Politics & Policy

The FBI’s Trump-Russia Investigation Was Formally Opened on False Pretenses

George Papadopoulos leaves after his sentencing hearing at U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., September 7, 2018. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
The State Department and an Australian diplomat grossly exaggerated Papadopoulos’s claims — which were probably false anyway.

Chicanery was the force behind the formal opening of the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation. There was a false premise, namely: The Trump campaign must have known that Russia possessed emails related to Hillary Clinton. From there, through either intentional deception or incompetence, the foreign ministries of Australia and the United States erected a fraudulent story tying the Trump campaign’s purported knowledge to the publication of hacked Democratic National Committee emails.

That is what we learn from the saga of George Papadopoulos, as fleshed out by the Mueller report.

The investigative theory on which the FBI formally opened the foreign-counterintelligence probe code-named “Crossfire Hurricane” on July 31, 2016, held that the Trump campaign knew about, and was potentially complicit in, Russia’s possession of hacked emails that would compromise Hillary Clinton; and that, in order to help Donald Trump, the Kremlin planned to disseminate these emails anonymously (through a third party) at a time maximally damaging to Clinton’s campaign.

There are thus two components to this theory: the emails and Russia’s intentions.

I. Papadopoulos Knew Nothing about the DNC Emails — and Probably Nothing about Any Emails

The one and only source for the email component of the story is George Papadopoulos. He, of course, is a convicted liar — convicted, in fact, of lying to the FBI during the very same interviews in which he related the detail about emails. Moreover, the Mueller report confirms that he is simply unreliable: To inflate his importance, he overhyped his credentials and repeatedly misled his Trump-campaign superiors regarding his discussions with people be believed had connections to the Russian regime — who they were and what they were in a position to promise.

Other than Papadopoulos’s own word, there is no evidence — none — that he was told about emails by Joseph Mifsud, a Maltese academic whom the FBI and the Mueller investigation deceptively portrayed as a Russian agent. As I’ve previously detailed, because the investigation could not establish that Mifsud was a Russian agent, Mueller’s charge against Papadopoulos is artfully framed to obscure this weakness. Carefully parsed, Mueller allegation is that Papadopoulos had reason to believe Mifsud was a Russian agent — not that Mifsud actually was one.

If Mifsud is the asset of any foreign intelligence service, it is Britain’s — but that is a story for another day.

We learn from the Mueller report (Volume I, p. 193) that Mifsud was interviewed by the FBI on February 10, 2017, a couple of weeks after the bureau started interviewing Papadopoulos. Mifsud denied that, when he met Papadopoulos in London on April 26, 2016, he either knew about or said anything about Russia’s possession of Clinton-related emails.

The Trump-Russia investigation continued for over two years after the FBI’s interview of Mifsud. Mueller took over the probe in May 2017. During his 22 months running the investigation, Mueller charged many people (including Papadopoulos) with lying to the FBI. But he never charged Mifsud. The government has never alleged that Mifsud’s denial was false.

There appear to be very good reasons for that.

First, there is no evidence in Mueller’s report that Mifsud had any reason to know the operations of Russia’s intelligence services.

Second, prior to being interviewed by the FBI in January 2017, Papadopoulos never reported anything about Russia having emails — neither to his Trump-campaign superiors, to whom he was constantly reporting on his conversations with Mifsud; nor to Alexander Downer, the Australian diplomat whose conversation with Papadopoulos was the proximate cause for the formal opening of the FBI probe. (As further detailed below, Papadopoulos told Downer the Russians had damaging information; he did not say emails.)

It was only when he was interviewed by the FBI in late January 2017, nine months after his conversation with Mifsud, that Papadopoulos is alleged to have claimed that Mifsud said the Russians had “thousands” of “emails of Clinton.” There is no known recording of this FBI interview, so there is no way of knowing whether (a) Papadopoulos volunteered this claim that Mifsud mentioned emails or (b) this claim was suggested to Papadopoulos by his interrogators’ questions. We have no way of knowing whether Papadopoulos is telling the truth (which, for no good reason, he kept hidden from his Trump-campaign superiors) or if he was telling the FBI agents what he thought they wanted to hear (which is what he often did when reporting to the Trump campaign).

But the email component is only half the concocted story.

II. Papadopoulos Had No Knowledge of Russia’s Intentions

There is no evidence whatsoever, including in the 448-page Mueller report, that Papadopoulos was ever told that Russia intended, through an intermediary, to disseminate damaging information about Clinton in a manner designed to hurt Clinton’s candidacy and help Trump’s. There is, furthermore, no evidence that Papadopoulos ever said such a thing to anyone else — including Downer, whom he famously met at the Kensington Wine Rooms in London in early May 2016 (the record is not clear on whether it was May 6 or May 10).

The claim that Papadopoulos made such a statement is a fabrication, initially founded on what, at best, was a deeply flawed assumption by Downer, the Australian diplomat.

On July 22, 2016, the eve of the Democratic National Convention and two months after Downer met with Papadopoulos, WikiLeaks began disseminating to the press the hacked DNC emails. From this fact, Downer drew the unfounded inference that the hacked emails must have been what Papadopoulos was talking about when he said Russia had damaging information about Clinton.

Downer’s assumption was specious, for at least four reasons.

1) In speaking with Downer, Papadopoulos never mentioned emails. Neither Downer nor Papadopoulos has ever claimed that Papadopoulos spoke of emails.

2) Papadopoulos did not tell Downer that Russia was planning to publish damaging information about Clinton through an intermediary. There is no allegation in the Mueller report that Mifsud ever told Papadopoulos any such thing, much less that Papadopoulos relayed it to Downer. Mueller’s report says:

Mifsud told Papadopoulos that he had met with high-level Russian government officials during his recent trip to Moscow. Mifsud also said that, on the trip, he learned that the Russians had obtained “dirt” on candidate Hillary Clinton. As Papadopoulos later stated to the FBI, Mifsud said that the “dirt” was in the form of “emails of Clinton,” and that they “have thousands of emails.”

(Vol. I, p. 89 & n. 464). In neither the Mueller report nor the “Statement of the Offense” that Mueller filed in connection with Papadopoulos’s plea (pp. 6–7) have prosecutors claimed that Mifsud told Papadopoulos what Russia was planning to do with the “dirt,” much less why. And, to repeat, Mifsud denied telling Papadopoulos anything about emails; Mueller never alleged that Mifsud’s denial was false.

3) Papadopoulos says the emails he claims Mifsud referred to were not the DNC emails; they were Clinton’s own emails. That is, when Papadopoulos claims that Mifsud told him that Russia had “dirt” in the form of “thousands” of “emails of Clinton,” he understood Mifsud to be alluding to the thousands of State Department and Clinton Foundation emails that Clinton had stored on a private server. These, of course, were the emails that were being intensively covered in the media (including speculation that they might have been hacked by hostile foreign intelligence services) at the time Mifsud and Papadopoulos spoke – i.e., April 2016, when neither Mifsud nor Papadopoulos had any basis to know anything about hacked DNC emails.

4) The DNC emails did not damage Clinton in any material way, and it would have been ridiculous to imagine that they would. They were not Clinton’s emails and she was not a correspondent in them. The emails embarrassed the DNC by showing that the national party favored Clinton over Bernie Sanders. But Clinton was already the certain nominee; nothing in the emails threatened that outcome or set her back in the race against Donald Trump.

The State Department and the FBI Distort What Papadopoulos ‘Suggested’

Downer’s flawed assumption that Papadopoulos must have been referring to the hacked DNC emails was then inflated into a Trump–Russia conspiracy theory by Clinton partisans in the Obama administration — first at the State Department, and then in the Justice Department, the FBI, and the broader intelligence community — all agencies in which animus against Donald Trump ran deep.

To recap, though Downer initially dismissed his conversation with Papadopoulos as trite gossip, he suddenly decided their discussion was significant after the hacked DNC emails were published. In late July, he personally went to the American embassy in London to report the two-month-old conversation to Elizabeth Dibble, the chargé d’affaires (i.e., the deputy chief of mission, who was running the embassy because Matthew Barzun, the U.S. ambassador and heavyweight Democratic-party fundraiser, was on vacation).

Although Papadopoulos is extensively quoted in the Mueller report, the prosecutors avoid any quote from Downer regarding what Papadopoulos told him at the meeting. This is consistent with Mueller’s false-statements charge against Papadopoulos, which includes the aforementioned 14-page “Statement of the Offense” that studiously omits any reference to Papadopoulos’s May meeting with Downer, notwithstanding that it was the most consequential event in Papadopoulos’s case. (See pp. 7–8, in which the chronology skips from May 4 to May 13 as if nothing significant happened in between.)

Instead, Mueller carefully describes not what Papadopoulos said to Downer, but what Downer understood Papadopoulos had “suggested,” namely that

the Trump Campaign had received indications from the Russian government that it could assist the Campaign through the anonymous release of information that would be damaging to Hillary Clinton.

The “Trump Campaign” here is Papadopoulos; the “Russian government” is Mifsud. But Papadopoulos was as low-ranking as it got in the Trump campaign, and Mifsud — the source of the “indications” — was not part of the Russian government at all.

More to the point, even if it were mistakenly assumed that Mifsud was a Russian-government operative (notwithstanding that the FBI could easily have established that he was not), there is no evidence that Mifsud ever told Papadopoulos that the Russian government was planning to assist the Trump campaign by anonymously releasing information damaging to Clinton.

In his February 2017 FBI interview, Mifsud denied saying anything to Papadopoulos about Clinton-related emails in the possession of the Kremlin. Of course, Mifsud could be lying. But there is no evidence that he would have been in a position to know. As we’ve noted, Mueller never charged Mifsud with lying to the FBI. Interestingly, prosecutors allege that Mifsud “falsely” recounted the last time he had seen Papadopoulos; but prosecutors do not allege that Mifsud’s denial of knowledge about Russia’s possession of emails is false (Vol. I, p. 193).

Moreover, the Mueller report does not allege that Papadopoulos ever claimed Mifsud told him the Russians would try to help Trump by anonymously releasing information damaging to Clinton. Again, instead of quoting Papadopoulos, prosecutors repeatedly and disingenuously stress the “suggestion” that Papadopoulos purportedly made — as if the relevant thing were the operation of Downer’s mind rather than the words that Papadopoulos actually used.

Prosecutors acknowledge that Papadopoulos’s conversation with Downer is “contained in the FBI case-opening document and related materials” (Vol. I, p. 89, n. 465). But Mueller’s report does not quote these materials, even though it extensively quotes other investigative documents. Mueller does not tell us what Papadopoulos said.

Here is how the report puts it (Vol. I, p. 192) in explaining why Papadopoulos was interviewed in late January 2017 (my italics):

Investigators approached Papadopoulos for an interview based on his role as a foreign policy advisor to the Trump Campaign and his suggestion to a foreign government representative that Russia had indicated it could assist the Campaign through the anonymous release of information damaging to candidate Clinton.

The “suggestion” that Papadopoulos said such a thing is sheer invention. Plainly, it is based on the wayward deduction by Downer and the State Department that Russia’s anonymous publication (via WikiLeaks) of the hacked DNC emails must have been what Papadopoulos was talking about. But that is not what Papadopoulos was talking about.

Distorting Papadopoulos’s Role to Obscure Reliance on the Steele Dossier

This deduction was not just unfounded but self-interested. The State Department (very much including the American embassy in London) was deeply in the tank for Clinton. Downer has a history with the Clintons that includes arranging a $25 million donation to the Clinton Foundation in 2006, when he was Australia’s foreign minister and then-senator Hillary Clinton was the favorite to become U.S. president in 2008. For years, furthermore, Downer has been closely tied to British intelligence, which, like the British government broadly, was anti-Trump. (More on that in the future.)

The State Department’s Dibble immediately sent Downer’s information though government channels to the FBI.

About three weeks earlier, Victoria Nuland, the Obama administration’s top State Department official for European and Eurasian affairs, had supported the FBI’s request to meet former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele in London. Steele was the principal author of the Clinton-campaign-sponsored faux intelligence reports (the unverified “Steele dossier”), which claimed — based on anonymous sources and multiple layers of hearsay — that Russia was plotting to help Trump win the election, and that it had been holding compromising information about Hillary Clinton.

On July 5, agent Michael Gaeta, the FBI’s legal attaché in Rome (who had worked with Steele on the FIFA soccer investigation when Steele was still with British intelligence), met with Steele at the latter’s London office. Steele permitted him to read the first of the reports that, over time, would be compiled into the so-called dossier. An alarmed Gaeta is said to have told Steele, “I have to report this to headquarters.”

It is inconceivable that Gaeta would have gone to the trouble of clearing his visit to London with the State Department and getting FBI headquarters to approve his trip, but then neglected to report to his headquarters what the source had told him — to wit, that the Trump campaign was conspiring with the Kremlin to undermine the 2016 election.

As I have previously detailed, after the hacked DNC emails were published, Steele (whose sources had not foretold the hacking by Russia or publication by WikiLeaks) simply folded this event into his preexisting narrative of a Trump–Russia conspiracy.

Prior to early July, when the FBI began receiving Steele-dossier reports (which the State Department would also soon receive), the intelligence community — particularly the CIA, under the direction of its hyperpolitical director, John Brennan — had been theorizing that the Trump campaign was in a corrupt relationship with Russia. Thanks to the Steele dossier, even before Downer reported his conversation with Papadopoulos to the State Department, the Obama administration had already been operating on the theory that Russia was planning to assist the Trump campaign through the anonymous release of information that would be damaging to Clinton. They had already conveniently fit the hacked DNC emails into this theory.

Downer’s report enabled the Obama administration to cover an investigative theory it was already pursuing with a report from a friendly foreign government, as if that report had triggered the Trump-Russia investigation. In order to pull that off, however, it was necessary to distort what Papadopoulos had told Downer.

To repeat, Papadopoulos never told Downer anything about emails. Moreover, the Mueller report provides no basis for Papadopoulos to have known that Russia was planning the anonymous release of information damaging to Clinton in order to help Trump; nor does the Mueller report allege that Papadopoulos actually told Downer such a thing.

The State Department’s report to the FBI claiming that Papadopoulos had “suggested” these things to Downer was manufactured to portray a false connection between (a) what Papadopoulos told Downer and (b) the hacking and publication of the DNC emails. That false connection then became the rationale for formally opening the FBI’s Trump-Russia investigation — paper cover for an investigation of the Trump campaign that was already under way.

Editor’s Note: This column has been emended to reflect that it is unclear whether the meeting between Papadopoulos and Downer occurred on May 6, 2016, or on May 10, 2016.

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