Democracy Dies in Darkness

Politics | Analysis

Your guide to the anti-FBI conspiracy theories rippling through conservative media

January 24, 2018 at 7:00 AM

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Conservative commentators, lawmakers and the president himself are harshly criticizing the FBI. From the FISA memo to a "secret society," here are some of their claims. (Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post)

There was a window of about a week at the end of 2016 when the FBI and its then-director, James B. Comey, were two of Donald Trump’s favorite things in the world. From the moment news broke that the bureau was investigating new emails related to Hillary Clinton’s private email server, Trump celebrated the FBI — and its investigation — on as many occasions as possible.

After the election, that relationship soured. With news reports that there was an active investigation into Russian efforts to swing the campaign to Trump and, subsequently, that there was an investigation into Trump’s campaign itself (an investigation confirmed by Comey in early 2017), Trump lashed out at U.S. intelligence agencies.

In March, Trump publicly accused intelligence agencies of having wiretapped Trump Tower before the election, an accusation that was quickly revealed to be both baseless and untrue. Unlike Trump’s fuming about the then-still-nebulous investigation into meddling, though, the response to Trump’s wiretapping accusation from his allies was to try to defend it — regardless of how challenging it was to defend.

Former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus “knew the staff would have to fall into line to prove the tweet correct, the opposite of the usual process of vetting proposed pronouncements,” Howard Kurtz writes in his new book about the Trump administration. Outside the White House, the response was similar, with allies including Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) working to prove, if not that Trump Tower was wiretapped, at least that Trump was the focus of an unfair, politically motivated investigation initiated by the Obama administration. The focus of the wiretapping charge evolved into the Obama administration having de-anonymized the identities of Trump allies in surveillance reports, an act that Trump eventually called “the real story.”

(This revelation came after an administration staffer showed Nunes classified documents detailing the unmasking. The White House initially denied being involved in sharing this information.)

Over the past year, this tactic has become pervasive: defending Trump by arguing that it’s actually the president who is the victim of a conspiracy and whipping up whatever evidence is at hand to bolster that claim. This effort has by now spawned nearly as many branches and subparts as the Russia investigation itself — though these offshoots are often ad hoc and unsubstantiated.

In recent weeks, we’ve seen a bumper crop of allegations woven into the Trump defenders’ tapestry. They’ve captured the attention of both conservative media and Republican members of Congress. In light of that, we’ve assembled an overview of the emergent allegations, including, where appropriate, the reasons that they might be considered with a grain of salt.

The dossier

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The Russia probe got its start with a drunken conversation, an ex-spy, WikiLeaks and a distracted FBI. (Meg Kelly/The Washington Post)

What it is: The dossier is not a new addition to the conversation, but it’s a necessary starting point.

Compiled by a former British intelligence officer named Christopher Steele on behalf of an investigative firm called Fusion GPS, the dossier is a collection of 17 documents detailing various conversations Steele had with a number of sources. Many of those conversations focused on the idea that the Trump campaign and perhaps Trump himself had been in contact with or compromised by Russian actors before Election Day. Beyond some broad-stroke links, little of the dossier has been corroborated publicly since it became public at the beginning of 2017.

Steele’s research, which began in June 2016, was funded by the campaign of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee. (Fusion GPS began investigating Trump after being hired by the conservative news site Free Beacon.)

What it supposedly means: Some reporting, including from Fox News, has suggested that Steele’s findings were used as part of the FBI’s application for surveillance warrants under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (or FISA). (The FBI’s counterintelligence investigation began in July 2016.) The idea is that if the dossier was used to obtain FISA warrants, and if the dossier is “discredited” — as it is often described — then those warrants should not have been granted and, therefore, the investigation into links between agents of Trump’s campaign and Russian actors should never have begun.

Why skepticism is in order: In testimony offered before the Senate last year, Fusion GPS founder Glenn Simpson indicated that, in a conversation between Steele and an unnamed FBI agent in 2016, Steele was told that his allegations of links between the campaign and Russia had been corroborated by the FBI independently.

This appears to be a reference to what has been cited as the direct instigator of the Russia investigation: Campaign adviser George Papadopoulos’s admission to an Australian diplomat that he’d been told about the Russians having obtained emails related to the Clinton campaign. (After emails from the DNC were released by WikiLeaks in June 2016, the Australians tipped off the FBI.) There have also been suggestions that the FBI investigation was triggered by campaign adviser Carter Page’s trip to Russia that July.

We don’t know exactly what led to the FBI warrants being issued at this point, though people familiar with the FISA warrant process told NBC News that even had Steele’s information been included in the request for a warrant, that would not be disqualifying since he’d worked with the bureau before. In testimony before a House committee last year, Attorney General Jeff Sessions appears to have dismissed the importance of the Steele dossier, too.

(There’s also been a rumor that Steele was paid by the FBI for his research; no such arrangement ever came to fruition, though the FBI did apparently reimburse some of his expenses.)

The memo

What it is: Over the past week, the hashtag #releasethememo has been prominent on social media. It’s a call to release a four-page memo drafted by staffers for Nunes allegedly documenting abuse of the surveillance process under President Barack Obama and attempting to discredit Fusion GPS.

What it supposedly means: The memo, which alludes to classified information and has therefore been viewed only by members of Congress (despite Alex Jones’s enthusiasm on Tuesday), has been described in stark terms by Republicans.

“The sickening reality has set in. I no longer hold out hope there is an innocent explanation for the information the public has seen,” Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) wrote on Twitter. “I have long said it is worse than Watergate.” Fox News’s Sean Hannity, apparently taking the severity of the memo on faith, called for special counsel Robert S. Mueller III to “close the door” of his investigation given the documented abuses.

Why skepticism is in order: A few reasons.

First of all, the FBI hasn’t seen the memo, which was written by staffers for Republican members of the House. As such, the bureau has had no opportunity to respond to the allegations contained in it, even confidentially to members of Congress. In other words, the memo has propagated and been hailed publicly as damning — without any official rebuttal from the Justice Department.

Which isn’t to say there’s been no rebuttal. Democrats have seen the memo and describe it in less apocalyptic terms.

“Rife with factual inaccuracies and referencing highly classified materials that most Republican Intelligence Committee members were forced to acknowledge they had never read, this is meant only to give Republican House members a distorted view of the FBI,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.). He called it “a deep disservice to our law enforcement professionals.”

The text messages

What it is: An FBI agent named Peter Strzok had a romantic affair with an FBI lawyer named Lisa Page. Over the course of the 2016 election and into 2017 — a period during which Strzok worked on the investigation into Clinton’s email server and apparently into Strzok’s tenure as a member of Mueller’s team — Strzok and Page exchanged text messages on FBI cellphones discussing, among other things, their views of what was happening in politics.

This week, it was revealed that messages between Strzok and Page from mid-December 2016 until May 17, 2017 — the day that Mueller was appointed special counsel — were not retained by the FBI. In total, 50,000 messages were captured.

What it supposedly means: Among those messages were one from Strzok disparaging Trump as a “douche” and one from Page lamenting that “[t]his man cannot be president.” Comments like these suggested to some that Strzok was hopelessly compromised in the work he’d done. (It was the discovery of these messages that led Mueller to remove Strzok from his team.)

More broadly, the messages included several cryptic comments. One compared the investigation into Russian meddling to “an insurance policy.” Another, newly released, apparently mentioned a “secret society” — though it’s not clear what the context was. (On Fox News on Tuesday evening, Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) told Bret Baier that there was an “informant” who told the Senate about secret, off-site meetings. He offered no further details.)

That there is a cache of missing messages, of course, has raised its own questions. Trump attorney Jay Sekulow, on his radio show, noted that the timing of the gap meant that messages during the period in which former national security adviser Michael Flynn was fired (and the interview in which he lied to the FBI was conducted) wasn’t covered, nor was the time period before the firing of Comey.

Those missing messages prompted another Fox personality, Lou Dobbs, to wonder why U.S. Marshals hadn’t yet raided the Justice Department. White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders offered that it “looks like there could have been some really inappropriate and possibly illegal behavior” in regards to the missing messages.

Why skepticism is in order: It’s worth reiterating that Mueller kicked Strzok off his team in July after discovering the messages, meaning that his involvement in the special counsel’s investigation was limited, even assuming that he was unable to conduct himself professionally after holding negative opinions of Trump. It’s also worth noting that Page and Strzok mocked other political actors, too, like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former attorney general Eric H. Holder Jr.

Those cryptic comments about insurance and secret societies are open to interpretation, but neither is a smoking gun. (The Post’s Aaron Blake walked through the former.) Strzok’s position on Mueller’s team itself could use some additional context: In one text message, he writes that his “gut sense and concern is there’s no big there there” on the Russia investigation.

As for the missing text messages, we have no idea what’s actually missing. (The FBI blames the configuration of the phones it issued to its employees.) But this has been a common tactic of Trump himself, to suggest that the absence of evidence was itself evidence of malfeasance. Consider his repeated excoriation of Hillary Clinton for having deleted more than 30,000 email messages that she said were personal in nature. Those missing emails were implied to have been particularly damning and, since they don’t exist, this was an impossible-to-counter assertion.

Why the text messages are missing is unknown and important to determine. There’s no sign that anything illegal happened, though it’s clear why Sanders would like to hint that there is.

That they’re missing doesn’t itself mean that what they said was particularly damning or important. Certainly not so much so that the U.S. Marshals should have to raid the offices of the federal department to which they belong.

The deputy director

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Andrew McCabe, who has faced repeated criticism from President Trump, is stepping down as deputy director of the FBI and will formally retire this month. (Elyse Samuels, Bastien Inzaurralde/The Washington Post)

What it is: FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe was targeted by Trump on the campaign trail as Trump sought to undermine the FBI’s initial exoneration of Clinton’s use of an email server.

What it supposedly means: Trump’s attacks focused on McCabe’s wife, who ran as a Democrat for the state Senate in Virginia. In that losing campaign, she received campaign contributions from a political action committee controlled by former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, a close Clinton ally.

McCabe is the highest-ranking member of the FBI to have been isolated as having been biased against Trump. That bias is theoretically demonstrated by the above link to Clinton and by having been apparently mentioned in the “insurance policy” Strzok text. (“I want to believe the path you threw out for consideration in Andy’s office — that there’s no way he gets elected — but I’m afraid we can’t take that risk,” it read. “It’s like an insurance policy in the unlikely event you die before you’re 40.” “Andy” here is apparently McCabe.)

The White House interview which ultimately ensnared Flynn? Set up by a call from McCabe’s office.

Why skepticism is in order: McCabe’s wife’s campaign ended in 2015, before McCabe became deputy director and was put in charge of the investigation into Clinton’s email server in February of the following year. The FBI cleared McCabe of conflict of interest on the issue. And as for that Flynn interview, it was Flynn who chose to lie to the agents about his contacts with Russian officials, ultimately leading to his admission of guilt to Mueller’s team.

Given McCabe’s stature, he’s been a frequent target of Trump and Trump’s defenders. Axios reported this week that FBI Director Christopher A. Wray (Comey’s replacement) threatened to resign if McCabe was fired.

The Post reported Tuesday that Trump also pressured McCabe during a meeting in the Oval Office shortly after Comey was fired. Among other things, Trump asked McCabe whom he voted for in the 2016 election.


Philip Bump is a correspondent for The Washington Post based in New York. Before joining The Post in 2014, he led politics coverage for the Atlantic Wire.

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