That report was accompanied by a rebuttal of sorts from the committee’s minority members, which is to say by the Republicans, which is to say by the senators from Trump’s own party. As The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake explains, that report focuses heavily on the fact that Trump ended up not replacing the officials, which is a bit like praising someone for ultimately not executing a complicated plot to rob a casino after it became obvious that the heist probably wouldn’t work anyway.
But buried in that response is a very revealing line of rhetoric, one that elevates the entire ecosystem that exists to defend Trump and his actions. It is this one, centered on the argument that Trump had good reason to be suspicious that the Justice Department wasn’t taking his claims of rampant fraud in the 2020 election seriously:
“Based on past experiences, President Trump’s skepticism of the DOJ’s and FBI’s handling of election fraud allegations does not appear unreasonable. During the 2016 election, the FBI used an unsubstantiated research dossier, funded by the Hillary Clinton campaign and which was known by the FBI to be filled with Russian disinformation, to file a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) application and to obtain FISA warrants against a Trump campaign volunteer.”
Even knowing nothing about the specifics of the claim being made in that paragraph, the reader is being asked to treat as serious the idea that Trump’s concern about the FBI’s disinterest in the various conspiracy theories he had been elevating was fundamentally rooted in distrust of the bureau.
Bear in mind that by the time of the Jan. 3 meeting, his deeply loyal attorney general, William P. Barr, had already told the world and Trump directly that the allegations of fraud he was promoting were unfounded, essentially leading to Barr’s resignation. Trump’s lackeys were sending the post-Barr Justice Department things such as a theory that the Italian military had used satellites to switch votes from Trump to Joe Biden, stuff that should have self-obviously been not worth investigation. But regardless, the bureau was looking into such allegations of vote fraud, described by then-acting deputy attorney general Richard Donoghue in a contemporaneous email as “small scale.” In testimony before the committee in August, former acting attorney general Jeffrey Rosen described being “amenable” to considering the questions Trump had raised but not “to doing things that would criticize the integrity of the election without a factual foundation.”
To center this on the FBI’s investigative processes, though, is to ignore that Trump had made clear his desired outcome. This wasn’t about the FBI not taking his claims seriously. It was, instead, about whether the Justice Department would “do anything to overturn the election” — which Trump in that Jan. 3 meeting complained Rosen would not. The only way in which the minority report accurately captures Trump’s skepticism is in that the president was skeptical of an FBI that didn’t do what he wanted.
But the really galling part of the above quote is how it uses a skeletal rationalization cobbled together on Trump’s behalf to form part of the skeleton of a rationalization offered on Trump’s behalf.
There are a few factually incorrect or misleading aspects of the paragraph as written. The target of the FISA warrants, Carter Page, was not simply a “volunteer”; he was a foreign policy adviser announced as part of Trump’s team in March 2016 as the then-candidate sought to bolster his credibility on the subject. The target was also someone who had already been on the radar of law enforcement after a suspected Russian spy was recorded speaking about potentially recruiting Page as an agent. He also traveled to Moscow in July 2016, in the middle of the campaign, where he spoke briefly with a Russian official. In other words, he was a non-trivial member of Trump’s campaign team, one who emailed with senior campaign officials, and someone who was already viewed as a potential security risk. But regardless, he wasn’t with the campaign when the warrants were obtained; he had already resigned after scrutiny of his actions arose following initial news reports about the aforementioned research dossier.
That was the “Steele dossier,” put together for a research firm hired by lawyers working for Trump’s 2016 opponent. The warrant targeting Page did rely on information from the dossier, in part, even though it was largely unsubstantiated. But this was very much a minor component of the broad investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible overlap with Trump’s campaign.
Trump had attacked the FBI and intelligence agencies for months before anyone knew these FISA warrants existed, much less how they were obtained. Trump, frustrated at the negative attention the probe was drawing, declared it to be a “witch hunt” from the outset and ginned up outrage at the investigators in much the same way that he ginned up fury at accurate media reporting. Over time, he and his allies cobbled together a narrative about how he was unfairly targeted and how all of it was an effort by the Democrats, inside and outside the bureau, to take him down.
The FISA warrant stuff was just a backfill to the line of argument Trump was already making, coupled with things like accusing FBI officials of launching the probe out of hostility to him personally, a claim the minority response to the Jan. 3 report echoes. But the inspector general analysis that report uses as evidence of Trump’s justified concern after the FISA warrant business also makes clear that the investigation itself was fairly predicated and launched: “We did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation influenced [former FBI official William] Priestap’s decision to open Crossfire Hurricane.”
But it has slipped into this minority report because it’s part of this broad ecosystem of cobbled-together claims that gained traction in conservative media about how Trump was right all along about the Russia probe … and therefore, the FBI … and therefore, in demanding that Justice Department officials tell the world that the 2020 election was sketchy. Or, to put a fine point on it: Saying that Trump was angry about the leadership of the Justice Department because he was skeptical of its past behavior is obviously deceptive given his own stated complaints about the FBI, but defending that assertion by suggesting that his contrived concerns about the Russia probe warranted such imaginary skepticism simply makes it worse!
The pattern is the same, over and over. Trump says something without any evidence. His allies scramble to create something with the outward appearance of evidence for his claim and then amplify one another’s creations. Trump and the rest of them then declare that the evidence exists and Trump was right all along. And now, in this example, we see an effort to rationalize Trump’s behavior on Jan. 3 using as evidence cobbled-together claims from a prior rationalization effort.
It’s shoddy defenses all the way down.