Newly released documents show FBI agents operated on autopilot in 2016 and 2017 while targeting President Trump and his campaign with little or no Justice Department guidance for such a momentous investigation.
Loretta E. Lynch, President Obama’s attorney general, said she never knew the FBI was placing wiretaps on a Trump campaign volunteer or using the dossier claims of former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele to put the entire Trump world under suspicion. Mr. Steele was handled by Fusion GPS and paid with funds from the Democratic Party and the Hillary Clinton campaign.
“I don’t have a recollection of briefings on Fusion GPS or Mr. Steele,” Ms. Lynch told the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence in October 2017. “I don’t have any information on that, and I don’t have a recollection being briefed on that.”
Under pressure from acting Director of National Intelligence Richard A. Grenell, the committee last week released transcripts of her testimony and that of more than 50 other witnesses in 2017 and 2018, when Republicans controlled the Trump-Russia investigation.
Ms. Lynch also testified that she had no knowledge the FBI had taken the profound step of opening an investigation, led by agent Peter Strzok, into the Trump campaign on July 31, 2016.
“Did [FBI Director James B. Comey] seek permission from you to do the formal opening of the counterintelligence investigation?” Rep. Adam B. Schiff, California Democrat, asked the former attorney general.
“No, and he ordinarily would not have had to do that,” Ms. Lynch answered. “lt would not have come to the attorney general for that.”
Mr. Schiff, a fierce defender of the FBI in the Russia probe, seemed taken aback. “Even in the case where you’re talking about a campaign for president?” he asked.
“I can’t recall if it was discussed or not,” Ms. Lynch said. “I just don’t have a recollection of that in the meetings that I had with him.”
Attorney General William P. Barr has changed the rules. He announced that the attorney general now must approve any FBI decision to investigate a presidential campaign.
Ms. Lynch’s testimony adds to the picture of an insular, and sometimes misbehaving, FBI as its agents searched for evidence that the Trump campaign conspired with the Kremlin to interfere in the 2016 election to damage Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
In documents filed by the Justice Department last week, then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Q. Yates expressed dismay that Mr. Comey would dispatch two agents, including Mr. Strzok, on Jan. 24, 2017, to interview incoming National Security Adviser Michael Flynn at the White House.
Ms. Yates, interviewed by FBI agents assigned to the Robert Mueller special counsel probe, said Mr. Comey notified her only after the fact.
“Yates was very frustrated in the call with Comey,” said the FBI interview report, known as a 302. “She felt a decision to conduct an interview of Flynn should have been coordinated with [the Department of Justice].”
Ms. Yates told the FBI that the interview was “problematic” because the White House counsel should have been notified.
During his book tour, Mr. Comey bragged that he sent the two agents without such notification by taking advantage of the White House’s formative stage. He said he “wouldn’t have gotten away with it” in a more seasoned White House.
Mr. Barr filed court papers asking U.S. District Judge Emmet G. Sullivan to dismiss the Flynn case and his guilty plea to lying to Mr. Strzok about phone calls with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Mr. Strzok and other FBI personnel planned the Flynn interview as a near ambush with a goal of prompting him to lie and getting fired, according to new court filings.
Other evidence of an FBI on autopilot: The Justice Department inspector general’s report on how the bureau probed the Trump campaign revealed more than a dozen instances of FBI personnel submitting false information in wiretap applications and withholding exculpatory evidence. For example, agents evaded Justice Department scrutiny by not telling their warrant overseer that witnesses had cast doubt on the reliability of the Steele dossier.
The far-fetched dossier was the one essential piece of evidence required to obtain four surveillance warrants on campaign volunteer Carter Page, according to Justice Department Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz. The Mueller and Horowitz reports have discredited the dossier’s dozen conspiracy claims against the president and his allies.
A who’s who of Trump-Russia
Mr. Schiff, now chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, had held on to the declassified transcripts for more than a year. Under pressure from Republicans and Mr. Grenell, he released the 6,000 pages on the hectic day Mr. Barr moved to end the Flynn prosecution.
The closed-door testimony included witnesses such as Mr. Obama’s national security adviser, a United Nations ambassador, the nation’s top spy and the FBI deputy director. There were also Clinton campaign chieftains and lawyers.
The transcripts’ most often-produced headline: Obama investigators never saw evidence of Trump conspiracy between the time the probe was opened until they left office in mid-January 2017.
“I never saw any direct empirical evidence that the Trump campaign or someone in it was plotting/conspiring with the Russians to meddle with the election,” former Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper told the committee.
Mr. Clapper is a paid CNN analyst who has implied repeatedly and without evidence that Mr. Trump is a Russian spy and a traitor. The Mueller report contained no evidence that Mr. Trump is a Russian agent or election conspirator.
Mr. Schiff told the country repeatedly that he had seen evidence of Trump collusion that went beyond circumstantial. Mr. Mueller did not.
Mr. Schiff was a big public supporter of Mr. Steele’s dossier, which relied on a Moscow main source and was fed by deliberate Kremlin disinformation against Mr. Trump, according to the Horowitz report.
One of Mr. Schiff’s pieces of evidence of a conspiracy “in plain sight” is the meeting Donald Trump Jr. took with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya on June 9, 2016.
The connections are complicated but, simply put, a Russian friend of the Trumps’ said she might have dirt on Mrs. Clinton. At the time, Ms. Veselnitskaya was in New York representing a rich Russian accused by the Justice Department of money laundering. To investigate, she hired Fusion GPS — the same firm that retained Mr. Steele to damage the Trump campaign.
The meeting was brief and seemed to be a ruse to enable Ms. Veselnitskaya to pitch an end to Obama-era economic sanctions that hurt her client. Attending were campaign adviser Paul Manafort, Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and Anatoli Samochornov. Mr. Samochornov is a dual citizen of Russia and the U.S. who serves as an interpreter to several clients, including Ms. Veselnitskaya and the State Department.
Mr. Samochornov was the Russian lawyer’s interpreter that day. His recitation of events basically backs the versions given by the Trump associates, according to a transcript of his November 2017 committee testimony.
The meeting lasted about 20 minutes. Ms. Veselnitskaya briefly talked about possible illegal campaign contributions to Mrs. Clinton. Manafort, busy on his cellphone, remarked that the contributions would not be illegal. Mr. Kushner left after a few minutes.
Then, Rinat Akhmetshin, a lobbyist, made the case for ditching sanctions. He linked that to a move by Russian President Vladimir Putin to end a ban on Americans adopting Russian children.
Mr. Trump Jr. said that issue would be addressed if his father was elected. In the end, the Trump administration put more sanctions on Moscow’s political and business operators.
“I’ve never heard anything about the elections being mentioned at that meeting at all or in any subsequent discussions with Ms. Veselnitskaya,” Mr. Samochornov testified.
One of the first things Rep. Devin Nunes, California Republican, did to earn the animus of Democrats and the liberal media was to visit the Trump White House to learn about “unmaskings” by Obama appointees.
The National Security Agency, by practice, obscures the names of any Americans caught up in the intercept of foreign communications. Flynn was unmasked in the top-secret transcript of his Kislyak call so officials reading it would know who was on the line.
In reading intelligence reports, if government officials want the identity of an “American person,” they make a request to the intelligence community. The fear is that repeated requests could indicate political purposes.
That suspicion is how Samantha Power ended up at the House intelligence committee witness table. The former U.N. ambassador seemed to have broken records by requesting hundreds of unmaskings, though the transcript did not contain the identities of the people she exposed.
She explained to the committee why she needed to know.
“I am reading that intelligence with an eye to doing my job, right?” Ms. Power said. “Whatever my job is, whatever I am focused on on a given day, I’m taking in the intelligence to inform my judgment, to be able to advise the president on ISIL or on whatever, or to inform how I’m going to try to optimize my ability to advance U.S. interests in New York.”
She continued: “I can’t understand the intelligence. Can you go and ascertain who this is so I can figure out what it is I’m reading. You’ve made the judgement, intelligence professionals, that I need to read this piece of intelligence, I’m reading it, and it’s just got this gap in it, and I didn’t understand that. … But I never discussed any name that I received when I did make a request and something came back or when it was annotated and came to me. … I never discussed one of those names with any other individual.”
Rep. Trey Gowdy, South Carolina Republican, listened and then mentioned other officeholders, such as the White House national security adviser and the secretary of state.
“There are lots of people who need to understand intelligence products, but the number of requests they made, ambassador, don’t approach yours,” Mr. Gowdy said.
Ms. Power implied that members of her staff were requesting American identities and invoking her name without her knowledge.
By mid- to late 2017, the full story on the Democrats’ dossier — that it was riddled with false claims of criminality that served, as Mr. Barr said, to sabotage the Trump White House — was not known.
Mr. Steele claimed that there was a far-reaching Trump-Russia conspiracy, that Mr. Trump was a Russian spy, that Mr. Trump financed Kremlin computer hacking, that his attorney went to Prague to pay hush money to Putin operatives, and that Manafort and Carter Page worked as a conspiracy team.
Fusion GPS co-founder Glenn R. Simpson, a Clinton operative, spread the inaccuracies all over Washington: to the FBI, the Justice Department, Congress and the news media.
None of it proved true.
But to Clinton loyalists in 2017, the dossier was golden.
“I was mostly focused in that meeting on, you know, the guy standing behind this material is Christopher Steele,” campaign foreign policy adviser Jake Sullivan said about a Fusion meeting. “He is the one who’s judging its credibility and veracity. You know him. What do you think, based on your conversations with him? That’s what I was really there to try and figure out. And Glenn was incredibly positive about Steele and felt he was really on to something and also felt that there was more out there to go find.”
Clinton campaign attorney Marc Elias vouched for the dossier, and its information spread to reporters. He met briefly with Mr. Steele during the election campaign.
“I thought that the information that he or they wished to convey was accurate and important,” Mr. Elias testified.
“So the information that Fusion GPS and Christopher Steele wished to portray to the media in the fall of 2016 at that time, you thought, was accurate and important?” he was asked.
“As I understand it,” he replied.
Mr. Elias rejected allegations that the Clinton campaign conspired with Russia by having its operatives spread the Moscow-sourced dirt.
“I don’t have enough knowledge about when you say that Russians were involved in the dossier,” he said to a questioner. “I mean that genuinely. I’m not privy to what information you all have.
“It sounds like the suggestion is that Russia somehow gave information to the Clinton campaign vis-a-vis one person to one person, to another person, to another person, to me, to the campaign. That strikes me as fanciful and unlikely, but perhaps as I said, I don’t have a security clearance. You all have facts and information that is not available to me. But I certainly never had any hint or whiff.”