism at its finest, tossing a lot of non-parsable opinions and half-assertions into a stewpot to leave the impression that there’s more there than meets the eye.
This impression, and not the facts of what the FBI – or Trump, or his campaign, or the U.S. intelligence community, or the Obama administration, or the Russians, or foreigners like Alexander Downer, Joseph Mifsud, or Christopher Steele – actually did: this impression is what people think they “know” about “Russiagate.”
Yet there is nothing logical to it. Forget a theory of a “crime.” There’s not even a theory of an action. No one can say what the Trump campaign is supposed to have done. Indeed, no one can say what the Russians are supposed to have done.
If the Russians are supposed to have hacked computer systems and perhaps tried to develop influence with Trump campaign personnel – we’ve known that for a year and a half now.
That’s what the Russians do, as ably outlined in the national intelligence report published just about a year ago. If it’s actionable, do something about it. But if each new clue dangled for us is just going to make the whole “Trump” narrative look hollower and more ridiculous, it’s probably time to shut this sidewalk organ-grinder down.