The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trumpworld’s latest effort to undermine the Russia probe may be even less substantive than prior attempts

Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe last month released a letter addressing the alleged political origins of the investigation. (Andrew Harnik/AP)

Over the course of human evolution, the ability to pick out patterns has been useful. But it can also introduce complexity where none exists or redirect our attention toward unimportant things. At the extremes, that ability can push people toward crafting more and more elaborate alternate realities, rickety structures that expand into elegant patterns but that stand on unsteady bases of support.

There are a few of these running through American politics at the moment.

On June 14, 2016, The Washington Post reported that the Democratic National Committee had apparently been hacked by agents of the Russian government. Eventually, this reporting would be confirmed by an extensive investigation undertaken by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. The next day, Russian agents, using a persona called “Guccifer 2.0,” began sharing information stolen from the DNC.

Shortly after the information started to come out, WikiLeaks contacted Guccifer and offered to host the material. It began releasing it in giant batches on July 22, three days before the Democratic presidential convention began. The effect was immediate: Documents from the release spurred new concern about Hillary Clinton’s primary campaign and leadership within the party. The head of the DNC announced she would step down.

On July 25, the day the convention started, Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, drew a line through what was already publicly known in an interview on CNN.

“Experts are telling us that Russian state actors broke into the DNC, stole these emails, and other experts are now telling us that the Russians are releasing these emails for the purpose of helping Donald Trump,” he said. (He had made a similar argument the day before on ABC.)

He noted another recent news report alleging that the Republican platform on Ukraine had been softened to “make it more pro-Russian.” He also pointed to comments from then-candidate Donald Trump questioning the utility of NATO.

“I think when you put all this together,” he said, “it’s a disturbing picture.”

In late July, there was already an active investigation into one member of Trump’s campaign. In early April, the New York field office of the FBI opened an investigation into campaign adviser Carter Page, someone who had previously been identified by Russian intelligence agents as a potential target. Page traveled to Moscow in early July to participate in a conference. While there, he had a conversation with a senior government official, though it’s unclear how long that conversation lasted.

Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was also already on the FBI’s radar at the time. He had a long history of doing work for a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine.

After WikiLeaks began releasing the material stolen from the DNC, the Australian government contacted American officials to inform them that another adviser to Trump’s campaign, George Papadopoulos, had told one of their diplomats in May that he was aware Russia had emails stolen from Clinton. That revelation prompted the FBI to launch another probe on July 31.

All of this context is useful when considering documents released over the past few weeks by Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe.

Ratcliffe, a longtime congressional ally of Trump who became DNI in May, has made little effort to hide the fact that one of the things he hopes to achieve in his new role is to release information undermining the investigation into Russian interference that cohered after the launch of that investigation of Papadopoulos on July 31, 2016. To that end, he released a letter at the end of last month hinting that the Russia probe might have been a function of advocacy by Clinton’s team and implemented by the administration of Barack Obama.

“In late July 2016, U.S. intelligence agencies obtained insight into Russian intelligence analysis alleging that U.S. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton had approved a campaign plan to stir up a scandal against U.S. Presidential candidate Donald Trump by tying him to Putin and the Russians’ hacking of the Democratic National Committee,” the letter stated. “The IC does not know the accuracy of this allegation or the extent to which the Russian intelligence analysis may reflect exaggeration or fabrication.”

“According to his handwritten notes,” it continued, “former Central Intelligence Agency Director [John] Brennan subsequently briefed President Obama and other senior national security officials on the intelligence, including the ‘alleged approval by Hillary Clinton on July 26, 2016 of a proposal from one of her foreign policy advisers to vilify Donald Trump by stirring up a scandal claiming interference by Russian security services.’ ”

On Sept. 7, 2016, it continued, an investigative referral was sent to the FBI from intelligence agencies regarding “Clinton’s approval of a plan concerning U.S. Presidential candidate Donald Trump and Russian hackers hampering U.S. elections as a means of distracting the public from her use of a private mail server” — a reference to a scandal that dogged Clinton over the course of the 2016 campaign and that had itself been the subject of an FBI probe.

Ratcliffe’s effort to suggest that the Russia probe that ensued relied upon Trump’s allies, such as Fox News, connecting the dots he was dropping. They did so with alacrity.

What’s odd about Ratcliffe’s claim, though, is that it is intelligence he admits was unverified even while it alleges what was already publicly obvious. That Clinton might on July 26 have approved of a campaign strategy of targeting Trump over possible links to Russia seems a bit like shouting “surprise!” at the end of a birthday party; her campaign manager had already been on national television twice making that claim directly.

It’s not entirely clear how Ratcliffe’s allegation really coheres. The universe of people who have been conditioned to fit mentions of Clinton, Obama, Brennan and Russia into a grand conspiracy targeting Trump and his campaign see it as indisputable evidence that Clinton drove the “Russia hoax” that has dogged the president. On Wednesday, for example, a Trump spokesperson used the release of information from Ratcliffe to try to divert attention away from questions about Trump’s covid-19 diagnosis.

“Have you seen the records showing the Clinton campaign colluded with Brennan / Obama Administration to launch the Russia hoax to smear candidate Trump to distract from Hillary’s email scandal?” Brian Morgenstern wrote on Twitter. “Led to a years-long sham.”

What Ratcliffe’s letter and the subsequent release of (heavily redacted) underlying documents actually show can be read as easily in a less nefarious way.

Ratcliffe admits that the centerpiece is Russia’s assessment of what the Clinton campaign was doing. The Sept. 7 referral doesn’t say that it was the determination of U.S. intelligence that the campaign’s goal was to distract from the email server; instead, it conveys information from the CIA “gleaned” by a “fusion cell” — a cross-departmental government group — operating as part of the probe launched on July 31.

“[REDACTED] An exchange [REDACTED] discussing US presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s approval of a plan concerning US presidential candidate Donald Trump,” it reads, “and Russian hackers hampering US election as a means of distracting the public from her private email server.”

The CIA tracks foreign intelligence. Isn’t the natural assumption that the referred-to exchange was the exchange between Russian agents or officials that was the source of Ratcliffe’s original assertion? That this was the CIA telling the FBI in September 2016 that it had learned that Russia saw the Clinton focus as a diversion effort? In an interview with CNN this week, Brennan said this was how such documents were used.

If that’s the case, it adds new context to the notes written by Brennan — again, the CIA director at the time — which Ratcliffe released this week. The notes state that the agency was “getting additional insight into Russian activities” from a redacted source. Brennan apparently summarized the above allegation, though it’s not clear from the released documents to whom or in what context. In his letter, Ratcliffe said it was Obama. If so, Brennan may have simply been conveying what the CIA had learned from its sources, perhaps including a source close to Russian President Vladimir Putin who had revealed Putin’s involvement in the interference effort.

The notes continue with sets of bullet points next to identifiers like “POTUS,” meaning Obama, or “JC,” perhaps James B. Comey, the former FBI director. The only unredacted bullet point is next to POTUS and reads, “any evidence of collaboration between Trump campaign and Russia.”

It’s impossible to tell what that means without the context of the redacted elements. In normal circumstances, we might assume that what was redacted isn’t pertinent to the impression given by the document; with Ratcliffe, though, some additional skepticism is warranted.

We, too, are simply looking at patterns here to determine what makes sense if you don’t begin from a position of assuming that no investigation of Russia’s 2016 efforts was legitimate. There’s no reason to assume Clinton’s focus on Trump and Russia drove the government’s interest in possible links. (On July 27, for example, I wrote an article outlining the outstanding questions on that regard.) It’s not even clear when Brennan actually briefed Obama, assuming that’s what occurred.

There remains one overarching reason to dismiss the idea that the investigation into ties between people on Trump’s campaign and Russia was somehow politically motivated: the simple fact that neither the investigation nor any information from the investigation were made public before the election itself. You can chalk that up to whatever theory you wish, but with the race narrowing in late October, there was no reason for a politically motivated investigation not to be used for political purposes.

That it wasn’t suggests that the elaborate latticework Trump uses to downplay the Russia probe might simply be a house of cards.