Moon of Alabama — Jan 1, 2017
In July 2016 the FBI under its director James Comey launched an investigation against the Donald Trump campaign and “Russian influence” on it.
Comey and the FBI is under pressure to explain why they launched this investigation. The assumption has been that the Steele dossier, fabricated by a former British agent hired by the Clinton campaign, was handed to the FBI and led to the launch of its investigation.
If that is true (as it likely is), the FBI and Comey are in deep trouble. The dossier was full of hearsay and abstruse rumors. It was obviously made up and fake stuff paid for by Trump’s opponent. To use it to launch an investigation and to get FISA warrants to spy on the Trump campaign stinks of partisan motives and may well have been a criminal offense.
On Saturday the New York Times came up with a story that is designed to usher the question away and to give cover to the FBI.
The headline already tells the reader what to believe: How the Russia Inquiry Began: A Campaign Aide, Drinks and Talk of Political Dirt
See – it wasn’t the Clinton paid Steele dossier that triggered the FBI!
The NYT presents a wild story, with epic details and with lots of obfuscation to confuse the reader. At the core is a minor member of the Trump campaign, George Papadopoulos, who was mostly in London while communicating via email with the campaign staff in the U.S. Papadopoulos advised on foreign policy and tried to build contacts between the campaign and foreign government officials. (He helped to set up a meeting between candidate Trump and the President of Egypt Sisi.)
In the words of the NYT authors:
During a night of heavy drinking at an upscale London bar in May 2016, George Papadopoulos, a young foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, made a startling revelation to Australia’s top diplomat in Britain: Russia had political dirt on Hillary Clinton.
… two months later, when leaked Democratic emails began appearing online, Australian officials passed the information about Mr Papadopoulos to their American counterparts, …
The hacking and 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 claim that the Papadopoulos rumor, detailed extensively in the NYT piece, triggered an FBI investigation does not seem plausible.
A drunk campaign aid of Trump tells some Aussie diplomat that the Russians have dirt on Clinton. He claims to have learned that from some mysterious Professor Mifsud who was trying to set up a Trump-Putin meeting with the hope to profit from the effort. The professor was some kind of imposter. He arranged a meeting for Papadopoulos with “Putin’s nice”. Both of Putin’s siblings died at child’s age during the World War II siege of Leningrad – he has no niece. Whatever Mifsud claimed was probably not true.
The Australian diplomat heard from a drunk Papadopoulos that some weird professor claimed to have heard from Russian sources that the Kremlin had dirt on Clinton. Two months later the Aussies tell their U.S. colleagues of that claim. It is fourth-degree hearsay when it reaches the FBI:
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.
Are we really to believe that the FBI opens highly political investigations based on mere drunken rumors? That sounds implausible to me.
In early July 2016, the former British agent Steele had given the first parts of his dossier to an FBI agent in Rome. (Here is a cheat sheet on the dossier and its content.) The dossier at that time included an alleged wild night in the Ritz Moscow which the Kremlin could use to blackmail Trump. The FBI opened its investigation after Steele had shown his claims to an FBI agent. But the NYT claims that the Steele dossier was not what tripped the investigation. It claims that a rumor that some Aussie diplomat had picked up from a drunken Trump campaign aid was the decisive point.
On what grounds does the NYT make that implausible claim?
A team of F.B.I. agents traveled to Europe to interview Mr Steele in early October 2016. Mr Steele had shown some of his findings to an F.B.I. agent in Rome three months earlier, but that information was not part of the justification to start an counterintelligence inquiry, American officials said.
And there you have it: “American officials said” is all that the NYT has. “American officials” in Washington press parlance, includes members of Congress and even their senior staff. “Officials said” that the Steele dossier was not the basis of the FBI investigation but an unrelated fourth level hearsay.
The revelation that the most important point of the NYT story, which the headline screams as fact, is solely based on “officials say” comes only in paragraph 40 of the 51 paragraph story. One wonders how many readers read that far.
That the claim is implausible is also suggested by an additional fact. The FBI officially interviewed Steele, the author of the Clinton paid dossier, in October 2016. It waited until January 2017 to interview Papadopoulos. If the hearsay from the drunken Papadopoulos was so important that it triggered the investigation – and not the Steele dossier – why did the FBI neglect him that long?
The NYT story claims that the FBI investigation into the Trump campaign, which was tightly supervised by Obama’s Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, was based on some rumor out of London and not based on the Steele dossier. Its sole source for that is “officials said”.
The long story, dropped over a weekend where few people had time to check the details, is obviously a cover-up for the FBI.
At least parts of the FBI and the Justice Department were convinced that they had to do everything and anything to make it impossible that Trump would win the election. They used the fake stories from the Clinton paid dossier to justify an investigation of Trump and to spy on the Trump campaign. This was an obvious attempt by a federal agency to interfere in the election on one side of a presidential campaigns. Heads should role for this. If the Republicans in Congress who are investigating the issue are halfway awake they will further dig into this and expose the culprits.
Then again – why not keep quiet and use similar means during the next election? One wonders how the Democrats will feel about the issue when this table is turned on them.