Attorney General William P. Barr’s March 24 letter describing the results of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election had an immediate effect on President Trump’s defenders.
For months, as other media outlets worked in parallel with Mueller’s investigators to uncover links between Trump’s campaign staff and Russia, conservative legislators, commentators and media outlets built a volatile countervailing narrative, one in which the investigation was the work of rogue anti-Trump FBI officials who had been trying to take down Trump’s campaign even before he was the Republican Party’s nominee. Barr’s letter put a match to that kerosene, suggesting that the leading view of Trump’s relationship with Russia was necessarily wrong, and therefore, it seemed, that theirs was likely correct.
In the weeks since, even as we’ve learned that Barr’s presentation of Mueller’s findings was at best incomplete, this argument has taken hold. That Mueller didn’t prove that Trump and his team had illegally conspired with the Russian government meant, some claimed, that the investigation was biased and founded illegally. The new mantra became “investigate the investigators”: Probe the FBI and the team at the Justice Department that had the temerity to look at Trump in the first place.
This week, two prominent members of the FBI team that oversaw the launch of the probe into possible Russian efforts to infiltrate the Trump campaign discussed key elements of the probe in interviews. Former FBI director James B. Comey was interviewed by CNN’s Anderson Cooper on Thursday night, and former FBI general counsel James Baker spoke with the Brookings Institution’s Ben Wittes on Friday. Between the two of them, they offered a number of arguments in favor of the launch of the investigation and defenses of how it progressed.
The start of the probe
According to a number of reports, the initial investigation into possible coordination between Trump’s campaign and Russia was launched on July 31, 2016. That was about a week after WikiLeaks began releasing information stolen from the Democratic National Committee — information that was already believed to have been stolen by Russian hackers. At some point after that, perhaps at about the same time that Trump held a news conference in which he asked Russia to release emails it may have stolen from Hillary Clinton’s private email server, Australian authorities contacted the FBI. A Trump campaign adviser named George Papadopoulos had informed one of their diplomats over drinks in May that Russia had emails incriminating Clinton — information that Papadopoulos learned from a professor linked to Russia.
Comey and Baker offered similar rationales for launching an investigation at that point.
“We knew the Russians were engaged in a massive effort to attack our democracy, and then we learn from an allied ambassador that one of President-elect Trump’s — or candidate Trump’s advisers had been talking to a Russian representative long before that about dirt they had on Hillary Clinton that the Russians wanted to make available,” Comey said. “We all should have been fired if when we learned that we didn’t investigate to figure out, is there a connection between any Americans and this Russian effort?”
“It would have been a dereliction of our duty not to investigate this information,” Baker said, also pointing to the Papadopoulos revelation. “Again, given the fact that we’ve been focused on the Russians as threat actors for a long, long time. Given what was going on with respect to email dumps and hacking and the connection with those to the Russians in that summer, and then this thing drops. I think it would have been malpractice, dereliction of duty, whatever you want to say, but it would have been highly, highly inappropriate for us not to pursue it and pursue it aggressively.”
Detractors of the investigation argue that the probe into coordination began much earlier. Baker, asked if there were other similar investigations already underway, replied, “Not to my knowledge."
“This incident, the Papadopoulos information, is what triggered us going down this path,” he added. But he made a pointed distinction: They weren’t simply trying to take down Papadopoulos or Trump.
“The case was about Russia,” he said. “It was about Russia. Period. Full stop. That was the focus of the investigation. . . . We have groups of people that constantly, their job is to focus on nothing but Russia. As we’re staring at the Russian problem, to the extent that other people, third-country nationals, or Americans or anybody else comes across our radar screen and has a connection to the Russians in some way that looks nefarious to us and falls within the scope of the attorney general guidelines that authorize us to conduct investigations — if that comes across our radar screens, then we go and investigate that and run it down wherever it goes."
In testimony before Congress last month, Barr used a phrase that’s been used regularly by Trump and his supporters in articulating skepticism about the investigation. The government, he said, had “spied” on Trump’s campaign. (Trump reportedly began using the word “spy” to describe the investigation because it sounded more nefarious.)
“The FBI doesn’t spy to begin with,” Comey told Cooper. “The FBI investigates.”
So why did Barr use the phrase?
“The only explanation I can think of is he used it because the president uses it, which is really disappointing,” Comey said. “He knows better than that and knows that the FBI conducts electronic surveillance by going to federal judges and getting warrants based on probable cause.”
Baker was more guarded.
“I don’t know, the inspector general has been doing reviews for a long period of time,” he said, referring to an ongoing probe of the investigation. “Has he found something? I don’t know. I mean, I’m eager to find out what both the attorney general and the inspector general know. . . . I honestly don’t know what he’s referring to, if he has other information available to him that somehow hasn’t been made public yet, I’m eager to hear it, but I don’t understand it.”
The Steele dossier and the FISA warrant
One of the centerpieces of the theory that the investigation was predicated on bias and an effort to undermine Trump was a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant the government obtained against a Trump campaign adviser named Carter Page in October 2016. The application for that warrant, which was approved by the FISA Court after Page had left the campaign, included references to information contained in a dossier of reports written by a former British intelligence officer named Christopher Steele. The dossier, The Washington Post reported last year, was funded by a law firm working for the Democratic Party and the Clinton campaign.
That most of the information in the dossier hasn’t been corroborated and that some has been generally debunked has led to a theory that the FBI improperly used the information it contained as the primary rationale for getting a warrant on Page, while obscuring who paid for it.
“Look,” Baker told Wittes, “the investigation was not predicated on the basis of the information that Christopher Steele gave to us in form of the dossier. That is just not, was not my understanding at the time and has never been my understanding. So just to say that flat-out.”
He noted that Steele had worked with the FBI and that his information had been useful in the past.
“We’re not stupid, right? The FBI. We’re not stupid,” he said. “People come in to give us information all the time for all kinds of different angles. . . . People come to us for lots of different reasons, and so the FBI has an obligation to both take that seriously and be highly skeptical of the information as well. Because people come to us with agendas.”
So they “vet the hell out of the information that comes from these sources,” he said.
Comey noted how it worked in this case.
“The bureau began an effort after we got the Steele dossier to try and see how much of it we could replicate,” he said. “That work was ongoing when I was fired. Some of it was consistent with our other intelligence, the most important part. The Steele dossier said the Russians are coming for the American election. It’s a huge effort. It has multiple goals . . . And that was true."
“There were a lot of spokes off of that that we didn’t know whether they were true or false, and we were trying to figure out what we could make of it,” he added.
Baker, recognizing the sensitivity of the warrant, made a pointed effort to ensure that he felt comfortable with the application for it.
“My recollection, at the time, is that when I read it, I asked questions about it, but nevertheless, I was comfortable that the application that we were submitting to the FISA Court was consistent with the Constitution and laws of the United States, and was consistent with the requirements of the FISA statute and lawful,” he said. “And it was. There was probable cause that was, in my mind, sufficient to pass muster and to pass review and that would be approved by the FISA Court."
Baker also noted that the disclosure about the funding source for the dossier — identified in a lengthy footnote — was sufficient.
“My assessment was that the information set forth in that gigantic footnote was consistent with the type of information and the way we would phrase things to basically, effectively be the red light on top of a document like, ‘Hey, court, pay attention to this, there are issues here. We think you need to know about these things,'” he said. “I thought this was sufficient to put the court on notice, and I don’t know what else to say.”
At times, Trump and his allies have elevated their allegations about misbehavior on the part of government officials to rise to the level of an attempted “coup.”
There are two incidents included in this allegation. The first is a series of exchanges between then-FBI employees Peter Strzok and Lisa Page in which they at times disparage Trump and, at other points, trade messages that have been interpreted to be suggesting an attempt to undermine Trump. The other incident followed the firing of Comey two years ago, when then-Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein and then-FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe discussed whether Trump could be removed from office under the provisions of the 25th Amendment.
Comey described the Strzok-Page interactions in stark terms.
“It was important that it be investigated and important that there be discipline that follows it, but, yeah, it made us all look bad,” he said. “Peter Strzok is a very talented agent. It’s a personal tragedy for him. But as much as I care about individuals, I care about the institution more. It hurt the institution.”
Baker, asked specifically about the word “coup,” didn’t mince words.
“There was no attempted coup,” he said. “There was no coup, there was no attempted coup, there was no conspiracy to commit a coup, there was nothing having to do with a coup.”
“There was no way in hell that I was going to allow some coup or coup attempt to take place on my watch or any conspiracy to do anything unlawful,” he added later. “No way.”
When Wittes and Baker began their conversation, Wittes pointed out that the two had been friends for some time and that both were wary of crossing lines of propriety in having a frank conversation about the events of 2016 and 2017.
Baker explained why he wanted to speak, despite those concerns.
“Honestly,” he said, “there was a point in time relatively recently where I just became sick of all the BS that is said about the origins of the investigation and I just got fed up with it.”
So he pushed back.