A Put-Up Job
By Charles Lipson
Growing evidence that officials involved in the Russia collusion investigation knowingly acted without cause is undermining our governing institutions
With so many big stories breaking, it’s hard to get attention even for important news about the FBI’s and CIA’s misdeeds. Still, the wrongdoing at James Comey’s FBI and John Brennan’s CIA was serious, as the news this week amply demonstrates.
On July 17, we learned that the FBI knew, just as Donald Trump’s presidency was beginning, that there was no evidence his campaign had colluded with Russia. That’s the significance of a memo written by FBI agent Peter Strzok in mid-February 2017 and just released.
The news matters for three reasons. First, almost all the public investigation and damaging narrative about “Trump-Russia collusion” came after investigators knew how little supporting evidence there was.
Second, the more we learn about the ensuing investigations, the more they look like concerted abuses of government authority. We give law-enforcement and intelligence agencies tremendous power so they can protect us; when they abuse that power, they need to be held accountable and reined in. That seldom happens to anyone in Washington’s sprawling bureaucracies, which protect their own within the gurgling ecosystem of power, profit, regulation, and rent-seeking. Just ask Lois Lerner.
Third, when the FBI, Department of Justice, and intelligence agencies act in biased, partisan, and illicit ways, they cut to the very heart of our constitutional democracy, damage our institutions, and undermine trust in them. That is exactly what happened in 2016 and afterward. Public trust was undermined by these prolonged investigations and the narrative about them. It will be undermined further as we learn how the investigators themselves likely pursued partisan goals, ignored crucial evidence, and broke laws to do it. (The counter-charge, already being made, is that exposing these violations is itself partisan.)
Collusion between a presidential campaign and a foreign enemy would be equally damaging. That’s why allegations of Trump-Russia collusion were so serious and why they needed to be investigated thoroughly, fairly, and impartially. The problem is that these probes continued for years and actually intensified after senior law enforcement officials knew there was little or no corroborating evidence. Instead of ending these investigations quickly and definitively, the investigators expanded, deepened, and continued their search despite the lack of evidence. As the investigations ground on, they took on a more sinister mien: to hobble and, if possible, actually remove a duly elected president.
This effort to take down the Trump administration went well beyond the normal bounds of standard FBI practice, prosecutorial diligence, and “loyal opposition” among elected officials. It extended far beyond law enforcement and intelligence agencies. It involved senior officials from the Obama administration (some of whom stayed on after Trump took office in 2017), their congressional allies, and a phalanx of reporters, editors, and anchors, who reported the leaks and crafted a damning narrative. They were aided by career officials across multiple agencies who stayed in close touch with their old bosses and did their best to oppose President Trump and his policies. They were led by one party and focused squarely on the leader of the opposition, first as candidate and then as president. If Trump and his campaign had actually committed serious crimes or had been credibly accused of them, that focus would have been fully justified. If not, not. If the investigations kept turning up incriminating evidence, they should have been continued. If not, not.
Now, years later, we are watching the unraveling of this carefully constructed public narrative: that Trump won the White House because of Russia’s illegal help, making him an illegitimate president. The mainstream media, which did so much to spin this troubling tale, has responded with radio silence. When they do speak, their loudest cries are directed at Attorney General William Barr. He is said to be a partisan hack for trying to uncover what happened, who was involved, and what crimes may have been committed.
Whatever motivated Comey and Brennan as well as James Clapper, Andrew McCabe, Peter Strzok, Lisa Page, Bruce Ohr, Robert Mueller, Andrew Weissmann, Adam Schiff, Nancy Pelosi, and their associates, it is clear they all wanted to destroy or at least hobble Trump’s presidency. The New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, MSNBC, and other media outlets shared that goal. They reported any leaks that advanced that goal as they actively shaped the public discourse.
Why It Matters
This collective effort, sustained over several years, undermined two essential elements of our constitutional democracy:
The peaceful transfer of power between opposing parties, and
The recognition that duly-elected presidents hold office legitimately.
Whether you like Trump or despise him, these points are crucial to understanding why the “Russia collusion” scandal matters. They should override partisan differences. Alas, they do not. Our politics is too vitriolic, our views about Trump too polarized.
Where’s the Accountability?
Today, more than four years after this concerted malfeasance began, no one has been held to account. We know there were serious abuses, but crucial information about them is still under wraps. To take one egregious example, Michael Flynn’s attorneys still haven’t seen the FBI’s interview with their client, the one that led him into years of trouble and prevented the Trump administration from seeing how it had been spied on. The FBI claims, incredibly, that it lost the original document detailing the agents’ interview with Flynn. We know that document was rewritten by other agents who were not part of the interview. They had no direct information but were allowed to add their own spin. We can only understand their mischief if we can compare the documents and see the sequence of changes. So far, we cannot, and neither can Flynn. These disturbing actions by senior FBI officials and Mueller prosecutors had devastating consequences for Flynn. They cost him his house, his savings, and three years of his life. Yet the agents who were actually in the room with him, the ones who wrote the missing document, have said his comments were candid and truthful. What is going on here?
Reporting as Political Activism
You would expect major news outlets to work hard covering stories like this and exposing the government’s dark secrets. That’s what they did during Watergate. Not today. The reason is simple and obvious. The country’s top news outlets have become nakedly partisan. Proudly so. They pursue a “higher calling,” as Comey has modestly said of himself. In the process, media have moved further and further from neutral, hard-news reporting, without ever saying so plainly. When transparency about a particular issue advances their political goals, they report it. When it might help, they investigate. When it hurts, they ignore it or worse.
No thanks to them, we are finally learning the breadth and scale of malfeasance at the FBI, the Department of Justice, and the CIA during the Obama administration’s final years. We are likely to learn about similar problems on the Mueller team. Attorney General Barr has gradually declassified and released key documents. Ric Grenell did the same thing during his brief, consequential tenure as acting director of national intelligence.
The media made no effort to pry out the documents. And now that the documents have been released, they aren’t saying much about them. The media’s silence represents a fundamental failure of modern journalism. They congratulate themselves and hand each other Pulitzer Prizes for “deeply sourced reporting” on the flimsy collusion story and ignore its utter collapse. It’s not surprising the public no longer trusts them. Although they’ve earned that mistrust, it’s still bad for our democracy when the Fourth Estate is unable to do its job well.
The Newly Released Strzok Memo on Trump-Russia Collusion
The Strzok revelations are the latest example of the media’s selective-attention disorder. Strzok’s memo should be big news, but the latest disclosure received almost no coverage. To understand why the press and everyone else should care, pay attention to the dates.
On February 14, 2017, less than a month into the Trump presidency, the New York Times published a major story saying that Trump’s presidential campaign colluded with Russia. The banner headline read, “Trump Campaign Had Repeated Contacts with Russian Intelligence.” The story turned out to be false.
We’ve known it was false for more than a year because Mueller’s extensive investigation found no such contacts. That’s not the news. What we learned this week—what really is news—is that the FBI knew it was false almost as soon as the Times published it. Strzok, who was deeply involved in the Russia investigation, wrote a detailed memo demolishing the Times story just three days after it was published. The key sentence in his memo is, “We have not seen evidence of any individuals affiliated with the Trump team in contact with [Russian intelligence officers].” That finding has been confirmed repeatedly. His memo went on to shred other “factual” details in the Times’s story. They simply weren’t supported by the FBI’s own investigation.
The important point here is not that the Times’s story was false or that the paper never retracted it. The important point is that Peter Strzok’s memo, written on February 17, 2017, and available to all senior officials at the FBI and the Justice Department, put them on notice that there was very little basis for hyped-up accusations about Trump-Russia collusion or for an extensive, long-term investigation into them. They ignored the warning.
The Steele Dossier Collapses
At about the same time, the FBI learned equally damning information about the Steele Dossier, which was the basis for FISA surveillance warrants on Carter Page, a one-time Trump campaign policy adviser. The secret warrants, issued under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, provided a window into the world of Trump associates. There were two problems with the warrants. First, they were based on the idea Page was a foreign spy; the CIA and FBI knew he was not. Page actually was voluntarily cooperating with them. Second, the warrant applications were heavily on the Steele Dossier, which the FBI knew was utterly unreliable. By January 2017, they knew even more, but lied about it to the FISA court and continued to use the dossier to renew the warrant on Page. That’s not just an abuse of power. That’s a felony.
How did the FBI know the dossier was junk? Because they interviewed Steele’s “primary subsource” in January 2017 and produced a 57-page summary on February 9, 2017. (The Senate Judiciary Committee released a redacted version last week.) It says what the public has been told for months: the Steele Dossier was worthless gossip. Even though the FBI and Justice Department knew this, they told the court they had interviewed the subsource and they believed he was truthful. The implication was that he verified Steele’s work. He had done exactly the opposite. The FISA court was fed deliberate lies.
The FBI’s summary of the subsource interview, like the Strzok memo, demolishes a critical element of the Russia collusion story. Like the Strzok memo, it put senior officials at the FBI and Justice Department on notice: they had little, if any, factual basis to continue their investigation. But continue they did.
Actually, they did much more, and they ought to be held accountable for it. They ramped up their investigation, issued still more warrants (based on information now known to be false), and ultimately forced the appointment of a special counsel. In the end, they managed to find some people in the Trump campaign who reached out to Russia but had received no real assistance. Investigators found the contacts were not sustained, coordinated, or high-level. They did not qualify as collusion or cooperation with a foreign power, according to FBI agents. Those conclusions are noteworthy because the agents who reached them were no friends of Trump. Indeed, they had often expressed their bias against the president in private communications. The Mueller team would reach the same conclusion—no collusion—but only after they had spent another two years on the case, issuing hundreds of subpoenas and reviewed thousands of documents.
What Did the Special Counsel Know and When Did He Know It?
Mueller was appointed in May 2017. But the FBI and DOJ had all this vital information in hand by February 2017. They knew the stories about Trump contacts with Russian intelligence were false. They knew the Steele Dossier was worthless. No one seemed to care. Senior officials at the FBI and Justice Department ignored the evidence, continued their probe, and then handed it off to Special Counsel Mueller. Mueller and his team had all the FBI’s information and conclusions in hand the day they started their investigation.
Instead of assessing these materials, finishing their work promptly, and giving the American public the results, they ramped it up, hyped it up, kept it up, and turned it up to 11. Their efforts and the resulting media narrative made “Russia collusion” the dominant issue in American politics for over three years. It had very little foundation and, not surprisingly, produced only meager legal results.
The political consequences were not meager at all. The ongoing investigations tied up the president, damaged his party, and may have cost Republicans their House majority in 2018. These effects were well understood at the time. They were welcomed by those who continued the investigations and the reporters and politicians who crafted the public narrative.
Remember, the entire Mueller investigation occurred after the FBI and Justice Department knew the collusion charges had almost no foundation. The newly released Strzok memo is yet another straw on that sagging camel’s back. So is the 57-page summary of Steele’s subsource, refuting the dossier. Still, the caravan moved on, seeking surveillance warrants, appointing a special counsel, fueling congressional hearings, and hobbling a presidency. The Justice Department sought and received two more FISA warrants on Carter Page, still hoping to find illicit Russian connections. Those warrants were based largely on the discredited Steele Dossier and have now been deemed illegal. Two earlier warrants on Page are now being reevaluated. Those who signed them, knowing the underlying information was false, ought to explain themselves to a judge and jury.
Director Comey sustained the collusion controversy by refusing to tell the public what he told Trump privately: that the president was not being investigated for cooperating with Russia. After Comey was fired (May 9, 2017), he leaked his memos-to-self to the New York Times, specifically to force the appointment of a special counsel. The goal, he has said publicly, was to continue investigating Trump’s collusion with Russia.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who was effectively running the Justice Department, moved forward immediately with Comey’s suggestion. He picked Robert Mueller, whose deputy, Andrew Weissmann, then hired a partisan team of prosecutors. This team spent over two years investigating Trump and his campaign. Yet Mueller and Weissmann knew (or should have known) as soon as they took office that there was no evidence of collusion, not only from the newly released Strzok document but from many others. Rosenstein should have known it, too. Instead of closing down the investigation, the deputy attorney general kept widening its scope.
Built on Fumes, Not Facts
This three-year imbroglio was built on swamp gas, not reinforced concrete. We should know that by now. The lead investigators should have known it three years ago.
The results show that the initial warnings and conclusions were correct: there was little basis for believing the Trump campaign had cooperated with a foreign enemy. There was no justification for a launching a mammoth investigation and continuing it for two-and-half years unless it was sustained by a lot of corroborating evidence along the way. They never found it. They had been told, early on, that there was no collusion. No matter. They simply ignored all these warning signs and continued digging.
In the end, no Americans were indicted—much less convicted—for colluding, collaborating, or coordinating with Russia. Beginning in 2018, the House Intelligence Committee, headed by Adam Schiff, began its own double-secret investigation. All Obama’s top intelligence and law-enforcement officials were called to testify behind closed doors. Under oath, they all said they had not seen any evidence of Trump-Russia collusion. In public, many said the opposite, and Schiff said so almost daily. It’s not surprising, then, that Schiff and Speaker Pelosi chose not to release the secret testimony for two years. It was disclosed this year only because Acting National Intelligence Director Grenell said he would release it if Schiff refused.
Schiff’s secrecy had nothing to do with national security since all classified information had been redacted. The secrecy was a political calculation, pure and simple. Releasing the testimony would undermine the entire collusion narrative. Schiff needn’t have worried. The media paid little attention.
We Need to Know the Rest of the Story
Some of this behavior by senior officials at the FBI, CIA, Justice Department, and other agencies was illegal. It needs to be exposed and prosecuted, independent of any political considerations. That’s the job of US Attorney John Durham, appointed by Attorney General Barr. He needs to swiftly complete his investigation.
Some actions violated well-established rules at the FBI, the Justice Department, and the intelligence agencies. They may not be illegal, but if the violations were serious, those who committed them should be fired. In any case, the public needs to know what rules were violated and why.
Still other actions, like those of Adam Schiff, are legally protected because he was acting as a congressman. Still, we need to know how his staff coordinated with their former colleagues at the CIA and National Security Council and whether they broke any laws in doing so.
Whether these officials acted illegally or simply improperly, they have left a disturbing legacy. They abused their powerful positions. In doing so, they imposed a heavy, unnecessary burden on all Americans. They undermined our rule of law, our trust in government, and our democratic stability. They were aided by an aggressively partisan media.
They did all this when our country was already deeply divided and profoundly stressed. They made those grave problems worse. We need to know exactly what they did and whether they broke the law to do it. We need to hold them to account. It’s time.
Charles Lipson is the Peter B. Ritzma Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Chicago, where he founded the Program on International Politics, Economics, and Security. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His recent articles for The Bridge include an analysis of recent statements by the presidential candidates and Joseph Biden’s difficulties in picking a running mate.
Photo of Peter Strzok by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images