It’s been quite a while, in “2020 Years,” since this story about the inaccurate New York Times article from February 2017 broke. It actually broke in — February 2017.
It then broke again almost a year later, when Howard Kurtz’s 2018 book Media Madness hit the shelves.
Now it’s breaking once more, with the declassification of notes on the NYT story made by Peter Strzok. In the notes, Strzok identified nine significant details on which the February 2017 story was categorically false or inaccurate.
It’s helpful to know exactly what Strzok said was inaccurate in the original NYT article. (In fact, it’s very helpful. It sheds some light on the whole character of Crossfire Hurricane, what it was about, and who knew what.)
But it’s only the details that are new. The “bombshell” NYT story of 14 February 2017 was first identified to the public as false 9 days after the story was published.
Then-Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe went to the White House the day after the story came out to speak to then-Trump Chief of Staff Reince Priebus about it. McCabe’s purpose, and I quote:
[W]hat McCabe went to the White House to tell Priebus was that the FBI considered the whole article “bullsh*t.”
This information from McCabe was something Priebus thought it would be good for the public to know. He therefore reportedly asked if the FBI couldn’t tell the media what McCabe had just told him.
That exchange was “leaked” to the media and became the story published by CNN on 23 February under the headline: “FBI refused White House request to knock down recent Trump-Russia stories.”
Said CNN, “The FBI rejected a recent White House request to publicly knock down media reports about communications between Donald Trump’s associates and Russians known to US intelligence during the 2016 presidential campaign, multiple US officials briefed on the matter tell CNN.”
NPR (top link) and other outlets that picked the CNN story up gave it a bit more dramatic pacing:
The White House is admitting that it discussed with the FBI media reports that Trump campaign officials were in contact with Russian intelligence agents and that Chief of Staff Reince Priebus asked the FBI to publicly knock down the story.
FBI Director James Comey refused.
So for those keeping score, what the public was told in February 2017 was that the White House had sought the FBI’s help in “knocking down” the NYT story from 14 February. The implication that the story was inaccurate was included in the reporting at the time, but it was overshadowed by the stronger implication that there was something underhanded and improper in the Trump administration’s request to have it refuted.
It wasn’t until Kurtz’s book came out in 2018 that the public learned the FBI really did consider the article bogus, and that Andrew McCabe called Priebus to arrange to go tell him that.
By 2018, we knew a lot more about the whole situation than we had known in 2018. I suggested this at the time:
We don’t know for sure why the FBI decided not to address the NYT report.
It may have been because of the continuing interest in Carter Page, which we learned on Monday was reflected through the first months of the Trump administration in 2017, when Rod Rosenstein (Deputy Attorney General) approved an application to extend surveillance of Page. That surveillance had been ongoing since before the 2016 election.
In other words, “knocking down” the bogus NYT story could have undermined the basis for the Carter Page surveillance. (The Strzok notes show it could well have done that.)
However, I also pointed out the following:
But in February 2017, we have no reason to think Reince Priebus knew that. In other words, there is no reason to believe he thought he was talking to McCabe about anything relating to an ongoing investigation. As far as he knew, the subject was a baseless set of allegations made in leaks to NYT, which reflected nothing that the FBI was actually looking into.
And that would indeed have been what Priebus thought he knew in February 2017. We now know, of course, that (1) Peter Strzok checked off for his bosses exactly what he thought was wrong with the NYT story; (2) the FBI did have an ongoing investigation, which it had been at pains to conceal from Trump and his senior advisers; (3) refuting the NYT story could have gutted the justification for the Carter Page surveillance; and (4) — assuming Howard Kurtz is correct — the FBI nevertheless sought to inform Priebus about the inaccuracy of the NYT story, in spite of these factors, apparently to set Priebus up to be the subject of a hostile media leak.
This shabby little stratagem is certainly disgusting. But it’s also worth a few words about the impression Strzok’s released notes gives us. Please read the notes at your leisure; I won’t give them a detailed look here, at least for now, but rather characterize my principle impression as follows: Strzok was not closely in the loop on the “plot against the president,” to use Lee Smith’s title phrase.
He made these notes as from the basis of his own professional knowledge of what the “investigation” he was supervising had returned so far. He speaks in the notes, for example, of National Security Letters (NSLs) that hadn’t “been returned” yet, in spite of the Crossfire Hurricane probe having been formally opened on 31 July 2016. And his comments in that regard indicate that this lack of “return” meant his probe basically didn’t have anything to back up the claims in the NYT article.
The language of the Strzok comments on this head is curiously naive, if Strzok was “in on” the whole concocted Fusion-Steele-DNC story line.
But it’s interesting beyond that point for another reason. The claims in the NYT article would seem to have been spun from nothing, if the only factors are the NYT authors and Strzok’s margin-notes takedown. Where exactly did this fabrication take place?
I’d be hard to convince that the NYT reporters simply made it up. We get spin of heroic proportions daily from the NYT, but spin isn’t the same thing as thin-air fiction with no source basis whatsoever. Somebody gave it to them. Apparently it wasn’t anyone at the FBI. Other potential sources start — never forget this — with the National Security Council staff (then-current or former), and include the DOJ, ODNI, and CIA. But they also include our old pals at Fusion GPS, and/or another private “intelligence” firm, perhaps under contract at that point to former Feinstein staffer Daniel Jones.
The nature of the NYT story is very similar to what was being fed to the media in the previous 6-8 months, with juicy, superficially credible-sounding details that came from the Fusion stable’s own background with the narrative’s plot elements (e.g., oligarchs, international crime, Eastern Europe). It wouldn’t be surprising or out of pattern for the sourcing to include “current or former” government officials who had awareness of which intelligence on the Trump team someone had been on the hunt for, and knew what could be spun to the level of the claims in the NYT story without scoring own-goals. The information didn’t have to be true in a good-faith sense; it just had to not be readily debunked as patently false.
In the latter case (government officials), it didn’t have to be the FBI or Strzok’s Crossfire Hurricane that was doing the intelligence-hunting. It was during the second half of 2016 and January 2017, notably, that unmasking at the NSC level had been rampant. At the same time, Stefan Halper was formally set on to cultivate Page and George Papadopoulos. That period overlapped Crossfire Hurricane and the Carter Page surveillance — meaning there was a very high-level set of actors that wasn’t leaving it to the FBI to do all the “electronic surveillance” or other snooping.
I’d pay attention to that point. The Strzok notes make it doubly important. He didn’t write those notes like someone who was on the inside of a whole other effort going on. We don’t know what progress John Durham has made on activities at the CIA or the Obama NSC staff. But we have a few more miles to go on understanding the plot against the president, before we sleep.