Donald Trump campaign alumni wonder today what happened inside the FBI over 218 days from mid-August 2016 to March 20, 2017, that changed their lives forever.
August was the month a special FBI unit code-named Crossfire Hurricane picked four Trump associates for Russia-related counterintelligence cases. Former FBI Director James B. Comey testified later that it was not the campaign but “four Americans” under the microscope.
On March 20, 2017, Mr. Comey told the world that the entire Trump team faced investigation for “any links” to Russian government.
What changed during those 218 days?
First, there was no evidence at the time that the four had conspired with the Kremlin to hack Democratic Party computers or join in social media warfare against the Hillary Clinton campaign. There would never be any evidence.
With two major Justice Department reports providing no answers, Trump figures are looking to special investigator John Durham. Attorney General William P. Barr assigned Mr. Durham to find out why a no-evidence inquiry penetrated so many lives. By early 2017, before Mr. Comey’s pronouncement, the FBI investigation had “collapsed,” Mr. Barr said.
The FBI selected the four — Carter Page, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, Paul Manafort and George Papadopoulos — simply because they had some contacts with or links to Russians.
Seven months after Crossfire Hurricane began, Mr. Comey sat at the witness table of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence for the first high-profile Russia hearing. Mr. Comey said the Justice Department had authorized him to make an extraordinary announcement: that practically the entire Trump political world was under investigation.
What followed March 20 for Trump allies were two years of FBI door-knocks and Form 302 interview reports, grand jury testimony, congressional interrogations, intense and threat-filled sessions with federal prosecutors, and huge legal bills. The Comey decree gave Russia-hungry Washington reporters even more license to scrutinize any Trump ally.
“To our family, Comey’s March 20, 2017, House intelligence appearance signaled the beginning of a descent into Hell,” said Michael Caputo, a media adviser to the Trump team who went through the FBI-Congress crucible. “As an unintentional expert on the topic, I know only one thing for sure: We’ll never know the full story from this FBI.”
Mr. Caputo was never accused of any crime. His targeting appears to stem from previous work in Russia and associations with Republican operatives Manafort, business partner Rick Gates and Roger Stone.
“The rogue FBI wanted to get to Donald Trump by any means necessary. And for a time, early on, I may have looked like a path to him via Stone, Gates and Manafort,” Mr. Caputo told The Washington Times.
J.D. Gordon, a retired naval officer, was a national security adviser to the Trump campaign. He underwent hours of FBI questioning over his role in writing the Republican platform, in particular the language on Ukraine. He viewed the plan as commonplace compromise, not a Russian plot. He was never charged.
“James Comey has been around Washington long enough to know there are three primary ways to destroy people: physically, legally and politically,” Mr. Gordon told The Times. “His congressional testimony in March 2017 inflicted maximum political damage against the president and his team through sparking a media witch hunt against scores of people, regardless of their innocence or guilt.”
Mr. Comey’s attorney did not respond to a message seeking comment about his March 20 testimony.
Kevin Downing, defense attorney for Paul Manafort, said his client never should have been placed into the orbit of special counsel Robert Mueller.
Mr. Mueller was assigned the task of exploring links between Mr. Trump and Russia, but Manafort ended up being convicted of tax evasion for money he received from a pro-Russia political party in Ukraine and was sent to a federal prison. A tax case had already been opened inside the Justice Department.
“From the beginning of the case, there was really nothing that was being produced to us from prosecutors that had anything to do with any coordination with the Russian government,” Mr. Downing said. “We just said, ‘There’s nothing here.’ He really should not have been prosecuted by the special counsel’s office if the mission was what they said it was.”
The District Court judge who presided over Manafort’s trial said the Mueller team was hoping to turn him against Mr. Trump.
Mr. Comey did not disclose who in the Justice Department authorized his March 20 declaration, nor does he do so in his memoir.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions had recused himself a few weeks earlier, on March 2. Dana J. Boente, a career Justice prosecutor, served as acting deputy attorney general.
He received a series of briefings on Crossfire Hurricane around the time Mr. Comey testified on March 20, according to Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s Dec. 9 report . He told the Horowitz team he saw no problem with opening the investigation but thought it was moving too slowly.
Mr. Boente, who is now FBI general counsel, approved the third of four Page wiretap applications in early April 2017. Mr. Horowitz found that it, like the other three, was riddled with inaccuracies and omissions of exculpatory information. The FISA court, which ultimately approves warrants, last month ruled the third and fourth affidavits were unlawful.
The Horowitz report said Mr. Boente wasn’t aware of the FBI’s multiple errors at the time he signed the wiretap application. Mr. Boente did know that the dossier by British ex-spy Christopher Steele, on which much of the affidavit was based, was connected to the Democratic Party, the IG said.
The Times asked the FBI whether Mr. Boente approved the Comey March 20 statement. A spokesman declined to comment.
In March 2019, when Mr. Mueller closed shop and returned to his Washington law firm, he left a report that said he didn’t find a Trump-Kremlin election conspiracy.
There have been two expansive Justice Department reports on Trump-Russia, but neither fully answers why the investigation grew at a time when Mr. Barr contends it collapsed.
Mr. Mueller’s report focused on whom the FBI investigated, not how. Mr. Horowitz had a narrow assignment: to look at FBI abuse of the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act.
The dossier arrives
The public record does show one tumultuous event inside Crossfire Hurricane, between mid-August and March 20, that changed American history.
The Horowitz report documents that on Sept. 19, 2016, lead agent Peter Strzok, a Trump detractor, received the first memos contained in the infamous Steele dossier.
Mr. Steele, a former British intelligence officer, had received funding from the Democratic Party and Mrs. Clinton’s campaign. His sources were Kremlin operatives.
As Mr. Strzok and other agents read the memos, they saw Mr. Steele’s bombshell allegation: a widespread election conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia. Mr. Trump was in the middle of it, Mr. Steele wrote, and was a Kremlin spy.
The FBI began chasing Mr. Steele’s theories.
Yet the public record, according to a Times analysis, seems devoid of any testimony that shows how the dossier affected FBI attitudes toward Mr. Trump and his allies. Did they view the president as a Russian spy, as Mr. Steele alleged, right from the start?
Sen. Richard Burr, North Carolina Republican and chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, tried to get an answer to that question at a June 2018 hearing.
Mr. Burr: “And when you read the dossier, what was your reaction, given that it was 100% directed at the president-elect?”
Mr. Comey: “Not a question I can answer in an open setting, Mr. Chairman.”
Immediately after Mr. Trump fired Mr. Comey in May 2017, then-Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe opened a counterintelligence investigation into the president.
In February 2019, Mr. McCabe suggested on “60 Minutes” that Mr. Trump might have been a Russian agent — the same claim made by Mr. Steele.
Mr. Mueller had completed his report at the time. When it was released a month later, it made no mention of Mr. Trump being any kind of Russian asset.
After the dossier arrived from the New York field office to Crossfire Hurricane, the FBI embraced it.
Agents used it as the essential piece of evidence to obtain four wiretap warrants on Mr. Page and even withheld evidence to the contrary, according to the Horowitz report. They did not tell the Justice Department when they found out as early as January 2017 that Mr. Steele’s main source for the dossier said he was just repeating Kremlin gossip. That lack of disclosure kept it out of the surveillance affidavits submitted to judges.
FBI agents told Justice Department affidavit writers that Mr. Steele had testified in U.S. criminal cases. He had not.
But the FBI remained committed to the dossier and even offered Mr. Steele $50,000 in October 2016 to keep investigating Mr. Trump.
Mr. Comey and Mr. McCabe also encouraged other agencies to include the Steele papers in the official intelligence assessment on Russian interference. The others refused.
The Washington Times examined witness transcripts, court records and official reports. It concluded that the only evidence of a conspiracy was the Democratic Party-funded dossier. Outside the dossier, there were no emails, text messages, testimony, whistleblowers or communication intercepts that told of a Trump-Kremlin conspiracy.
Two months after Mr. Comey made his stunning March 20 announcement, Mr. Trump fired him. But “Russia” remained an investigation in search of evidence.
“In fact, when I was fired as director, I still didn’t know whether there was anything to it,” Mr. Comey later told a House task force about the ongoing Russia probe.
Mr. Strzok texted FBI attorney Lisa Page that he didn’t know whether there was any “there there” if he joined the Mueller team. He did decide to join and was later dismissed for blatant anti-Trump messaging.
Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who Mr. McCabe said wanted to wear a wire in a meeting with Mr. Trump and talked of ousting the president through the 25th Amendment, appointed Mr. Mueller before conferring with the White House.
It took Mr. Mueller 22 months to find the same dead end: no conspiracy.
Last spring, Mr. Barr tapped Mr. Durham, a career U.S. attorney, to find out how the FBI started and nurtured Crossfire Hurricane.
The trigger was information that Mr. Papadopoulos had mentioned in May 2016 to Alexander Downer, the Australian ambassador to Britain, that he heard Moscow had dirt on Mrs. Clinton.
At the time, on July 31, 2016, the FBI knew that Russian operatives had hacked Democratic Party computers and were laundering documents to WikiLeaks for release.
Mr. Barr has said Papadopoulos chitchat was a weak premise on which to investigate a presidential campaign. He suggested on Fox News that the FBI operated in “bad faith or improper motive” in what a court has now labeled as “unlawful” wiretap warrants on Mr. Page.
Mr. Barr has joined Trump targets in wondering why the investigation was expanded after the president took office.
“Effectively, the president was being investigated,” he told Fox. “They were investigating the Trump campaign and Trump associates. What happened after the election to me is very questionable. And I think that there has to be a lot of focus as to what happened after the campaign. And they learned that their whole case had collapsed, and they really had no basis to take it further.”
Two months after the president took office, Mr. Comey did the opposite on March 20, 2017, and told the world that his probe had expanded considerably.
In December 2018, Mr. Comey was asked at a closed-door House deposition whether it was fair to say that an investigation into the Trump campaign and Mr. Trump was opened on July 31, 2016.
“It’s not fair to say either of those things, in my recollection,” Mr. Comey answered. “We opened investigations on four Americans to see if there was any connection between those four Americans and the Russian interference effort.”
But a hint to the contrary is contained in one small section of Mr. Horowitz’s long report.
After receiving word from Mr. Downer about his talk with Mr. Papadopoulos, the FBI opened Crossfire Hurricane on July 31 without speaking with the ambassador. The next day, Mr. Strzok and a second agent traveled to London to interview him.
Mr. Downer could not recall whether Mr. Papadopoulos ever said he had spoken with a Russian — his information was secondhand from a Maltese professor — or whether he had told any other Trump associate.
Mr. Strzok told the inspector general that after Aug. 1, based on what Mr. Downer said, “the initial investigative objective of Crossfire Hurricane was to determine which individuals associated with the Trump campaign may have been in a position to have received the alleged offer of assistance from Russia.”
That is a lot wider net than just “four Americans.” All Trump campaign advisers were under scrutiny from that day forward.
In the end, there was no evidence Mr. Papadopoulos, who pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about when he met the professor, ever shared his Russia gossip with any Trump person or sought any Clinton dirt. Like other Trump associates, he wasn’t involved in a conspiracy.
• Rowan Scarborough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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