The implausible justification for why James Comey’s FBI opened an investigation into the Trump campaign—a drunken encounter between a low-level campaign aide and an Australian diplomat in the spring of 2016, we’ve been told—is falling apart quickly.
And the newly-released testimony of former Attorney General Loretta Lynch just gave Comey’s cover-up story another blow.
As congressional investigators in 2017 closed in on the political origins of the unprecedented counterintelligence probe into four U.S. citizens associated with the Trump campaign, the New York Times threw the perpetrators a lifeline. It was not the dossier compiled by Christopher Steele, who in 2016 indirectly was being paid by the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party, that alerted Comey’s cops to the potential for chicanery between Team Trump and the Kremlin to rig the election.
No, it was when George Papadopoulos—a young, unpaid foreign policy adviser to the campaign—allegedly told Alexander Downer, an Australian diplomat, in May 2016 at a London bar that the Russians had dirt on Hillary Clinton. “The . . . revelation that a member of the Trump campaign may have had inside information about it were driving factors that led the F.B.I. to open an investigation in July 2016 into Russia’s attempts to disrupt the election and whether any of President Trump’s associates conspired,” the Times reported on December 30, 2017.
Not coincidentally, this is the same month the House Ethics Committee cleared Representative Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Intelligence committee, of a bogus ethics complaint that sidelined for eight months his crucial work into the handling of the dossier by top Obama officials. He would release his bombshell memo a few months later, exposing for the first time how the FBI used the Steele dossier as evidence on a FISA application to wiretap campaign volunteer Carter Page.
In their article, the Times reporters emphasized that the political propaganda sourced by Steele had nothing to do with the investigation known as “Crossfire Hurricane.” That storyline was just more bluster and fake news by the president, the reporters insisted.
“It was not, as Mr. Trump and other politicians have alleged, a dossier compiled by a former British spy hired by a rival campaign,” they wrote. “Instead, it was firsthand information from one of America’s closest intelligence allies.”
The Papadopoulos trope has been regurgitated for 18 months by the press, Democrats, and NeverTrumpers as a way to cover for the fact that opposition research cultivated by Trump’s political enemies was the likely basis for the Russian election collusion probe. Even Comey is sticking to that story: “My recollection is the first information we had, certainly the first information that came to my attention that Americans might be working with the Russians as part of their efforts, came at the end of July . . . when we received information from an allied nation about the conversations their ambassador had in England with George Papadopoulos,” Comey told lawmakers in closed-door testimony last December. “That was the beginning of it, which is the first time we turned to trying to figure out whether any Americans were working with the Russians.”
But that isn’t true, according to Lynch, Comey’s boss at the time.
Comey briefed her in “late spring” of 2016 about Carter Page, not George Papadopoulos. “I recall receiving information about Mr. Page from Director Comey to Deputy Director McCabe in the context of here is some information that we think you should be aware of,” Lynch told a joint session of the House Judiciary and Oversight committees in December. “I don’t recall specifics about Mr. Papadopoulos, or when I was given any information about him. It would have been after that.”
Under further questioning by Republican lawmakers, Lynch again confirmed the timeline: “As we look at the constellation of things that have come to be known as the Russia investigation, things were brought to my attention in 2016, I believe it was the spring and throughout the summer.”
And considering the alleged encounter between Papadopoulos and Downer happened in May 2016, and Downer reportedly didn’t notify the FBI about the incident until July 22, 2016—nine days before the FBI officially opened its investigation into the Trump campaign—any part of the “constellation” given to Lynch in the spring would’ve been about Page.
The idea that the Papadopoulos-Downer meeting was a legitimate predicate for the FBI to investigate the Trump campaign always strained credulity. The FBI never even bothered to interview Papadopoulos until January 2017; Downer is a Clinton crony.
Further, three of the four targets of the probe were mentioned in the Steele dossier. One installment of the dossier claimed Page was acting as an “intermediary” between the Kremlin and then-campaign manager Paul Manafort; both were part of Crossfire Hurricane.
But the effort to distance the FBI probe from the dossier is intentional. The dossier was produced by Fusion GPS, whose founder, Glenn Simpson, is a longtime pal of Steele. Fusion had been hired in late 2015 by conservative foes of Donald Trump; the first articles about the campaign’s alleged ties to Russia posted in conservative news outlets in the spring of 2016. Steele also met the day before the FBI opened its investigation on July 31, 2016 with Associate Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr, whose wife also was working for Fusion GPS. At that meeting, Ohr obtained information on Page.
“And so the first item that I recall Chris Steele telling me was he had information that Carter Page met with higher-level Russian officials,” Ohr testified last year. “The Carter Page information I think was significant because there was some sort of connection, at least in the press I think, between Carter Page and the Trump campaign.”
Ohr passed along that information to the FBI within days of his meeting with Steele. The FBI sought and received authorization from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in October 2016 to spy on Carter Page, not Papadopoulos. Much of the evidence against Page in the FISA application is gleaned from the dossier and Steele-planted news stories.
Now, there is a technicality about the term “dossier” that requires further exploration; it could justify how the media and people like Comey and Lynch keep denying that the Steele dossier was the rationale for Crossfire Hurricane. It’s likely there was some type of “pre-dossier” material—talking points or rough notes—that predated the formal compilation of what now is considered the “full” Steele dossier. Perhaps the earlier documents were suggested storylines distributed to reporters by Simpson about Russian collusion, or detailed backgrounders on targeted campaign associates like Page, Manafort and Michael Flynn.
Lynch, for her part, was very cagey in her answers about the dossier, claiming she never saw a dossier and was only receiving “information from a number of places.” But when pressed by Rep. Andy Biggs (R-Ariz.) she tipped her hand a bit.
“You didn’t know . . . that this group of documents is called the Steele dossier, what’s come to be known as the Steele dossier?” Biggs asked. “Correct,” Lynch replied. She also refused to characterize the form of information she was receiving at the time.
Regardless of whether it was the full Steele dossier or some nascent form of the document, it’s becoming clear that the Papadopoulos ruse will not withstand scrutiny as more facts emerge. Dossier or pre-dossier, it’s indisputable that political dirt produced by paid operatives hired to discredit Donald Trump’s candidacy was circulated at the highest echelons of the Obama Administration—including at the White House and in a secret court—before and after the election.
A tipsy talk between a campaign staffer and a politically-connected ambassador was served up as a distraction to those alarming facts; and the collusion truthers took it like bait.
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