President Trump’s approach to the investigation into Russian election interference has never been subtle. From early in his presidency, he has described it as a “witch hunt” that was unnecessary because there was “no collusion” between his campaign and Russia — an assertion that has remained unchanged since he first offered it in that infamous May 11, 2017, interview with NBC News’s Lester Holt.
In Trump’s telling, the investigation was always political, an effort to undermine his election and his presidency. In the wake of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III wrapping up his probe, Trump’s rhetoric has gotten angrier, citing Attorney General William P. Barr’s overview of Mueller’s conclusions as proof not only of his own innocence but of the nefarious intent of those who began the investigation in the first place.
Trump and his supporters have embraced a history of the genesis of that investigation that would seem to bolster his arguments about bias. The investigation into “collusion,” they argue, stems from a dossier of reports compiled by a former British intelligence officer named Christopher Steele who was working for a research agency that was being paid by a law firm representing Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign and the Democratic Party. That dossier, then, was used to launch the investigation into Trump’s campaign despite the information in it not having been verified at the time — or, largely, even now. What’s more, the investigation was launched by an FBI agent named Peter Strzok, who had disparaged Trump in text messages sent to an FBI lawyer, Lisa Page. This argument has been made, in full or in part, by Rush Limbaugh and various Fox News anchors and guests.
That narrative offers a very refined argument: a biased, untrue dossier used by a Trump hater to start a witch hunt. The only problems are it is so refined that it leaves out a lot of other, more important information — and that the description it offers is itself incorrect.
There is no evidence the investigation stemmed from the dossier.
The first and most important point is the investigation does not appear to have derived from the dossier.
Steele was hired by the firm Fusion GPS in June 2016. His first report (of 17 total) was filed on June 20 of that year and introduced the infamous story about Trump and the Moscow Ritz-Carlton. Steele is said to have been so alarmed by the suggestion that Russia had leverage over Trump that he reached out to the FBI. He met with an agent named Mike Gaeta in London on July 5, someone with whom he had worked previously during his career as a British intelligence officer.
The material given to Gaeta was reportedly “two to four pages of short points of what he was finding,” according to former State Department official Victoria Nuland. At the time of the meeting, Steele had written only one report, excluding the majority of the allegations that eventually were compiled into the dossier.
On July 30, Steele met in D.C. with Bruce and Nellie Ohr. At the time, the former was an associate deputy attorney general, and his wife was a Fusion GPS employee, who was separately looking at possible connections between Trump and Russian organized crime. At that meeting at the Mayflower Hotel, Steele told the Ohrs he had “suspicions that Russian Government figures were supporting the candidacy of Donald Trump,” as Nellie Ohr later testified.
Bruce Ohr reached out to then-FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe and, eventually, met with McCabe, Strzok and Page. In his testimony, he indicated he did not remember exactly when that happened but that he guessed “it would have been in August since I met with Chris Steele at the end of July, and I’m pretty sure I would have reached out to Andrew McCabe soon afterwards.”
The investigation into possible Russian collusion with the Trump campaign, code-named Crossfire Hurricane, began July 31, meaning Ohr was not the conduit. In fact, Page testified to that.
“What I can say is when we first received the set of reports that are commonly referred to as the dossier,” she said, “that initial — our having obtained those documents initially, did not come from Bruce Ohr. They came from Christopher Steele through his handler to the FBI.”
When did they get those reports?
“I think we got them on the team,” Page testified, “in mid — in mid- to late September.”
There were other reasons to launch an investigation.
So if the genesis was not the dossier, what spurred the probe?
We understand from various news reports that the immediate spur for the investigation in late July 2016 was a tip from the Australian government. One of their diplomats, Alexander Downer, was having a drink with a Trump campaign adviser named George Papadopoulos in London in May 2016 when Papadopoulos revealed he had been told Russia had stolen emails incriminating Clinton. When WikiLeaks began releasing documents stolen from the Democratic National Committee on July 22, Australian authorities informed the FBI about that conversation.
How did Papadopoulos know about the stolen material? He had been told about it by a Russia-linked professor named Joseph Mifsud in April. Papadopoulos later admitted to lying to the FBI about when he met Mifsud and when he had been told about the stolen material.
While the Papadopoulos comment was apparently the trigger for Crossfire Hurricane, there were other known links between the Trump campaign and Russia.
There was Paul Manafort, hired to serve as campaign chairman. He had an established track record of working with Russian interests while working in Ukrainian politics a decade ago. The FBI had interviewed Manafort (and his deputy, Rick Gates) in 2014. The New York Times reported shortly before Trump’s inauguration that Manafort had been on the FBI’s radar again in spring 2016, “an outgrowth of a criminal investigation into his work for a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine and for the country’s former president.”
There was Michael Flynn, who traveled in December 2015 to Russia, where he was paid to attend a dinner for the state-controlled television network RT and at which he sat at a table with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In about that same period, British intelligence officials warned U.S. authorities about suspicious interactions between Trump-connected individuals and possible Russian agents, according to the Guardian.
There was Carter Page. Like Papadopoulos, Page was an adviser on Trump’s foreign policy team. Unlike Papadopoulos, he was already on the FBI’s radar, having been identified by a possible Russian agent in 2013 as a potential target for recruitment. He was investigated by the FBI at that point and, possibly, surveilled by U.S. authorities under a warrant obtained through the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. (Whether he was the target of such a warrant then is not clear.)
Page traveled to Moscow with the campaign’s permission in early July 2016 and met with a deputy prime minister, among others. He had been interviewed by the FBI again in March 2016 and, shortly after his trip to Moscow, met with a confidential FBI informant named Stefan Halper, also a London-based professor. (Halper and Mifsud are often erroneously conflated.)
Page is known to have been the target of a FISA warrant in October 2016. That warrant included information from the dossier as evidence supporting the need to surveil Page. But it was issued not only after the Russia investigation began but also after Page had left the campaign, which he had done in late September.
All of this is well established and offers a picture of a Trump campaign that had multiple questionable points of contact with Russian actors. Barr’s letter about Mueller’s conclusions indicates none of this rose to the level of criminal behavior on the part of the campaign, but that is why investigations are conducted: to determine whether criminal activity occurred.
For Trump and his supporters, the goal is simpler. They want to muddy the water, to make it seem both as though the FBI targeted him unfairly and that the media did so, as well.
So they are leveraging friendly media to unfairly muddy the water.