Little recourse, little consequence: Court rulings signal impunity for Spygate perpetrators
As efforts by Trump, former aides to hold Clinton, FBI accountable falter in courts, those at center of scandal enjoy prominence largely unscathed.
The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook
- pleaded guilty
- highly paid public speaker
- faculty member
- admitting explicitly
- dropped its case
- bestselling author
- visiting professor
- reportedly contained
- Andrew Weissmann
- reportedly donated
- Marc Elias
- stinging rebuke
- two-tiered justice system
- double standards
Over a one-week period, both Donald Trump and former Trump 2016 campaign aide Carter Page saw federal judges dismiss their separate lawsuits alleging improper conduct by the FBI, Hillary Clinton, and others during the Russia collusion investigation.
The dual dismissals on back-to-back Thursdays — one this week, one last week — shine a particularly harsh light on what critics say has become a pattern in the aftermath of the Trump-Russia probe: a lack of accountability.
Since former Special Counsel Robert Mueller found no evidence of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign to sway the 2016 presidential election, no one aiding or conducting the government's investigations has faced serious consequences for what transpired in the preceding three years of probes.
Former FBI attorney Kevin Clinesmith was the only one convicted of a crime. In 2020, he pleaded guilty to making a false statement after he altered the language of an email about Page while preparing an application for a warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to place him under federal surveillance.
The federal government infamously used the Steele dossier, which contained many since-debunked claims about Trump and his alleged ties to Russia, to obtain the FISA warrant in 2016.
Mueller found no connection between Page and Russia's interference in the 2016 election. Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz later concluded the FBI made numerous errors or omissions in its FISA applications
Still, despite the guilty plea, Clinesmith received no prison time and even retained his law license. Instead, he received 12 months of probation and 400 hours of community service. Since the end of last year, he's been able to resume practicing law.
Meanwhile, many of the most high-profile players in the Russia investigation are enjoying prominent positions in media and academia while raking in dollars from speaking fees and book deals.
Former FBI Director James Comey, for example, is now a No. 1 New York Times bestselling author, prominent Twitter personality, highly paid public speaker, and big-name faculty member at multiple colleges.
Shortly after being fired from the FBI in May 2017, Comey through a friend leaked notes of a sensitive meeting he had with then-President Trump, admitting explicitly in congressional testimony and to the Justice Department's inspector general that the purpose of the leak was to force the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Trump-Russia collusion.
In December 2018, Comey said in an interview that he had sent FBI agents to the White House in January 2017 to interview then-National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, boasting that he was able to take advantage of the disorganization of the nascent Trump administration. Comey added that Flynn didn't know what the interview would be about.
Flynn initially pleaded guilty to making false statements to the two agents who interviewed him at the White House about his communications with Russian officials.
In 2020, however, the Justice Department dropped its case against Flynn as more evidence indicated the FBI may have entrapped him. The department said the FBI's interview of Flynn was "untethered to, and unjustified by, the FBI's counterintelligence investigation into Mr. Flynn" and not "conducted with a legitimate investigative basis."
The judge presiding over the case later formally dismissed the prosecution but expressed skepticism about the Justice Department's reasons for dropping the case.
Andrew McCabe, Comey's No. 2 at the FBI and, later, acting director of the bureau during the Russia probe, has also enjoyed post-government rewards, becoming a CNN contributor, bestselling author, and visiting professor at George Mason University.
A lengthy Justice Department inspector general report from December 2019 found that as deputy director of the FBI McCabe argued "strongly" to include information from the Steele dossier not as an appendix but in the "main body" of an intelligence community assessment on Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 election.
After leaving government, McCabe disclosed in an interview that he and top Justice Department officials discussed whether to recruit cabinet members to invoke the 25th Amendment to remove Trump from office after he fired Comey.
Former FBI agent Peter Strzok was another senior FBI official involved in the Trump-Russia probe. He's currently an adjunct professor at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service and a New York Times and Washington Post bestselling author for his book on his time running the FBI's probe into Trump as head of the counterintelligence division.
Strzok exchanged a series of partisan text messages disparaging Trump with former FBI lawyer Lisa Page, with whom he was having an extramarital affair. In the texts, Strzok referred to Trump as "awful," an "idiot," and wrote "F Trump" among other insults.
According to Justice Department inspector general reports, Strzok advocated using the Steele dossier to obtain FISA warrants to surveil Page. However, he met some resistance early on from other FBI officials who demanded more probable cause.
Some texts between Strzok and Page reportedly contained discussions about how to get senior FBI leadership — namely, McCabe — to push through the FISA warrant process.
Strzok was eventually fired from the FBI in 2018.
Meanwhile, longtime Justice Department official Andrew Weissmann — now an MSNBC legal analyst and New York University law professor — was tapped by Mueller to be a senior prosecutor in the special counsel's investigation.
Weissman later wrote a book on his time during the Mueller probe and became a bestselling author. In the book, Weissmann called out his colleagues for being too cautious during the probe — earning Weissmann rebuke from some former federal prosecutors for "violating the norms about how prosecutors should behave."
Weissmann reportedly attended Hillary Clinton's election night party in 2016 and sent Sally Yates, the acting U.S. attorney general, a supportive email in January 2017 after Trump fired her for refusing to enforce his ban on residents from seven African and Middle Eastern countries entering the U.S. over security concerns.
In April 2017, weeks before joining the Mueller investigation, Weissmann, then a senior Justice Department official, met with Associated Press reporters one day before the AP published a story highlighting former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort's business dealings with Ukrainians.
Perhaps most striking, Weissmann was briefed in August 2016 on the Democrat-funded opposition research behind the Steele dossier.
One month later, then-Clinton campaign lawyer Michael Sussmann met with the FBI and presented the agency with information insinuating concealed Trump-Russia links. The night before the meeting, Sussmann texted an FBI official saying, "I'm coming on my own — not on behalf of a client or company — want to help the bureau," according to John Durham, who was appointed special counsel in October 2020 to investigate the origins of the FBI's Trump-Russia collusion probe.
Durham called Sussmann's claims that he was not meeting with the FBI on behalf of any clients a "lie," hiding from the bureau that the Trump-Russia claims originally came from Clinton's 2016 campaign. He charged Sussmann with lying to the FBI, but the high-powered attorney was found not guilty in a highly publicized trial.
Multiple jurors in the case reportedly donated to Clinton's campaign. Additionally, the federal judge presiding over the case, Christopher Cooper, said he and Sussmann were "professional acquaintances" while at the Justice Department in the 1990s. And the judge's wife represents former FBI lawyer Page.
Another lawyer central to the Trump-Russia saga who got off scot-free was Marc Elias, the Democrats' top election lawyer. Like Sussmann, Elias during the 2016 campaign was a partner at the law firm Perkins Coie, which represented Clinton's campaign in 2016.
Elias headed the firm's political group and served as the Clinton campaign's general counsel. He testified both during a House Intelligence Committee investigation in 2017 and recently during Durham's ongoing investigation that he was the one who hired the opposition research firm Fusion GPS to dig up dirt on then-candidate Trump.
Fusion GPS went on to solicit former MI6 agent Christopher Steele to create the infamous Steele dossier.
Elias met with Steele during the 2016 campaign and periodically briefed the Clinton campaign about his research. Elias was also involved in the financing and dissemination of the Trump research, which was designed to show collusion between Trump's team and Russia. The high-powered lawyer also testified he was aware of Fusion GPS' plans to have Steele brief reporters on his anti-Trump findings.
Since then, Elias has founded the Elias Law Group and spearheaded a wave of lawsuits to oppose Republican election reform proposals and push through Democrat-backed voting changes.
Then, of course, there's Hillary Clinton herself, who according to her 2016 campaign manager personally approved her team's plans to share unfounded allegations about covert communications between Trump associates and a Russian bank.
"It was one of the most successful disinformation campaigns in American politics," wrote constitutional scholar Jonathan Turley of the Clinton campaign's scheme.
Since the election, Clinton has written a bestselling memoir and founded a political action committee dedicated to fundraising for progressive causes.
Trump had filed a lawsuit alleging Clinton, the FBI, and others colluded to contrive Russia allegations against him during the 2016 campaign.
U.S. District Judge Donald Middlebrooks, who sits on the bench in Florida and was appointed by former President Bill Clinton, dismissed the suit on Thursday, offering a stinging rebuke to the lawsuit's length and legal reasoning.
Trump attorney Alina Habba pledged in a statement Friday morning to "immediately" appeal the decision. She added that Middlebrooks' order was "rife with erroneous applications of the law" and ignored "numerous governmental investigations which substantiate" Trump's allegations.
One week earlier, U.S. District Judge Dabney Friedrich of the D.C. District Court dismissed a suit filed by Page alleging Comey, other current and former FBI officials, and the bureau itself improperly surveilled him under a FISA warrant.
Horowitz found in a 2019 report that the FBI concealed exculpatory evidence against Page during the process to obtain a FISA warrant to wiretap him.
These and other thwarted efforts to hold those involved in the Trump-Russia investigation accountable for alleged wrongdoing have led to a view among critics that the country has a politicized, two-tiered justice system riddled with double standards.
"Americans are painfully aware that a double standard is in play," said lawyer Sidney Powell, whose representation of Flynn led to the collapse of the federal case against him. "It is destroying our 'justice system' and the rule of law. Being able to obtain justice through our courts is a crucial element of protecting individual rights and our republic and to avoid violence."