White House

Trump Was Always the Target of the Russia Investigation

President Donald Trump speaks with reporters in Washington, D.C., August 23, 2019. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
The IG report confirms it.

Donald Trump was always the target.

The point of the Russia investigation was to make a case against Donald Trump. Preferably, the case would drive him from office. At a minimum, it would render him unelectable by the 2020 stretch run. The kind of case was less important than the objective: criminal prosecution or impeachment. In accordance with the collusion narrative, the latter would mean trying to show that Trump was compromised by the Kremlin.

That is the astonishing takeaway from Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s report on former FBI director James Comey’s handling of his memos.

In truth, it’s not that astonishing. It happens to be the theory of my new book, Ball of Collusion: The Plot to Rig an Election and Destroy a Presidency. Obviously, if a book can show that Donald Trump was in the FBI’s crosshairs all along, that fact had to have been knowable for some time.

Still, if you’re going to write a book about a mind-blowing theory, it is gratifying to have that theory confirmed — notwithstanding how alarming it may be for the state of our republic.

The IG report confirms it.

It is an offhanded confirmation. The burden of the IG report is not to break news about the true purpose of the Trump-Russia investigation. It is to assess former director Comey’s conduct in generating, maintaining, and disseminating information in the memos he made about most of his interactions with President Trump. On that score, the IG report is scathing.

I’m going to put that to the side, along with the former director’s regrettable decision to go Baghdad Bob on Twitter just as the report was released. There’s already been enough misdirection.

Regardless of why IG Horowitz came to address the objectives of the Russia investigation, address them he did. The upshot of that was nailed by Byron York in his Washington Examiner report.

What we learn is that Comey and his top FBI advisers prepared extensively for the then-director’s January 6, 2017, briefing of then-president-elect Trump. The detailed preparation owed to the fact that the FBI regarded the session at Trump Tower in New York not as a mere briefing but as an evidence-gathering opportunity. That’s because they were investigating Trump, which they hoped to continue doing when he took office . . . which called for putting him at ease . . . which meant telling him that they were not investigating him.

The plan on January 6 (i.e., the day after director Comey met with President Obama about next steps in the Russia investigation) was for Comey to hit the president-elect with a Steele-dossier allegation: the salacious and unverified claim that Trump had cavorted with prostitutes at a Moscow hotel in 2013, and been covertly recorded doing so by Russian intelligence.

That’s not a briefing. It is Criminal Investigations 101: Get the suspect talking so a comfort level is established, then zing him with something that will rock his world. Thus confronted, a suspect will often blurt out either an implicit admission of guilt or a false exculpatory statement. Either one is a home run for the investigator.

And make no mistake: Comey was the investigator. The zing was elaborately planned, and so was the post-mortem. A bureau car equipped with a secure computer would be at the ready. While Trump’s words were still ringing in Comey’s ears, the then-director would begin typing out the then-president-elect’s reaction to the ambush — his responsive statements, his reasoning if he had tried to justify himself, his demeanor.

The investigator wants to get all of that in his report. That way, the suspect is locked in. As a practical matter, once you have given a version of events, making up a new story when you are later charged and informed about the prosecution’s evidence is not an option. Innocent people do not have multiple versions of events; they have one story: the truth. Only guilty people lie. That’s why, for the investigator, a false exculpatory statement is as good as a true confession. That’s why the ambush works so well.

There’s a caveat, of course. The ambush strategy works well if the suspect is guilty. When a suspect makes exculpatory statements that the investigator cannot disprove, then the investigator has no case.

When we look again at Comey’s memo of that first meeting with President-elect Trump, we see how this played out: Comey’s zinger, Trump’s exculpatory responses. We find the highly experienced investigator elaborating on the operation of his suspect’s mind:

I said, the Russians allegedly had tapes involving him and prostitutes at the Presidential Suite at the Ritz Carlton in Moscow from about 2013. He interjected, “there were no prostitutes; there were never prostitutes.” He then said something about him being the kind of guy who didn’t need to “go there” and laughed (which I understood to be communicating that he didn’t need to pay for sex). He said “2013” to himself, as if trying to remember that period of time, but didn’t add anything. He said he always assumed that hotel rooms he stayed in when he travels are wired in some way.

If you understand what Comey was doing, the memo is not very subtle. The implication is that the “golden showers” incident may well have happened (meaning: Yes, Putin may have Trump over a barrel, just like Chris Steele says!). The president-elect was adamant only that prostitutes were not involved, not that an escapade of this kind was inconceivable. The then-director made sure to include Trump’s thinking aloud about the year of the alleged incident, 2013. Translation: Most normal people would be able immediately to say, “This never happened”; but for Trump, kinky exploits must be so routine that his first impulse was to sort out the time frame.

That is to say: If the FBI’s investigation turned up some corroboration for Steele’s pee-tape story, Comey would now be in a position to provide helpful testimony about Trump’s statements and state of mind. The memo itself might even be admissible in court as evidence for the prosecution.

“Recollection recorded” — remember that one? That was the tell.

In June 2017, when the existence of former director Comey’s memos first emerged, he was asked why he’d made them. He explained, “I understood this to be my recollection recorded of my conversation with the president” (emphasis added). I observed at the time that, as an old prosecutor, that got my antennae pinging. To non-attorneys, this was just gobbledygook. But as any trial lawyer can tell you, “recollection recorded” is not an idle phrase. It is a term of art in the Federal Rules of Evidence (specifically, Rule 803(5), “Recorded Recollection”).

Most out-of-court statements (e.g., a news story about an event) are inadmissible as hearsay. But under some circumstances, “recollection recorded” is an exception to the hearsay rule. To qualify, the recollection must be recorded (such as in a memo) at the time an incident was fresh in the witness’s memory, so that it accurately reflects the witness’s knowledge. That’s why — if you’re not only an FBI official but a seasoned trial lawyer, such as Jim Comey — you’d want to write it down contemporaneously or immediately after the relevant event. Perhaps in a car speeding to a meeting with fellow investigators to report back to them about the investigation you’ve just done, despite telling your prime suspect, the incoming president, that you are not investigating him.

Thanks to the IG report, we now know more of the gory details. But as I’ve tried to show in Ball of Collusion, the underlying truth has been discernible for a long time. The Obama administration launched an investigation in which the target was Donald Trump and the objective was short-circuiting his presidency.

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