Politics & Policy

The Real Origination Story of the Trump-Russia Investigation

Former President Barack Obama extends his hand to Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, September 28, 2015. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
The Trump-Russia investigation did not originate with Carter Page or George Papadopoulos. It originated with the Obama administration.

Exactly when is the “late Spring”?

Of all the questions that have been asked about what we’ve called the “Origination Story” of the Trump-Russia investigation, that may be the most important one. It may be the one that tells us when the Obama administration first formed the Trump-Russia “collusion” narrative.

See, it has always been suspicious that the anonymous current and former government officials who leak classified information to their media friends have been unable to coordinate their spin on the start of “Crossfire Hurricane” — the name the FBI eventually gave its Trump-Russia investigation.

The Original Origination Story: Carter Page

First, they told us it was an early July 2016 trip to Moscow by Carter Page, an obscure Trump-campaign adviser.

As we’ve observed, that story became untenable once a connection emerged between the Bureau’s concerns about Page and the Steele dossier. The dossier, compiled by former British spy Christopher Steele, portrayed Page’s Moscow trip as seminal to a Trump-Russia conspiracy to hack Democratic email accounts and steal the election from Hillary Clinton.

It turned out, however, that the dossier was a Clinton-campaign opposition-research project, the main allegations of which were based on third-hand hearsay from anonymous Russian sources. Worse, though the allegations could not be verified, the Obama Justice Department and the FBI used them to obtain surveillance warrants against Page, in violation of their own guidelines against presenting unverified information to the FISA court. Worse still, the Obama Justice Department withheld from the FISA court the facts that the Clinton campaign was behind the dossier and that Steele had been booted from the investigation for lying to the FBI.

Origination Story 2.0: George Papadopoulos

With the Page origination story cratering, Team Obama tried to save the day with Origination Story 2.0: Papadopoulos did it. In this account, George Papadopoulos, an even more obscure Trump-campaign aide than Page, triggered the investigation by telling Australian diplomat Alexander Downer, in May 2016, that he’d heard from a Kremlin-connected academic, Josef Mifsud, that Russia had thousands of emails potentially damaging to Clinton.

But this rickety tale had the signs of an after-the-fact rationalization, an effort to downplay the dossier and the role of Obama officials in the genesis of the probe. There were curious questions about how the twentysomething Papadopoulos came to be meeting with Australia’s highest-ranking diplomat in the United Kingdom, and about how and when, exactly, this Australian information came to be transmitted to the FBI.

Moreover, there are two basic flaws in version 2.0. First, Papadopoulos’s story is actually exculpatory of the Trump campaign: If Russia already had the emails and was alerting the Trump campaign to that fact, the campaign could not have been involved in the hacking. Second, there is confusion about exactly what Mifsud was referring to when he told Papadopoulos that the Russians had emails that could damage Clinton. Democrats suggest that Mifsud was referring to the Democratic National Committee emails. They need this to be true because (a) these are the emails that were hacked by Russian operatives, and (b) it was WikiLeaks’ publication of these hacked DNC emails in July 2016 that spurred the Aussies to report to their American counterparts about the encounter, two months earlier, between Papadopoulos and Downer — to whom Papadopoulos reported Mifsud’s emails story. But if the Australians really did infer that Mifsud and Papadopoulos must have been talking about the hacked DNC emails, the inference is unlikely. As the Daily Caller’s Chuck Ross has reported, Papadopoulos maintains that he understood Mifsud to be talking about the 30,000-plus emails that Hillary Clinton had deleted from her homebrew server. That makes more sense — it was those emails that Donald Trump harped on throughout the campaign and that were in the news when Mifsud spoke with Papadopoulos in April 2016. While there are grounds for concern that Clinton’s emails were hacked, there is no proof that it happened; Clinton’s 30,000 emails are not the hacked DNC emails on which the “collusion” narrative is based.

There was also the curiosity of why, if Papadopoulos was so central, the FBI had not bothered to interview him until late January 2017 — after Trump had already taken office.

The Real Origination

With the revelation last week that the Obama administration had insinuated a spy into the Trump campaign, it appeared that we were back to the original, Page-centric origination story. But now there was a twist: The informant, longtime CIA source Stefan Halper, was run at Page by the FBI, in Britain. Because this happened just days after Page’s Moscow trip, the implication was that it was the Moscow trip itself, not the dossier claims about it, that provided momentum toward opening the investigation. Then, just a couple of weeks later, WikiLeaks began publicizing the DNC emails; this, we’re to understand, shook loose the Australian information about Papadopoulos. When that information made its way to the FBI — how, we’re not told — the “Crossfire Hurricane” investigation was formally opened on July 31. Within days, Agent Peter Strzok was in London interviewing Downer, and soon the FBI tasked Halper to take a run at Papadopoulos.

I’m not buying it.

The real origination story begins in the early spring of 2016 — long before Page went to Russia and long before the U.S. government was notified about Papadopoulos’s boozy conversation with Downer.

Last week, as controversy stirred over the possibility that the Obama administration had used a spy against the Trump campaign, the eagle eye of the Wall Street Journal’s Kimberly Strassel caught a couple of key passages from the House Intelligence Committee’s recent report on Russian interference in the election — largely overlooked passages on page 54.

It turns out that, in “late spring” 2016, the FBI’s then-director James Comey briefed the principals of the National Security Council on “the Page information.” As the Washington Examiner’s Byron York observes in a perceptive column today, NSC principals are an administration’s highest-ranking national-security officials. In Obama’s National Security Council, the president was the chairman, and among the regular attendees were the vice-president (Joe Biden), the national-security adviser (Susan Rice), and the director of national intelligence (James Clapper). The heads of such departments and agencies as the Justice Department (Attorney General Loretta Lynch) and the CIA (Director John Brennan) could also be invited to attend NSC meetings if matters of concern to them were to be discussed.

We do not know which NSC principals attended the Comey briefing about Carter Page. But how curious that the House Intelligence Committee interviewed so many Obama-administration officials who were on, or who were knowledgeable about, the NSC, and yet none of them provided a date for this meeting more precise than “late spring” 2016.

The other meeting outlined on page 54 of the House report is one that Comey and his deputy, Andrew McCabe, had with Attorney General Lynch. It probably occurred before the “late spring” Obama NSC meeting, and it was also “about Page.”

So . . . what exactly was “the Page information”? Well, we know that Page, an Annapolis alumnus and former naval intelligence officer, is . . . well, he’s a knucklehead. He is a Russia apologist whose “discursive online blog postings about foreign policy,” Politico noted, “invoke the likes of Kanye West, Oprah Winfrey, and Rhonda Byrne’s self-help bestseller, ‘The Secret.’” More to the point, Page blames American provocations for bad relations with the Kremlin and advocates, instead, a policy of appeasing the Putin regime. Page, who has also been an investment banker, has also had business ties to Gazprom, the Kremlin-controlled energy behemoth.

Most importantly, we know that Page was one of several American businessmen whom Russian intelligence operatives attempted to recruit in 2013. Yet, the main reason we know that is that Page cooperated with the FBI and the Justice Department in the prosecution of the Russian operatives. See Sealed Complaint, United States v. Evgeny Buryakov, pp. 12-13 (Page is identified as “Male-1” — whom one of the Russian spies refers to as “an idiot”).

What would have been the reason for Lynch, Comey, and McCabe to discuss Carter Page? Well, on March 21, 2016 — i.e., early spring — the Trump campaign announced the candidate’s foreign-policy advisory team. Trump had been spurned by the Republican foreign-policy clerisy and was under pressure to show that he had some advisers. So the campaign hastily put out a list of five little-known figures, including Page. Young George Papadopoulos (whose idea of résumé inflation was to claim, apparently falsely, that he’d been a participant in the Geneva International Model United Nations) was also among the five; but he was a virtual unknown at the time — he did not cause the FBI the consternation that the appearance of Page’s name did.

Another source of consternation: On March 29, just a few days after Page was announced as a foreign-policy adviser, Paul Manafort joined the Trump campaign. Manafort and his partner, Richard Gates (who also joined the Trump campaign), had been on the FBI’s radar over political-consultant work they’d done for many years for a Kremlin-backed political party in Ukraine — the party deeply enmeshed in Russian aggression against that former Soviet satellite state.

In discussing Page, one of the things Lynch, Comey, and McCabe discussed was the possibility of providing the Trump campaign with a “defensive briefing.” This would be a meeting with a senior campaign official to put the campaign on notice of potential Russian efforts to compromise someone — Page — within the campaign.

In retrospect, that is an interesting piece of information. Back in February, after House Intelligence Committee chairman Devin Nunes (R., Calif.) put out the Republican majority’s memo on FISA abuse, Committee Democrats responded. As I pointed out at the time, the memo by ranking member Adam Schiff (D., Calif.) let slip that the FBI had interviewed Carter Page in March 2016. (See Schiff Memo, p. 4 — the relevant footnote 10 is redacted.)

Was the interview of Page a reaction to his joining the Trump campaign? Was it an effort to gauge whether Page was still a recruitment target? Was it a substitute for giving the campaign a defensive briefing, or a preparatory step in anticipation of possibly giving such a briefing? We don’t know.

But here is what we can surmise.

There are many different ways the Obama administration could have reacted to the news that Page and Manafort had joined the Trump campaign.

Carter Page and Paul Manafort joined the Trump campaign in early spring, and the FBI was concerned about their possible ties to Russia. These were not trifling concerns, but they did not come close to suggesting a Trump-Russia espionage conspiracy against the 2016 election.

These FBI concerns resulted in a briefing of the Obama NSC by the FBI sometime in “late spring.” I suspect the “late spring” may turn out to be an earlier part of spring than most people might suppose — like maybe shortly after Page joined the Trump campaign.

There are many different ways the Obama administration could have reacted to the news that Page and Manafort had joined the Trump campaign. It could have given the campaign a defensive briefing. It could have continued interviewing Page, with whom the FBI had longstanding lines of communication. It could have interviewed Manafort. It could have conducted a formal interview with George Papadopoulos rather than approaching him with a spy who asked him loaded questions about Russia’s possession of Democratic-party emails.

Instead of doing some or all of those things, the Obama administration chose to look at the Trump campaign as a likely co-conspirator of Russia — either because Obama officials inflated the flimsy evidence, or because they thought it could be an effective political attack on the opposition party’s likely candidate.

From the “late spring” on, every report of Trump-Russia ties, no matter how unlikely and uncorroborated, was presumed to be proof of a traitorous arrangement. And every detail that could be spun into Trump-campaign awareness of Russian hacking, no matter how tenuous, was viewed in the worst possible light.

The Trump-Russia investigation did not originate with Page or Papadopoulos. It originated with the Obama administration.

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