More thoughts on the Durham Report

It will take time to review Russiagate special counsel John Durham’s 306-page unclassified report that was publicly released by the Justice Department on Monday. What is already stunning, though, even to those who have closely followed this sordid saga — the FBI, doing the bidding of the Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party, portrayed Donald Trump as a clandestine agent of Russia — is the slight news of the information that triggered the opening of the investigation.

Because electoral politics is supposed to be insulated from law enforcement absent evidence that a serious crime or perilous threat to national security is afoot, the FBI is expected to tread lightly, especially in the invocation of its foreign counterintelligence powers. 

Foreign counterintelligence matters are classified and thus lack the transparency that checks government abuse in ordinary criminal cases. Rather than leap to a full-blown foreign counterintelligence investigation, the bureau routinely begins with an “assessment” and proceeds to a low-level “preliminary” inquiry if that initial assessment turns up alarming, articulable intelligence indicative of a real threat.

That is not what happened in Crossfire Hurricane, the FBI code name assigned to the Trump-Russia “collusion” probe.

To the contrary, Durham has documented that at the headquarters level under Director James Comey, the bureau began taking special interest in the Trump campaign in April 2016. Hackles were raised, in part, because one of the campaign’s advisers, Carter Page, appeared to have been subjected to an unsuccessful recruitment by Russian intelligence. Not only had Page spurned the outreach; he had been prepared to testify on behalf of the government against a Russian spy (who ended up pleading guilty). It further turned out that Page was voluntarily providing information about his business interactions with Russians to the CIA — a fact FBI lawyer Kevin Clinesmith later concealed from the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court when the bureau was seeking to continue its apparently fruitless monitoring of Page.

Nevertheless, there is strong evidence that headquarters harbored political and personal disdain for Trump. Although professional investigators are obligated to check their politics at the door in carrying out their duties, it is clear that the Trump campaign became an FBI obsession.

Durham relates that on July 28, 2016, the bureau’s legal attaché in London received a sketchy report from Australian diplomats — what became known as “Paragraph Five” — which was conveniently brought to the FBI’s attention by the Obama State Department (which Clinton had led before launching her campaign). The Australians documented that a young Trump campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos, had told them back in May that he had heard “the Clintons had a ‘lot of baggage’” (there’s breaking news!) that the Trump campaign could exploit. From there, it’s worth quoting Paragraph Five, the words that launched the national derangement of the alleged Trump-Russia collusion:

[Papadopoulos] also suggested the Trump team had received some kind of suggestion from Russia that it could assist this process with the anonymous release of information during the campaign that would be damaging to Mrs Clinton (and President Obama). 

So vaporous was this suggestion of a suggestion that the Australian diplomats thought little of it at the time. Durham notes that the FBI was told that the diplomat had written Paragraph Five in a “purposely vague” way because Papadopoulos had not claimed to have direct contact with Russians. He had seemed to the diplomats to be “insecure” and “trying to impress,” but open about his youth and “lack of experience.”

Alexander Downer, one of the diplomats the FBI interviewed, said he “did not get the sense Papadopoulos was the middleman to coordinate with the Russians.” Instead, the information was passed along to the State Department more than two months later because of the July 22 public release by WikiLeaks of stolen DNC emails. Papadopoulos, however, had said nothing about emails, much less that he suspected Russia was in possession of DNC emails; and Hillary Clinton was not, in any event, a meaningful participant in that correspondence. The DNC emails had no bearing on the 2016 election despite their absurd but relentlessly repeated portrayal as proof that Trump and Russia had “hacked the election.”

On July 31, just three days after receiving Paragraph Five, the FBI’s then-deputy director Andrew McCabe ordered one of the bureau’s top counterintelligence officials, Peter Strzok, to open a full-blown foreign intelligence investigation targeting the Trump campaign. No assessment, no preliminary inquiry, no comparing notes with other American intelligence agencies or closely allied foreign intelligence services — the FBI took none of the steps it would ordinarily take before such a momentous action in a sensitive investigative matter that could intrude into the American political process.

A few days later, McCabe’s counsel, a distressed Lisa Page, asked Strzok, “[Trump’s] not going to become president, right? Right?”

“No. No, he’s not,” Strzok assured her. “We’ll stop it.”

Durham’s report details the way they went about trying to stop it. Predisposed to believe the worst, to the point of abandoning their duty to corroborate information before using it to seek surveillance authorization from the FISA court, the bureau wittingly allowed itself to be used by the Clinton campaign. Agents accepted the campaign’s opposition research, in the form of the “Steele dossier” — faux intelligence reports compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele, retained by a private intelligence firm (Fusion GPS) that had been hired by Clinton campaign lawyers. Rather than verify the information in Steele’s reporting, the FBI swore to it four separate times, beginning with the first surveillance application approved for presentation to the court by Comey in October 2016 — weeks before the election.

To read the dossier, which is self-evidently shoddy, one is not surprised to find that it was bogus in key particulars. What continues to be mind-boggling, however, is that even after its allegations did not pan out, and even after Steele’s main source for the information, Igor Danchenko, told the FBI that the information was raw hearsay and rumor, exaggerated and even fabricated in parts, the bureau continued to present it in court months into the Trump presidency. At the same time, Director Comey gave provocative public congressional testimony in which he confirmed that the FBI was conducting an FCI investigation into Trump campaign ties to Russia (though such investigations are classified, and the bureau habitually declines to confirm their existence). Comey gratuitously added that criminal indictments could be in the offing.

This was one of the dirtiest political tricks in American history. The damage it has done to American trust in the FBI and our intelligence agencies is incalculable.

Special Counsel Durham probably erred in bringing comparatively minor cases against Danchenko and Clinton lawyer Michael Sussmann. The odds were low of winning convictions on charges of lying to the FBI when the bureau was more a participant than a dupe in the scheme, and the acquittals are predictably being used by Democrats and their media allies to discredit Durham’s investigation — as is the slap on the wrist that Clinesmith was given despite his misleading the court. Still, Durham appears to have produced a methodical, evidence-driven report that provides a long-overdue public accounting. Just not enough accountability.