Russia investigation origins counter-narrative
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2016 U.S. presidential election
The Russia investigation origins counter-narrative or Russia counter-narrative, sometimes identified as a conspiracy theory, concerns the origins of the FBI's Crossfire Hurricane investigation and subsequent Special Counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections. Both of those investigations — as well as one by the Republican-controlled Senate Intelligence Committee — concluded that the Russian government interfered in the election for the purpose of benefiting Donald Trump.
Trump frequently expressed the concern that those findings called into question the legitimacy of his presidency. 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 — and later, Ukraine. FBI Director Christopher A. Wray, who was appointed by Trump, stated "We have no information that indicates that Ukraine interfered with the 2016 presidential election" and "as far as the  election itself goes, we think Russia represents the most significant threat."
From the outset, conservatives tried to delegitimize the Mueller investigation. For example, Republican party leaders speculated that the Mueller inquiry stemmed from a plot by members of the Obama Administration and career intelligence officials – an alleged "deep state" – to undermine Trump.
On April 2, 2019, Trump personally urged investigation into the origins of the Mueller investigation. In response, Democrats and some former law enforcement officials became concerned that Trump was abusing the power of the Department of Justice by requesting that it chase unfounded conspiracy theories that cast doubt on the Mueller report's findings.
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 Carter Page surveillance." In a subsequent analysis of 25 unrelated FISA warrant requests, Horowitz found a pattern of similar errors that suggested systemic sloppiness by the FBI, rather than an effort to single-out Page.
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 then, once he won the election, to frustrate his "America First" agenda. Trump rejects the conclusion of US intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the 2016 election to benefit candidate Trump, 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:
- That the Steele dossier had a role in triggering the overall Russian interference investigation (the Inspector General concluded that it did not play a role in the initiation of the Crossfire Hurricane Investigation); the accusation that it was fraudulent, was paid for by the Democratic Party, and that this was not adequately disclosed to the FISA court in wiretap applications (the first FISA application contained a footnote added at the insistence of Deputy Assistant Attorney General Stuart Evans that about the potential political bias of the Steele material). 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 to 2009.
- That the investigations and surveillance were 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.
- That Russian interference was not directed by Putin, was not as significant as the president's opponents insisted, or even decisive in the outcome of the election. Proponents point to the discrepancy in the intelligence community's report on Russian interference between the FBI and CIA's high confidence and the National Security Agency's moderate confidence.
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. The theory further claimed that Ukraine had interfered in the elections at the behest of the Democratic Party to benefit Hillary Clinton's election campaign, and that they had planted evidence that Russia was responsible and had sought to help Trump. 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".
On February 19, 2020, numerous sources revealed that lawyers for WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange told Westminster Magistrates' Court that Trump had Dana Rohrabacher visit Assange at the Ecuadoran Embassy in London on August 16, 2017. Assange had been in court fighting extradition to the United States on charges of computer intrusion as WikiLeaks had posted sensitive documents provided by whistleblower Chelsea Manning. During the August 16 meeting, Assange stated that Rohrabacher had made a quid pro quo offer of a presidential pardon to him, in exchange for Assange covering up Russian involvement by declaring that "Russia had nothing to do with the DNC leaks". Assange's lawyer said that he had evidence "that a quid pro quo was put to Assange by Rohrabacher, who was known as Putin's favorite congressman." White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham stated that Assange's claims were "a complete fabrication and a lie" and added that "the president barely knows Dana Rohrabacher other than he's an ex-congressman." Rohrabacher had previously confirmed the August 16 meeting, saying he and Assange talked about "what might be necessary to get him out" and discussed a presidential pardon in exchange for information on the theft of DNC emails that were published by WikiLeaks before the 2016 presidential election.
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 April 2019, US Attorney General William Barr assigned 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. Durham had already been conducting an investigation in the Department of Justice into leaks, possibly by FBI Director James Comey, to the Washington Post about Michael Flynn that resulted in Flynn's departure from the White House. This widening of Durham's purview built upon a probe launched by U.S. Attorney John W. Huber, who was appointed in 2018 by Jeff Sessions and was separate from the Department of Justice's Inspector General investigation into the FISA warrants. The Durham inquiry has been described as a criminal "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 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 reality, Dmitri Alperovitch, a co-founder of Crowdstrike, and the likely reference, is a naturalized United States citizen who was born in Russia, not Ukraine.
In the fall of 2019, news reports publicized that Barr and the Department of Justice had contacted foreign governments to ask for help in this inquiry, and that this reportedly upset the normal practice of U.S. officials speaking with foreign politicians. Barr 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. 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 that Joseph Mifsud was a Western intelligence operative charged with entrapping 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 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 October 2, 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 Justice Department inspector general aggressively investigated the allegation that Mifsud had been directed to entrap Papadopoulos, but found no information that Mifsud was part of an FBI operation. The New York Times reported that its sources claimed Mifsud was a Russian agent. 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, an FBI attorney who was assigned to the Mueller probe, who 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. On August 14, 2020, Clinesmith pleaded guilty to a felony violation of altering an email used to maintain Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrants. He added the phrase “and not a source” to a statement by the CIA liaison that had said that Carter Page had a prior “contact” relationship with the CIA from 2008 to 2013. On January 29, 2021, Clinesmith was sentenced to 12 months federal probation and 400 hours of community service after pleading guilty to making a false statement in August.
On December 9, following the release of Justice Department inspector general Michael Horowitz's report, 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."
In February 2020, The Washington Post reported that Trump was pressing the Justice Department for Durham to finish his investigation before the election. Barr hinted in June that the Durham investigation would produce results regarding the "complete collapse of the Russiagate scandal" before the end of the summer. In July Barr told a Congressional committee that the review might be released before the election despite an informal Justice Department rule limiting release of such information. In public statements in August, Trump again insisted that investigation produce more prosecutions and suggested that his opinion of Barr would be negatively influenced if it did not. As summer ended there were reports that Barr was himself pressing for the Durham investigation to release its report. Colleagues of Durham have told reporters they believe he was under pressure to produce something before the election. The Hartford Courant reported that unnamed colleagues of A top aide in the investigation who quietly resigned on September 10, claimed she was concerned about political pressure from Barr. In October, Trump ordered the declassification of all documents relating to the 2016 investigation, characterizing it as the "greatest political CRIME in American History." John Ratcliffe, the Director of National Intelligence and a Trump loyalist, released information to the House and Senate Intelligence committees, as well as to senator Lindsey Graham, who made public a document including Russian disinformation about Hillary Clinton. Some critics characterized the actions as a politicization of intelligence.
On November 2, 2020, the day before the presidential election, New York magazine reported from its sources their claim that the Durham probe had uncovered no evidence of wrongdoing by former Vice President Joseph Biden or former President Barack Obama.
On December 1, 2020, Attorney General Barr revealed to the Associated Press that on October 19, 2020, he had appointed Durham to be a Special Counsel pursuant to the federal statute that governed such appointments. Durham's investigation, according to Barr's statement to the Associated Press and the Attorney General's order appointing Durham as special counsel, was to examine whether "any federal official, employee, or any other person or entity violated the law in connection with the intelligence, counter-intelligence, or law-enforcement activities directed at the 2016 presidential campaigns, individuals associated with those campaigns, and individuals associated with the administration of President Donald J. Trump, including but not limited to Crossfire Hurricane and the investigation of Special Counsel Robert S. Mueller III."
Inspector General testimony
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)
- Cyberwarfare by Russia
- Fox News controversies
- List of conspiracy theories
- Social media in the 2016 United States presidential election
- Veracity of statements by Donald Trump
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When I hear that kind of language used, it's concerning, because the FBI and the Department of Justice conduct court-ordered electronic surveillance. I have never thought of that as spying.
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I believe that the FBI is engaged in investigative activity and part of investigative activity includes surveillance activity of different shapes and sizes. To me the key question is making sure that it's done by the book consistent with our lawful authorities.
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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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