On May 20, 2022, Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager, Robby Mook, finally admitted that it was Clinton herself who had greenlighted her presidential campaign’s scheme to smear Donald Trump with Russia collusion claims. Mook’s admission, made during his testimony in Clinton campaign lawyer Michael Sussmann’s trial for lying to the FBI about Clinton’s scheme, marked the final chapter in a six-year saga that ruined a presidency and turned the world order on its head.
It all began in early 2016 when Jennifer Palmieri, director of communications for the Clinton presidential campaign, received an email from Joel Johnson, a senior adviser to Bill Clinton.
Johnson wrote: “Who is in charge of the Trump swift boat project? Needs to be ready, funded and unleashed when we decide—but not a half assed scramble.”
Palmieri sarcastically replied: “Gee. Thanks, Joel. We thought we could half-ass it. Let’s discuss.”
The exchange was buried in a huge trove of emails from Clinton campaign Chairman John Podesta that were released by whistleblower group WikiLeaks in October 2016. The significance of the two emails was largely overlooked at the time. It was only with hindsight—and the progressive unraveling of Clinton’s scheme to vilify Trump—that their importance has become apparent.
We now know that the two emails marked the inception of the dirtiest political trick of all time: Clinton’s Russiagate scam, a multi-pronged and multi-layered campaign to paint Trump as an asset of the Kremlin. Her scheme was completely unheard of and beyond the bounds of anything that had previously happened in the dirty world of American politics. In 1972, Republican operatives broke into the headquarters of the Democratic National Committee at the Watergate Office Building in Washington. The ostensible purpose of the break-in was to eavesdrop on a political opponent, but even that act pales in comparison to what Clinton did.
Clinton’s intention was to execute an elaborate scheme that painted her opponent as an agent of a foreign power. It was a devious plan, and it came at a heavy price for all Americans. Russiagate not only consumed Trump’s presidency, but it also altered the geopolitical balance of power for generations yet to come. In her failed attempt to become president, Hillary Clinton had swiftboated America herself.
Trump’s slogan throughout the 2016 campaign was “Make America Great Again.” One of the central tenets of Trump’s platform was to get the United States out of its many foreign entanglements, wars, and proxy wars. As part of that wider ambition, Trump was determined to improve relations with Russia.
U.S.–Russian relations had been deteriorating since the days of the George W. Bush presidency, perhaps captured best by Bush’s foolhardy 2008 Bucharest Declaration, in which it was announced that Ukraine and Georgia would become members of NATO. Admitting these two countries into NATO was a well-known red line for Russia. Crossing that red line was not only reckless, but it flew in the face of a 1991 promise made by Bush’s father, President George H.W. Bush, not to expand NATO at all.
Trump recognized the problem of antagonizing Russia long before he became president. One of Trump’s campaign themes starting in 2015 was to improve relations with Russia.
He would often ask at his rallies, “If we could get along with Russia, wouldn’t that be a good thing, instead of a bad thing?”
Trump’s views were well-known. In his first foray into public policy writing in 2000, Trump noted in The America We Deserve:
“The Soviet Union is no longer a threat to our Western European allies. America has no vital interest in choosing between warring factions whose animosities go back centuries in Eastern Europe. Their conflicts are not worth American lives,” continuing by lamenting that the “cost of stationing NATO troops in Europe is enormous, and these are clearly funds that can be put to better use.”
Trump repeated these sentiments on the campaign trail. In August 2015, he said that he “would not care that much” about Ukraine’s NATO entry. This was anathema to the foreign policy establishment. The media ran breathless headlines proclaiming that Trump had abandoned Ukraine and ditched Europe.
This was happening long before Clinton had kicked off her smear campaign against Trump and long before the apprehension among Washington’s ruling class that Trump might upend their preferred world order, created the framework for Clinton’s decision to make Trump–Russia collusion the centerpiece of her Swiftboat project.
Like all political campaigns, the Clinton campaign was looking for an issue to hang around her opponent’s neck. There was a lot to choose from, including Trump’s checkered past in the real estate industry and his philandering. But those issues had strings attached. Reminding voters of Trump’s business past might have strengthened his image as an outsider who could get things done. Highlighting his extramarital flings wouldn't have had the same effect as it would have in the 1980s. Ironically, it was Clinton’s husband, Bill, who broke that particular glass ceiling.
What was needed was something that would catalyze traditional political smears involving suspect business matters and extramarital affairs into something more explosive. Russia was that catalyst. Best of all, it was an issue that the entire Washington establishment could coalesce around.
By painting Trump as a Russian stooge, the Clinton campaign would garner a wide coalition of support ranging from globalists to war-mongering neocons. The Russian stooge story could be interspersed with more familiar stories about shady business dealings and illicit affairs.
Putting Trump and the Kremlin in the same corner also provided Clinton with an insurance policy in case any of her 30,000 deleted emails from the clandestine server she used during her time as secretary of state were leaked. Any disclosure could be blamed on the Russian government and, by extension, on Trump, thereby deflecting attention from whatever was in those emails.
In the end, the 30,000 emails never surfaced. But that didn't affect the implementation of Clinton’s devious plan. When unrelated emails from the Democratic National Committee were released in July 2016, she pulled the trigger on her carefully crafted Swiftboat project.
It was Palmieri who initially got the swift boat plan rolling. As we would later find out from WikiLeaks’ release of Podesta’s emails, Johnson emailed Palmieri on Feb. 26, 2016, to ask about “the Trump swift boat project.”
Three days after the February 2016 exchange between Palmieri and Johnson, a person by the name of Peter Fritsch sent an email to a “senior figure in the Democratic Party,” exclaiming that Trump “has to be stopped.” The reply was positive, “Yes. Let’s talk.”
Fritsch is the co-founder of Fusion GPS, a firm of political operatives that he founded together with Glenn Simpson who, just like Fritsch, is a former Wall Street Journal reporter.
The unidentified “senior figure in the Democratic Party” whom Fritsch had emailed soon arranged for Fritsch and Simpson to meet Marc Elias. Elias is a Democratic Party elections lawyer who was known at the time for heading the political law unit at Democratic Party-aligned law firm Perkins Coie and for helping to overturn the contested Minnesota Senate election in 2008 in favor of Al Franken. He has since also become known for spearheading Democrat’s “fortification” efforts in the 2020 presidential election.
In 2016, Elias was the Clinton campaign’s attorney of record. He was not only in charge of every aspect of campaign lawyering but also in charge of aspects of the campaign’s Swiftboat project, as well as being responsible for shielding the campaign from any fallout connected to the project.
In practice, that meant creating multiple layers of deniability for Clinton herself. The Swiftboat project would be run out of Perkins Coie, with various parts farmed out to subcontractors such as Fusion GPS, who, in turn, hired their own subcontractors, such as dossier author Christopher Steele, who also had his own subcontractor, dossier source Igor Danchenko. Danchenko provided Steele with deniability. Steele provided Fusion GPS with deniability and Fusion GPS provided Perkins Coie with deniability.
In addition, Perkins Coie would claim attorney-client privilege over all communications between themselves and their operatives, creating a further layer of protection for Clinton.
There were also other subcontractors, particularly in the media, including from ABC and The Wall Street Journal, who directly performed tasks for Fusion GPS in connection with the Swiftboat project.
After Elias hired Fusion on April 1, 2016, Fusion immediately set about to write a dossier on Trump. This wasn’t the Steele dossier but an early 15-page dossier written by Fusion’s own in-house operatives. The Fusion dossier’s claims ran along familiar lines, focusing on Trump adviser Carter Page, Russia’s Alfa Bank, and Trump’s alleged dalliance with Moscow prostitutes. All these themes were later picked up and repackaged by Steele.
Stories from the early Fusion GPS dossier were shared with members of Clinton-friendly media, including ABC’s Matthew Mosk, Reuters’ Mark Hosenball, and Slate’s Franklin Foer. As email exchanges between Fusion and these media allies would later reveal, this wasn’t just a symbiotic relationship but rather a full-fledged collaboration.
As early as April 2016, Hosenball and Foer were actively helping Fusion to shape the Trump–Russia collusion narrative. By July 4, 2016, Foer was publishing hit pieces painting Trump as “Putin’s puppet.” All of this was long before July 26, 2016, when the FBI received a tip about the Trump campaign from Australian diplomat Alexander Downer. While the tip marked the official starting point of the FBI’s Trump–Russia collusion investigation, the collusion project had already been in motion for months.
While Fusion’s early dossier was sufficient for dissemination by a select group of Fusion’s familial media collaborators such as Foer and Mosk, something bigger was needed to make the story viral with other media outlets. Clinton needed a 007, and she found him in London. It was Steele who was hired by Simpson in May 2016.
Hiring Steele had many advantages. First and foremost, as a former British intelligence officer, he brought a huge amount of persuasive power. A British agent who had unraveled a plot between the Kremlin and a billionaire real estate magnate sounded like something straight out of a Bond movie.
He had another huge advantage. He had extensive contacts in both the FBI and the U.S. State Department. His background gave the Trump–Russia allegations a veneer of credibility, as well as access to those agencies, something that Fusion GPS didn't have. Lastly, he created distance. Anything he did could be disavowed by Fusion, Perkins Coie, and the Clinton campaign itself.
Once Steele completed the first of his fake dossier reports on Trump–Russia collusion, the second phase of Clinton’s Swiftboat project kicked in. Pushing the false accusations into the media was only the first step. The next step was to trigger an FBI investigation of Trump. Once the investigation was underway, the fact that there was an investigation into Trump’s ties to the Kremlin would be leaked to the media, thus sustaining the earlier false leaks and creating a perfect feedback loop.
By design, Clinton’s Swiftboat project didn't concern itself with whether the allegations would stand up to scrutiny or with anything that might happen after the election. The purpose was simply to ensure a Clinton victory.
Steele’s first dossier report was completed on June 20, 2016. It was the infamous Report 80, which set the foundations for Clinton’s Trump–Russia collusion narrative, including the pee tape story, alleging that the Kremlin was helping Trump get elected and had compromising material on Trump in the form of lewd sex tapes from Trump’s 2013 trip to the Miss Universe competition in Moscow. Those stories, as well as all the other stories in subsequent Steele reports, were transparently false. That was the point. On July 5, 2016, Steele personally shared Report 80 with FBI agent Michael Gaeta and by mid-July, the pee tape report was circulating in the upper echelons of the FBI.