The arrest of former FBI counterintelligence official Charles McGonigal has touched off a slew of conspiracy theories from Democrats and their liberal allies in the media that he sabotaged the bureau’s fruitless Trump-Russia collusion investigation.
Mr. McGonigal played a role in the FBI’s investigation, dubbed “Crossfire Hurricane,” into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and Moscow’s suspected ties to Donald Trump’s campaign. Now he faces criminal charges that he colluded with Russia himself.
Mr. McGonigal has pleaded not guilty to charges unveiled in separate indictments in New York and Washington. He is the highest-ranking FBI official ever charged with a crime.
Those charges have spurred wild accusations from the left that Mr. McGonigal threw the 2016 election for Mr. Trump and then used his influence within the bureau to exonerate the eventual president and his allies of potential crimes.
There is no basis for either claim, but that hasn’t stopped Democrats from throwing it into the public domain and left-wing media outlets from echoing it.
“[McGonigal] may have knowledge of or have participated in political activities to damage then-candidate Hillary Clinton and help then-candidate Donald Trump,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island Democrat, wrote in a letter in February to Attorney General Merrick Garland.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, demanded that Mr. Garland brief lawmakers about Mr. McGonigal’s involvement in the Trump-Russia investigation.
In a separate letter to Mr. Garland, Mr. Durbin noted that FBI Director James B. Comey named Mr. McGonigal as a special agent in charge just weeks before the bureau announced in October 2016 that there was no clear link between Mr. Trump and Russia.
“The committee remains in the dark about the true extent to which Mr. McGonigal’s alleged misconduct may have impacted these highly sensitive matters,” Mr. Durbin wrote.
The theories also have been promoted by far-left podcaster Keith Olbermann and in liberal publications, including The New Republic.
Thomas J. Baker, a 33-year veteran of the bureau who also worked as an FBI investigator, called the Democrats’ accusations “a real stretch.” He said the claims underscore the FBI’s difficulty in shaking off accusations of political taint from both sides.
“Everything with the bureau has become so political that the public and politicians have lost confidence in it, willing to suspect anything from the bureau and believe the worst,” he said.
The conspiracy theory gained traction among the left after Mr. McGonigal was criminally charged last month. He is accused of illegally taking money from a former Albanian intelligence official and Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch who has been sanctioned by the U.S.
Prosecutors say Mr. McGonigal broke the law by accepting money from Mr. Deripaska in exchange for investigating a rival oligarch and removing him from the sanctions list.
All told, Mr. McGonigal is charged with money laundering, violating U.S. sanctions and conspiring to violate U.S. sanctions.
The indictment unsealed in Washington said Mr. McGonigal, while working for the bureau, took $225,000 in secret cash payments from a person who once served with Albanian intelligence. At the official’s request, Mr. McGonigal opened a criminal investigation into foreign lobbying in which the former Albanian intelligence employee was a confidential informant.
Prosecutors also have accused Mr. McGonigal of receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars from Mr. Deripaska and forging signatures to keep those payments secret.
It is those ties to Mr. Deripaska that have sparked theories that Mr. McGonigal was working at the behest of Moscow to elect and protect Mr. Trump. No evidence has ever emerged that Mr. Trump is a Russian asset, and special counsel Robert Mueller concluded in 2019 that his campaign did not collude with Russia.
Alleged sabotage of Clinton campaign
As the first part of the conspiracy theory goes, Mr. McGonigal would have been in a position to leak information about the laptop of disgraced former congressman Anthony Weiner. He was being investigated for unrelated accusations of sexting with a minor. He eventually pleaded guilty and received a 21-month prison term.
Just weeks before the 2016 presidential election, Mr. Comey promoted Mr. McGonigal as special agent in charge of the New York field office’s counterintelligence division.
Democrats say that would have put him in a position to leak information about Mr. Weiner’s laptop, which was found to contain classified information from Mrs. Clinton’s private email server. Mr. Weiner’s then-wife, Huma Abedin, a top Clinton aide, had forwarded “hundreds of thousands of emails, some of which contained classified information” to him, according to Senate testimony from Mr. Comey.
The discovery of the classified materials prompted Mr. Comey to reopen the FBI investigation into Mrs. Clinton just days ahead of the election. Some Democrats say the development handed Mr. Trump a surprise victory.
In Mr. Whitehouse’s letter to the attorney general, he notes that Mr. McGonigal was in the New York office when Trump ally Rudolph W. Giuliani announced that “big surprises” about Mrs. Clinton would be forthcoming and hinted that it would come from the FBI’s New York field office.
An FBI press release dated Oct. 4, 2016, raises questions about whether Mr. McGonigal was even in the New York field office at the time of Mr. Giuliani’s announcement.
The press release says Mr. McGonigal, who was working in the bureau’s Washington field office, would assume his New York role at the end of October. That could have put him in New York after Mr. Giuliani made his claims in October 2016.
In 2021, the Justice Department’s inspector general said it did not find any evidence that the FBI agents improperly tipped off Mr. Guiliani about the Clinton investigation.
Crossfire Hurricane role
The second part of the conspiracy theory alleges that Mr. McGonigal put his thumb on the scales of the Crossfire Hurricane investigation to keep Mr. Trump and his allies in the clear.
Mr. McGonigal was involved in Crossfire Hurricane. He forwarded a tip in the case and played a role in the investigation into Trump campaign aide Carter Page, according to a report by the Justice Department’s inspector general. A top Justice Department official told the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2020 that Mr. McGonigal was instrumental in launching the Russia collusion investigation.
Mr. Deripaska, who was paying Mr. McGonigal, also had a tight relationship with Paul Manafort, who briefly served as Mr. Trump’s campaign chairman.
Mr. Manafort is accused of passing secret campaign information to Konstantin Kilimnik, a suspected Russian intelligence officer who worked for Mr. Deripaska.
A 2020 report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence concluded that Mr. Manafort implemented influence operations in Ukraine on behalf of Mr. Deripaska from 2004 to 2009.
In 2018, Mr. Mueller indicted Mr. Manafort and Mr. Kilimnik on conspiracy charges, witness tampering and obstruction of justice. Mr. Manafort was convicted of financial crimes, and Mr. Kilimnik remains just out of the reach of U.S. law enforcement.
Given his role in Crossfire Hurricane, Mr. McGonigal would have been in a position to sabotage at least a portion of the investigation with disinformation, Democrats say.
“Mr. McGonigal oversaw many sensitive counterintelligence investigations, including investigations involving individuals he has now been accused of working to benefit. Mr. Deripaska was central to Paul Manafort’s ties to Russia,” Mr. Durbin wrote to Mr. Garland.
No public evidence has emerged that Mr. McGonigal worked to undermine the Russia collusion investigation. A comprehensive Justice Department inspector general’s report on the Russia probe barely mentions him.
Republicans are quick to point out that Mr. Deripaska also has ties with Christopher Steele, the former British spy who authored an unverified, salacious dossier claiming Mr. Trump conspired with Russia to win the 2016 election. Most of Mr. Steele’s dossier has since been debunked.
It’s unclear why Mr. McGonigal would work to undermine an investigation he was key in opening. In September 2020, FBI Deputy Assistant Director Jonathan Moffa testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee that he received an email from Mr. McGonigal about former campaign figure George Papadopoulos that “served as basis for the opening of the case.”
The investigation was handed off to Mr. Mueller’s team in 2017, and Mr. McGonigal left the FBI in 2018 before the probe was finished.
• Jeff Mordock can be reached at email@example.com.
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