The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s defense against federal investigation: The ‘Russia hoax’ hoax

In this July 16, 2018, photo, President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin sit together at the beginning of a one-on-one meeting at the Presidential Palace in Helsinki. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
16 min

One of the most useful things to remember about Donald Trump’s claims that the investigation into 2016 Russian interference was a politically motivated smear campaign is that his complaints about it began before we even knew much of anything about what had happened.

The first time he called the Russia investigation a “hoax” was in March 2017, at which point his argument against it was, predictably, that Hillary Clinton’s ties to Russia were much closer. He first dubbed it a “witch hunt” 10 days before he was even inaugurated. Every rationalization that’s emerged since to cast the probe as biased or contrived or dishonest came only after Trump had begun declaring it to be precisely that.

This could have been just another component of Trump’s well-documented dishonesty, a particularly durable example of his saying something untrue repeatedly. But the idea that the Russia investigation was a “hoax” has endured — and has become a sort of ground zero for claims that federal law enforcement is out to get Trump.

Sign up for How To Read This Chart, a weekly data newsletter from Philip Bump

In the week since Trump’s estate at Mar-a-Lago was searched by the FBI as part of a probe into his retention of government documents, this assertion that the Russia investigation was a hoax has emerged repeatedly, including from Trump. Because so many of his supporters believe, incorrectly, that the investigation into Trump’s campaign and Russia’s efforts was somehow thoroughly debunked, they are ready to believe that the new probe is similarly artificial.

So it’s worth pointing out that, in fact, the Russia probe was neither a hoax nor debunked — and allow people to draw their own conclusions about the new investigation as a result.

We’ll consider several components of the Russia investigation to show that popular right-wing presentations about it are incorrect. There’s what was known publicly even before Russia’s efforts to intervene were reported in the wake of the election. There’s what was happening behind the scenes that raised alarms with the Justice Department. And there’s the breathless effort to discredit everything that cast a derogatory light on Trump — an effort that has objectively failed.

What we knew before Election Day 2016

It’s easy, six years later, to forget the breadth of concern about Trump’s ties to Russia that preceded the election itself. Post-election reporting that Russia was trying to aid Trump landed only after months of demonstrated overlap between Trump’s election effort and Russian actors.

On June 14, 2016, The Washington Post reported that the network of the Democratic National Committee had been hacked and material stolen. Even at the time, it was clear that Russian actors were responsible. Less than a month later, Carter Page, a member of Trump’s cobbled-together foreign-policy advisory team, traveled to Moscow where he gave a speech criticizing the United States’ approach to democratization.

The Republican National Convention began later that month. Support for Ukraine in the party’s platform was watered down, reportedly at the behest of a member of Trump’s campaign team. Before the Democratic Party convention began at the end of the month, WikiLeaks began releasing material stolen from the DNC.

Trump’s campaign chairman at the time was Paul Manafort, tapped to manage delegates at the convention. But by mid-August he was gone, forced to resign in part because of questions about his ties to Russia-linked Ukrainian politicians.

In early September, The Post offered one of the first reports suggesting that Russia was actively trying to influence American politics. Reading that report now, it seems prescient. By early October, the reporting was confirmed: An unusual joint statement from the Department of Homeland Security and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence warned that Russia was actively trying to influence the election and might be trying to hack elections systems.

That statement was buried with other news later in the day. First, that Trump had been caught on a hot mic talking about groping women. Then, with the beginning of WikiLeaks’ releases of material stolen from Clinton’s campaign chairman.

There were other news reports, too, that landed with smaller splashes. In August, attention turned to Trump adviser Michael Flynn’s attending a dinner in support of a Russia-backed television station in Moscow the prior December at which he sat with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In late September 2016, Yahoo News reported that federal investigators were looking at possible ties between Page and Russian officials. This led to Page’s resignation from the Trump campaign. At the end of October, Slate reported that analysts had discovered odd links between a Russian bank and Trump’s private company. That report was quickly debunked.

But the pattern was well established by Nov. 8, 2016. Russia was demonstrably trying to intervene in the election, doing things that seemed to aid Trump. And Trump’s team had unusual links to Russia.

What was happening behind the scenes

That’s what we knew publicly by Election Day. There was a lot we didn’t know.

We didn’t know the extent to which Russian actors were actively working to undermine America’s election and to boost Trump’s political standing.

We didn’t know that Page had been part of an investigation into Russian espionage back in 2015 or that federal law enforcement had interviewed him at about the time Trump’s campaign tapped him to serve as an adviser.

We didn’t know that George Papadopoulos, another member of Trump’s foreign-policy advisory team, had been actively working to arrange a meeting between Trump and Putin. That brought him into contact with a Russia-linked professor who revealed that the Russians had collected emails related to Hillary Clinton. Papadopoulos revealed this to an Australian diplomat over drinks in London in May 2016.

When WikiLeaks began releasing stolen material in July, the Australians contacted U.S. law enforcement. That was the trigger for the opening of Operation Crossfire Hurricane at the end of the month — the first investigation of possible overlap between Trump’s campaign and Russia.

We didn’t know that a former British intelligence officer named Christopher Steele was collecting data that would eventually become a dossier of reports that he turned over to the FBI. Steele met with the FBI in July but first briefed the bureau on his efforts in mid-September.

We didn’t know that the government obtained a warrant to surveil Page under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act in late October, after he had left the Trump campaign. That warrant was based in part on material included in Steele’s dossier.

All of this was hidden in the shadows by the time of the election. As weeks passed, though, more and more details about the government’s probe became public.

Trump, frustrated at having lost the popular vote even though he won the electoral college vote, at the time reportedly saw discussion of Russia’s intervention as an effort to denigrate his victory. He lashed out, his initial objections rooted not in complaints about FBI bias but, instead, in accusations of general incompetence.

As months passed, the Russia investigation continued to frustrate him. He pressured FBI Director James B. Comey to help lift the “cloud” over his presidency that the investigation represented. Comey wouldn’t. Trump fired him (hosting Russian officials in the Oval Office the following day). Special counsel Robert S. Mueller III was appointed to continue the investigation outside of Trump’s influence.

The efforts to undermine the investigation

Trump’s relentless effort to cast the Russia probe as illegitimate created an ad hoc universe of crowdsourced conspiracy theories. Concepts would pop up on social media or conservative radio shows and make their way to Trump or to Fox News to be fleshed out and championed. It was evolution at work, the most compelling theories standing the test of time. Sometimes, though, theories survived simply because Trump insisted that people treat them seriously.

One such theory was Trump’s claim that Trump Tower had been wiretapped during the campaign. There was no evidence that happened at the time, and there remains no evidence that it did. But, over the years, the claim was assumed by Trump’s supporters to be true with only the evidence purportedly supporting it being swapped in and out. It was, in a way, a preview of how his false claims about the stolen election would be treated.

It’s not worth exploring all of the claims that were made to suggest that the Russia probe was suspect. There were so many — and so many that were obviously ludicrous — that it’s nearly impossible anyway. This, too, was both part of the strategy and a preview of Trump’s long-term strategy. Claim to see enough smoke, and eventually people will just assume there’s a fire.

The theories that have been the most commonly cited and longest-lasting are as follows.

The Clinton campaign got the FBI to investigate Trump. Shortly before Trump took office, BuzzFeed News published Steele’s dossier of reports. The claims it made were broadly unsupported and often dubious, but an audience of Trump opponents eager to believe the worst devoured its components. Major news outlets generally avoided treating its claims as matters of fact.

But because so much of the public conversation focused on the dossier — at the time, the most robust set of allegations made against Trump publicly — so did the backlash from Trump’s team. So, when The Post reported in October 2017 that the dossier was indirectly paid for by Clinton’s campaign and the DNC, this was seen as proof that the effort to undercut Trump was simply politics.

That belief was particularly fortified once Trump’s allies in Congress released a memo claiming that the FISA warrant targeting Page was based largely on the contents of the dossier. (It also claimed that the judge asked to approve the warrant wasn’t told that it was paid for by Clinton’s team, which is misleading.) At that point, a narrative began to gel: The Russia probe was all based on Clinton’s dirty tricks.

It wasn’t true.

Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), now a host on Fox News, made clear at the time that the dossier was incidental to the probe itself: “There is a Russia investigation without a dossier,” he said on CBS News. “... The dossier really has nothing to do with George Papadopoulos’s meeting in Great Britain. It also doesn’t have anything to do with obstruction of justice. So there’s going to be a Russia probe, even without a dossier.”

There were other allegations about the FISA warrant, too. Critics of the Russia investigation often suggested that, by targeting Page, the government really hoped to target others in Trump’s campaign — that they could use rules allowing multiple “hops” of connections to see what others were saying. This ignored: that the warrant was obtained after Page left the campaign; that people such as Manafort would be viable, stronger targets for information than an informal adviser; and that Page had a demonstrated record of ties to Russia that suggested a warrant might be useful.

There was an indictment obtained related to the warrant: An FBI agent pleaded guilty to altering an email with what he claimed was information he believed to be accurate as part of the application process.

This, it turns out, was the most significant accomplishment of an effort to undermine the Russia investigation launched by Attorney General William P. Barr. In May 2019, soon after taking office, Barr appointed U.S. Attorney John H. Durham to look into the origins of the Russia probe. Barr and Durham invested a great deal of time and money in doing so, without much luck.

The other big push from Durham, though, loops back to the idea that Clinton was somehow responsible for the Russia investigation. Last year, Durham’s investigation obtained an indictment against an attorney who worked for the firm that hired the investigatory firm that produced the Steele dossier. It centered on that weird blip of a news story about the Russian bank — Alfa Bank — being connected to Trump’s private business.

Earlier this year, Durham’s investigators revealed their theory: The evidence of a link was contrived by Clinton allies to impugn Trump and then dishonestly shopped to the FBI. Durham’s legal filings even suggested that there had been data collected from the White House as part of the effort.

There was a flurry of agitation about how the Trump White House was spied on — but Durham’s team later admitted the data was collected during the Obama administration. The claims that the data were artificial was never validated. Most importantly, though, the investigation into Trump’s campaign team preceded the Alfa Bank claim by a wide margin. The FBI appears not to have bit on the idea and, as noted above, it was never taken very seriously by the media, either.

One can understand the appeal to Trump’s allies of tying this back to Clinton. But none of this addresses the reality that the trigger for the probe was, instead, Papadopoulos’s conversation with that Australian diplomat — contact that came to the FBI’s attention in the midst of a number of other warning signs.

The investigation was started by FBI agents who hated Trump and wanted to hurt him. Before the Clinton-did-it theory, the favored theory was that the Russia probe was a function of biased FBI agents.

In fact, two FBI officials — Peter Strzok and Lisa Page — shared text messages in 2016 disparaging Trump (and other candidates). Strzok played a role in the launch of Crossfire Hurricane; both were assigned to Mueller’s team (though Page only briefly).

By the time Trump left office, Page and Strzok had been investigated nearly as thoroughly as Trump himself. Two reports from the Justice Department inspector general evaluated their text messages and an incident in which some of their messages were briefly lost. The IG also considered the idea that the probe had been a function of bias.

In short, it wasn’t. The inspector found no evidence that anything except the information from the Australian diplomat triggered the probe and that that information was sufficient for an investigation to begin. It criticized the exchanges between Strzok and Page but didn’t find that the investigations were tainted by bias.

The release of the text messages resulted in a QAnon-like effort to pick out seemingly suspicious passages, most of which aren’t worth mentioning. One, though, proved useful in answering one of the key rebuttals to the idea that Strzok and Page were hoping to damage Trump: If so, why didn’t news of the probe leak before the election?

So Trump and his allies settled on a mention of an “insurance policy” in one message. Their argument was that this showed that the intent was to have leverage over Trump if he won. Instead, Strzok explained (credibly), the message advocated investigating Trump’s links to Russia as an insurance policy in the unlikely event he won the presidency — but had been compromised by Russia.

The Mueller report didn’t show collusion. The most common argument that the Russia investigation was a “hoax” derives from the conclusions of the report itself. One of Barr’s most effective actions as attorney general was releasing a summary of the Mueller team’s final report on its probe before the report became public — allowing him to frame its findings in a way that reflected positively on Trump.

“[T]he investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities,” Barr’s summary reads. But that’s not what the report says — at least, not entirely.

“Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome,” the quoted passage reads in full, “and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”

Later, the report added: “A statement that the investigation did not establish particular facts does not mean there was no evidence of those facts.”

What the report showed was a robust web of ties between Trump’s campaign and Russian actors, from a meeting at Trump Tower to Manafort’s sharing of internal polling data with someone believed to be linked to Russian intelligence. A report released in August 2020 by a bipartisan Senate committee clarified and extended those links.

This is not to say that anyone proved that Trump or even Trump’s senior team colluded directly with Russia as it tried to aid his campaign. It is, instead, to say that none of this was a hoax, that there was good reason for the FBI to be suspicious and that there was good reason to open an investigation that’s unaffected by the claims Trump later raised. It is to say that treating the Justice Department’s Russia probe as riddled with anti-Trump bias depends on elevating nonessential questions as essential and isolated problems as systemic. It depends, primarily, on coming into the question with the presumption that Trump was wronged.

Which — particularly now — is precisely the presumption that Trump hopes you’ll adopt.