An FBI agent assigned to the investigation of retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn wanted to be taken off the case, he recently told FBI investigators, saying the prosecution of Flynn was being used as a means to “get Trump.”
FBI agent William Barnett was assigned to the Flynn case shortly after it was opened in August 2016, as part of the FBI’s probe into alleged collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, which was dubbed “Crossfire Hurricane.” But the case was “opaque,” lacking much detail of specific evidence of any crimes, Barnett told FBI and DOJ investigators on Sept. 17 (pdf).
The case theory was “supposition on supposition,” he said.
Flynn served as the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) in the Obama administration and briefly as national security adviser to President Donald Trump. In 2017, he pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, but withdrew the plea two years later, saying he was misled and pressured into it. In May, the Department of Justice (DOJ) moved to dismiss the case.
The basis for the Flynn probe was “not great,” Barnett said. Flynn gave a paid interview in Russia in 2015, but Barnett said he didn’t think that was criminal.
In the fall of 2016, while virtually nothing was happening with the Flynn case, Barnett sought to get Flynn’s phone records; however, his supervisor, then-head of FBI counterintelligence operations Peter Strzok, blocked the request.
After Trump won the election, Barnett discussed with others on the case what the “end game” was and proposed an interview with Flynn under the pretext of a standard procedure before Flynn assumed the role of national security adviser. The request was denied.
One analyst on the case, whom Barnett described as “a believer” in Flynn’s alleged criminality, opposed the interview because it would alert Flynn to the investigation. Barnett, however, saw the interview as the final box to check before the probe was over, so alerting Flynn wouldn’t be an issue.
Sometime between Christmas and New Year’s Eve 2016, Strzok agreed on closing the case.
‘Cut Out’ of Interview
Barnett prepared the closing document, but on Jan. 4, 2017, the ”believer” told him to keep the case open as Strzok had more information to add to the file.
Barnett was then told about Flynn’s calls with then-Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak. Barnett went through the calls multiple times, but couldn’t see what the “rub” was. It failed to convince him that Flynn was compromised by Russia.
He was told that Flynn may have violated the Logan Act, an obscure and possibly unconstitutional 18th-century law that has never been successfully prosecuted. Barnett looked it up, but it didn’t look like a serious issue in Flynn’s case or a charge that could stand on its own, he said.
After that, the case was run “top down,” he said, with senior officials setting the direction. Only on Jan. 25, 2017, was he told that other agents, Strzok and supervisory special agent Joe Pientka, had interviewed Flynn the day before. In hindsight, he believed he was “cut out” of the interview, he said.
In February 2017, Barnett asked an FBI unit chief to let him off the case, saying he thought the case was problematic and could prompt an investigation by the DOJ’s inspector general. Around the same time, Barnett worked with FBI attorney Kevin Clinesmith to prepare a national security letter to get Flynn’s phone records. The scope of the letter was repeatedly broadened to as early as 2015 and up to the present.
Barnett said he thought the letter was legal because it was greenlighted by superiors at the FBI, as well as Clinesmith.
Clinesmith pleaded guilty earlier this year to tampering with federal documents. He altered an email from the CIA that confirmed that Carter Page, Trump campaign’s former foreign policy adviser, had worked with the agency. Clinesmith altered it in a manner that made it indicate the opposite.
He also was the one to text “Viva le resistance” to a colleague who asked him if he was reconsidering his stance toward the Trump administration.
Barnett’s understanding was that Crossfire Hurricane was winding down, with not much more to investigate.
The Mueller Team
After Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey in May 2017, the probe was taken over by a special counsel, former FBI Director Robert Mueller. Barnett was asked to brief some people from the Mueller team about the Flynn case. He outlined it, said there was no evidence of a crime, and was about to move on.
However, one of the Mueller lawyers, Jeannie Rhee, turned the talk back to Flynn, trying to “drill down” on Flynn’s paid interview in Russia. Barnett said he gave Rhee logical reasons why Flynn was paid $40,000 to give an on-stage interview at the 10-year anniversary gala of Russian state-sponsored RT television. But Rhee dismissed his reasoning, he said.
“BARNETT thought RHEE was obsessed with FLYNN and Russia and she had an agenda,” investigators said in a report from the Barnett interview.
Rhee represented Trump’s opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and the Clinton Foundation in two 2015 lawsuits. She also gave $5,400 to Clinton’s campaign.
Barnett spoke with another Mueller lawyer of his concerns about Rhee, and said he wanted nothing to do with the Flynn case. Strzok then called him and tried to recruit him to join the Mueller team. Barnett said he didn’t want to work on the collusion probe, thinking it was “not there.” Strzok assured him he didn’t have to work on the same part of the probe as Rhee, and that Strzok would act as a buffer between Barnett and Rhee.
Barnett said he joined the team to prevent “group think.”
He said the Mueller lawyers, most of them Democrats, approached the probe with the conviction that there was “something criminal there” and competed to uncover it because they wanted to be part of something “big.”
It seems like there was always someone claiming to have a lead that would prove collusion only for it to be a dead end, he said. He and some others even quipped the probe could be turned into a “Collusion Clue” game.
“Investigators are able to choose any character conducting any activity, in any location, and pair this individual with another character and interpret it as evidence of collusion,” the interview report described the game.
Usually, agents drive cases and need to explain to lawyers why they need what they need. The Mueller team was the opposite. Everything was “green-lighted,” he said. Whatever legal process, such as search warrants, the lawyers wanted, they could get it. The agents were seen as mere “speed bumps” asked to sign affidavits the lawyers prepared, he said.
The lawyers were convinced Trump aide K.T. McFarland was the “key to everything” who had conveyed Trump’s orders for Flynn to talk to Kislyak. The “ground just kept being retreaded,” but it was just “astro projection,” he said. No evidence was found.
On multiple occasions, when Mueller lawyers interviewed people from Trump’s circle, it was Barnett who stepped in with clarifying and follow-up questions, such as, “Do you know that for a fact or are you just speculating?”
One time, the lawyers tried to kick Barnett off a McFarland interview. He had to threaten he’d report them to the inspector general before they allowed him in. When he started to ask clarifying questions, he said, they paused the interview and warned him, “If you keep asking these questions, we will be here all day.”
He called the lawyers in question the “obstruction team.”
In one interview, Flynn said something that suggested Trump knew about the calls to Kislyak. Barnett had the impression Flynn was just trying to say what the lawyers wanted to hear. He had to step in with a follow-up question and Flynn clarified that Trump wasn’t aware of the calls.
Flynn said in court papers his lawyers told him after the first special counsel interview that the investigators weren’t happy with his answers. For the subsequent session, his lawyers coached him to use words he wouldn’t have used himself, he said. He eventually fired the lawyers and accused them of ineffective counsel due to a conflict of interest.
The dismissal of his case is scheduled for a hearing on Sept. 29 before District Judge Emmet Sullivan after Flynn’s bid to have a higher court force the judge to accept the dismissal without further proceedings failed in August.