The release of a lengthy assessment of the question of interference by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III in April offered no evidence reinforcing the assertions of Trump and his allies about the origins of the probe. Instead, it documented a number of contacts between Trump’s campaign and Russian actors while determining that evidence was insufficient to prove coordination between the campaign and the Russian effort. At the same time, Mueller’s report revealed significant questions about efforts by Trump to stymie the investigation, including by withholding his own testimony.
Public understanding of the Mueller report, though, was first established by Attorney General William P. Barr, who released a four-page summary of Mueller’s finding broadly clearing Trump and sidelining questions about obstruction. Barr’s statement tacitly reinforced Trump’s complaints about the Russia probe by suggesting that Mueller had given Trump a clear bill of health; if that was the case, how did the investigation begin in the first place?
After Barr's summary of Mueller's work, the theories metastasized. A series of allegations about impropriety in the Russia investigation were amplified, creating a broad web of claims with a singular focus of demonstrating that elements of the government actively worked to prevent Trump's election or to boot him from office.
Several theories lie at the center of that argument. One focuses on a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrant obtained to track a former Trump campaign adviser named Carter Page. Another is centered on a former FBI official named Peter Strzok who exchanged text messages with another FBI employee over the course of 2016 suggesting hostility to Trump personally. Strzok held a leadership position in the FBI, and his antipathy to Trump, combined with messages interpreted as expressing a desire to act with bias, were cited as evidence that the probe itself was invalid. The use of a sketchy dossier of reports compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele for the Page warrant and (the theory went) to launch the Russia probe in the first place was seen as further evidence that the FBI was acting wildly, driven by an anti-Trump fervor. The theories went further, including allegations that the campaign was riddled with informants and wiretaps.
Happily, there was another independent investigator probing these claims, Justice Department Inspector General Michael Horowitz. His report on the origins of the Russia investigation was in the works for months, with Trump defenders frequently pointing to his ultimate report as being a point at which the truth of what happened — that is, a biased probe targeting Trump — would be revealed.
Released on Monday, that’s not what Horowitz’s report found. Central claims, including that the investigation was predicated on bias against Trump or use of the flawed Steele dossier, were rejected explicitly. The investigation into whether people on Trump’s campaign were coordinating with a Russian interference effort was predicated solely on information passed to the FBI from the Australian government, for example. While Strzok had a leadership role at the FBI, the launch of the main investigation and investigations into individuals associated with the campaign (including Page) was authorized broadly within the bureau and with sufficient evidence to do so. Nor was there evidence that the FBI used informants to interact with the campaign before the opening of the investigation.
Much of the report focuses on questions specific to the Page warrant application, including concerns that the FBI didn’t share information that would have undercut the application or three subsequent renewal requests. The FBI announced Monday that it would review and modify its FISA application process. That said, Horowitz found no “documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation influenced the FBI’s decision to seek FISA authority on Carter Page.” No FISA warrants were sought at all on others included in the probe, including former campaign chairman Paul Manafort.
Unfortunately for Trump, revealing questions about the FISA process surrounding Page is not exactly definitive evidence of the claims he’s been making for more than two years. Page had left the campaign by the time the first warrant was obtained, and the IG report notes that it would not speculate whether the warrant would have been obtained had the omitted information been included. That Horowitz summarily rejects the idea that the investigation itself was a function of bias or the Steele dossier is a sharp rejection of the conspiracy theories that have surrounded the probe.
The immediate response to that has been twofold. Some, like fervent Trump ally Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), have insisted that the FISA problems were themselves vindication of Trump’s claims. Trump went a bit further, declaring that Horowitz’s determinations were historically awful, without going into details.
The other response, though, has been to reject Horowitz’s report as incomplete. That response has been led by a familiar actor: Barr.
“In the rush to obtain and maintain FISA surveillance of Trump campaign associates,” Barr said in a statement, “FBI officials misled the FISA court, omitted critical exculpatory facts from their filings, and suppressed or ignored information negating the reliability of their principal source."
The only “campaign associate” being directly surveilled under FISA was Page — but by the time the warrant was obtained, he wasn’t part of the campaign. Page left his position in late September after questions about his ties to Russia (derived from Steele’s reports) became public. The first FISA warrant was granted Oct. 21, less than three weeks before the end of the campaign. Barr’s language suggests that the FISA process was a broad attempt to ensnare campaign officials, which is not backed up by Horowitz.
Barr is certainly aware that identifying problems with a FISA warrant doesn't serve as an effective defense of Trump. His statement begins by rejecting the idea that Horowitz gave the FBI a clean bill of health on the key question of how the investigation started in the first place.
“The Inspector General’s report now makes clear,” it begins, “that the FBI launched an intrusive investigation of a U.S. presidential campaign on the thinnest of suspicions that, in my view, were insufficient to justify the steps taken."
The “in my view” is very important, as important as Barr's determination in March that Trump shouldn't face prosecution for obstructing justice or his department's determination in September that Trump had violated no laws in his interactions with Ukraine.
According to Horowitz, the investigation was predicated on the revelation from an Australian diplomat (a “friendly foreign government,” or FFG) that a campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos, had “suggested the Trump team had received some kind of suggestion from Russia that it could assist [the campaign] with the anonymous release of information during the campaign that would be damaging to” Hillary Clinton.
“[W]e concluded that the FFG information, provided by a government the United States Intelligence Community (USIC) deems trustworthy,” Horowitz’s report says, “and describing a firsthand account from an FFG employee of a conversation with Papadopoulos, was sufficient to predicate the investigation.” It notes that the bar wasn’t high, but that the FBI cleared it.
The investigation would later loop in Papadopoulos, Page, Manafort and Michael Flynn — the latter three of whom had either visited Russia in the year before the campaign or had political ties to Russian actors.
The Washington Post reported on Barr’s skepticism about Horowitz’s findings last week. Barr’s been actively involved in another investigation, led by U.S. Attorney John Durham, which has similarly been focused on the origins of the Russia probe. In response to Horowitz’s report, Durham released a statement of his own.
“Our investigation has included developing information from other persons and entities [beyond the Justice Department], both in the U.S. and outside of the U.S.,” it read in part. “Based on the evidence collected to date, and while our investigation is ongoing, last month we advised the Inspector General that we do not agree with some of the report’s conclusions as to predication and how the FBI case was opened.”
Perhaps Durham (and Barr) have uncovered new evidence from outside the Justice Department that proves Trump right. We’ll have to wait and see.
But just like that, Barr and Durham’s statements have accomplished two things. First, they have framed the Horowitz report as leaving the door open on the main issue for Trump — namely, that the Russia probe shouldn’t have been launched. Again: Barr’s summary of Mueller’s report had a similar effect.
Second, the statements establish Durham’s report as the definitive assessment of the origins of the Russia probe. This is the report in which Barr’s influence will also be felt most directly.
“I look forward to the Durham report, which is coming out in the not too distant future,” Trump said on Monday after the IG report was released. “It’s got its own information, which is this information plus, plus, plus” — though it’s not clear how Trump would know that.
In other words, the Horowitz report, the lodestone to which Trump defenders once looked, has become both exculpatory and secondary. The assertions about the FISA process can be hailed as proving Trump right. The rejection of claims of bias, meanwhile, can be set aside in expectation of what Durham will present.
That’s the beauty of conspiracy theories. Like rivers, they simply flow around obstacles, however unexpected the resulting paths.