Then came Monday, with the release of the much-anticipated report by Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz. At 400-plus pages, the report’s full import may not be known for weeks or months. Horowitz and his team investigated the origins and execution of “Crossfire Hurricane,” the Russia investigation that kicked off in summer 2016. That’s when the FBI, acting on information gleaned through an Australian diplomat, learned that Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos had spoken about his awareness that the Russians had offered dirt on Hillary Clinton. The agency opened a counterintelligence investigation exploring whether the Trump campaign collaborated with Russia.
That investigation was a highly secretive matter, as the New York Times has reported. It featured actions taken under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) and other investigative tactics that lend themselves to oversight. For months and months, back seat oversight has been supplied by Trump backers and, most prominently, Fox News host Sean Hannity, who had gobbled up and spat out every last conspiracy theory about Crossfire Hurricane.
“There will be a reckoning,” said Hannity on his show back in March. “We will hold all of these people in the days, weeks, and [months accountable]. Now, of course, this includes known liar and leaker, yep, Congressman — we call him the cowardly [Rep. Adam B.] Schiff. He won’t come on this program. Well, he might be the most detached from reality after nine months investigation from the FBI, 22-month investigation from Mueller, a bipartisan investigation from the Senate, another bipartisan investigation in the House, after all these investigations prior to today turned up at zero evidence of collusion, nothing.”
One of the nuggets seized upon by Hannity was a news report in September 2017 that government investigators had wiretapped Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort before and after the 2016 presidential election. The news aligned with Hannity’s hunch that the federal government was abusing its power in surveilling the Trump campaign — that the top ranks of the FBI were biased against the mold-breaking candidate and twisted the laws in pursuing evidence of crimes. “Now, according to a new report, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was, in fact, wiretapped by the FBI under FISA court warrants before and after the 2016 election,” said Hannity on his show in September 2017. “Now, according to reporting, the FBI was monitoring Manafort over concerns that he was communicating with, quote, ‘Russian operatives.’ But what’s even more disturbing is this: Manafort was under surveillance earlier this year when he was known to be communicating with President Trump.”
Tucker Carlson, another prime-time Fox News host, also covered the development: “This seems like kind of a big deal, an administration authorizing spying on, wiretapping of its political opponents. If that’s not a scandal, I’m not sure what qualifies as one,” said Carlson on his program.
One problem with this story comes from page vi of the inspector general report: “Although the team also was interested in seeking FISA surveillance targeting Papadopoulos, the FBI OGC attorneys were not supportive. FBI and NSD officials told us that the Crossfire Hurricane team ultimately did not seek FISA surveillance of Papadopoulos, and we are aware of no information indicating that the team requested or seriously considered FISA surveillance of Manafort or Flynn.”
So where did the report of surveillance come from? Was it The Hill’s John Solomon or Fox News contributor Sara A. Carter — both regular sources for Hannity nuggets? Was it some other right-leaning media outlet?
No, it was CNN. The network’s Evan Perez, Shimon Prokupecz and Pamela Brown reported on the alleged fruits of the FISA surveillance: “Some of the intelligence collected includes communications that sparked concerns among investigators that Manafort had encouraged the Russians to help with the campaign, according to three sources familiar with the investigation,” says the report. “Two of these sources, however, cautioned that the evidence is not conclusive.” (CNN wasn’t the only outlet to report on the surveillance. Days later, the Wall Street Journal published a story under the headline, “U.S. Monitored Manafort After He Left Trump Campaign.”)
The detail in the CNN story is extensive:
It is unclear when the new warrant started. The FBI interest deepened last fall because of intercepted communications between Manafort and suspected Russian operatives, and among the Russians themselves, that reignited their interest in Manafort, the sources told CNN. As part of the FISA warrant, CNN has learned that earlier this year, the FBI conducted a search of a storage facility belonging to Manafort. It’s not known what they found.
We asked CNN to comment about the inspector general report’s challenge to its reporting. Is there any way to reconcile the two? A CNN source indicates that the network is reviewing the matter.
Whatever emerges from the CNN review, the story’s footprints add further heft to a series published earlier this year by the Erik Wemple Blog. It concerned the tendency of Fox News to aggregate the investigations of the mainstream media when they’re directed at Democrats, only to assail the integrity of those same media outlets when the investigations are directed at Republicans. In this case, Hannity and Carlson were happy to use the CNN reporting as fodder for their own tendentious programming. Think they had any sources confirming the CNN report? If it turns out that the CNN story had misfired factually, the episode will underline again the degree to which Fox News’s opinion hosts are flying blind when it comes to the factual bases for their programming.