The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump accidentally proves that the Clinton campaign wasn’t the driving force of the Russia probe

President Donald Trump in 2020. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
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What stopped me in my tracks in the new lawsuit filed on behalf of former president Donald Trump was a reference to internal discussions at the Democratic National Committee that, the suit alleges, show that there was an effort within the DNC to “damage Republican presidential candidates’ credibility with voters.”

The startling thing wasn’t that line, an attempt to make utterly run-of-the-mill political-campaign activity seem nefarious. It was, instead, that as Trump and his lawyers were trying to make a case for how the investigation into possible links between Trump’s 2016 campaign and Russia were a product of a conspiracy helmed by Hillary Clinton and her aides, they were citing these particular documents.

If you were just reading the lawsuit, you would learn that the internal discussions were revealed “after the DNC servers were hacked by an individual using the name ‘Guccifer 2.0.’ ” If, however, you were at all conscious during the period from June 2016 to, say, last week, you would recognize that the actual source of those documents was that they were stolen by hackers working for Russia. The investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election demonstrated that pretty robustly, including finding examples of hackers in Russia searching for translations of phrases that are later used by “Guccifer” in blog posts. This was part of the broader effort to aid Trump’s election that November.

In other words, as Trump and his lawyers were trying to prove that Clinton was the driving force behind the investigation into Russian interference, they were relying on documents released as part of that interference effort. It’s some mixture of dishonest and galling — and it’s not even the most ridiculous part of the case the lawsuit tries to make.

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This idea that everything was Clinton’s fault really broke through shortly before the 2020 election. The idea that a dossier of reports alleging ties between Trump’s campaign and the Russian interference effort had been the predicate for an FBI investigation was older than that, but it was in October 2020 that Trump’s Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe released a letter suggesting something broader.

“In late July 2016,” it read, “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.”

As I wrote at the time, it was bizarre to use this as some sort of indication that Clinton was driving the Russia probe for two reasons.

The first was that Clinton’s campaign was already publicly elevating questions about Trump’s links to Russia before July 26, when this purported plan was made operational. Campaign manager Robby Mook — one of the parties on the lawsuit — was on CNN the day prior drawing that line. Nor was the campaign the first entity to raise the question. WikiLeaks began dumping material stolen from the DNC on July 22, material that had been understood to have been stolen by Russia for a month. Four days before that, The Washington Post reported that Trump had eviscerated an anti-Russia plank in the Republican Party platform. The left had been rumbling about questions even before that. The idea that Clinton whipped up this purported tie is ridiculous on its face.

Particularly because of the second reason: Even in October 2020, it was clear that the probe wasn’t a function of Clinton’s campaign. There was lots of information about what actually launched the investigation, none of which was downstream from Clinton.

For example, an adviser to Trump’s campaign had been told in May 2016 that the Russians had emails belonging to Clinton, something that was reported to federal law enforcement after WikiLeaks began releasing its stolen material. This was the trigger for the FBI’s Operation Crossfire Hurricane at the end of July. Three other advisers or staffers to Trump’s campaign had their own ties to Russia: another adviser (who had once been ID’d as a recruitment target by a Russian agent) traveled to Moscow in early July 2016, another adviser had sat at a dinner with Russian President Vladimir Putin in December 2015 and Trump’s campaign manager had worked for pro-Russia politicians in Ukraine.

In other words, the feds had evidence of Russia trying to intervene in the election (through the hacking), evidence of various people linked to Russia working for Trump (through public and private information) and a by-then obvious soft spot from Trump for Putin, in particular. More would come out — data passed to a suspected Russian agent, that meeting at Trump Tower in July 2016 — but the predicate for the investigation was obvious. This has already been evaluated, in fact; the inspector general for the Justice Department found no bias in the origin of the probe.

This was all known as of October 2020, mind you. What the new Trump lawsuit tries to do is flesh out a dual-pronged strategy by Clinton’s campaign based, in part on information dug up by special counsel John Durham, appointed by Trump’s attorney general William P. Barr specifically to dig up information undermining the predicate for the Russia probe.

As the lawsuit has it, the Clinton scheme was centered in the law firm Perkins Coie. One attorney worked to generate the dossier of information that would later be used to obtain a warrant against the Trump adviser, Carter Page, who had traveled to Russia. Another attorney would ask a technology company to find a digital link between Trump and Russia and, when no link was found, to hack Trump Tower and the White House.

The first allegation is false. The second is ridiculous.

What the lawsuit doesn’t mention is that Fusion GPS, the firm that hired former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele, had been digging up information on Trump for months prior to working for Perkins Coie. In fact, it was working for a right-leaning media outlet, the Free Beacon. When the Free Beacon pulled the plug after the Republican primaries ended, Fusion went looking for someone else to fund the ongoing work.

It is the case that Steele joined the effort only after Perkins Coie had engaged Fusion GPS, but it is not demonstrably the case, as has long been alleged and as described in Trump’s new lawsuit, that the FBI was “relying on the Defendants’ fraudulent evidence,” including Steele’s dossier, to begin the investigation. To give the dossier (nearly all of which has not been corroborated) more heft in the narrative about a purportedly dishonest, biased decision to investigate Trump, the warrant obtained against Page has been moved to the center of that effort. It is true that the warrant pointed to the dossier as a reason for surveilling Page. But the warrant was obtained after Page had already left the campaign as a result of news reports about his activities during his trip to Moscow — reports that stemmed from information in the dossier.

At most, the dossier may have arrived in July 2016 at an FBI where questions about Trump’s links to Russia were already swirling, just as they were already swirling publicly. To claim that the dossier was the primary reason the FBI moved forward is to simply dismiss as unimportant the other questions that existed, including the WikiLeaks dumps themselves.

Trump’s lawsuit, though, alleges that other prong, the hacking of the White House and so on. This stems from a report filed by Durham that was quickly debunked by the media — and, eventually, walked back by Durham himself.

In 2015, an executive at a company called Neustar retained a lawyer at Perkins Coie on matters apparently unrelated to any of this. Among other things, Neustar collects data on domain-name lookups, a tool that can be used by cybersecurity researchers to track potentially nefarious activity. At some point in 2016, someone reviewing that data noticed a weird connection between a Russian bank and a Trump-branded email server. The Neustar executive told their Perkins Coie attorney, who then presented it to federal law enforcement. The feds didn’t bite. (It was eventually given to the press.)

What’s important to note is that the reason researchers were reviewing this data was that Russia had attacked the White House’s network and the DNC. They were looking for evidence of Russian intrusions because of other intrusions. And, because the White House network had been a target in 2015, Neustar was given access to White House data. So there was no “hacking” of Trump Tower or of the White House, much less the Trump White House, as right-wing media alleged after Durham nebulously referred to the data in a recent court filing.

All of this is just hand-waving, an effort by Trump to bolster his old conspiracy theory with evidence nearly as sloppy as the evidence he uses in support of his new conspiracy theory about the 2020 election results. In trying to prove that Clinton was the driving force behind the Russia probe, the misrepresentations and omissions in the court filing make obvious how Clinton wasn’t the spur for questioning links between Trump and Russia.

Then, ironically, they take great pains to protect Russia from any culpability for the very information they use to dismiss the investigation into Russia’s interference effort. That, by itself, gives the game away.