On Monday, a new example of that harmony emerged. Barr, The Washington Post’s Devlin Barrett and Karoun Demirjian report, disagrees with the Justice Department inspector general’s expected determination that the investigation into possible coordination between Trump’s campaign and Russian interference in the 2016 election had the necessary basis in fact to be opened. A report from Inspector General Michael Horowitz will be released next week and is expected to punch large holes in arguments (including from Trump) that the probe began as part of an effort to prevent Trump from being elected or to provide leverage against him in the event that he won.
Barr, it seems, thinks that any conclusion about the sufficiency of evidence for launching the probe comes too quickly.
“The attorney general has privately contended that Horowitz does not have enough information to reach the conclusion the FBI had enough details in hand at the time to justify opening such a probe,” Barrett and Demirjian write. “He argues that other U.S. agencies, such as the CIA, may hold significant information that could alter Horowitz’s conclusion on that point, according to the people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.”
It’s important to remember that there have been three investigations initiated that consider the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference and possible overlap with the Trump campaign: the investigation by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III (which grew out of the initial FBI probe); Horowitz’s assessment; and a probe by U.S. Attorney John Durham. That latter investigation was initiated in May at Barr’s direction and is focused specifically on determining whether the Russia probe was biased or unfairly or insufficiently “predicated” — that is, launched based on an improper grounding.
Barr’s effort to frame the Mueller probe as exonerating of Trump was broadly successful, leaving open doubt about the origins of the investigation from which it originated. (Mueller’s investigation wasn’t exonerating on the question of coordination, a nuance that is often glossed over.) By questioning Horowitz’s findings, Barr leaves the Durham probe — in which he has been personally invested and over which he clearly holds some sway — as the ultimate arbiter of what happened.
It’s worth considering, then, what the FBI knew when the Russia probe began. There is a significant amount of evidence that existed at the time that suggested that a link between Russia’s effort and the campaign might be warranted. Although we are neither law enforcement officials nor attorneys general, officials who worked for the agency at the time have argued that the predication was more than sufficient.
The investigation, code-named Crossfire Hurricane, was launched July 31, 2016. The FBI had been informed by the Australian government that a Trump campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, had months earlier informed one of their diplomats, Alexander Downer, that he had heard Russia possessed emails incriminating Hillary Clinton, Trump’s 2016 opponent. Papadopoulos came by that knowledge in April, having been informed by a professor named Joseph Mifsud about the emails. Papadopoulos and Mifsud had been coordinating on an effort to arrange a meeting between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin, so Papadopoulos had every reason to believe that Mifsud’s claim about the emails was accurate. Over drinks with Downer, he passed that along.
When the FBI learned what Papadopoulos had said, Crossfire Hurricane was triggered. But it was not the only evidence at hand. Australia, for example, had reached out to the FBI only after WikiLeaks began dumping files stolen from the Democratic National Committee shortly before the Democratic convention in late July. Those releases suggested to the Australians that Papadopoulos’s claim was accurate and worth conveying to American authorities. (While Papadopoulos has in recent months tried to suggest that Mifsud set him up, perhaps at the FBI’s behest, he admitted as part of a plea deal that, among other things, Mifsud wasn’t interested in him until the professor learned that he had accepted a position with Trump’s campaign.)
U.S. authorities already believed that the DNC hacking was committed by Russian actors. Earlier that year, then-Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper Jr. revealed that presidential campaigns had been targeted by hackers. By mid-June, Russia’s possible culpability in the DNC hack was reported in The Post. On July 21, shortly before the probe was launched, the White House convened an interagency meeting to discuss the DNC hacking. Authorities were also probably aware by that point of attempted intrusions in state elections systems, including an attempted breach of Illinois’s system in early July. This eventually became a primary focus of authorities.
Beyond Papadopoulos’s apparent awareness of Russia’s role, there were other demonstrated links between individuals associated with Trump’s campaign and Russian authorities.
Carter Page, who, like Papadopoulos, served as a foreign policy adviser to the campaign, had traveled to Moscow earlier that month. Page was already on the FBI's radar, having been identified by name as a possible recruitment target by a Russian who was eventually charged with being a Russian agent. The FBI interviewed Page in 2013 and again in March 2016 to question him about contacts with Russian intelligence.
At the time the probe was launched, Trump's campaign was being run by Paul Manafort. Manafort, too, had known ties to Russian actors including through his political work for a pro-Russian party in Ukraine. By the spring of 2016, Manafort was reportedly already under investigation by the FBI for his connections to foreign countries. In June, he was tapped for the Trump campaign's top position.
There are other hints that there might be overlap between people associated with Trump’s campaign and Russian interests. The Guardian reported in early 2017 that British intelligence officials had tipped off U.S. authorities about contacts between the two groups, including during the summer of 2016. The previous December, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn had attended a dinner in Moscow where he sat with Putin.
Days before Crossfire Hurricane was announced, Trump himself publicly encouraged Russia to aid his campaign.
“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing” from a private email server run by Clinton, Trump said at a news conference. “I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press. Let’s see if that happens.”
Barr’s position that the FBI’s knowledge at the launch of the Russia probe may have been insufficient is, unsurprisingly, not shared by former FBI director James B. Comey. In May, he spoke with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, defending the investigation in direct terms.
“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 … 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?”
Former FBI general counsel James Baker spoke at a Brookings Institution event the same month and made a similar argument.
“It would have been a dereliction of our duty not to investigate [the Papadopoulos] information,” Baker said. “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.”
It is certainly the case that Mueller’s investigation didn’t prove coordination between Trump’s campaign and Russia’s efforts (though he was also hamstrung in key ways), but that’s not the same as showing that the investigation should not have been initiated. Nor will the emergence of information to which the FBI wasn’t privy at the time. Barr may be hoping that investigating other agencies will reveal that the FBI was in possession of exculpatory information that would have made obvious that no probe should have been launched, though, as Baker and Comey argue, the Papadopoulos revelation itself could have been sufficient.
Speaking of Papadopoulos, Barr has reportedly actively investigated the former campaign adviser’s claims about how he was set up, including personally traveling to Italy where Papadopoulos and Mifsud first met. This may simply be a function of admirable rigor. It may also be a function of his boss’s fervent desire for undeniable exoneration of the sort that even Barr’s summary of the Mueller report couldn’t entirely deliver.