Excerpts from “The Plot Against the President: The True Story of How Congressman Devin Nunes Uncovered the Biggest Political Scandal in U.S. History” (Center Street, Hachette Book Group, Oct. 29, 2019), a 368-page book being published Tuesday by journalist Lee Smith.
The Democrats’ push to impeach President Trump began long before the whistleblower’s complaint regarding the president’s July phone call. The origins of the effort to undo the 2016 election date back to former FBI Director James Comey’s March 20, 2017, testimony in front of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
“We’d been hearing since the election about Trump and Russia,” says Rep. Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the intelligence committee. “It’s everywhere in the press. I wanted to get his testimony because I wanted to do as much in public as possible to force them to say they didn’t have anything. I thought Comey would be a calming influence. I thought he would answer questions and say, ‘OK, we’re interviewing a few people, but this is not about the president.’”
But because the FBI investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, code-named Crossfire Hurricane, had nothing on Mr. Trump and because of the emerging evidence of their own wrongdoings, Mr. Comey had to stay on offense.
“The March 20 hearing was to give the FBI a chance to come clean,” says Mr. Nunes. “‘OK, what do you have? You got nothing, and we know it because you never showed it to us.’ We were calling his bluff,” says Mr. Nunes. “And Comey doubled down.”
He announced the FBI’s investigation of “the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election and that includes investigating the nature of any links between individuals associated with the Trump campaign and the Russian government and whether there was any coordination between the campaign and Russia’s efforts.”
Mr. Nunes was surprised. “I had no idea he was going to pull that stunt,” says the congressman. “Comey leaves the whole world with the impression they were investigating Trump while playing word games that they were only investigating the campaign.”
Mr. Nunes later came to realize that Mr. Comey’s testimony had drawn a larger circle around the anti-Trump operation. “At the time we didn’t know the FBI was in on it,” he says.
The FBI had been investigating Mr. Trump and his associates since winter 2015–2016. It had been monitoring Trump adviser Carter Page’s communications for five months at that point and still had nothing to tie Mr. Trump to the Kremlin. If the conspirators were going to topple Mr. Trump, they needed another instrument. Mr. Comey supplied it.
In announcing the investigation, Mr. Comey set a trap: if Mr. Trump fired him, he’d become vulnerable to charges of obstructing an ongoing investigation.
It was the first in a series of obstruction traps designed to hem in the president. Any attempt at self-preservation, to flush out the conspirators who were determined to end his presidency, would only put him in further danger.
The plotters were counting on the apprentice chief executive to make a mistake. In the meantime, they’d buy themselves enough time and maybe find something else they could use to remove him from the White House. He wasn’t their president, so he wasn’t really the president at all.
Imagine that the top military brass is plotting to overthrow the commander in chief. Now move them out of the Pentagon and drop them into the same high-level posts — number ones, their deputies, deputy assistants, and so on — at the Justice Department and FBI. It would be a bloodless uprising, not a military putsch. They’d encircle the White House not with tanks but with paper: memos, letters and legal documents as well as falsified reports, such as the Steele dossier.
The plot against Mr. Trump was a bureaucratic insurgency waged almost entirely through the printed word. It was the “Paper Coup.”
The earliest evidence of the operation was in print: the press reports alleging the Trump circle’s ties to Russia. The dossier, more paper, moved in tandem with the espionage campaign, dispatching operatives to dirty the Trump team with promises of information damaging to 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Even their dangles were documents: Clinton emails, specifically.
Press accounts were used to secure more paper, a FISA warrant, that magnified the Crossfire Hurricane team’s surveillance powers. After Mr. Trump’s election, President Barack Obama ordered the intelligence community assessment, an official document that produced more media reports and legitimized more spying on the Trump administration. News reports of the dossier opened up more channels for the Crossfire Hurricane team to spy on the Trump presidency.
And now Mr. Comey’s testimony would engender more paperwork: memos, reports, testimony, leaks of classified information, legal strategies, more news stories. In the hands of the conspirators, veterans of countless bureaucratic wars, it was all the ammunition they needed.
Mr. Comey’s memos of his conversations with Mr. Trump unintentionally draw a sympathetic portrait of a Beltway novice who was trying to find his footing in the White House and sought advice from experienced bureaucrats.
Mr. Trump didn’t realize at first that they were out to humiliate him, then depose him. He invited Mr. Comey to bring his family to dinner at the White House. The FBI director left an awkward silence for the commander-in-chief to fill. “Or a tour,” said Mr. Trump. “Whatever you think is appropriate.”
Mr. Trump complained about the leaked transcripts of his conversations with the leaders of Australia and Mexico. “It makes us look terrible to have these things leaking,” he said. He talked about the leak of then-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s conversation with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. He said Flynn hadn’t said anything wrong while speaking to Mr. Kislyak. He told Mr. Comey that he hoped he could let it go. The wording was inherently nonobstructive; the president could have directed Mr. Comey to let it go.
Mr. Trump told Mr. Comey that he was upset about the Steele dossier’s infamous “golden shower” story, especially how it had made his wife feel. He said “it bothered him if his wife thought there was even a 1% chance it was true in any respect.” He confided to Mr. Comey, “It has been very painful.”
He asked Mr. Comey if the FBI should investigate the Steele dossier. Mr. Comey discouraged him, saying it “would create a narrative that we were investigating him personally.”
Mr. Trump asked Mr. Comey to say he wasn’t being investigated. It was bad for everyone. He said “he was trying to make deals for the country, the cloud was hurting him.” He assumed that Mr. Comey wanted the same for America and implored him to help by getting out word that the president wasn’t under investigation. Mr. Trump was insistent — it was hurting his ability to serve Americans. He was trying, he said, “to do work for the country, visit with foreign leaders, and any cloud, even a little cloud, gets in the way of that.”
Finally, Mr. Trump understood that Mr. Comey didn’t see things that way. Mr. Comey saw him not as the president but as a target.
Mr. Trump was eagerly waiting confirmation of his new deputy attorney general, Rod Rosenstein. With former Attorney General Jeff Sessions out of the picture and DOJ still controlled by Obama appointees, he didn’t dare move against Mr. Comey. But he was losing his patience.
Soon after taking his post on April 26, Mr. Rosenstein wrote a memo that would justify cutting the FBI chief loose. Mr. Trump attached the memo to his own letter thanking Mr. Comey for “informing me, on three separate occasions, that I am not under investigation.”
Mr. Rosenstein’s memo focused on procedure. “The Director was wrong,” he wrote, “to usurp the Attorney General’s authority” in announcing that the investigation of Mrs. Clinton’s server “should be closed without prosecution.”
Democrats criticized Mr. Rosenstein for supplying the rationale to oust Mr. Comey. He didn’t understand why he was being blamed, and he lost his bearings.
“He did the right thing,” says Mr. Nunes. “But he couldn’t handle the pressure coming at him from the Democrats, the anti-Trump Republicans, and the press, so he panicked.”
Mr. Rosenstein, reportedly dejected and isolated from his peers, was eager to regain the favor of the colleagues whose boss he’d fired. He raised with acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe and others the possibility of recording Mr. Trump.
The aim was to gather evidence to convince administration principals to invoke the 25th Amendment, stipulating that the president may be removed from office when the vice president and a majority of the Cabinet declare that he or she is unable to discharge his duties.
That option was discarded as too impractical. Instead, the conspirators took the path that Mr. Comey had laid out by testifying before the House intelligence committee: to tie up Mr. Trump with an investigation and set him up for an obstruction of justice charge.
Even after having been involuntarily returned to private life, Mr. Comey played an important role in the Paper Coup. Hours after he was fired, FBI agent Peter Strzok texted FBI lawyer Lisa Page: “We need to open the case we’ve been waiting on now while Andy is acting.”
Thus Mr. McCabe opened an investigation on Mr. Trump after Mr. Comey was let go for failing to state publicly that Mr. Trump was not under investigation. The acting FBI director said he had been worried about what might happen to the Russia case if he were removed. “Was the work,” Mr. McCabe asked himself, “on solid ground?” He said he “wanted to protect the Russia investigation in such a way that whoever came after [him] could not just make it go away.”
Mr. McCabe knew that Mr. Trump was unlikely to choose him to replace Mr. Comey. And it was possible that the next FBI director would deprioritize or even discontinue the investigation. To lock it in, he urged Mr. Rosenstein to name a special counsel. Even if Mr. Trump hired a loyalist for the director’s job or Mr. McCabe was fired, the investigation would continue.
Appointed by the Department of Justice, the special counsel would now be under the control of the official overseeing the Russia probe, Mr. Rosenstein. The deputy attorney general would now fulfill his promises of goodwill to the Crossfire Hurricane team.
The strategy required an assist from Mr. Comey himself. He said he had asked a friend to leak to the New York Times his memos, including one memorializing “the president’s Feb. 14 direction that I drop the Flynn investigation.” Mr. Comey said he had been sure that that would get a special counsel named to the case.
And indeed, the day after the Times’ May 16 story sourced to Mr. Comey’s leak of classified information, Mr. Rosenstein wrote a memo appointing former FBI Director Robert Mueller special counsel.
Mr. Comey’s predecessor at the FBI would continue Mr. Comey’s investigation. From paper to paper to paper, Mr. McCabe, Mr. Comey, Mr. Rosenstein and Mr. Mueller had put the Paper Coup on solid ground. Their next move was to try to draw Mr. Nunes into one of their obstruction traps to ensnare Mr. Trump.
• Lee Smith is a veteran journalist whose work appears in Real Clear Investigations, the Federalist, and Tablet.