Hillary Clinton loyalists fed the FBI’s upper echelon an assortment of anti-Donald Trump criminal accusations during the 2016 campaign and his presidency, according to a string of interview transcripts released in recent weeks.
James A. Baker, former FBI general counsel who participated on the receiving end, testified that the situation was “horrible” and “highly unusual.”
At least 10 of Mrs. Clinton’s supporters directly or via middlemen told the bureau tales about Russia-Trump conspiracies. It appears to be an unprecedented effort by a presidential campaign and the party in power to count on the FBI to knock out the other party’s candidate and president.
The transcripts create the picture of an FBI not always following expected norms as it activated an unofficial conveyor belt to make sure the allegations reached the counterintelligence division. It opened an investigation into the Trump campaign on July 31, 2016. In October, it began wiretapping at least one Republican while dispatching possibly multiple undercover sources to spy.
In the end, the Democratic Party-financed charges fell flat. Special counsel Robert Mueller reported last month that his 22-month investigation failed to establish a Trump-Russia conspiracy to interfere in the election by computer hacking and social media trolling.
Attorney General William P. Barr testified to Congress that he personally is reviewing how the FBI began the Trump investigation. He said that Obama officials spied on the Republican’s campaign and that he is trying to determine whether it was justified.
Mr. Baker, a former top legal adviser to bureau Director James B. Comey, testified last year to a House judiciary oversight task force that he became skeptical of anti-Trump data.
“I had a jaundiced eye about everything, yes,” Mr. Baker said. “I had skepticism about all this stuff. I was concerned about all of this. This whole situation was horrible, and it was novel and we were trying to figure out what to do, and it was highly unusual.”
A transcript of his closed-door testimony was released by Rep. Doug Collins, Georgia Republican. He has posted a series of such transcripts from an investigation that ended in January when Democrats took control of the House and turned all their guns on President Trump.
In one plot line, Clinton operatives tried to sell the same conspiracy theory to different levels at the Justice Department.
Mr. Baker said Michael Sussmann, a lawyer at the firm that represented the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee, met with him to pitch the infamous Alfa Bank server story. The Democrats’ theory was that the Trump Organization maintained a direct computer server hookup to Moscow’s Alfa Bank, owned by oligarchs close to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Mr. Trump’s election didn’t derail the Alfa effort. In December 2016, Associate Deputy Attorney General Bruce Ohr met with Glenn R. Simpson, a co-founder of the private investigative firm Fusion GPS. It had hired Christopher Steele the previous June. The erstwhile British intelligence officer went on to produce the unverified anti-Trump dossier, financed by Democrats.
Some cybersleuths traced the server to a marketing firm, but Mr. Simpson told Mr. Ohr, “There was communication and it wasn’t spam.”
The Sussmann and Simpson meetings showed the unusual access Clinton operatives enjoyed. They were selling the Alfa charge to the FBI’s top lawyer and to the Justice Department’s No. 4 official.
‘It is not normal’
A scorecard of some of the contacts.
• Mr. Baker talked with Mr. Sussmann on several occasions and shipped his material — a quarter-inch-thick document and a computer thumb drive — to the counterintelligence wing, then led by Bill Priestap and Peter Strzok. Mr. Strzok is noted for his dislike of Mr. Trump and pledged to “stop” him.
Mr. Baker also said he received dossier material from Mother Jones reporter David Corn, whom he had known for years. Mr. Baker’s attorney said his client is under criminal suspicion in a press leak investigation.
• Mr. Ohr communicated repeatedly with Mr. Steele and Mr. Simpson to hear their Russian collusion charges. He conveyed them to FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe; his counsel, Lisa Page; and Mr. Strzok. Mr. Ohr’s wife worked for Mr. Simpson at Fusion.
At one point, Mr. Ohr handed the FBI two thumb drives containing his wife’s anti-Trump suspicions on business ties with Russia and dossier data. Mr. Ohr had his own FBI handler, Joe Pientka, who recorded at least a dozen interviews with Mr. Ohr after the election into 2017, based on Mr. Steele’s continuous flow of anti-Trump charges.
• Mr. Steele provided his unproven theories to the FBI through Mr. Ohr and received material from a State Department official. After the election, Mr. Steele went a new route: recruiting a Republican, Sen. John McCain, to spread his dossier.
In December, McCain handed the dossier to Mr. Comey, whose team already possessed most of its memos. David Kramer, a McCain associate, proceeded to spread dossier charges among at least eight news outlets, including CNN and BuzzFeed, which published it.
• Jonathan M. Winer, an Obama State Department official, worked with Clinton loyalists Sidney Blumenthal and Cody Shearer, who wrote their own anti-Trump dossier. Pre-election, Mr. Winer provided their paper to Mr. Steele, who was working with the FBI.
Mr. Baker conceded that highly unusual methods were playing out in 2016 and 2017. For example, Mr. Ohr was not involved in the Russia investigation officially, yet he was the messenger for information from Fusion GPS operatives to the FBI.
Rep. Mark Meadows, North Carolina Republican, asked: “So you are using DOJ officials without the knowledge of the hierarchy at DOJ? That seems strange. Why would you do that? Is that the normal way that you would conduct an investigation?”
Mr. Baker: “No, it is not normal.”
Mr. Meadows also asked whether Mr. Baker knew the FBI had violated its protocol. The bureau fired Mr. Steele for breaking the rules of a confidential source by leaking to Mr. Corn at Mother Jones. Yet the FBI still sought his information for more than a year.
“It wouldn’t surprise me,” Mr. Baker answered.
Evidence for wiretaps
Mr. Baker also spoke of a working relationship with The New York Times. Mr. Sussmann had provided The Times with the Alfa Bank cyberdetective work. Mr. Baker said the counterintelligence division wanted the newspaper to put a hold on a story.
“So they give it to The New York Times, they give it to you, and does your bias alarm go off anywhere?” Mr. Meadows asked.
Mr. Baker: “I was concerned about the nature of this material from the first instance.”
In his House testimony, Mr. Ohr said he warned the FBI that the Fusion GPS data flow came from Clinton loyalists.
“So when I provided it to the FBI, I tried to be clear that this is source information,” Mr. Ohr testified. “I don’t know how reliable it is. You’re going to have to check it out and be aware. These guys were hired by somebody relating to — who’s related to the Clinton campaign, and be aware — you know, they were somehow working associated with the Clinton campaign.”
The FBI used the Steele dossier as the major piece of evidence to persuade judges to approve a year’s worth of wiretaps on Trump associate Carter Page. Mr. Page was never charged by the special counsel and said the Steele document was full of lies.
Another House witness last year was George Papadopoulos, the Trump campaign volunteer who unwittingly sparked the July 31 investigation.
His complex story is full of mysterious characters, intrigue and speculation. As a Trump volunteer stationed at a think tank in London, he met Maltese professor Joseph Mifsud. In an encounter on April 26, 2016, Mr. Mifsud told him he heard that Moscow owned thousands of Hillary Clinton emails.
This conversation eventually found its way to the FBI’s Mr. Strzok, who kicked off the investigation.
Mr. Mifsud has visited Moscow frequently but appears to be an unlikely Russian agent. He taught Western intelligence operatives at a college in Rome, socialized with British foreign affairs people and was a welcomed guest in Washington in 2014.
Papadopoulos suspects Mr. Mifsud was a Western intelligence asset, as was Stefan Halper, a U.S. academic who befriended Trump associates while working as an FBI informant.
Papadopoulos was never accused of acting on the email tip. He pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about whether he was a Trump campaign official when he met Mr. Mifsud.
After hearing Papadopoulos’ story, Rep. John Ratcliffe, Texas Republican, wondered aloud: “Based on what you’ve told us, I’m trying to figure out why one of what has become the highest-profile investigations in U.S. history alleging collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government centered around you, a 28-year-old campaign adviser on the job for about a month who, to this day, has never been to Russia, and, to this day, has never knowingly met a member of the Russian government.”