Russia investigation origins counter-narrative
The Russia investigation origins counter-narrative or Russia counter-narrative is a right-wing alternative narrative, sometimes identified as a conspiracy theory, concerning the origins of the FBI investigation and subsequent Special Counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections.
Donald Trump had long expressed that the findings of the United States Intelligence Community and the Mueller Report that the Russian government had interfered in the 2016 election to benefit him had undermined the legitimacy of his election as president. Republicans speculated that the Mueller inquiry stemmed from a plot by members of the Obama Administration and career intelligence officials - the alleged "deep state" - to undermine Trump. He attacked the Russia investigation over 1,100 times by February 2019, claiming that it was fabricated as an excuse for Hillary Clinton losing the Electoral College in 2016, that it was an "illegal hoax", and that the FBI had refused to investigate the "real collusion" between the Democrats and Russia. Conservatives have tried from the outset to delegitimize the investigation. On April 2, 2019, Trump personally urged investigation into the origins of the Mueller investigation. Some former law enforcement officials have joined Democrats in expressing concern that this is an abuse of the Department of Justice to chase unfounded conspiracy theories and undermine the findings of the Mueller report. The counter-narrative, promoted via conservative outlets such as National Review and The Federalist, serves to erode interest among conservatives in the reality of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The Washington Post reported on November 22, 2019 that a forthcoming Justice Department inspector general report found the origin of the FBI investigation was properly predicated on a legal and factual basis, and the report did not support several conservative conspiracy theories about the origin. On December 9, 2019, US Inspector General Michael Horowitz testified to Congress that the FBI showed no political bias at the initiation of the investigation into Trump and possible connections with Russia. However, he also stated in a Senate hearing that he "could not rule out political bias as a possible motivation for the 17 errors the FBI made in applications for the Page surveillance."
According to the Trump administration, the Russia investigation should never have happened in the first place as it was a plot by law enforcement and intelligence officials to prevent Trump from winning the 2016 election, and to frustrate his "America First" agenda once elected. Trump rejects the conclusion of US intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, suggesting without evidence instead that hostile American officials may have planted false information that led to the Russia inquiry.
Core elements of the theory include:
- Claims the Steele dossier had a role in triggering the Russian interference investigation (it had no role at all), the accusation that it was fraudulent, was paid for by the Democratic Party (the DNC and Clinton campaign took over a Republican investigation of Trump after Republican sources stopped their funding), and that this was not disclosed to the FISA court in wiretap applications (despite documentary evidence that the source was opposition research). Conservatives also question the FBI's assessment of the credibility of Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence officer who ran the MI6 Russia desk from 2006-2009;
- Donald Trump and his supporters have described the investigations and surveillance as illegal and treasonous "spying" (the spygate conspiracy theory) – a "FISA abuse" narrative, notably involving Susan Rice. The use of the term "spying" in this context is disputed. James Comey and James A. Baker have described the investigations as necessary, appropriate, legal, and apolitical, and FBI Director Christopher A. Wray testified that he saw "no evidence the FBI illegally monitored President Donald Trump's campaign during the 2016 election."
- That the FBI and other institutions are "dangerously biased" against Trump (the deep state conspiracy theory), that Robert S. Mueller III's investigation was run by "13 [or 18] angry Democrats" and that Mueller was "highly conflicted", a claim debunked by Trump's own aides, and the investigation was part of an "attempted coup", based on private texts sent by Peter Strzok expressing opposition to a Trump presidency and speculation over removal of Trump under the 25th Amendment following his firing of James Comey;
- That anti-Trump forces inside the FBI actually entrapped his advisers, and may have even planted evidence of Russian collusion.
More recently, the narrative has expanded to include the fiction that Joseph Mifsud was not a Russian asset, but was a Western intelligence agent used as a counterintelligence trap for the Trump campaign, and elements of the conspiracy theories related to the Trump–Ukraine scandal; it posits that Ukraine, not Russia, was responsible for election interference. US Attorney General William Barr has reportedly traveled in person to Italy (twice) and to the United Kingdom to try to build support for this claim. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte contradicted this, stating that Italy had "played no role in the events leading to the Russia investigation".
The most notable proponent is Donald Trump himself. Following the May 2018 disclosure that FBI informant Stefan Halper had spoken with Trump campaign aides Carter Page, George Papadopoulos, and Sam Clovis, Trump advanced a conspiracy theory dubbed as Spygate, which claimed that the previous administration under Barack Obama paid to plant a spy inside Trump's 2016 presidential campaign to assist his rival, Hillary Clinton, win the 2016 US presidential election. With no actual supporting evidence produced, Trump's allegations were widely described as blatantly false. Trump's allegations prompted the US Justice Department (DoJ) and the FBI to provide a classified briefing regarding Halper to several Congressmen, including Republicans Trey Gowdy and Paul Ryan, who concluded that the FBI did not do anything improper, and that Russia, not Trump, was the target of the FBI.
In June 2018, Trump claimed that a report by DoJ Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz "totally exonerates" him and that "the Mueller investigation has been totally discredited", despite the report having nothing to do with the special counsel investigation, the Trump campaign or Russia. The report was instead focused on the FBI's 2016 investigation of the Hillary Clinton email controversy.
Sean Hannity, a strong supporter of Trump, a vocal and persistent critic of the Mueller investigation on his Fox News television show and syndicated radio program, described Mueller as "corrupt, abusively biased and political." Hannity had asserted that the investigation arose from an elaborate, corrupt scheme involving Hillary Clinton; the Steele dossier, which he asserts is completely false although parts of it have been reported as verified; former DoJ officials James Comey, Andrew McCabe, Bruce Ohr, and others; and a wiretap on former Trump aide Carter Page that Hannity asserted was obtained by misrepresentations to the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, characterizing the wiretap as an abuse of power that is "far bigger than Watergate" and "the weaponizing of those powerful tools of intelligence and the shredding of our Fourth Amendment, constitutional rights."
Jeanine Pirro, a long-time friend of Trump, described Mueller, FBI Director Christopher Wray (a Trump appointee), former FBI Director James Comey and other current/former FBI officials as a "criminal cabal," saying "There is a cleansing needed in our FBI and Department of Justice—it needs to be cleansed of individuals who should not just be fired, but who need to be taken out in cuffs."
In May 2019, US Attorney General William Barr appointed John Durham, the U.S. attorney in the District of Connecticut, to oversee a DoJ probe into the origins of the FBI investigation into Russian interference. The origins of the probe were already being investigated by the DoJ inspector general and by U.S. Attorney John W. Huber, who was appointed in 2018 by Jeff Sessions. This caused some controversy internationally and prompted questions about potential abuse of power by the administration.
The Durham inquiry has been described as an "inquiry into its own Russia investigation", "investigating the investigators" of the Russian meddling in the 2016 elections, and a cover-up to protect Trump. Mick Mulvaney has tied the Durham investigation to the Ukraine scandal, as Durham has sought help from Ukraine and interviewed Ukrainian citizens.
On May 23, 2019, Trump ordered the intelligence community to cooperate with the inquiry and granted Barr unprecedented full authority to declassify any intelligence information related to the matter. DoJ investigators, led by John Durham, planned to interview senior Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officers to determine how they concluded in 2016 that Russian president Vladimir Putin had personally authorized election interference to benefit candidate Trump. Politico reported in July 2019 that after becoming CIA director in 2017, Trump loyalist Mike Pompeo intensely challenged CIA analysts on their findings that Russian interference was designed to help Trump, but he found no evidence to dispute it. The New York Times reported in July 2018 that the CIA had long nurtured a Russian source who eventually rose to a position close to Putin, allowing the source to pass key information in 2016 about Putin's direct involvement. In parallel, Trump and his allies – most notably Trump's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani — promoted an alternative narrative that the Ukrainian government had interfered to benefit Hillary Clinton, in coordination with Democrats, the digital forensics company CrowdStrike and the FBI, alleging the Russian government had been framed. Trump falsely asserted that CrowdStrike, an American company, was actually owned by a wealthy Ukrainian oligarch.
In September 2019 it was reported that Barr has been contacting foreign governments to ask for help in this inquiry, related to the conspiracy theories related to the Trump–Ukraine scandal. He personally traveled to the United Kingdom and Italy to seek information, and at Barr's request Trump phoned the prime minister of Australia to request his cooperation. The Wall Street Journal reported in October 2019 that Barr faced backlash from Britain, Australia and Italy by circumventing normal intelligence channels to speak directly with political leaders. One British official with knowledge of Barr's requests observed, "it is like nothing we have come across before, they are basically asking, in quite robust terms, for help in doing a hatchet job on their own intelligence services." Barr sought information related to a conspiracy theory that Joseph Mifsud was a Western intelligence operative who allegedly entrapped Trump campaign advisor George Papadopoulos in order to establish a false predicate for the FBI to open an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections, that had circulated among Trump allies in conservative media.
That FBI investigation was initiated after the Australian government notified American authorities that its diplomat Alexander Downer had a chance encounter with Papadopoulos, who boasted about possible access to Hillary Clinton emails supposedly held by the Russian government. On 2 October 2019, Senator Lindsey Graham, a staunch Trump supporter and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote a letter to the leaders of Britain, Australia and Italy, asserting as fact that both Mifsud and Downer had been directed to contact Papadopoulos. Joe Hockey, the Australian ambassador to the United States, sharply rejected Graham's characterization of Downer. A former Italian government official told The Washington Post in October 2019 that during a meeting the previous month, Italian intelligence services told Barr they had "no connections, no activities, no interference" in the matter; Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte later affirmed this. The Washington Post reported on November 22, 2019 that the Justice Department inspector general had aggressively investigated the allegation that Mifsud had been directed to entrap Papadopoulos, but found it was without merit.> American law enforcement believes Mifsud is connected to Russian intelligence.
By October 2019 it was reported that Barr and Durham's investigators were, in addition to pressing foreign intelligence officials for help in discrediting the 2016 inquiry, also asking about the route by which information had reached the FBI, and interviewing agents involved in the 2016 inquiry. Durham also inquired about whether CIA officials had tricked the FBI into opening its 2016 investigation. Politico quoted FBI officials who were dismissive of such an assertion. Although the CIA and FBI directors shared intelligence about the matters in August 2016, former government officials said the FBI did not use CIA information to open its investigation the previous month. The Justice Department inspector general later confirmed this. Papadopoulos had previously asserted that Mifsud was "an Italian intelligence asset who the CIA weaponized" against him. Former CIA director John Brennan, a frequent Trump critic, had been singled out for suspicion by Trump and his allies, as well as former director of national intelligence James Clapper, as supposed members of a "deep state" that allegedly sought to undermine Trump.
On October 24, 2019 The New York Times and The Washington Post reported that Durham's inquiry had been elevated to a criminal investigation, raising concerns of politicization of the Justice Department to pursue political enemies of the President. The Times reported on November 22 that the Justice Department inspector general had made a criminal referral to Durham regarding Kevin Clinesmith, a low-level FBI attorney who had altered an email during the process of acquiring a wiretap warrant renewal on Carter Page, and that referral appeared to be at least part of the reason Durham's investigation was elevated to criminal status.
The day Justice Department inspector general Michael Horowitz released his report on the 2016 FBI Crossfire Hurricane investigation, which found the investigation was properly predicated and debunked a number of conspiracy theories regarding its origins, Durham issued a statement saying, "we do not agree with some of the report’s conclusions as to predication and how the FBI case was opened." Many observers inside and outside the Justice Department, including the inspector general, expressed surprise that Durham would issue such a statement, as federal investigators typically do not publicly comment on their ongoing investigations. Barr also released a statement challenging the findings of the report. Horowitz later testified to the Senate that prior to release of the report he had asked Durham for any information he had that might change the report's findings, but "none of the discussions changed our findings." The Washington Post reported that Durham could not provide evidence of any setup by American intelligence.
The New York Times reported in December 2019 that Durham was examining the role of former CIA director John Brennan in assessing Russian interference in 2016, requesting emails, call logs and other documents. Brennan had been a vocal critic of Trump and a target of the president's accusations of improper activities toward him. The Times reported Durham was specifically examining Brennan's views of the Steele dossier and what he said about it to the FBI and other intelligence agencies. Brennan and former director of national intelligence James Clapper had testified to Congress that the CIA and other intelligence agencies did not rely on the dossier in preparing the January 2017 intelligence community assessment of Russian interference, and allies of Brennan said he disagreed with the FBI view that the dossier should be given significant weight, as the CIA characterized it as "internet rumor."
Justice Department Inspector General report and Congressional testimony
The Washington Post reported on November 22, 2019, that the Justice Department inspector general had aggressively investigated the allegation that Mifsud had been directed to entrap Papadopoulos, but found it was without merit.
On December 9, 2019, Horowitz testified before the House Judiciary Committee that his investigation found that despite mistakes in organizing the investigation, the FBI did not display any political bias when initiating the investigation of Trump and the Russian government. However, he also stated in a Senate hearing that he "could not rule out political bias as a possible motivation for the 17 errors the FBI made in applications for the Page surveillance."
- Alternative media (U.S. political right)
- Crossfire Hurricane (FBI investigation)
- Cyberwarfare by Russia
- Fox News controversies
- List of conspiracy theories
- Social media in the 2016 United States presidential election
- Timeline of Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections
- Timeline of post-election transition following Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections
- Timeline of investigations into Trump and Russia (January–June 2017)
- Timeline of investigations into Trump and Russia (July–December 2017)
- Timeline of investigations into Trump and Russia (January–June 2018)
- Timeline of investigations into Trump and Russia (July–December 2018)
- Timeline of investigations into Trump and Russia (2019)
- Veracity of statements by Donald Trump
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Baker emphasized that the FBI's investigation into Russian interference in the election did not focus on the Trump campaign officials' interactions with Russia until a 'trusted, reliable foreign partner' sent information to the agency that George Papadopoulos, a former campaign aide, was interacting with 'a person who claimed to have email dirt on Hillary Clinton... The important thing to remember...was the case was about Russia.... It was about Russia, period, full stop. That was the focus of the investigation. When the Papadopoulos information comes across our radar screen, it's coming across in the sense that we were always looking at Russia.
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