One Step Closer to Despotism?

Donald Trump’s order on Twitter Tuesday night to declassify documents related to the FBI’s investigation of the 2016 Trump campaign suggests that he’s lost faith in Attorney General William Barr and John Durham, the prosecutor tapped to investigate the origins of Crossfire Hurricane. 

Previously, the rationale for Barr’s failure to declassify Crossfire Hurricane documents en masse was that Durham needed to keep a close hold on them to build his case. But with less than a month to go before the 2020 election, the U.S. Attorney’s 18 month-long investigation has only secured one plea deal from an FBI lawyer. In the meantime, corrupt U.S. officials who spied on the Trump campaign and framed him as a Russian agent are basking in the sun. Former FBI agent Peter Strzok and former CIA Director John Brennan are on book tours; Showtime made a mini-series about former FBI Director James Comey; and the Democratic candidate for president is Joe Biden, an avatar for a potential third Barack Obama term. 

A subsequent presidential retweet featuring a photo-shopped image of the late comedian Chris Farley shouting at a complacent-seeming Barr confirms that the commander-in-chief has lost his patience—“For the love of God,” the caption reads, “ΑRREST SOMEBODY.”

Trump knows that at least one of his senior officials is fighting him. CIA Director Gina Haspel reportedly is refusing to turn over documents that may further illuminate the Agency’s role in the anti-Trump plot. Haspel was London station chief in 2016 as Crossfire Hurricane agents and their confidential sources moved in and out of the British capital to target Trump campaign officials visiting the United Kingdom.

A senior U.S. intelligence official tells me she would have known what the FBI was up to in London. “There’s very little in terms of intelligence and law enforcement matters the station chief is not aware of.”

Haspel appears to be protecting herself as well as her former boss. “She had an unusually close relationship with Brennan,” says the intelligence official. “He handpicked her for the London station chief job, which is a plumb position. It’s regarded as the best job a career CIA official can get.”

Brennan’s Role in the Plot Uncovered

Documents declassified over the last several days have shed light on the role Brennan played in the anti-Trump plot. Last week Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe released a letter about information U.S. spy agencies obtained in late July 2016 regarding an assessment made by Russian intelligence. Brennan briefed Obama and other senior officials on the finding: Moscow had assessed that Hillary Clinton approved “of a plan concerning U.S. Presidential candidate Donald Trump and Russian hackers hampering U.S. elections as a means of distracting the public from her use of a private mail server.”

That is, Obama and his top aides knew about the anti-Trump plot before the election. Big deal, says Brennan in TV appearances to push his new book. It’s just politics. The problem is that as CIA director he spent his time running a political operation targeting one party to assist another. That’s against the law.

In August, weeks after the CIA received the Russian analysis, Brennan pushed what he knew was the Clinton campaign’s disinformation operation to former Senator Harry Reid (D-Nev.). Days later, the then-Senate Minority leader wrote a public letter to Comey demanding he investigate the suspicious ties between Trump associates and Russian officials about which Brennan briefed him. Those false allegations were drawn from reporting attributed to Clinton campaign contractor Christopher Steele.

In December 2016, Obama ordered Brennan to conduct the Intelligence Community Assessment finding that Putin had helped Trump to victory. By institutionalizing Hillary Clinton’s anti-Trump operation, the former president and CIA director chose to undermine the peaceful transfer of authority and legitimize an attempted coup.

Since then, Brennan has spent his time on TV and social media, issuing dark and wordy judgments of Trump like the leader of a cult of morose bureaucrats. He’s pretty sure he’s safe. On Tuesday, Ratcliffe released Brennan’s handwritten notes of the 2016 briefing. They show that he’s been covering his tracks, and setting out traps, from the beginning.

According to Ratcliffe’s letter last week, the Russian intelligence analysis cited the “alleged approval by Hillary Clinton July 26 of a proposal from one of her foreign policy advisers to vilify Donald Trump by stirring up a scandal claiming interference by the Russian security services.” The release of Brennan’s original notes shows that the DNI may have mistaken the date. It appears to have been July 28 rather than July 26.

In any case, Brennan’s handwritten memo shows that the date was later inserted, which serves to highlight the misdirection. Clinton did not sanction the Trump-Russia smear campaign in late July. The Clinton team signed off on the operation no later than March 2016, when it hired Fusion GPS to produce the Trump-Russia dossier. At that point, Glenn Simpson’s company had been producing opposition research on Trump and Russia for nearly half a year, starting in October 2015.

Further, documentary evidence suggests the proposal did not come from one of Clinton’s foreign policy advisors. Fusion GPS’s early Trump-Russia opposition research, documents that I’ve referred to as proto-dossiers, focused on the Trump circle’s relations to Russian businessmen and alleged Russian criminals. The subject matter changed abruptly in the May-June period after the Clinton campaign hired Steele and his reporting shifted to the Trump team’s alleged ties to Russian state actors.

Whoever directed that transition, from Russian criminals to Russian officials, is less likely to be a foreign policy advisor than an intelligence official who understood what it would take to obtain a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant to spy on the Trump campaign. Thus, it appears to be sometime in the May-June period when Obama’s spy chiefs first joined the Clinton campaign’s operation. Nonetheless, the July 26/28 date is part of an important time frame, to which I’ll return shortly.

The press and other Democratic Party surrogates have contended that the Russian assessment was disinformation, a possibility Ratcliffe quickly dispelled. It is unlikely that Brennan believed it was disinformation, or he would not have wasted the commander in chief’s time with spy games. Moreover, the Russian assessment is correct—the purpose of Clinton’s smear campaign was to distract “the public from her use of a private email server,” in particular the more than 30,000 emails she deleted from her server.

Hillary’s Private Server and Missing Emails Inspired the Plot

Trump has also called for declassifying documents related to the FBI’s probe of Clinton’s email server. It seems that he knows the two investigations are linked.

Department of Justice documents show that Clinton’s problems with her unsecure private server set Crossfire Hurricane in motion, as the FBI was tasked to find out if the Trump campaign was going to drop an October Surprise drawn from her deleted emails. The Justice Department’s December 2019 Inspector General’s report  documents FBI confidential informant Stefan Halper’s visit with Trump campaign volunteer Carter Page on August 20, 2016.

Halper recorded their conversation as part of the Bureau’s sting operation and kept steering the conversation to Clinton’s emails and Russia. He asked Page “if the Trump campaign could access information that might have been obtained by the Russians from the DNC files.” Regarding Clinton’s more than 30,000 deleted emails, Halper asked Page, “[w]ell the Russians have all that don’t they?” Page said he didn’t know. The FBI nonetheless obtained a FISA warrant to collect the electronic communications of Page, and through him other Trump team members, to defend against an October Surprise.

As the Russian assessment surmised, the purpose of the Clinton plan was to prepare a defense against whatever those emails might reveal in the event they were dropped before the election. Accordingly, Clinton deputies lined up the FBI, as well as the press, to shift attention to the Republican candidate. If there was no way to change the message, they could still dirty the messenger: Forget about the content of Hillary’s emails and however she might have compromised U.S. national security to enrich herself, the real issue is that Russia stole them and for the purpose of helping Trump.

It All Comes Back to Obama

But why would Clinton’s email problems matter to Obama? For one thing, he communicated with her on her private server. And now that we know Brennan told him about the Clinton campaign’s anti-Trump operation before the election, it’s worth revisiting some of the previously released Crossfire Hurricane documents—starting with the electronic communication that opened the investigation July 31, 2016.

Four days earlier, on July 27, the Australian envoy to the United Kingdom, Alexander Downer, shared information with the U.S. embassy’s number two official, Elizabeth Dibble. He alleged that in his meeting with George Papadopoulos, the Trump campaign volunteer adviser indicated that the Russians “could assist the Trump campaign with the anonymous release of information during the campaign that would be damaging to Hillary Clinton.” The next paragraph of the FBI document added an interesting and typically overlooked data point. The Russians told Papadopoulos, Downer claimed, that the anonymous release of information “would be damaging to Mrs. Clinton (and President Obama).”

Papadopoulos has repeatedly denied that he ever said anything to Downer about Russia or Clinton—Obama has never come up. In subsequent press statements, Downer has never claimed that Papadopoulos said anything about Obama. The focus has always been on information damaging to Clinton. And yet the FBI entered the president’s name as well.

The information appears again in a recently declassified document regarding the investigation of former Trump national security adviser Gen. Michael Flynn during the February-March 2017 period. The memo describes the alleged Papadopoulos claim that the Russians “could assist the Trump campaign with an anonymous release of information during the campaign that would be damaging to Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama.”

Was the Obama White House, like the Clinton campaign, worried about the release of damaging information—damaging not just to the Democratic candidate but also the sitting president? Brennan kept Obama abreast of developments.

In a recent article for the Washington Post, Brennan claimed that he briefed Obama shortly before the FBI opened Crossfire Hurricane.

“On the afternoon of July 28, 2016,” wrote Brennan, “I informed him in a hurriedly scheduled meeting that Russian President Vladimir Putin had authorized his intelligence services to carry out activities to hurt Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and boost the election prospects of Donald Trump.”

There’s that July 28 date again. 

According to Brennan, his report of Putin’s intentions “riveted the president’s attention.”  Chief of Staff Denis McDonough asked Brennan, “What are you planning to do on the congressional front?” Brennan wrote that he said he was worried that the intelligence might be misused for partisan purposes but the president allayed his fears. “Obama understood my concerns, but he said he wanted Congress briefed as appropriate and as required.”

In Brennan’s account, July 28 was the day that Obama sanctioned the anti-Trump operation by telling the CIA director to push it to Harry Reid. It seems that at least part of the reason Brennan wrote the Post article was to remind former colleagues and employers that if anyone thinks about selling him out, they should remember he has stories to tell.

Obama and Democrats Weaponized Government for Political Objectives

Whether or not Durham can or will make a larger case that holds senior officials accountable, these recent declassifications illuminate his and Barr’s fundamental dilemma—the desire to avoid the appearance of a politicized investigation. Barr frequently has used the phrase “Third World” to categorize the nature of some of what he’s seen regarding the actions of the Crossfire Hurricane team. He doesn’t want to push our political system further in that direction. To preserve the rule of law, he is  keen to ensure the investigation is beyond reproach.

The problem is that the Crossfire Hurricane investigation was by its nature a political operation. The party in power used U.S. government resources and personnel to target and frame a political opponent in order to protect its leading members. The president of the United States greenlighted it. These facts alone signal that America has already taken a giant step away from rule of law and toward arbitrary rule and despotism. The only way back is through deterrence, which is in fact built into the design of our two-party political system. The party tempted to use its power unlawfully must understand that as the wheel turns its own leading personalities may in time be subject to unfathomable cruelties.

By wishing to avoid the appearance of a politicized investigation, Barr and Durham have paradoxically incentivized political operations. Career intelligence bureaucrats—“deep state” operatives—are fair game but the leadership that tasks them to spy on Americans are now shown to be untouchable, precisely because they are political appointments, elected officials, presidents and vice presidents.

It is Trump’s responsibility as commander-in-chief to declassify all the documents regarding what he rightly describes as the biggest political scandal in American history. In a matter of weeks, the citizens he is sworn to protect will be choosing between him and a candidate who carries the legacy of an administration that conducted a political operation against Americans and interfered with the peaceful transfer of power. Americans deserve to know it beforehand if they are choosing to move one step closer to despotism.  




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