Eight Takeaways From the Durham Report
Susan Schmidt examines the highlights and lowlights of the new Special Counsel report on Trump-Russia
Special Counsel John Durham’s “Report on Matters Related to Intelligence Activities and Investigations Arising Out of the 2016 Presidential Campaigns” trickled out yesterday afternoon, hitting journalist inboxes just after 3:00 p.m. A quick read revealed the following key takeaways:
- There was no valid predicate for the investigation, and the FBI knew it.
From the report:
It is the Office’s assessment that the FBI discounted or willfully ignored material information that did not support the narrative of a collusive relationship between Trump and Russia. Similarly, the FBI Inspection Division Report says that the investigators “repeatedly ignore[d] or explain[ed] away evidence contrary to the theory the Trump campaign… had conspired with Russia… It appeared… there was a pattern of assuming nefarious intent.” An objective and honest assessment of these strands of information should have caused the FBI to question not only the predication for Crossfire Hurricane, but also to reflect on whether the FBI was being manipulated for political or other purposes. Unfortunately, it did not.
The entirety of the evidence the FBI used to launch its investigation of the Trump campaign is contained in what came to be known as “Paragraph Five,” because it ended up in that spot in a FISA warrant application on Trump volunteer Carter Page. The information in Paragraph Five came from Australian diplomat Alexander Downer, and was derived from an interaction he had at a London wine bar with young Trump foreign policy volunteer George Papadopoulos, ostensibly concerning Russia.
Australian diplomats told Durham that the impetus for passing the Paragraph Five info to the U.S. government in late July 2016 was the release of hacked DNC emails by Wikileaks. The entire case came down to an abstract of a diplomatic cable, quoted here in full:
Mr. Papadopoulos was, unsurprisingly, confident that Mr. Trump could win the election. He commented that the Clintons had “a lot of baggage” and suggested the Trump team had plenty of material to use in its campaign. He also suggested the Trump team had received some kind of suggestion from Russia that it could assist this process with the anonymous release of information during the campaign that would be damaging to Mrs. Clinton and President Obama. It was unclear whether he or the Russians were referring to material acquired publicly of sic through other means. It was also unclear how Mr. Trump’s team reacted to the offer.
On the strength of that tiny bit of information, the FBI opened full investigations into four Trump presidential campaign aides, seeking to determine whether they were “witting or and/or coordinating activities with the government of Russia.”
- “There’s nothing to this, but we have to run it to ground.”
As soon as the FBI received Paragraph Five, Counterintelligence chief Peter Strzok and a supervisory agent rushed to London, where they met with an FBI legal attaché (UKALAT) and interviewed diplomats at the Australian High Commission. In a taxi on the way to the interviews, Strzok reportedly said, “There’s nothing to this, but we have to run it to ground,” as the attaché later told the FBI’s inspection division.
One of the Australian diplomats told the FBI team that “the Paragraph Five information was written in an intentionally vague way because of what Papadopoulos did and did not say,” and, because of their uncertainty about what to make of it. The report says Downer told the FBI that Papadopoulos “simply stated, ‘The Russians have information…’ He made no mention of Clinton emails, dirt or any specific approach by the Russian government to the Trump campaign team with an offer or suggestion of providing assistance.”
British intelligence officials, the FBI attaché said, “could not believe the Papadopoulos bar conversation was all there was.”
- “It’s thin”; “There’s nothing to this.”
A message exchange on August 11, 2016 between the attaché and the supervisory agent shows the Americans were as skeptical as the British.
UKALAT-1: Dude, are we telling them [British Intelligence Service-I] everything we know, or is there more to this?
Supervisory Special Agent-1: That’s all we have.
Supervisory Special Agent-I: not holding anything back
UKALAT-1: Damn that’s thin
Supervisory Special Agent-I: I know
Supervisory Special Agent-I: it sucks
- The Trump campaign investigation was premised on “raw, unanalyzed and uncorroborated intelligence,” and U.S. intel agencies possessed no “actual evidence of collusion” when the probe began
According to Durham, the senior FBI officials who ordered the probe did not look at the Bureau’s intelligence databases, or consult its experienced Russia analysts, who could have told them they had seen no information about Donald Trump being involved with Russian leadership officials.
Nor did they seek such information about Trump and Russia from the CIA, the NSA or the State Department.
“Neither US law enforcement nor the intelligence community appears to have possessed any actual evidence of collusion” when the investigation began, the report said.
Further, the FBI opened a full-scale investigation “without ever having spoken to the persons who provided the information.”
- Sensational stories published in the New York Times in February and March 2017 claiming Trump associates were in contact with Russian intelligence agents were false.
Declassified FBI documents from the period surrounding publication of two influential New York Times articles include Strzok’s annotated refutations of the Times stories, which cited as sources “four unnamed current and former U.S. intelligence officials.” Strzok wrote that there was no information “indicating that at any time during the campaign anyone in the Trump campaign had been in contact with Russian intelligence officials.”
Durham’s report disputed the Times accounts that saying US law enforcement and intelligence agencies intercepted communications of Trump associates and campaign officials showing repeated contacts with “senior Russian intelligence officials in the year before the election”; that the intercepted communications had been captured by the NSA; and that Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort had been heard on intercepted calls. The Times has repeatedly said it stands by those stories, including as recently as February of this year when former Times reporter Jeff Gerth wrote about Strzok’s rebuttal of that reporting in the Columbia Journalism Review.
- FBI Director James Comey pushed heavily for an investigation of Carter Page, starting in April 2016 when Page was a government witness in an espionage investigation of Russian diplomats in New York.
Getting a bead on Page was “a top priority for the director,” one intelligence agent said. The attorney who prepared the first of four FISA applications on Page “recalled being constantly pressured to move forward by FBI management.” The report cites Department of Justice Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s report in stating that McCabe and Comey were agitating for lawyers to complete the Page FISA. McCabe told interviewers that, “Comey repeatedly asked him ‘Where is the FISA, where is the FISA? What’s the status… with the Page FISA?”
The FISA was found by the IG to be deeply flawed, riddled with false information and errors. Comey declined to be interviewed by the Durham team.
- At the direction of the FBI, confidential human source Stefan Halper recorded lengthy conversations with Carter Page and George Papadopoulos, in which each denied the campaign had any involvement with Russian officials.
These tapes were in the possession of Crossfire Hurricane investigators, who discounted their denials and ignored exculpatory information they provided in seeking FISA warrants. From the report:
The FBI chose to adopt an interpretation of Papadopoulos’s denials of any knowledge of the Trump campaign’s involvement with the Russians in connection with the DNC computer intrusion and subsequent publication of certain DNC emails as being “weird,” “rote,” “canned,” and “rehearsed.”
The Bureau ignored assertions by Papadopoulos that assistance from the Russians would be “illegal,” and that “espionage is treason.” Agents were so determined to elicit incriminating comments from Papadopoulos that they pressed one of his friends into making 23 separate recordings of him, challenging him with “approximately 200 prompts or baited statements which elicited approximately 174 clearly exculpatory statements.” None of this information ever reached either the FISA court or the news media.
- Durham was highly critical of the FBI’s “startling and inexplicable failure” to investigate the so-called “Clinton Intelligence Plan.”
In late July, 2016, U.S. intelligence agencies “obtained insight into Russian intelligence analysis” alleging Hillary Clinton approved a campaign plan to stir up a scandal against Trump, by “tying him to Putin and the Russians’ hacking of the Democratic National Committee.”
Then-CIA Director John Brennan thought the information was important enough to brief the President, Vice President, Attorney General, the Director of National Intelligence, the FBI director and other senior officials. On September 7, 2016, U.S. intelligence officials forwarded an investigative referral to Comey and Peter Strzok, but the two have said they don’t recall hearing about it. Numerous others at FBI were informed about it, the report said.
The report concludes the FBI:
Failed to act on what should have been—when combined with other incontrovertible facts—a clear warning sign that the FBI might then be the target of an effort to manipulate or influence the law enforcement process for political purposes during the 2016 presidential election.
The report notes in detail how false information intended to damage Trump – the Steele Dossier and the Alfa Bank claims – was provided to the FBI by people tied to the Clinton campaign. Had the FBI investigated what Durham termed the “Clinton intelligence plan” as it pursued its “Crossfire Hurricane” probe, it “would have increased the likelihood of alternative analytical hypotheses and reduced the risk of reputational damage both to the targets of the investigation as well as, ultimately, to the FBI.”
Durham added that if the FBI looked into the “Intelligence Plan,” it might at least have cast a critical eye on the phony evidence it was gathering in Crossfire Hurricane, and/or questioned whether it was “part of a political effort to smear a political opponent and to use the resources of the federal government’s law enforcement and intelligence agencies in support of a political objective.”
Both Clinton campaign Chairperson, John Podesta and Senior Policy Advisor Jake Sullivan called the information “ridiculous,” but the failure to investigate it in real time had a lasting impact.