After spending a decent amount of energy excoriating the media for its coverage of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s Russia investigation, President Trump called into Sean Hannity’s Fox News show Wednesday evening for an interview.
For months, Hannity has woven an alternate theory of how and why the investigation into possible coordination between Trump’s election campaign and Russia began, spiraling outward into conspiracy theories that implicated federal officials in various coverups and attempts to oust Trump from office. With the probe concluded and Trump seemingly protected from worst-case scenarios, one might think that the temperature might be lowered on Hannity’s rhetoric.
That is, if one has never seen Hannity.
Trump and Hannity’s explication of the investigation begins at the end, with the assumption that the probe was unfair and biased. They have then, over the past year or two, worked backward to identify places where that alleged bias and unfairness originated. And so they’ve internalized an understanding of how the probe began that’s obviously false.
“How did this start? How did it start?” Trump asked at one point during the interview Wednesday night. “You had dirty cops. . . . [A]t the top, they were not clean, to put it mildly. And what they did to our country was a terrible, terrible thing.”
Who is “they”? He later pointed to former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe.
“I mean, McCabe: His wife got hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Trump said. “He was running the FBI and running all sorts of cases, and his wife got hundreds of thousands of dollars from essentially Clintons, from Clinton’s closest friend. Then he ruled so favorably.”
We’ve been through this before — frequently. McCabe’s wife ran for the Virginia Senate in 2015 and lost. She received money from a political action committee controlled by former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, as did a number of other candidates. That election was over well before McCabe had any oversight of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails, much less the investigation into Trump and Russia.
Hannity, though, agreed on Wednesday that the FBI was acting improperly. He pointed to what he called “the FISA abuse scandal” — referring to the process of obtaining Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants that allow the government to monitor communications involving possible foreign agents.
“This is what we know,” Hannity said, “that in August of 2016, we know Bruce Ohr warned everybody at the DOJ and the FBI that Christopher Steele hated you, that Hillary Clinton paid for the dossier, that it was not verified. But still in October, and then three renewal application warrants approved, they were told by the Grassley-Graham memo, the bulk of information came from that phony dossier. Andrew McCabe said, no dossier, no FISA warrant.”
The important part of this is that “still in October.”
Hannity is referring to a FISA warrant obtained against Carter Page, who in March 2016 was identified as an adviser to Trump’s campaign. In July, Page traveled to Moscow, where he spoke with a Russian deputy prime minister. His trip was mentioned in a dossier of reports compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele.
But that October 2016 warrant also had nothing to do with the launch of the investigation into possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia. That investigation is believed to have begun on July 31, 2016, after the FBI was tipped off by a foreign diplomat that another Trump campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos, had discussed incriminating emails in Russia’s possession.
What’s more, Page wasn’t even part of the campaign in October, having resigned in September after his trip to Moscow came under scrutiny.
“There were Russian lies disseminated to the American people before the election,” Hannity said, “but it also violated the rights of Carter Page and gave a back door into your campaign for spying, which I know the media made fun of at the time, when you said it happened.”
Trump in March 2017 claimed that former president Barack Obama had wiretapped the phones in Trump Tower, an allegation that has been repeatedly debunked. Again, the Page warrant was first issued in late October 2016 — less than three weeks before Election Day — to surveil someone no longer associated with the campaign. That’s not spying on the campaign.
“Well, when I said there could be somebody spying on my campaign, a lot of things happened,” Trump said to Hannity. “It was like — it went wild out there. They couldn’t believe that I could say such a thing. And as it turned out, that was a small potatoes compared to what went on.”
Trump continued: “When you look at what happened, and when it happened, and the money that was spent, the millions and millions on the phony dossier, and then they used the dossier to start things, and there was no truth whatsoever. It was a fraud and paid for by Hillary Clinton and paid for by the Democrats and the [Democratic National Committee]. It’s hard to believe.”
Trump and Hannity have implied that the dossier of reports from Steele was the genesis of the Russia investigation for the simple reason that the dossier contains sweeping, unproved allegations that call into question the document’s validity on the whole. It was never meant to be more than raw reports about what Steele was told, but its explicit allegations about Trump’s campaign working with Russia captured the public imagination.
Although the dossier was used in the warrant application to surveil Page, it was not the only evidence provided, according to a publicly released version of the document. What’s more, Page had been on the FBI’s radar in 2013, having been identified by a suspected Russian agent as a target for recruitment. Multiple reports suggest he was the target of a FISA warrant at that point, too.
Again, though, it hasn’t been alleged that the dossier was the primary motivator for the Russia investigation broadly. There were several suspicious connections to Russia when the investigation began, including connections between Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and the Russian government and then-campaign adviser Michael Flynn’s trip to Moscow in late 2015. The government intercepted communications in which Russians indicated that they thought they could leverage Flynn.
“I wish he didn’t take so long,” Trump said of the Mueller probe during his conversation with Hannity. He then pivoted to another favorite talking point, involving two former FBI officials, Peter Strzok and Lisa Page. Strzok and Page exchanged text messages in which they disparaged Trump; Strzok was the FBI agent who formally launched the Russia investigation in July 2016.
“You know, we are talking about really longer than, if you think about it, longer than Mueller. It was many months before that that Strzok and Page were talking about the insurance policy, right?” Trump said. “The insurance policy — just in case Hillary Clinton lost, they wanted an insurance policy against me. And what we were playing out until just recently was the insurance policy.”
Trump is referring here to a text message from Strzok. It 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 40.”
In sworn testimony, both Page and Strzok explained the message: They weren’t saying “we should develop an insurance policy in case Trump wins.” Strzok was arguing that they should move quickly and forcefully in the investigation because it would be important to know if Trump advisers — like, say, Flynn — were compromised as soon as possible in case Trump did win — in the same way that people who aren’t likely to die soon might nonetheless have a life insurance policy, just to make sure.
Strzok and Page “wanted to do a subversion,” Trump said. “It was treason. It was really treason.”
No, it really wasn’t.
It’s a bit odd that Hannity and Trump continue to harp on the origins of the Russia investigation, promoting this inaccurate narrative of how it began. At the same time, Trump is claiming exoneration by Mueller, which would seem to render all of this rather unimportant anyway. But with 2020 looming, it’s also important for Trump, despite being the president, to have a way to position himself as embattled and at risk. That position — Trump vs. the establishment — helped power his last campaign, too.
Sean Hannity, who endorsed Trump in 2016, is happy to help.