There is broad consensus at this point that President Trump’s regular assertions that the FBI inserted spies into his campaign for political purposes are untrue. Even House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) stated Wednesday morning that he concurred with the opinion offered by Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), who last week snuffed out a good deal of the speculation Trump had kindled by saying that the evidence Gowdy had seen indicated that the FBI “did exactly what my fellow citizens would want them to do.”
It is clear that Trump and his team see political value in casting the FBI investigation and the ongoing probe by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III as unfair and biased. Whatever else emerges from the investigation will be cast as tainted by the allegedly unfair origins of the probe, as the existing revelations have already been.
What’s not clear, though, is whether Trump’s frequent insistence that his campaign was targeted for political reasons is born of a belief in that having happened. Consider tweets like this, for example:
To many observers, myself included, there’s an obvious flaw in that argument: If the FBI was “running an operation to undermine a candidate for President of the U.S.” and using their tools to “steer an election” then, uh, why didn’t they steer the election? Why did they sit on the full scope of the investigation, including apparently providing information to the New York Times that led the paper to report a lack of any links between Trump and Russia only a week before the election? A report, mind you, that came out several days after then-FBI Director James B. Comey announced the existence of newly discovered emails in the investigation into Hillary Clinton.
I posed that question on Twitter, asking those who agreed with the idea that the FBI was targeting Trump for political reasons to share explanations they’d seen for why the FBI never tried to keep Trump from winning. Below are some of the responses I got — and an assessment of them.
They didn’t release what they had learned because they didn’t think he would win.
This was the most common response: The bad actors in the FBI simply didn’t think their intervention was needed, so they didn’t intervene. Some pointed to Comey’s comments suggesting that his update to Congress on the existence of the new emails was in part because he thought Clinton would win.
The “risk of any nefarious activities being uncovered was greater than their perceived risk of Trump actually winning the Presidency,” one person said.
There are a few problems with this argument — setting aside, as we shall from here on out, the problem that the evidence to support claims of a widespread anti-Trump conspiracy are thin to the point of vanishing.
The investigation began in late July 2016, when Trump was as close to Clinton in the polls as he would ever be. When the FBI obtained a warrant to surveil campaign adviser Carter Page, though, Clinton had a wide lead that seemed to be growing — less than a month before Election Day. At that point, Clinton’s election certainly seemed probable. So why expand the investigation?
By the end of October, a Post-ABC tracking poll had Trump and Clinton essentially tied, tracking other polling at the time. While projections still hinted at a Clinton win, given the distribution of state polling, there was no question that the race was close (in part, thanks to Comey’s intervention). Yet it was on Oct. 31 that the Times ran its article essentially absolving Trump’s campaign of any relationship with Russian actors.
In other words, if the calculus being made by these bad actors was that the risk of revealing the investigation was higher than the risk of Trump’s election, the risk of revealing the investigation must have been quite high, given how close to victory Trump had gotten by the end of that month.
That argument can also be self-fulfilling: The investigation must have been nefarious because it wasn’t revealed publicly, and that it wasn’t revealed publicly reinforces that it was nefarious.
The information was intended only as an insurance policy/they simply wanted intel on Trump.
Close observers of this subject will recognize the “insurance policy” line. It was broached in a text message exchange between FBI employees Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, the former of whom was integral to the investigation and the latter of whom worked as an attorney for the bureau.
That text, sent from Page to Strzok after a meeting with then-FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, read: “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’s like an insurance policy in the unlikely event you die before you’re 40.”
Since the texts were revealed, the phrase has been cited repeatedly as evidence that the FBI wanted to have something on Trump in case he won the election. That theory overlaps with one several offered to me: The FBI wanted something in its back pocket to have over Trump, akin to how J. Edgar Hoover once wielded power at the bureau.
But in December, when that text was first reported — and before the Trump-FBI conspiracy theories had reached their current maturity — a Wall Street Journal reporter who had spoken with people close to the subject offered what he argued was Strzok’s meaning.
In short, Strzok was telling Page that the FBI couldn’t slow-walk the Russia investigation because they needed to understand any relationship between Trump’s team and Russian actors as soon as possible before he became president, not after.
“His text was meant to convey his belief that the investigation couldn’t afford to take a more measured approach because Mr. Trump could very well win the election,” sources told the Journal’s Del Quentin Wilber. “It would be better to be aggressive and gather evidence quickly, he believed, because some of Mr. Trump’s associates could land administration jobs and it was important to know if they had colluded with Russia.”
The “insurance policy” theory obviously overlaps with the thought-Clinton-would-win theory. They didn’t think Clinton would lose, but, just in case, opened an investigation into Trump so they could have leverage over him. To that end, they allocated resources for months to probe four different individuals associated with Trump’s campaign — Page, adviser George Papadopoulos, campaign chairman Paul Manafort and eventual national security adviser Michael Flynn — obtaining warrants and deploying confidential informants … just in case. That three of the four eventually faced criminal charges, with two admitting to guilt for having lied to federal authorities is, it seems, something of a coincidence.
There’s another question that seems obvious here. If you’re looking for insurance, why investigate Page instead of, you know, Trump? Why investigate Papadopoulous instead of Donald Trump Jr.? Why investigate Flynn instead of Trump lawyer Michael Cohen?
Which brings us to our next theory.
There was nothing to reveal/Trump didn’t do anything wrong.
This argument takes many forms, most of which echo Trump’s core “no collusion” claim. Trump didn’t do anything related to Russia, so there was nothing to leak. The investigation was almost entirely based on a dossier of reports compiled by a former British intelligence officer who was being paid by a law firm employed by the Democrats and Clinton’s campaign, one argument goes. And because that dossier was full of unverified claims, the FBI had nothing to go on.
The obvious complication here is that the FBI didn’t have anything substantial to report about the Clinton emails it had discovered late in the campaign — but Comey made that public, anyway. Even if Trump hadn’t been personally involved in any dealings with Russia, the FBI could easily have announced its investigations into Papadopoulos or Flynn and damaged his campaign effort. They didn’t.
This argument also looks at the subject through the lens of Trump’s dealings with Russia. There’s been no proven direct, robust, public link between Trump and Russian actors, and therefore Trump did nothing wrong, and therefore the FBI was stymied.
But if the FBI simply wanted to take down Trump, there are a lot of other investigations that might be expected to bear more fruit. If you wanted to kneecap Trump, why not look at his business dealings? Why not look at the deals he made overseas? Why not dig into the time he spent running casinos on the Jersey Shore? Why explore rumors about Trump’s extramarital relationships, one of which Cohen spent $130,000 to keep private? There seem to be numerous potentially fruitful ways in which to identify points of leverage over Trump that don’t involve the intricacy of collusion with the Russian government, potentially fruitful avenues of investigation that would probably be easier for the FBI to investigate — and which we know now would have dug up some dirt.
Instead, for some reason, the FBI focused on this Russia thing.
The media were already on the story.
One respondent suggested that perhaps the FBI felt that its strategic leaks to the media about the investigation would be enough to submarine Trump’s candidacy.
One problem with that argument is that the FBI was actively tamping down on these theories before the election, as that Times article makes clear. The author of that dossier, Christopher Steele, was reportedly so frustrated that the media and members of Congress were being quiet about possible links between Russia and Trump that he leaked its existence to a reporter from Mother Jones the same day as the Times article.
The main flaw to that theory, though, is that the media had reported numerous other things that raised questions about Trump’s contacts and track record. He won the election despite those reports.
Have you heard other theories that are worth assessing? Email me.