As news broke Friday that John Durham’s criminal probe into the origins of the Trump-Russia investigation had resulted in a former FBI lawyer being charged with doctoring FISA evidence used against the Trump campaign, the formerly Russia-obsessed mainstream media did its best to look the other way.
Kevin Clinesmith, who first worked on the FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane team and then under special counsel Robert Mueller — only to be fired in February 2018 after it was revealed he sent anti-Trump messages — will plead guilty to one count of making false statements. Clinesmith’s admission came after Justice Department inspector general Michael Horowitz faulted him in a December report for doctoring an email to state that former Trump-campaign national security adviser Carter Page was “not a source” for the CIA — when in fact the email from a CIA official stated the opposite.
Clinesmith’s plea is not an indictment, but a “criminal information,” in which the defendant seeks to avoid being charged by a grand jury. As National Review’s Andy McCarthy has pointed out, such a move is often made under a cooperation agreement, suggesting that Clinesmith could be working with Durham.
Despite the plea’s status as the first major development in Durham’s investigation, the media barely batted an eye, abandoning the Russia saga after providing wall-to-wall coverage of Michael Flynn’s plea deal with Robert Mueller in December 2017.
“I think really the most important thing right now is to stay humble, and keep your eyes and your ears open, in terms of what you think you understand about Mike Flynn in this scandal,” MSNBC host Rachel Maddow said in her opening monologue the night Flynn, Trump’s former national-security adviser, pled guilty to lying to the FBI.
But on her show Friday, Maddow, who breathlessly covered “Russia-gate” night after night for two years, totally ignored the Clinesmith news. And she wasn’t the only one. CNN’s Anderson Cooper failed to cover the plea deal during his two hours of Friday-night programming. Cooper’s colleague Don Lemon, who also covered the Russia probe and Flynn’s plea relentlessly, couldn’t find time to cover Clinesmith’s plea during his 10 p.m. time slot.
Instead of ignoring the news altogether, Maddow’s colleague Chuck Todd reacted to the development by belittling Durham’s probe in general, wondering aloud whether the investigation is aimed at “creating confusion about investigating the investigators.” MSNBC legal analyst Andrew Weissmann decided to challenge the news head on.
Weissmann claimed on Twitter that Clinesmith’s altering of the email was not “material” to the indictment, because Durham did not say whether Carter Page had, in fact, been a “source” for the CIA in the court document. That Page provided information to the CIA, and was praised by the agency for doing so, is beyond dispute, whether Durham mentioned it in his indictment or not.
Clinesmith is charged with adding the words "not a source" to an email about Carter Page, but no where does the charge say that is false, i.e. that Page was a source for the CIA. Without that, how is the addition "materially" false? Compare with Barr's materiality std for Flynn.
— Andrew Weissmann (@AWeissmann_) August 14, 2020
The attempt to compare the Flynn guilty plea to Clinesmith’s, however, does call into question the media framing of both stories.
Elite political reporters and pundits focused their writing and broadcasting on Flynn’s guilty plea for months and jumped to far-reaching conclusions about what it meant for the future of Trump’s presidency. When Clinesmith’s plea was announced Friday, our opinion leaders and news gatherers collectively decided to fit the latest development into the framework they’d developed over the better part of two years, rather than revise their conclusions in the face of new facts.
Take New York Times reporter Adam Goldman, who broke the Clinesmith story, for example.
Goldman emphasized Friday that “prosecutors did not reveal any evidence in charging documents that showed Mr. Clinesmith’s actions were part of any broader conspiracy to undermine Mr. Trump.” But in the 23rd paragraph, Goldman mentions that “Mr. Clinesmith had provided the unchanged C.I.A. email to Crossfire Hurricane agents and the Justice Department lawyer drafting the original wiretap application.”
Taken together, the two statements raise serious questions. If Clinesmith “provided the unchanged” email to other FBI officials, those officials must have been aware that he doctored his email to the FISA court. In other words, when they received the un-doctored email proving that Page had long cooperated with the federal government and chose to say nothing, they became part of a “broader conspiracy.”
Goldman proved much more willing to assign blame to a broad and nebulous group of actors when Flynn pled guilty in December 2017, calling the news “a politically treacherous development for the president and his closest aides.”
Goldman went on to write that Flynn’s plea implied “that prosecutors now have a cooperative source of information from inside the Oval Office during the administration’s chaotic first weeks.” But a similar hypothesis about the far-reaching implications of Clinesmith’s guilty plea was not advanced in Goldman’s most recent report.
Other outlets have engaged in similar efforts to downplay the seriousness of Clinesmith’s wrongdoing by framing the plea as a single act of unintentional malfeasance. The notion that the Crossfire Hurricane team accidentally failed to mention Page’s work for the CIA to the FISA Court is facially absurd. The CIA sent a memo to the team detailing the agency’s relationship with the former Trump aide before the FBI filed their first FISA application to surveil Page; the FBI didn’t mention it on that first application or their three subsequent application renewals.
NPR’s justice correspondent Carrie Johnson headlined her report on the Clinesmith plea: “Case Linked To Alleged Abuse Of Surveillance Power.” The label “alleged” has been inaccurate since December 2019, when Horowitz released a report detailing “at least 17 significant errors or omissions” in the FBI’s FISA applications used against Carter Page. Johnson also reported that the former FBI lawyer had “allegedly doctored an email.” In the very next paragraph, she quotes — without a hint of irony — Clinesmith’s lawyer, who told her that “Kevin deeply regrets having altered the email.”
Johnson was not so timid when speculating about the implications of Flynn’s guilty plea: After quoting then-White House special counsel Ty Cobb, who argued that Flynn’s decision to plead guilty did not implicate additional officials, she explained that “Flynn’s plea agreement and cooperation with Mueller would seem to signal the opposite — that the investigation has now reached into the Trump White House itself, and that it still has a long way to go before wrapping up.”
The Associated Press’s 2017 article on Flynn took a similar angle, warning that the development “could be an ominous sign for a White House” and hypothesizing that “if the Trump transition made secret back-door assurances to Russian diplomats, that could potentially run afoul of the Logan Act” — without mentioning that no one has ever been successfully prosecuted under the law since its passage in 1799.
But in their report on Clinesmith’s plea, the AP opted against commenting on what the development meant for the Russian collusion narrative and chose instead to comment on its utility as a prop that might “lift Trump’s wobbly reelection prospects” by exposing what the Trump administration “see[s] as wrongdoing.”