- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Attorney General William P. Barr has tightened the procedure for opening a criminal probe into a presidential campaign after the Justice Department inspector general found the FBI’s momentous decision on July 31, 2016, to target Trump aides never reached the top.

Mr. Barr has decreed that both the attorney general and the FBI director must sign off on such investigations, steps not taken when the FBI counterintelligence unit opened Crossfire Hurricane, a Trump-Russia election probe.

Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz’s Dec. 9 report found that the decision-making process over four days never reached then-FBI Director James B. Comey or then-Attorney General Loretta E. Lynch.

The decision produced a nearly three-year FBI probe that shifted in May 2017 to special counsel Robert Mueller, who said he didn’t find a Trump-Russia conspiracy. No Trump associate was charged in election collusion.

The Washington Times reported on Jan. 12 that the FBI never gained any evidence of a conspiracy — such as emails, texts, whistleblowers or spies — outside of the discredited Democratic Party-financed dossier.

The Horowitz findings highlight the ongoing next moves in the Trump-Russia saga.

Mr. Barr is disturbed by the FBI’s predicate for starting Crossfire Hurricane. In May, he tapped John Durham, the U.S. attorney for Connecticut, to launch an inquiry into how the process started.

Perhaps telling, when Mr. Horowitz determined the FBI was justified in opening the probe, given the low-evidence threshold to do so, Mr. Durham took the unusual step of releasing a statement saying he disagreed.

Mr. Barr said on Fox News that by the time Mr. Trump was inaugurated on Jan. 20, 2017, it was clear there was no conspiracy to help the Russians hack into Democratic Party computers and launch an anti-Hillary Clinton social media campaign.

The FBI trigger was a wine-room social setting between Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos and Alexander Downer, the Australian ambassador in London.

Papadopoulos had begun discussions with Maltese professor Joseph Mifsud, who told him upon returning from Moscow that Russia owned thousands of Clinton emails. In some form, Papadopoulos passed that information to Mr. Downer over drinks on May 10, 2016.

After WikiLeaks dumped thousands of Democratic emails that July, Mr. Downer notified the U.S.

Said Mr. Barr: “To lead to the conclusion that it showed knowledge of a later hack into the DNC was a pretty aggressive conclusion. I just think that by the time the president entered office — around that time — it was becoming clear that there was no basis to these allegations — not just the dossier falling apart, but the information that they were relying [on] as to … Papadopoulos.”

The Mueller probe found no evidence that Papadopoulos sought Clinton emails or told the campaign in New York.

The 35-page dossier was a Kremlin-sourced collection of felony charges aimed at President Trump. It was complied by former British spy Christopher Steele, who was funded by the Democratic Party and the Clinton campaign. Clinton operatives spread its claims all over Washington, and its memos reached the Crossfire Hurricane team on Sept. 19, 2016.

The Mueller and Horowitz reports effectively refuted Mr. Steele’s reporting, which had received wide backing from Democrats and liberal media.

For the first time, the Horowitz report laid out the players of and the chronology for opening Crossfire Hurricane.

Upon hearing the WikiLeaks news and recalling his May conversation with Papadopoulos, Mr. Downer (not identified by name in the report) contacted a U.S. official in London. That person then summoned an FBI legal attache to provide the ambassador’s tip.

The FBI attache was unsure about what to do with the information and contacted a former legal attache in the Philadelphia field office. The agent then sent a formal “electronic communication” to Philadelphia. That office passed the communication to the cyber counterintelligence coordination section at Washington headquarters, which was investigating Russian hacking.

The electronic communication prompted an intense discussion over four days, July 28-31, inside the counterintelligence unit led by special agent Bill Priestap and agent Peter Strzok. They brought in the general counsel’s office, including Principal Deputy General Counsel Trisha Anderson.

Mr. Priestap said he may have talked to then-Deputy Director Andrew McCabe but not to Mr. Comey.

The Horowitz report said: “Comey told the [Office of the Inspector General] that he did not recall being briefed on the [Downer] information until after the Crossfire Hurricane investigation was opened, and that he was not involved in the decision to open the case.”

Mr. McCabe told the inspector general that the decision to launch Crossfire Hurricane was unanimous among the agents and his counsel, Lisa Page.

The report said: “He also said that when the FBI received the [Downer] information it was a ‘tipping point’ in terms of opening a counterintelligence investigation regarding Russia’s attempts to influence and interfere with the 2016 U.S. elections because not only was there information that Russia was targeting U.S. political institutions, but now the FBI had received an allegation from a trusted partner that there had been some sort of contact between the Russians and the Trump campaign.”

Mr. Priestap said he considered giving the Trump campaign a defensive briefing, such as the one agents provided to the Clinton campaign, instead of opening Crossfire Hurricane. But he decided not to. He opened a “full” investigation, as opposed to an initial inquiry.

All FBI witnesses said they obtained no additional information from any other source, including intelligence agencies, on a possible Trump connection. Mr. Downer was the sole source for starting the probe.

“All of them told us that there was no such information and that predication for the case was based solely on the FFG information,” the report said.

Post-Horowitz report, Mr. Barr bristled at the lack of sourcing.

“They jumped right into a full-scale investigation before they even went to talk to the foreign officials about exactly what was said,” Mr. Barr told NBC News in December of the Papadopoulos-Downer meeting.

In the end, he said, “There was and never has been any evidence of collusion, and yet this campaign and the president’s administration has been dominated by this investigation into what turns out to be completely baseless.”

Mr. Horowitz, the inspector general, asked agents about statements from former CIA Director John O. Brennan, who claimed that he provided the FBI with Russia-Trump contacts before the agency opened the investigation. All witnesses said this was not true.

Mr. Brennan emerged as a fierce Trump critic on MSNBC and implied repeatedly that Mr. Trump was a Russian asset. Mr. Brennan predicted that a number of Trump aides would be indicted on charges of election conspiracy. When they were not, he said he must have been misinformed.

“Comey told us that while Brennan shared intelligence on the overarching efforts by the Russian government to interfere in the 2016 U.S. elections, Brennan did not provide any information that predicated or prompted the FBI to open Crossfire Hurricane,” the inspector general’s report said.

On Jan. 13, Mr. Barr declared, “The opening of a counterintelligence investigation of a presidential campaign would be something that the director of the FBI would have to sign off on and the attorney general would have to sign off on.”

• Rowan Scarborough can be reached at rscarborough@washingtontimes.com.

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