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Six times the feds should have stopped the Russia collusion probe, and didn’t

With declassified documents, the failure of FBI and DOJ supervision comes into clearer focus.

Published: June 1, 2020 10:22pm

Updated: June 2, 2020 2:56pm

On Wednesday, the man who appointed the Russia special prosecutor Robert Mueller and who signed the last of the four Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants targeting the Trump campaign will take the witness stand in the Senate.

Former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein has already signaled he is prepared to acknowledge the Russia collusion investigation was flawed, and possibly corrupt in some instances. "Even the best law enforcement officers make mistakes, and some engage in willful misconduct," Rosenstein said in a statement foreshadowing his testimony.

Rosenstein’s performance, if it follows script, may provide some belated solace for Republicans who felt betrayed by his decisions in 2017 when he took over the Russia probe for the recused Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

But his appearance belies a much larger fact unmasked in recent weeks by the sudden and robust declassification of key documents in the Russia probe: On multiple occasions, DOJ and FBI leadership failed to stop a probe in the face of evidence that called for at least a pause, and perhaps an outright ending of a wayward and politically tainted probe.

As the lead FBI agent in the case, Peter Strzok, texted in May 2017, as Rosenstein was appointing Mueller: “There’s no big there, there.”

But instead of closing things down based on the lack of evidence, strategically leaked information and pivots by key players allowed the investigation to persist for nearly three years, only to conclude what frontline FBI agents suspected all along: No Americans, including anyone from the Trump campaign, illegally conspired with Russians to hijack the 2016 election.

“It should have been shut down. It should never have begun. It was corrupt from the beginning,” said Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.), one of the earliest lawmakers to suspect wrongdoing by the investigators and press for transparency.

“There were so many opportunities to peel back the layers of the onion to realize that this was a rotten political endeavor, not a counterintelligence or law enforcement endeavor and to shut it down,” Gaetz told Just the News in an interview last week with the John Solomon Reports podcast. 

Based on interviews with more than a dozen law enforcement officials, legal experts, and congressional oversight investigators, here are six moments in the investigation where a pause and/or shutdown were warranted.

The day it all started.

Last month, the conservative watchdog Judicial Watch obtained the unredacted original FBI electronic communication that launched the entire investigation code-named Crossfire Hurricane on July 31, 2016.

The memo showed the investigation started with a focus on whether Trump adviser George Papadopoulos violated the Foreign Agent Registration Act governing foreign lobbying and discussing with foreigners whether Russia had dirt, such as emails, on Hillary Clinton that could help the Trump campaign.

But the memo showed the FBI only had a third-hand "suggestion" of wrongdoing and did not identify a single episode that specifically violated FARA. It also stated flatly that agents lacked any visibility into whether the Trump campaign would even contemplate taking dirt on Clinton from the Russians.

"It was unclear whether he [Papadopoulos] or the Russians were referring to material acquired publicly or through other means. It was also unclear how Mr. Trump’s team reacted to the offer," the memo stated.

Kevin Brock, the former chief of intelligence for the FBI, said the electronic communication did not meet the bureau's rigorous standards for predicating the opening of a criminal or counterintelligence case.

"There is nothing in the EC that meets the traditional thresholds for opening up a FARA or CI investigation," Brock told Just the News.

In other words, the investigation should never have been opened in the first place.

After FBI informants recorded exculpatory statements from the key Trump campaign targets.

After the probe began and before the FBI secured its first FISA warrant in October 2017, agents ran confidential human sources, i.e. informants, up against the two key investigative targets inside the Trump campaign: Papadopoulos and fellow adviser Carter Page.

During those recorded conversations, both men made exculpatory statements that ran contrary to the FBI’s theory of the case, unaware they were talking to informants.

Papadopoulos told his informant the Trump campaign would never consider accepting stolen emails from a foreign power because it would be illegal.

Page told his informant he did not play a role in the changing of a key GOP platform provision deemed favorable to Moscow and never met with two Russian figures close to Vladimir Putin as alleged by Christopher Steele’s dossier, according to interviews with Page and declassified documents.

Rather than shut down the investigation or alert the FISA court, the FBI kept these informant transcripts secret and proceeded to spy on the Trump campaign.

Most amazingly, now-fired Deputy FBI Director Andy McCabe told Congress in a late 2017 interview that was recently declassified that the bureau did not believe Papadopoulos even possessed contacts with the Russians to carry out such a plot. And yet the probe proceeded.

When the first derogatory evidence against Steele emerged.

FBI agents learned in late summer and early fall of 2016 that Steele, while working as an informant, improperly leaked information from his work to the news media, and was working in some way to help Trump’s election rival, Clinton.

The bureau terminated Steele as an informant on Nov. 1, 2016, but continued to rely on his dossier as the lead evidence supporting its FISA warrants for nearly a year. In so doing, the FBI falsely claimed it had no derogatory information about Steele.

In fact, the U.S. intelligence’s Delta control file had information dating to 2015 that raised concerns that Steele may be targeted for Russian disinformation and urging he be re-evaluated as an informant, something that did not happen.

A British official who worked with Steele when he was an MI6 agent also told the FBI that Steele had overstated to the bureau his seniority in the British spy agency.

FBI and DOJ officials also were told Steele had a political motive, and according to senior DOJ official Bruce Ohr was “desperate” to defeat Trump. They also knew he was working in some capacity with Clinton, had leaked to the news media and had passed suspect information to the State Department in October 2016.

Experts said the red flags were severe enough that the FBI should have paused and re-evaluated Steele, especially when so much of the FISA warrant depended on his reliability.

When Steele’s dossier was undercut repeatedly by independent evidence.

Between December 2016 and early summer 2017, Steele’s dossier was significantly tarnished by the FBI’s independent investigation.

In January 2017, the FBI interviewed Steele’s primary sub-source, who disputed several pieces of information attributed to him in the dossier. In addition, the FBI had disproven the Steele dossier’s claim that Trump lawyer Michael Cohen had gone to Prague.

And a spreadsheet kept by the FBI vetting each claim in the Steele dossier determined most were either uncorroborated, disproven or simply worthless Internet chatter.

And FBI officials determined some information in the dossier likely was planted as disinformation by Russian intelligence services, according to recently declassified evidence from the Justice Department inspector general.

The credibility of the FBI’s star witness/informant was in tatters before Mueller was appointed. And yet remarkably the memo signed by Rosenstein in August 2017 defining the scope of Mueller’s special counsel probe continued to rely on allegations from the Steele dossier.

When the CIA alerted the FBI that Page was a U.S. asset, not a Russian spy

Perhaps the most explosive of all the revelations in Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s report last December was the revelation that Page, the primary target of the FBI probe, worked for the CIA as a cooperating asset from 2008 to 2013, informing about matters in Russia.

Even more jaw-dropping, the FBI was first warned in August 2016 — two full months before the first FISA targeting Page — that he was a CIA asset and not a Russian spy and a bureau lawyer falsified a document to conceal Page’s service to the agency.

The clarity of the IG’s finding on this is worth reading one more time: “On or about August 17, 2016, the Crossfire Hurricane team received information from another U.S. government agency advising the team that Carter Page had been approved as an operational contact for the other agency from 2008 to 2013 and detailing information that Page had provided to the other agency regarding Page’s past contacts with certain Russian intelligence officers. However, this information was not provided to NSD attorneys and was not included in any of the FISA applications.”

In another words, the FBI was portraying Page as a stooge for the Russians in its FISA filings when in fact agents knew he was an American asset spying on Moscow.

Jonathan Turley, the George Washington University law professor, wrote the FBI’s role in misleading the court and the country and violating Page’s civil liberties was among the most egregious abuses in a highly flawed case.

“There is a difference between starting an investigation based on mere allegations and continuing the investigation based on known falsehoods,” Turley wrote in a column for The Hill that demanded a public apology for Page.

When the FBI agents who investigated Michael Flynn concluded the probe should be closed.

Two weeks before Trump took office, the agents in the bureau’s Washington Field Office who investigated Flynn for five months, determined there was “no derogatory” evidence in intelligence files and no hint in any intercepts of criminality or counterintelligence threats by the Trump national security adviser.

In short, Flynn was not acting improperly with the Russians, and the memo closing the case was written on Jan. 4, 2017.

But then, FBI higher-ups intervened and overruled the decision to close, opting for a strategy to either pursue obscure Logan Act charges or an interview where Flynn might be caught lying.

The turnaround left one senior FBI executive, Assistant Director William Priestap, to write a question in his notes whether the FBI was  “playing games” and simply trying to lure Flynn into lying during an interview so “we can prosecute him or get him fired.” Senate investigators want to know whether those were Priestap's sentiments or someone's else's in the meeting.

Republican defenders of Trump now chafe at each of these six moments when the FBI faced a fork in the road and proceeded to sustain a Russia collusion investigation in the absence of supporting evidence.

They get their first chance on Wednesday to interrogate a man who made some of the fateful decisions, Rosenstein.

“There were continued renewals, and there were continued affirmations of the legitimacy of this investigation, long after we learned of its corrupt origins and of its political ambitions,” Gaetz lamented recently. “And that's really where Rosenstein has to be held to account."

“You know, Rosenstein did not start this investigation,” he added. "I honestly think that this really all started in the Obama White House. But then Rosenstein is sort of the lifer brought in to ensure that it isn't shut down."

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