It’s important to reiterate right up front the actual argument that Trump World made for literally years. Not just that mistakes were made in the launching of the investigation. Not just that applications for this or that wiretapping warrant were mishandled.
No, the Trump argument has been that the entire investigation was built on top of deeply nefarious motives — that is, that the “deep state" was corruptly conspiring to prevent Trump from being elected president — and that it all was illegitimate. This was the argument of the president of the United States: that a law enforcement investigation into a foreign attack on our democracy was a “hoax" and a “witch hunt.”
Implicit in this position is the idea that when law enforcement officials learned that Russia was trying to sabotage a free and fair U.S. election, they shouldn’t have done anything. But it’s worse than that: Trump World’s story has been that law enforcement was riddled with corruption from top to bottom, and that they were the ones trying to corrupt and rig the election — that is, the real crime wasn’t Russian sabotage of our election but the effort to investigate it.
The inspector general report just wrecked numerous claims that Trump and his propagandists have made to justify that narrative.
Perhaps this is why Attorney General William P. Barr, who has been himself working to invalidate that investigation, rushed to Trump’s rescue. He released a statement that said this:
The Inspector General’s report now makes clear that the FBI launched an intrusive investigation of a U.S. presidential campaign on the thinnest of suspicions that, in my view, were insufficient to justify the steps taken.
But that’s not at all what the IG’s report makes clear.
Let’s begin with the origin of the investigation, referred to as “Crossfire Hurricane.” It was triggered when the Australian government contacted U.S. government officials to alert them that a Trump campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, had bragged to an Australian official that the campaign was in contact with the Russian government, which had promised dirt on Hillary Clinton.
The report from the Australian government, the inspector general writes, “was sufficient to predicate the investigation. This information provided the FBI with an articulable factual basis that, if true, reasonably indicated activity constituting either a federal crime or a threat to national security, or both, may have occurred or may be occurring.”
The fact that it involved an ongoing presidential campaign obviously made this a sensitive matter. However, the inspector general adds:
We also concluded that, under the AG Guidelines and the DIOG, the FBI had an authorized purpose when it opened Crossfire Hurricane to obtain information about, or protect against, a national security threat or federal crime, even though the investigation also had the potential to impact constitutionally protected activity.
The inspector general also completely knocks down the constant claims from Republicans that the entire investigation, which was authorized by then-Counterintelligence Division Assistant Director Bill Priestap, was the product of an anti-Trump conspiracy:
We concluded that Priestap’s exercise of discretion in opening the investigation was in compliance with Department and FBI policies, and we did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation influenced his decision.
How about the claim Barr has made that the bureau was “spying” on the Trump campaign? The inspector general writes:
We found no evidence that the FBI placed any CHSs [confidential sources] or UCEs [undercover agents] within the Trump campaign or tasked any CHSs or UCEs to report on the Trump campaign. Finally, we also found no documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivations influenced the FBI’s decision to use CHSs or UCEs to interact with Trump campaign officials in the Crossfire Hurricane investigation.
Remember, Barr didn’t merely claim there had been “spying” on Trump’s campaign. As Just Security co-editor-in-chief Ryan Goodman points out, Barr tried to imply that numerous law enforcement leaders had failed by permitting this, which was obviously designed to feed the “deep state” conspiracy that Trump wanted Barr to validate.
The inspector general does suggest that this aspect of the process could benefit from reforms, so that oversight of monitoring of potential “constitutionally protected activity” is strengthened. To be clear, this and the other reforms it suggests to the handling of sensitive monitoring operations are good things. We want the inspector general to be focused on this type of reform.
But what the inspector general emphatically did not conclude is that anything deliberately untoward occurred, anything even remotely like what Trump suggested and Barr subtly validated. And — surprise, surprise — Barr has suddenly popped up again to suggest that the investigation might not have been legitimately launched.
The inspector general also addressed the opening of four individual investigations, into Papadopoulos, Page, Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort: “We did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation influenced the decisions to open the four individual investigations." Three of the four have been convicted of or pleaded guilty to crimes.
It was with regard to Carter Page that the inspector general found serious misconduct. Page had long been on the government’s radar as someone Russian intelligence might be trying to recruit, which made his affiliation with the Trump campaign worthy of notice. The bureau obtained a FISA warrant to surveil him and then got that warrant renewed. The inspector general wrote that in those applications, there was a series of omissions and misleading statements that served to make the approvals more likely.
Obviously, all warrant applications should be scrupulously accurate. But it’s important to note that Carter Page was always a peripheral figure to the Trump campaign at best, and by the time the FBI turned their attention to him, he was no longer affiliated with the campaign. At that point, the investigation had been underway for months.
Barr is in the process of completing his own “review” of the investigation, and it’s plainly obvious that he is going to try to use it to cast doubt on these inspector general conclusions. Let’s remember that Barr put out a profoundly dishonestly summary of the special counsel’s report, one clearly designed to game media coverage of it in advance.
There is no need to grant Barr even the slightest presumption of good faith this time around. It isn’t just that history on the special counsel’s report; it’s that he already told us what his intention is, by implying at the outset with his “spying” comment that there just might be something to that “deep state” plot, and, now, by telling us exactly how he’s going to try to dispute the inspector general’s findings, as well.