Magazine | October 14, 2019, Issue

Unraveling the Origins of the Trump-Russia Investigation

From the cover of Ball of Collusion (Encounter)
Ball of Collusion: The Plot to Rig an Election and Destroy a Presidency, by Andrew C. McCarthy (Encounter, 466 pp., $35.99)

On the last page of his new book, Andrew McCarthy worries that Robert Mueller’s final report will provide a roadmap for impeachment. It’s an understandable concern. Mueller found no direct conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia to influence the election. Yet he did uncover how the president unsuccessfully tried to impede or scuttle Mueller’s investigation. The Democrats never got collusion, but they may have gotten obstruction.

It’s an apt ending for a book that analyzes how the intelligence bureaucracy and federal law-enforcement system bent rules and shifted goalposts in the service of getting Donald Trump. This is the essence of what McCarthy calls the “ball of collusion.” It is:

counterintelligence as a pretext for a criminal investigation in search of a crime; a criminal investigation as a pretext for impeachment without an impeachable offense; an impeachment inquiry as a pretext for rendering Donald Trump un-reelectable; and all of it designed to straitjacket his presidency.

That is a damning charge. In normal times, it would — at the least — be grist for a national debate. But in the age of Trump, only his supporters seem to care that America’s top spies and lawmen weaponized their institutional power against the opposition presidential campaign and, later, the sitting president.

Major media institutions — with a few exceptions — dismiss as a conspiracy theory the critique of the Trump-Russia investigation. McCarthy, however, cannot be written off as a “deep state” obsessive. He is a conservative for sure, but he is one with impeccable national-security credentials. He spent his first career as a U.S. attorney who prosecuted the terrorists responsible for the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. His targets in Ball of Collusion include former colleagues with whom he was once friends, such as former FBI director James Comey.

McCarthy’s expertise is useful because he dismisses some of the rabbit holes that others have gone down, such as the theory that Trump’s first National Security Agency director, Michael Rogers, warned the incoming president during the transition that his campaign was being surveilled. It also gives him the authority to explain the arcane details of wiretap law and the important differences between criminal and counterintelligence investigations.

McCarthy also acknowledges those moments when Trump gave his opponents ammunition. He has no patience for the president’s many suck-ups to Vladimir Putin. The chapter in which he delves into the June 2016 Trump Tower meeting between top Trump-campaign officials and a Russian lawyer promising dirt on Hillary Clinton is appropriately titled “Amateur Hour.” McCarthy concludes that Trump’s decision to have a flunky fire James Comey while the FBI director was flying to California was “vindictive and cruel.” He observes that Trump’s decision to gloat about firing Comey the next day at the White House to Russia’s foreign minister was the lowest moment of his presidency. “If you don’t want a meritless investigation against you to continue, then don’t giftwrap reasons to continue it,” he writes.

And while McCarthy is withering in his assessments of former officials such as CIA director John Brennan and national-security adviser Susan Rice, he does not impute bad faith. He allows in the book that Obama’s national-security team really did believe that Trump was in a corrupt bargain with Vladimir Putin. They believed Christopher Steele, the former British spy who provided the raw intelligence for the Democratic party’s opposition-research dossier on Trump.

These reservations give his argument about the Trump-Russia narrative credibility and analytical distance. At times his comparison between the FBI’s treatment of Clinton and its treatment of Trump is strained. It’s true that Clinton was given advantages that Trump was never afforded. For example, the bureau never ran informants against Clinton’s inner circle the way it did against Trump. On the other hand, the charge against Trump was far more serious than engaging in a self-serving scheme to evade the federal records regulations.

This does not diminish McCarthy’s forensic unraveling of the origins and consequences of the Obama administration’s investigation of the Trump campaign, and in particular the role played by Steele’s opposition research.

McCarthy’s chapters on the dossier are an important corrective to the conventional Washington wisdom that Steele was a competent spy who tried his best to get his valuable information to the FBI before it was too late. Mueller of course was unable to find anything to back up Steele’s claims, and in particular the charge that Carter Page, a low-level campaign volunteer, had coordinated with senior Russian officials and former campaign manager Paul Manafort on the Russian interference campaign. This story is largely forgotten today. But for the first year and a half of the Trump presidency it was treated as gospel by the Resistance.

It was also the basis of the FBI’s surveillance of Page and, by extension, the Trump campaign. The bureau should have been more suspicious. To start, there were Steele’s Russian sources. One of them was a Belarusian businessman named Sergey Millian. He had a history of exaggerations and later acknowledged he never represented Trump as a real-estate agent, as he had first claimed. Other sources for Steele were so high up in the Kremlin that there were good reasons to believe they might have been feeding disinformation.

There were also red flags about accuracy. The notes of an interview Steele gave to a State Department official in the fall of 2016 highlighted that Steele referred to a Russian consulate in Miami that doesn’t actually exist. Furthermore, Steele missed the big Russian operation in 2016, the hacked emails from the Democratic National Committee and the Hillary campaign. None of his sources told him about that before the fact.

One thing we don’t know is whether there was any effort to corroborate Steele’s information with the high-ranking Kremlin source the CIA ran that helped verify Putin’s role in ordering the election interference. Hopefully U.S. attorney John Durham, who has been charged with reviewing the Trump-Russia investigation, will provide an answer to this question.

When the House Intelligence Committee first pressed for partial declassification of Page’s surveillance warrant in 2018, the matter devolved into a partisan food fight. Democrats claimed that there was additional, unreleased evidence presented to the secret surveillance court for probable cause that Page was a foreign agent. This misses the point. As McCarthy lays out, public evidence to date shows that Page was already a cooperating witness in an earlier prosecution of Russian spies who had attempted to recruit him. Why didn’t the bureau interview him again? What’s more, former deputy FBI director Andrew McCabe acknowledged in closed testimony that the Page warrant would not have been approved had it not been for the Steele dossier.

If Steele’s dossier had been used only for opposition research, it wouldn’t really matter. The fact that it was also used as the basis to spy on the Trump campaign is a scandal. The fact that the surveillance court has not yet reprimanded the bureau for its reliance on the dossier should alarm anyone who cares about basic oversight of the intelligence community.

McCarthy himself has opposed a role for the courts in approving surveillance. He has argued that the courts don’t have the expertise to really oversee the process and that the president and executive branch are responsible for national security. That said, he now acknowledges that he was wrong to dismiss the danger of tearing down the wall between counterintelligence and criminal investigations. In the Trump-Russia probe, counterintelligence tools were used to fish for crimes to prosecute, he argues.

We now know that Trump over time became aware of the irregular and troubling investigation launched against him. That’s no excuse for much of his behavior. But it also helps explain his animus toward Comey, McCabe, and Brennan. Why, after all, did Comey assure him in private that he was not a target of the investigation but refuse to say that publicly?

Trump’s outbursts were treated by most observers in Washington as contempt for the rule of law itself. Respect for the rule of law, however, is a two-way street. McCarthy shows that the senior leadership of the FBI and the outgoing Obama administration gave themselves permission to violate precedent and procedure to expose a crime Mueller couldn’t find.

One might think these facts would force a reckoning for Trump’s Resistance. That hasn’t happened. Just as McCarthy feared, the goalposts have shifted again. The House Judiciary Committee is now threatening to begin an impeachment proceeding against Trump for trying to obstruct an investigation that turned up no underlying conspiracy. Democrats may consider this fair payback for the House’s impeachment of Bill Clinton nearly a quarter century ago. There is a key difference, though. The Bush administration’s FBI did not investigate the Clinton campaign based on opposition research paid for by the Republican party. The same cannot be said about Obama’s administration when it came to Trump.

This article appears as “An Investigation in Search of a Crime” in the October 14, 2019, print edition of National Review.

Eli Lake — Mr. Lake is a foreign-affairs columnist for Bloomberg and a former senior reporter for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Washington Times, and the New York Sun.

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