"The totality of the evidence undermines the Times’ collusion narrative..."
"Trump Adviser’s Visit to Moscow Got the F.B.I.’s Attention.” That was the page-one headline the New York Times ran on April 20, 2017, above its breathless report that “a catalyst for the F.B.I. investigation into connections between Russia and President Trump’s campaign” was a June 2016 visit to Moscow by Carter Page.
It was due to the Moscow trip by Page, dubbed a “foreign policy adviser” to the campaign, that “the F.B.I. obtained a warrant from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court” in September — i.e., during the stretch run of the presidential campaign.
You’re to be forgiven if you’re feeling dizzy. It may not be too much New Year’s reverie; it may be that you’re reeling over the Times’ holiday-weekend volte-face: “How the Russia Inquiry Began: A Campaign Aide, Drinks and Talk of Political Dirt.”
Seven months after throwing Carter Page as fuel on the collusion fire lit by then-FBI director James Comey’s stunning public disclosure that the Bureau was investigating possible Trump campaign “coordination” in Russia’s election meddling, the Gray Lady now says: Never mind. We’re onto Collusion 2.0, in which it is George Papadopoulos — then a 28-year-old whose idea of résumé enhancement was to feign participation in the Model U.N. — who triggered the FBI’s massive probe by . . . wait for it . . . a night of boozy blather in London.
What’s going on here?
Well, it turns out the Page angle and thus the collusion narrative itself is beset by an Obama-administration scandal: Slowly but surely, it has emerged that the Justice Department and FBI very likely targeted Page because of the Steele dossier, a Clinton-campaign opposition-research screed disguised as intelligence reporting. Increasingly, it appears that the Bureau failed to verify Steele’s allegations before the DOJ used some of them to bolster an application for a spying warrant from the FISA court (i.e., the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court).
Thanks to the persistence of the House Intelligence Committee led by Chairman Devin Nunes (R., Calif.), the dossier story won’t go away. Thus, Democrats and their media friends have been moving the goal posts in an effort to save their collusion narrative. First, we were led to believe the dossier was no big deal because the FBI would surely have corroborated any information before the DOJ fed it to a federal judge in a warrant application. Then, when the Clinton campaign’s role in commissioning the dossier came to light, we were told it was impertinent to ask about what the FBI did, if anything, to corroborate it since this could imperil intelligence methods and sources — and, besides, such questions were just a distraction from the all-important Mueller investigation (which the dossier had a hand in instigating and which, to date, has turned up no evidence of a Trump-Russia conspiracy).
Lately, the story has morphed into this: Well, even if the dossier was used, it was only used a little — there simply must have been lots of other evidence that Trump was in cahoots with Putin. But that’s not going to fly: Putting aside the dearth of collusion evidence after well over a year of aggressive investigation, the dossier is partisan propaganda. If it was not adequately corroborated by the FBI, and if the Justice Department, without disclosing its provenance to the court, nevertheless relied on any part of it in a FISA application, that is a major problem.
So now, a new strategy to prop up the collusion tale: Never mind Page — lookee over here at Papadopoulos!
But that’s not what they were saying in April, when the collusion narrative and Democratic calls for a special prosecutor were in full bloom.
Back then, no fewer than six of the Times’ top reporters, along with a researcher, worked their anonymous “current and former law enforcement and intelligence officials” in order to generate the Page blockbuster. With these leaks, the paper confidently reported: “From the Russia trip of the once-obscure Mr. Page grew a wide-ranging investigation, now accompanied by two congressional inquiries, that has cast a shadow over the early months of the Trump administration” [emphasis added].
Oh sure, the Times acknowledged that there might have been a couple of other factors involved. “Paul Manafort, then [i.e., during Page’s trip] Mr. Trump’s campaign manager, was already under criminal investigation in connection with payments from a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine.” And “WikiLeaks and two websites later identified as Russian intelligence fronts had begun releasing emails obtained when Democratic Party servers were hacked.”
But the trigger for the investigation — the “catalyst” — was Page.
Somehow, despite all that journalistic leg-work and all those insider sources, the name George Papadopoulos does not appear in the Times’ story.
Now, however, we’re supposed to forget about Page. According to the new bombshell dropped on New Year’s Eve by six Times reporters, it was “the hacking” coupled with “the revelation that a member of the Trump campaign” — Papadopoulos — “may have had inside information about it” that 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.”
It seems like only yesterday — or, to be more precise, only late October, when he pled guilty to a count of lying to the FBI in the Mueller probe — that Mr. Papadopoulos was even more obscure than the “once-obscure Mr. Page.” Now, though, he has been elevated to “the improbable match that set off a blaze that has consumed the first year of the Trump administration.”
But hey, if you’re willing to hang in there through the first 36 paragraphs of the Times’ nearly 3,000-word Papadopoulos report, you’ll find the fleeting observation that “A trip to Moscow by another adviser, Carter Page, also raised concerns at the F.B.I.”
You don’t say!
Page and the Dossier Problem
Again, until this weekend, Page was the eye of the collusion storm. And as I outlined in a column last weekend, a significant part of what got the FBI and the Obama Justice Department stirred up about Page’s July 2016 trip to Moscow was the Steele dossier — the anti-Trump reports compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele. Alas, six months after the Times’ planted its feet on Page as the linchpin of the Trump-Russia investigation, we learned that the dossier was actually an opposition-research project paid for by the Hillary Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee. We further learned that at Fusion GPS, the research firm that retained Steele for the project, Steele collaborated on it with Nellie Ohr, the wife of top Justice Department official Bruce Ohr — and that Bruce Ohr had personally been briefed on the project by Steele and a Fusion GPS executive.
It is an explosive problem, this use of the dossier by the Obama Justice Department and the FBI in an application to the FISA court for authority to spy on Trump’s associates. Politically, it suggests that the collusion narrative peddled by Democrats and the media since Trump’s victory in the November election was substantially driven by partisan propaganda. Legally, it raises the distinct possibilities that (a) the FBI did not adequately verify the claims in the dossier before using them in an application to the secret federal court; and (b) the Justice Department of the then-incumbent Democratic administration did not disclose to the court that the dossier was produced by the Democratic presidential campaign for use against the rival Republican candidate.
When it emerged in October that the dossier was a Democratic-party campaign product, Representative Trey Gowdy (R., S.C.) recounted that, for months, the Justice Department and FBI had stonewalled House demands that they fess up about whether dossier allegations were used in applying for the FISA-court warrant to surveil Page. But though the DOJ and the Bureau have struggled to lock the barn, the horse left long ago. Shortly before the Times ran its Page extravaganza last April, CNN confirmed that the dossier had indeed been used to obtain the FISA warrant — the network relying on unnamed “US officials briefed on the [Russia] investigation.”
I won’t hazard a guess on which of CNN’s anonymous sources are also the Times’ anonymous sources. But it is safe to say the intelligence community, still suffused with Obama holdovers, has been undone by its own illegal leaking. Back in April, they leaked because they figured it would wound President Trump: After all, if the dossier had been used to obtain a FISA warrant, that must mean that the dossier’s sensational allegations of a traitorous Trump-Russia conspiracy were true. That is, the leakers assumed, just as many of us familiar with the FISA process assumed, that the Justice Department would never put information in a FISA warrant application unless the FBI had first corroborated it.
Subsequently, however, former FBI director James Comey told a Senate committee that the dossier remained “salacious and unverified.” Obviously, if the FBI had not verified the dossier by the time Comey testified in June 2017, then the Bureau cannot possibly have verified the dossier when DOJ sought the FISA warrant nine months earlier, in September 2016.
Then in October, it emerged that the Clinton campaign paid for the dossier. More recently, we learned that anti-Trump bias ran rampant in the upper ranks of the Bureau and the Justice Department — to the point that a top FBI counterintelligence agent spoke of the Bureau’s need for an “insurance policy” against the risk of a Trump presidency. Right before Christmas, reporting from Fox News strongly suggested that the FBI, though apparently aware that the dossier was a partisan campaign project, had verified none of its sensational claims. Finally, in a Fox News interview on Sunday, Senator Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), who has inspected relevant classified documents, indicated that the Justice Department used the dossier in its application without disclosing its partisan political genesis to the FISA court (see Paul Mirengoff’s Powerline post with embedded video).
All of this comes back to Carter Page, heretofore the anchor of the media’s collusion narrative. The link between Page and the dossier is manifest. As I outlined in last weekend’s column, the FBI began receiving the dossier’s explosive reports shortly after Page’s Russia trip. Steele’s reports, based on anonymous Russian sources, alleged that (a) there was an explicit Trump-Russia conspiracy to interfere in the 2016 election, (b) the conspiracy included Russian hacking of Democratic email accounts in which Trump campaign officials, including Page, were complicit, and (c) Page met with two top Kremlin operatives on the Moscow trip — operatives who discussed with him a quid pro quo arrangement to drop sanctions against Russia, floated the possibility of providing the Trump campaign with “kompromat” (compromising information) on Hillary Clinton, and warned that Trump better be careful because the Putin regime had a kompromat file on him, too.
It has become increasingly clear that Steele’s claims about Page are, at best, highly dubious; more likely, they are untrue. Aside from the fact that Comey has been dismissive of the dossier as “unverified,” Page has vigorously and plausibly denied its allegations about him. The Annapolis grad and former naval-intelligence officer insists he is not even acquainted with the Russian officials with whom he supposedly had traitorous meetings. Moreover, if the Russian regime truly wanted to make insidious proposals to Trump, it had emissaries far better positioned to approach him; it strains credulity to believe the Kremlin would turn to Page — barely known to Trump and, years earlier, derided as an “idiot” by a Russian intelligence operative who tried to recruit him.
Papadopoulos and the New ‘Russian Reset’
So now, with the Page foundation of the collusion narrative collapsing, and with the heat on over the Obama administration’s use of the dossier, it is apparently Papadopoulos to the rescue.
In the Times’ new version of events, it was not the dossier that “so alarmed American officials to provoke the F.B.I. to open a counterintelligence investigation into the Trump campaign months before the presidential election.” That, according to the Times, is a false claim that “Mr. Trump and other politicians have alleged.” Somehow, the paper omits the inconvenient details that it was the Times that led the charge in claiming that it was Page’s trip to Moscow that provoked the investigation, and that it was the dossier that so alarmed the FBI about that trip.
In what we might think of as the latest “Russian Reset,” the Times now says the investigation was instigated by “firsthand information from one of America’s closest intelligence allies” — Australia. Turns out Papadopoulos was out drinking in London with Alexander Downer, “Australia’s top diplomat in Britain.” Tongue loosened, the “young foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign” made a “startling revelation” to Downer: He had learned that “Russia had political dirt on Hillary Clinton.”
Because of the “Statement of the Offense” that Special Counsel Mueller filed with the court when Papadopoulos pled guilty, the Times and the rest of us now know that a few weeks earlier (on April 26), Papadopoulos was told by a Maltese academic who purported to have Kremlin ties that Russia had “thousands of emails” that could damage Hillary Clinton. We also know that in July, hacked Democratic-party emails began being published.
With that established, we’re now told that when the emails were leaked, Australian officials put two and two together, figuring these emails might be what Papadopoulos was talking about “that night at the Kensington Wine Room.” The Aussies thus tipped off their American counterparts to the barroom conversation between Papadopoulos and Downer. That, not the dossier explicitly alleging a Trump-Russia conspiracy, is what provoked the investigation. You can take it to the bank. After all, the Times has gotten this revisionist history from “four American and foreign officials with direct knowledge of the Australians’ role” — i.e., from the same sort of unidentified, unaccountable sources that brought you the Page-centric version of events that has now been discarded.
To say this story has holes in it does not do justice to the craters on display. To begin with, the Times admits that “exactly how much Mr. Papadopoulos said” to Downer “is unclear.” What we are dealing with here is sheer supposition. And, it appears, flawed supposition.
As I pointed out after Papadopoulos pled guilty, he was told that the Russians had “emails of Clinton.” But the hacked emails that were published were not Clinton’s emails; they were those of the DNC and John Podesta — exceedingly few of which Clinton was even included on, much less participated in. Given the amount of misinformation the credulous Papadopoulos was given (one of his interlocutors falsely posed as Putin’s niece), the likelihood is that he was being toyed with: Remember, there was much speculation at the time, including by Trump himself, that the Russians (and other foreign intelligence services) might have hacked former secretary Clinton’s unsecure private server and obtained the 30,000-plus emails that she refused to surrender to the State Department; it is probable that these were the emails Papadopoulos’s dubious Russian connections purported to be dangling.
There is no evidence that Papadopoulos or the Trump campaign was ever shown or given any of the emails the Kremlin purportedly had. The evidence, in fact, undermines the collusion narrative: If the Trump campaign had to learn, through Papadopoulos, that Russia supposedly had thousands of emails damaging to Clinton, that would necessarily mean the Trump campaign had nothing to do with Russia’s acquisition of the emails. This, no doubt, is why Mueller permitted Papadopoulos to plead guilty to a mere process crime — lying in an FBI interview. If there were evidence of an actual collusion conspiracy, Papadopoulos would have been pressured to admit guilt to it. He wasn’t.
Even a cursory FBI investigation of Papadopoulos would have illustrated how implausible it was that he could have been integral to a Trump-Russia plot. Anonymous intelligence and law-enforcement officials have been leaking collusion information to the Times and other media outlets since before Trump won the November 2016 election — that’s why we’ve spent the last year-plus hearing all about Page, Manafort, Flynn, et al. If Papadopoulos had really been the impetus for the investigation way back in July 2016, what are the chances that we would never have heard his name mentioned until after his guilty plea was announced 15 months later? What are the chances that we’d only now be learning that he was the real stimulus for the investigation? I’d put it at less than none.
There’s another interesting word that does not appear in the Times’ extensive Papadopoulos report: surveillance. Despite being “so alarmed” by young Papadopoulos’s barroom braggadocio with the Australian diplomat, and his claimed Russia connections, there is no indication that the Obama Justice Department and FBI ever sought a FISA-court warrant to spy on him.
No, the FISA warrant was sought for Carter Page, after his trip to Moscow. The trip the Times used to say incited the Trump-Russia probe.