'Permanent Coup': Just as Mueller probe fizzles, anti-Trump cabal hatches new collusion tale

"According to the story the CIA officer and his colleagues would tell, Trump was again in league with a foreign power to defeat a rival candidate. They rotated Ukraine in for Russia and Biden for Clinton." — From "The Permanent Coup," by Lee Smith

Updated: September 28, 2020 - 10:25am

Below follows the second installment of a two-part excerpt from Just the News contributor Lee Smith's book "The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President":

Robert Mueller's July 24, 2019 congressional testimony about his nearly two-year long investigation seemed to bring an end to the conspiracy theory holding that Donald Trump had colluded with Russia to win the 2016 election. And yet the very next day, the anti-Trump resistance seized on another opportunity to try to destroy his presidency. He would again be accused of colluding with a foreign power to defeat a Democratic rival. 

On July 25, Trump spoke with new Ukrainian president Volodmyr Zelensky on the phone and asked him to cooperate with Attorney General William Barr. He and Trump were both determined to discover the origins of the FBI's Crossfire Hurricane investigation of the 2016 Trump campaign. 

"They say a lot of it started with Ukraine," Trump told the Ukrainian president. "I would like to have the attorney general call you or your people, and I would like you to get to the bottom of it," he said. "Whatever you can do, it's very important that you do it, if that's possible." 

Trump had another matter he wanted to raise. "There's a lot of talk about Biden's son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the attorney general would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution, so if you can look into it. It sounds horrible to me." 

Other senior U.S. officials whose duties and areas of expertise required it were listening in on the call. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was listening, and so was Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, the NSC's Ukraine director. After the morning call, Vindman registered his concerns with two NSC staff lawyers, one of whom was his twin brother, Yevgeny. In the afternoon, Alexander Vindman phoned Eric Ciaramella, who also worked on Ukraine and Russia issues. 

The next day Ciaramella wrote a memo about his conversation with Vindman: "The official who listened to the entirety of the phone call was visibly shaken by what had transpired and seemed keen to inform a trusted colleague within the U.S. national security apparatus about the call." 

The official described the call as "crazy," "frightening," and "completely lacking in substance related to national security." 

The official asserted that the president used the call to persuade Ukrainian authorities to investigate his political rivals, chiefly former vice president Biden and his son Hunter. The official stated that there was already a conversation underway with White House lawyers about how to handle the discussion because, in the official's view, the president had clearly committed a criminal act by urging a foreign power to investigate a U.S. person for the purposes of advancing his own reelection bid in 2020. 

"The president," Ciaramella wrote, "did not raise security assistance." 

Just two days after the curtain dropped on the Mueller investigation, Ciaramella was rebooting the collusion narrative. According to the story the CIA officer and his colleagues would tell, Trump was again in league with a foreign power to defeat a rival candidate. They rotated Ukraine in for Russia and Biden for Clinton. 

The operation's personnel drew from the same sources as the Russia collusion operation — serving officials from powerful government bureaucracies, the CIA, Pentagon, and State Department, as well as elected officials, political operatives, and the press. Therefore, the process was also the same: The actors would work the operation through the intelligence bureaucracy and the media to start an official proceeding, in this case an impeachment process. The play was set to begin. 

Ciaramella first expressed his concern to a CIA lawyer. Frustrated that his action wasn't moving quickly enough, he turned to the intelligence community inspector general responsible for oversight of all 17 of the nation's agencies. On August 12, he filed a whistleblower's report with ICIG Michael Atkinson. 

It was a version of the dossier, allegations based on second- and thirdhand sources. Steele said that his information came from anonymous Russians; Ciaramella claimed his came from unnamed Americans. 

"In the course of my official duties," wrote Ciaramella, "I have received information from multiple U.S. Government officials that the President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. elections." 

He even replicated a key feature from Steele's memos that helped the FBI obtain the FISA warrant. The dossier alleged that the Trump campaign had agreed to two Ukraine-related quid pro quos. One, in exchange for the hack and release of DNC emails, the Trump team would sideline Ukraine as campaign issue. Two, in exchange for dropping Ukraine-related sanctions on Russia, a Putin ally promised Trump advisers energy deals. 

Ciaramella also alleged a Ukraine-related quid pro quo. His August 12 report added a detail missing from the July 26 memo. He claimed in his document he'd learned earlier in July that Trump had "issued instructions to suspend all security assistance to Ukraine." With this, the CIA official had planted the seed that would grow into the basis of the impeachment charges brought against Trump: The president had withheld foreign aid in exchange for something that would benefit him personally — an investigation of his political rival. 

Ciaramella and his confederates had simply taken the boastful blunder Biden made in front of the Manhattan audience and hung it on Trump. Now he was the one using U.S. aid to secure a favor from a Ukrainian president. It was an audacious move, but the Ciaramella dossier was also a defensive maneuver. "It was born out of desperation," says one of his former colleagues. 

"He wasn't just trying to protect Biden," says the source, a former senior Obama administration intelligence official. 

"Remember that Ciaramella is setting up all those phone calls and meetings with the Ukrainian president Poroshenko and then handling all the follow-up. He's like Al Capone's bookkeeper in 'The Untouchables' — he knows everything that went on. When he finds out Trump may get the Burisma investigation restarted, he's worried for himself, too." 

As Steele had, Ciaramella inserted hearsay and secondhand sources into official intelligence channels. He had help. The form for reporting whistleblower complaints to the ICIG required firsthand information. Ciaramella's complaint, however, was based on secondhand information, from Vindman. In September, the ICIG quietly changed the language in the form to remove the ban on hearsay information. Then he backdated the change in the complaint form to August. 

On August 26, Atkinson forwarded the complaint to Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence. Maguire, though, didn't believe it satisfied the requirements of the whistleblower statute. It didn't concern an intelligence activity, and it didn't concern a member of the intelligence community; it was about the president. 

The Justice Department agreed. "The complaint does not arise in connection with the operation of any U.S. government intelligence activity, and the alleged misconduct does not involve any member of the intelligence community," the Office of Legal Counsel noted in a September 3 memo. "Rather, the complaint arises out of a confidential diplomatic communication between the President and a foreign leader that the intelligence-community complainant received secondhand." 

Seemingly closed down, the anti-Trump operatives had a back door into official intelligence channels, the same entrance they'd used for the Steele dossier — the media. A September 5 Washington Post editorial reported that Trump was "attempting to force Mr. Zelensky to intervene in the 2020 U.S. presidential election by launching an investigation of the leading Democratic candidate, Joe Biden." 

Now that the article had sparked interest in a part of the unfolding operation, Atkinson produced another piece of the puzzle. He notified the Senate and House Intelligence Committees on September 9 that he had a whistleblower complaint. Chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) Adam Schiff was on relay. That same day, he and two other Democratic committee chairmen announced the opening of an investigation into Trump, Giuliani, and Ukraine. They cited recent press reports, a less than subtle reference to the September 5 Washington Post op-ed. It was the same process used during the Russiagate operation: A report based on a fraudulent document is leaked to the press, which publishes it, and intelligence officials cite it as a pretext to justify starting an investigation. 

On September 13, Schiff subpoenaed Maguire to get the complaint. That same day, he put out a press release about the subpoena, which forced the whistleblower's complaint into the public for the first time. HPSCI had always treated whistleblower's complaints with discretion — but the point of the Ciaramella dossier operation was to force the complaint into the public. 

On September 18, three of the Washington Post's top collusion conspiracy theory reporters, Greg Miller, Ellen Nakashima, and Shane Harris, wrote that the whistleblower's complaint involves "Trump's communications with a foreign leader" and a "promise" that was made. The release of the transcript would show no promise was made. 

On September 19, the Washington Post's Aaron Blake showed two of the pieces together. He wrote that the complaint dealt with Ukraine and hinted it had to do with foreign aid. "Lawmakers were concerned," wrote Blake, "that the administration was failing to provide $250 million for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, which is intended to help Ukraine defend itself from Russia." 

By declassifying the transcript of his call with Zelensky, Trump had gained a step on his opponents. The Steele dossier was made of rumors and whispered accounts of things that never happened, but Ciaramella's fiction was based on a real dialogue that anyone could now read for themselves to know the truth. Trump's reluctance to hand out U.S. taxpayer dollars to a foreign government was unlikely to turn supporters against a president who had campaigned on America First. That his adversaries saw it rather as a vulnerability highlighted how far Washington was from the rest of America. 

When Vindman later testified that he "became aware of outside influencers promoting a false narrative of Ukraine inconsistent with the consensus views of the interagency," he might as well have been describing a galaxy far, far away. What did the consensus opinion held by the federation of officials from the Departments of State, Defense, and Treasury and the intelligence bureaucracies matter to American voters? They were under the impression that the president they sent to the White House implements the foreign policy they voted for. It says so in the Constitution. 

After Speaker Nancy Pelosi officially initiated impeachment proceedings on September 24, HPSCI Democrats took depositions from 17 witnesses whose transcripts they eventually made public. They also convened a secret hearing with Michael Atkinson, who had circumvented normal procedures to get Ciaramella's compromised whistleblower's report to Schiff. The HPSCI chairman marked that hearing as classified and never released the transcript or sent it for a declassification review. 

Schiff had first promised that Ciaramella, the whistleblower, would testify, but he changed his mind soon after it was reported that Schiff's staff had met with him before he was passed on to Atkinson, even though the HPSCI chair had publicly denied the committee had any contact with him. It seems Schiff was reluctant to subject Ciaramella to Republicans' questions about his secret contact with Schiff staffers, but there may be another reason Schiff kept his whistleblower under wraps. 

"At a certain point he must have found out that he was Biden's guy on Ukraine," says Ciaramella's former colleague in the intelligence community. "If he testifies and the Republicans start asking him questions about Biden and Ukraine, it's over." 

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