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The Russia-probe theories that Trump has empowered Barr to investigate

President Trump on May 24 defended his decision to allow Attorney General William P. Barr to declassify intelligence documents tied to the Russia investigation. (Video: The Washington Post)

President Trump has a habit of developing verbal shorthand for complex issues that he talks about a lot. Over time, Trump wears down a broad point until he can wave at it with a brief phrase. The odds are good, for example, that you know what Trump means when he refers to “13 angry Democrats” — he’s talking about the investigators working with special counsel Robert S. Mueller III who, Trump claims, were hopelessly biased against him. He holds that view despite also claiming that they exonerated him on charges of collusion (which they didn’t do) and obstruction (which they explicitly didn’t do).

Trump often packs so much intent and so many assumptions into short expressions that he obscures (usually intentionally) important nuance and context. The result is to polarize understanding of what he’s talking about, segmenting his audience into groups that accept his presentation, that have no idea what he’s talking about and that futilely note what’s being left out.

In other words, people who know what he’s talking about — generally people who, like him, track Fox News coverage faithfully — understand the point he’s making. For others, it makes little sense. As Trump tries to make the case that bias prompted the Mueller probe and the underlying investigation into Russia’s activity in 2016 and its overlap with members of his campaign, his in-group shorthand is something of a liability.

On Thursday evening, Trump authorized Attorney General William P. Barr to declassify information related to the origin of the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible coordination with elements of Trump’s presidential campaign. Having earned Trump’s trust, Barr has been tasked with running down various theories about how the investigation that Trump loathes began. In doing so, Barr will be operating in parallel with the Department of Justice’s inspector general, who has been similarly evaluating how the probe began.

Giving Barr that authority is an escalation of Trump’s war on the Russia probe. Trump is empowering a loyal ally to produce and release information that might bolster or be interpreted as bolstering the prevailing theories about how bias led to the investigation.

It also means that the person now charged with making the case Trump wants to make about the investigation is not an inspector general who isn't accountable to Trump or someone like Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) whose earnest efforts in that regard were stymied by occasional rhetorical sloppiness. It's up to Barr now.

As that effort begins in earnest, it’s worth sidestepping Trump’s shorthand and reviewing the existing theories for how the Russia investigation was tainted by bias or improper activity.

An investigation that originated with bias

The allegation: Central to the theory that the Russia investigation was rooted in anti-Trump bias are text messages sent by one of the FBI employees who helped launch it.

In 2016, Peter Strzok was an FBI agent in the bureau’s counterintelligence section. Strzok led the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server and, on July 31, opened the investigation into possible coordination between Trump’s campaign and Russia’s efforts to interfere in the election.

Over the course of that year, he was also engaged in a romantic relationship with an FBI attorney named Lisa Page. The two sent each other text messages frequently using phones provided to them by the bureau (apparently to avoid exchanging the messages on personal devices that might be seen by their respective spouses). Among those messages were ones disparaging Trump and referring to the progress of the Russia investigation.

Two messages in particular have been cited often. One exchange was in August 2016 when Page expressed concern that Trump will become president and Strzok replies, “No he’s not. We’ll stop it.” The other was sent on Aug. 15 by 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 you’re 40.”

These messages in particular have been used to argue that Strzok was deeply biased against Trump, aiming to prevent his election or, in the case that he won, establishing an insurance policy against him — presumably, Trump allies argue, bulking up allegations about Russia that could be used to remove him from office.

A report by the Justice Department inspector general looking at the investigation into Clinton’s email server addressed the apparent bias on display.

“[W]e were concerned about text messages exchanged by FBI Deputy Assistant Director Peter Strzok and Lisa Page, Special Counsel to the Deputy Director, that potentially indicated or created the appearance that investigative decisions were impacted by bias or improper considerations,” it read. “As we describe in Chapter Twelve of our report, most of the text messages raising such questions pertained to the Russia investigation, which was not a part of this review.”

There was not evidence, the report said, that “improper considerations, including political bias, directly affected the specific investigative decisions” in the Clinton investigation.

There are just a few problems with the theory: There’s no evidence that the investigation was launched because of anti-Trump bias and, in fact, plenty of justification for it to have been launched.

In May 2016, a Trump campaign adviser named George Papadopoulos got a drink in London with an Australian diplomat. Papadopoulos had been in contact with a professor linked to the Kremlin, who’d informed him that the Russians had emails incriminating Clinton. Papadopoulos referred to that information in his conversation with the Australian.

In late July, when WikiLeaks began releasing material that federal investigators believe had been stolen from the Democratic National Committee by Russian hackers, the Australian diplomat realized that Papadopoulos’s comment might be significant. The FBI was informed about Papadopoulos’s conversation in late July and the counterintelligence probe launched shortly thereafter.

Put another way: There was a reason for the probe to get underway.

What’s more, the two key text messages from Strzok have been explained in congressional testimony. While Strzok claims not to remember the “we’ll stop it” message, he and Page both argued that the fact that the probe of the Trump campaign and Russia wasn’t leaked by them prior to the election suggests that they didn’t act to stop Trump’s election.

As for the “insurance policy” text, the rationale is straightforward. There was an internal debate over how hard to push on the Russia probe, with a more forceful investigation potentially tipping off the Russians about FBI assets and information. Page and others suggested that a slower approach could work, given how unlikely it was that Trump would win. Strzok argued that they should move more forcefully just in case Trump did win and, potentially, tried to appoint compromised individuals to government positions. The “insurance policy” was an analogy: Most 40-year-olds aren’t worried about dying, but many responsible ones with dependents get life insurance anyway.

There’s a subtext there that’s important. Strzok was arguing that Trump still might win, but they still didn’t leverage the information they had in order to damage Trump’s candidacy. In fact, Strzok helped then-FBI Director James B. Comey draft the letter that he released in late October, which Clinton has blamed for contributing to her defeat.

After the Russia probe launched, Strzok sent Page a text message that has received less attention.

“I cannot believe we are seriously looking at these allegations and the pervasive connections,” he wrote.

A FISA warrant rooted in questionable information

The allegation: In late October 2016, the FBI obtained a warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act to conduct surveillance on a man named Carter Page, exploring whether Page was actively working on behalf of Russia. Page had been named (with Papadopoulos) as a member of Trump’s foreign policy advisory team in March 2016. In that role, Page had been in contact with senior members of the administration.

The warrant was the subject of a lengthy memo released by staff working for Nunes early last year. That memo pointed out that a significant component of the evidence used to bolster the warrant was information compiled by a former British intelligence officer named Christopher Steele.

Steele is the author of what has come to be called the “Steele dossier,” a collection of 17 reports in which raw information from sources (including some in Russia) detailing allegations about interplay between the Trump campaign and Russian actors. Steele was working at the time for a firm called Fusion GPS, which had been hired to dig into Trump’s Russia interests by a law firm that was working for the Democratic Party and the Clinton campaign.

The information in Steele’s report largely remains uncorroborated and has, in some parts, been debunked. Nunes’s memo and others since have argued that the FBI knew that Steele’s information was questionable before the Page FISA warrant was issued but used it in the warrant application anyway. This allegation takes a number of forms, including questions about how the FBI presented purported external corroboration about what the dossier had reported about Page.

Further, that there was only a passing mention of the funding behind Steele’s work suggests an effort to downplay that he was indirectly employed by Trump’s opponent. The Nunes memo notes testimony from former FBI deputy director Andrew McCabe saying that the warrant would not have been obtained without the Steele dossier.

There are just a few problems with the theory: There was certainly reason for the FBI to be tracking Page over the course of 2016. He’d been identified by name in a recording of a suspected Russian agent in 2013, described as a potential target for recruitment by Russia. In March 2016, the month he was named as an adviser to the Trump campaign, Page was interviewed by the FBI about contacts with Russian intelligence, according to a memo released by House Democrats in response to Nunes.

In July 2016, Page traveled to Moscow where he spoke to then-Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich, a contact revealed only later. The Steele dossier alleged that Page had spoken with another senior Kremlin official on that trip.

While the Steele dossier does make up a significant portion of the initial FISA warrant application, it’s not the only evidence included in the application (a redacted copy of which was released publicly last year). The extent to which the FBI trusted the information in the dossier isn’t clear, though Steele had served as a source for the bureau in the past.

In an interview earlier this month, the FBI’s former general counsel, James Baker, described how the FBI approached Steele’s information.

“The bureau began an effort after we got the Steele dossier to try and see how much of it we could replicate,” Baker said. “That work was ongoing when I was fired. Some of it was consistent with our other intelligence, the most important part.

“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 added later in the conversation. “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."

As for the failure to mention Fusion GPS’s financial sponsors by name? Baker said that the included footnote about the motivations of the information was “sufficient to put the court on notice.”

The most important point here, though, is that, by the time that the Page warrant was obtained, he was no longer working for the campaign. Page had resigned in September, after Yahoo News reported on his contacts in Russia (apparently based on information provided by Steele). The FISA warrant may have meant some communications between Page and Trump campaign staffers was collected, but by that point his interactions with the campaign were limited. In fact, the warrant application wasn’t submitted until Oct. 21, less than three weeks before the campaign ended.

Spying on the campaign unfairly

The allegation: The FBI’s effort to conduct surveillance on the Trump campaign and target Trump’s allies was more pervasive than has currently been reported.

One component of this argument is that the FBI deployed a London-based informant named Stefan Halper to confidentially contact members of the Trump campaign to try to suss out any interactions with Russian actors. Halper reached out to both Papadopoulos and Page, meeting with both. Halper even interacted with Page at a conference at Cambridge University in mid-July, shortly after Page returned from Moscow — and before the Russia probe launched.

At one point, Halper was joined during a meeting with Papadopoulos by a woman named Azra Turk, who pressed the Trump campaign adviser directly on possible interactions with Russia. Turk, the New York Times reported, was sent by the FBI.

There was another tantalizing theory that the FBI had been targeting Trump staffers using international actors. In December 2015, Strzok texted Page to ask if she had gotten “all our oconus lures approved” — a reference to lures (spies) located outside the continental United States (“OCONUS”).

There are just a few problems with the theory: There’s no evidence that the FBI targeted anyone prior to the launch of the probe in late July.

The Post’s fact-checking team walked through the evidence about purported “spying.” That report documents a number of flaws in the above theory, including that the Halper-Page interaction in mid-July was even dismissed by Page as inconsequential. So why was Halper at Cambridge with Page? He works at the university.

The other contacts Halper had with the campaign came after the probe was launched. That includes the meeting that Turk attended.

As for the OCONUS lures, there’s no suggestion at all that this was related to Trump. Strzok’s job was counterintelligence; he’d have had plenty of reason to need to use overseas intelligence assets for reasons that weren’t related to Trump. Especially since Trump wasn’t, at the time, anything more than the Republican front-runner.

There’s a broader problem with all of these theories. They’re cherry-picked, isolated incidents that have been used to paint a broad picture of untoward activity by the FBI. This grand theory of impropriety has, to some extent, been created after the fact based on things that look bad.

One can instead ask why, if the FBI wanted to investigate the Trump campaign and Trump in order to take him down or create an “insurance policy,” it didn’t simply do so directly. Why investigate only members of the campaign with demonstrated links to Russian actors? Why, if you’re cobbling together a faulty FISA warrant in order to take Trump down, wouldn’t you use the information in the Steele dossier to target Trump himself — or a higher-profile person mentioned in the document like Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen or his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort? Why target a tangential player like Page — only after he left the campaign?

This, at its heart, is the challenge with having an investigation led by a political appointee with a demonstrated history of loyalty to Trump. Having Barr focus specifically on evaluating existing theories instead of taking a more holistic approach (as, presumably, the inspector general is), the administration risks simply reinforcing its own incomplete narrative.

Which may not be an accident. As Trump demonstrates every time he casually drops “insurance policy” in a speech, he seems more interested in the politically useful shorthand than the reality.