Almost eighteen months after Obama’s Justice Department and the FBI launched the Russiagate investigation, and seven months after Special Counsel Robert Mueller took the investigation over, the sum total of what it has achieved is as follows:
(1) an indictment of Paul Manafort and Rick Gates which concerns entirely their prior financial dealings, and which have no connection to the Russiagate collusion allegations;
(2) an indictment for lying to the FBI of George Papadopoulos, the junior volunteer staffer of the Trump campaign, who during the 2016 Presidential election had certain contacts with members of a Moscow based Russian NGO, which he sought to pass off – falsely and unsuccessfully – as more important than they really were, and which also does not touch on the Russiagate collusion allegations; and
(3) an indictment for lying to the FBI of Michael Flynn arising from his perfectly legitimate and entirely legal contacts with the Russian ambassador after the 2016 Presidential election, which also does not touch on the Russiagate collusion allegations, and which looks as if it was brought about by an act of entrapment.
Of actual evidence to substantiate the claims of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia during the election Mueller has so far come up with nothing.
Here I wish to say something briefly about the nature of “collusion”.
There is no criminal offence of “collusion” known to US law, which has led some to make the point that Mueller is investigating a crime which does not exist.
There is some force to this point, but it is one which must be heavily qualified:
(1) Though there is no crime of “collusion” in US law, there most certainly is the crime of conspiracy to perform a criminal act.
Should it ever be established that members of the Trump campaign arranged with the Russians for the Russians to hack the DNC’s and John Podesta’s computers and to steal the emails from those computers so that they could be published by Wikileaks, then since hacking and theft are serious criminal acts a criminal conspiracy would be established and it would be entirely proper to bring criminal charges against those who were involved in it.
This is the central allegation which lies behind the whole Russiagate case, and is the crime which Mueller is supposed to be investigating; and
(2) The FBI is not merely a police and law enforcement agency. It is also the US’s counter-espionage agency.
If there were secret contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence such as might give rise to genuine concern that the national security of the United States might be compromised, the FBI would have a legitimate reason to investigate them even if no actual crimes were committed during them.
Since impeachment is a purely political process and not a legal process, should it ever be established that there were secret contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence which might have placed the national security of the United States in jeopardy, I have no doubt that Congress there were grounds for impeachment even if no criminal offences were committed during them.
The point is however is that eighteen months after the start of the Russiagate investigation no evidence either of criminal acts or of secret contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence which may have placed the national security of the United States in jeopardy has come to light. Specifically:
(1) There is no evidence of a criminal conspiracy by anyone in the Trump campaign involving the Russians to hack John Podesta’s and the DNC’s computers in order to steal emails from those computers and to have them published by Wikileaks; and
(2) There is also no evidence of any secret contacts between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence during the election which might have placed the national security of the United States in jeopardy. Such contact as did take place between the Trump campaign and the Russians was limited and innocuous. Specifically there is no evidence of any concerted action between the Trump campaign and the Russians in order to swing the election away from Hillary Clinton to Donald Trump. The meeting between Donald Trump Junior and the Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya is not such evidence.
If no evidence either of a criminal conspiracy or of inappropriate secret contacts by the Trump campaign and the Russians has been found after eighteen months of intense investigation by the biggest and mightiest national security and intelligence community on the planet, then any reasonable person would conclude that that must be because no such evidence exists.
Why then is the investigation still continuing?
Some months I expressed doubts that Special Counsel Robert Mueller and Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein would countenance fishing expeditions.
It turns out I was wrong. On any objective assessment it is exactly such fishing expeditions that the Mueller investigation is now engaging in.
How else to explain the strange decision to subpoena Deutsche Bank for information about loans granted by Deutsche Bank to Donald Trump and his businesses?
Deutsche Bank is a German bank not a Russian bank. To insinuate that the Russians control Deutsche Bank – one of the world’s leading international banks – because Deutsche Bank has had some previous financial dealings with Russian banks and businesses is quite simply preposterous. I doubt that there is a single important bank in Germany or Austria of which that could not be said.
Yet in the desperation to find some connection between Donald Trump and Russia it is to these absurdities that Mueller is reduced to.
Which again begs the question why? Why are Mueller and the Justice Department resorting to these increasingly desperate actions in order to prove something which it ought to be obvious by now cannot be proved?
My colleague Alex Christoforou has recently pointed out that the recent indictment of Michael Flynn seems to have been partly intended to shield Mueller from dismissal and to keep his Russiagate investigation alive.
Some time ago I made exactly the same point about the indictments against Paul Manafort and Rick Gates and about the indictment against George Papadopoulos.
Those indictments were issued directly after the Wall Street Journal published an editorial saying that Mueller should resign. The indictment against Manafort and Gates looks sloppy and rushed. Perhaps I am wrong but there has to be at least a suspicion that the indictments were hurriedly issued to still criticism of Mueller of the kind that was no appearing in the Wall Street Journal.
Presumably the reason the indictment against Flynn was delayed was because his lawyers had just signalled Flynn’s interest in a plea bargain.
I would suggest that it is the Wall Street Journal editorial which explains Mueller’s and Rosenstein’s behaviour and the way Mueller has conducted the investigation up to now.
The Wall Street Journal in its editorial said that Mueller’s past as the FBI’s Director meant that he is too close to the FBI to take an objective view of its actions.
In fact the Wall Street Journal was more right than it perhaps realised. It is now becoming increasingly clear that the FBI’s actions are open to very serious criticism, and that Mueller is simply not the person who can be trusted to take an objective view of them.
Over the course of the 2016 election the FBI cleared Hillary Clinton over her illegal use of a private server to route classified emails whilst she was Secretary of State though it is universally agreed that she broke the law by doing so. The FBI does not seem to have even investigated Hillary Clinton for possible obstruction of justice after it also became known that she had actually destroyed thousands of her emails which passed through her private server.
It is universally agreed that the FBI’s then Director – Mueller’s friend James Comey – broke protocols by doing this.
It is of course also the case that by failing to bring charges against Hillary Clinton the FBI ensured that she would win the Democratic Party’s nomination, and that she rather than Bernie Sanders would face off against Donald Trump in the election in the autumn.
In addition instead of independently investigating the claims that the Russians had hacked the DNC’s and John Podesta’s computers the FBI simply accepted the opinion of an expert – Crowdstrike – paid for by the DNC that the hacks had taken place and that the Russians were the perpetrators.
As a result Hillary Clinton was able to say during the election that the reason emails which had passed through those computers and which showed her and her campaign in a bad light were only being published by Wikileaks because the Russians had stolen them in order to help Donald Trump.
It is now known that the FBI also met with Christopher Steele, the compiler of the Trump Dossier, who is now known to have been in the pay of the DNC and Hillary Clinton’s campaign in July 2016, shortly before the Russiagate investigation was launched.
Whilst there is some confusion about whether the FBI actually paid Steele for his information, it is now known that Steele was in contact with the FBI throughout the election and after, and that the FBI gave credence to his work.
Recently it has also come to light that Steele was also directly in touch with Obama’s Justice Department, a fact which was only disclosed recently.
The best account of this has been provided by Byron York writing for The Washington Examiner
The department’s Bruce Ohr, a career official, served as associate deputy attorney general at the time of the campaign. That placed him just below the deputy attorney general, Sally Yates, who ran the day-to-day operations of the department. In 2016, Ohr’s office was just steps away from Yates, who was later fired for defying President Trump’s initial travel ban executive order and still later became a prominent anti-Trump voice upon leaving the Justice Department.
Unbeknownst to investigators until recently, Ohr knew Steele and had repeated contacts with Steele when Steele was working on the dossier. Ohr also met after the election with Glenn Simpson, head of Fusion GPS, the opposition research company that was paid by the Clinton campaign to compile the dossier.
Word that Ohr met with Steele and Simpson, first reported by Fox News’ James Rosen and Jake Gibson, was news to some current officials in the Justice Department. Shortly after learning it, they demoted Ohr, taking away his associate deputy attorney general title and moving him full time to another position running the department’s organized crime drug enforcement task forces.
It is also now known that over the course of the election the FBI – on the basis of information in the Trump Dossier – obtained at least one warrant from the FISA court which made it possible for it to undertake surveillance during and after the election of persons involved in the election campaign of Hillary Clinton’s opponent Donald Trump.
In response to subpoenas issued at the instigation of the Congressman Devin Nunes the FBI has recently admitted that the Trump Dossier cannot be verified.
However the FBI and the Justice Department have so far failed to provide in response to these subpoenas information about the precise role of the Trump Dossier in triggering the Russiagate investigation.
The FBI’s and the Justice Department’s failure to provide this information recently provoked an angry exchange between FBI Director Christopher Wray and Congressman Jim Jordan during a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee.
During that hearing Jordan said to Wray the following
Let’s remember a couple of things about the dossier. The Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign, which we now know were one and the same, paid the law firm who paid Fusion GPS who paid Christopher Steele who then paid Russians to put together a report that we call a dossier full of all kinds of fake news, National Enquirer garbage and it’s been reported that this dossier was all dressed up by the FBI, taken to the FISA court and presented as a legitimate intelligence document — that it became the basis for a warrant to spy on Americans.
In response Wray refused to say whether or not the Trump Dossier played any role in the FBI obtaining the FISA warrants, even though it was previously disclosed that it did. This is despite the fact that this information is not classified and ought already to have been provided in response to Congressman Nunes’s subpoenas.
There is now talk of FBI Director Christopher Wray and of Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein being held in contempt of Congress because of the failure of the FBI and the Justice Department to comply with Congressman Nunes’s subpoenas.
During the exchanges between Wray and Jordan at the hearing in the House Judiciary Committee Jordan also had this to say
Here’s what I think — I think Peter Strozk (sic)… Mr. Super Agent at the FBI, I think he’s the guy who took the application to the FISA court and if that happened, if this happened, if you have the FBI working with a campaign, the Democrats’ campaign, taking opposition research, dressing it all up and turning it into an intelligence document so they can take it to the FISA court so they can spy on the other campaign, if that happened, that is as wrong as it gets
Peter Strzok is the senior FBI official who is now known to have had a leading role in both the FBI’s investigation of Hillary Clinton’s misuse of her private server and in the Russiagate investigation.
Strzok is now also known to have been the person who changed the wording in Comey’s statement clearing Hillary Clinton for her misuse of her private email server to say that Hillary Clinton had been “extremely careless’” as opposed to “grossly negligent”.
Strzok – who was the FBI’s deputy director for counter-intelligence – is now also known to have been the person who signed the document which launched the Russiagate investigation in July 2016.
Fox News has reported that Strzok was also the person supervised the FBI’s questioning of Michael Flynn. It is not clear whether this covers to the FBI’s interview with Flynn on 24th January 2017 during which Flynn lied to the FBI about his conversations with Russian ambassador. However it is likely that it does.
If so then this is potentially important given that it was Flynn’s to the FBI during this interview which made up the case against him to which he has now pleaded guilty, and given the indications that Flynn’s interview with the FBI on 24th January 2017 was a set-up intended to entrap him.
As the FBI’s deputy director of counter-intelligence it is also highly likely that it was Strozk who was the official within the FBI who supervised the FBI’s contacts with Christopher Steele, and who would have been provided with the Trump Dossier.
Recently it has been disclosed that Special Counsel Mueller sacked Strzok from the Russiagate investigation supposedly after it was discovered that Strzok had been sending anti-Trump and pro-Hillary Clinton messages to Lisa Page, an FBI lawyer with whom he was having an affair.
These messages were sent by Strzok to his lover during the election, but apparently only came to light in July this year, when Mueller supposedly sacked Strzok because of them.
It seems that since then Strzok has been working in the FBI’s human resources department, an astonishing demotion for the FBI’s former deputy director for counter-intelligence who was apparently previously considered the FBI’s top expert on Russia.
Some people have questioned whether the sending of the messages could possibly be the true reason why Strzok was sacked. My colleague Alex Christoforou has reported on some of the bafflement that this extraordinary sacking and demotion has caused.
Business Insider reports the anguished comments of former FBI officials incredulous that Strzok could have been sacked for such a trivial reason. Here is what Business Insider reports one ex FBI official Mark Rossini as having said
It would be literally impossible for one human being to have the power to change or manipulate evidence or intelligence according to their own political preferences. FBI agents, like anyone else, are human beings. We are allowed to have our political beliefs. If anything, the overwhelming majority of agents are conservative Republicans.
This is obviously right. Though the ex-FBI officials questioned by Business Insider are clearly supporters of Strzok and critics of Donald Trump, the same point has been made from the other side of the political divide by Congressman Jim Jordan
If you get kicked off the Mueller team for being anti-Trump, there wouldn’t be anybody left on the Mueller team. There has to be more
Adding to the mystery about Strzok’s sacking is why the FBI took five months to confirm it.
Mueller apparently sacked Strzok from the Russiagate investigation in July and it was apparently then that Strzok was simultaneously sacked from his previous post of deputy director for counter-espionage and transferred to human resources. The FBI however only disclosed his sacking now five months later in response to demands for information from Congressional investigators.
There is in fact an obvious explanation for Strzok’s sacking and the strange circumstances surrounding it and I am sure that it is the one Congressman Jordan was thinking during his angry exchanges with FBI Director Christopher Wray.
Recently the FBI admitted to Congress that it has failed to verify the Trump Dossier.
I suspect that Congressman Jordan believes that the true reason why Strzok was sacked is that Strzok’s credibility had become so tied to the Trump Dossier that when its credibility collapsed over the course of the summer when the FBI finally realised that it could not be verified his credibility collapsed with it. If so then I am sure that Congressman Jordan is right.
We now know from a variety of sources but first and foremost from the testimony to Congress of Carter Page that the Trump Dossier provided the frame narrative for the Russiagate investigation until just a few months ago.
We also know that the Trump Dossier was included in an appendix to the January ODNI report about supposed Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
The fact that the Trump Dossier was included in an appendix to the January ODNI report shows that at the start of the year the top officials of the FBI and of the US intelligence community – Comey, Clapper, Brennan and the rest – believed in its truth.
The June 2017 article in the Washington Post (discussed by me here) also all but confirms that it was the Trump Dossier that provided the information which the CIA sent to President Obama in August 2016 alleging that the Russians were interfering in the election.
As the BBC has pointed out, it was also the Trump Dossier which Congressman Adam Schiff – the senior Democrat on the House Intelligence Community, who appears to be very close to some of the FBI investigators involved in the Russiagate case – as well as the FBI’s Russiagate investigators were using as the narrative frame narrative when questioning witnesses about their role in Russiagate.
These facts make it highly likely that it was indeed the Trump Dossier which provided the information which the FBI used to obtain the surveillance warrants it obtained from the FISA court during the 2016 election and afterwards.
Strzok’s position as the FBI’s deputy director for counter-intelligence makes it highly likely that he was amongst those senior FBI and US intelligence officials who gave the Trump Dossier credence, whilst his known actions during the Hillary Clinton private server investigation and during the Russiagate investigation make it highly likely that it was he who was the official within the FBI who sought and obtained the FISA warrants.
Given Strzok’s central role in the Russiagate investigation going back all the way to its start in July 2016, there has also to be a possibility that it was Strzok who was behind many of the leaks coming from the investigation which so destabilised the Trump administration at the start of the year.
This once again points to the true scandal of the 2016 election.
On the strength of a fake Dossier paid for by the DNC and the Hillary Clinton campaign the Justice Department, the FBI and the US intelligence community carried out surveillance during the election of US citizens who were members of the campaign team of Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton’s opponent.
Given the hugely embarrassing implications of this for the FBI, it is completely understandable why Strzok, if he was the person who was ultimately responsible for this debacle – as he almost certainly was – and if he was responsible for some of the leaks – as he likely also was – was sacked and exiled to human resources when the utter falsity of the Trump Dossier could no longer be denied.
It would also explain why the FBI sought to keep Strzok’s sacking secret, so that it was only disclosed five months after it happened and then only in response to questions from Congressional investigators, with a cover story about inappropriate anti-Trump messages being spread about in order to explain it.
This surely is also the reason why in defiance both of evidence and logic the Russiagate investigation continues to grind on.
Given the debacle the Justice Department, the FBI and the US intelligence community are facing, it is completely understandable why they should want to keep the Russiagate investigation alive to draw attention away from their own activities.
Put in this way it is Robert Mueller’s investigation which is the cover-up, and the surveillance which is the wrongdoing the cover up is trying to excuse or conceal, which is what I said nine months ago in March.
Congressman Jordan has again recently called for a second Special Counsel to be appointed.
When the suggestion of appointing a second Special Counsel was first floated last month the suggestion was that the focus of the second Special Counsel’s investigation would be the Uranium One affair.
That always struck me as misconceived not because there may not be things to investigate in the Uranium One case but because the focus of any new investigation should be what happened during the 2016 election, not what happened during the Uranium one case.
Congressman Jordan has now correctly identified the surveillance of US citizens by the US national security bureaucracy during the election as the focus of the proposed investigation to be conducted by the second Special Counsel.
In truth there should be no second Special Counsel. Since there is no Russiagate collusion to investigate the Russiagate investigation – ie. the investigation headed by Mueller – should be wound up.
There should be only one Special Counsel tasked with looking into what is the real scandal of the 2016 election: the surveillance of US citizens during the election by the US national security bureaucracy on the basis of the Trump Dossier.
I remain intensely skeptical that this will happen. However the fact that some members of Congress such as Congressman Nunes (recently cleared of charges that he acted inappropriately by disclosing details of the surveillance back in March) and Congressman Jordan are starting to demand it is a hopeful sign.