The legacy of the inquiry that has hung over President Donald Trump since his election—and was already in ruins this month—has been further eroded by a deluge of revelations from congressional inquiries, watchdog investigations, declassifications, and a continuing criminal probe of the investigators.
The president’s opponents have long criticized any efforts to delve into the inner workings of the Russia investigation, saying they were intended to undermine Robert Mueller’s special counsel probe. After the special counsel’s office wrapped up its inquiry, the critics, in a sleight of hand, castigated the efforts as an attempt to undermine the credibility of Mueller’s findings, deftly omitting that Mueller had failed to find evidence to prove the core theory that there was a conspiracy between the Trump campaign and Russia.
The opposition to the inquiries on what took place during the Russia probe has long been propped up by an internal firewall from the people who worked on the investigation itself. That firewall had held up until last week, as none of the FBI or Justice Department (DOJ) officials whose records and testimonies are publicly available conceded that there was any wrongdoing on the part of their colleagues or themselves.
Some, such as former Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, have testified that they wouldn’t have taken key steps knowing what they know now. Others, like Trisha Anderson, the principal deputy general counsel for the FBI, admitted to irregularities and omissions. All have defended their actions and those of their colleagues.
Beginning on Sept. 24, this firewall has come tumbling down with the release of an interview of FBI agent William Barnett, who was the lead agent on the case against national security adviser Michael Flynn before and after Mueller’s appointment as special counsel, and the communications between a pair of bureau analysts.
He said he had requested to be removed from the investigation and described the subsequent prosecution of Flynn by the special counsel as an operation to “get Trump.” The FBI analysts were so concerned about the potential malpractice afoot that they discussed how the analytical staff on the probe bought professional malpractice insurance.
Critical voices from within the inner circle of the Russia probe, initially named Crossfire Hurricane, have long been a missing piece from the puzzle of an investigation that has received searing criticism from the Department of Justice Office of Inspector General and the House Intelligence Committee, as well as scathing reprimands by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court.
‘Supposition on Supposition’
Barnett told DOJ investigators that shortly after being assigned to the Flynn case in August 2016, he thought Crossfire Hurricane was “opaque” and that the Flynn case, codenamed Crossfire Razor, was built on “supposition on supposition.”
The investigation was “unclear and disorganized,” Barnett added.
Little was done on the Flynn case between September and November that year. Barnett thought the predication for the investigation was “not great” and that it wasn’t clear what the person who opened the case wanted to “look for or at.” He said that the intelligence analysts on the case looked into a claim from a source about an event involving Flynn in 2014 and found the allegation “not plausible.”
Six weeks into the investigation, Barnett still had nothing. He said some officials thought the slight change at the Republican National Convention on the platform on Ukraine was a sign of collusion. Barnett said he thought the theory was “groping.”
On Election Day, on Nov. 8, 2016, there was an FBI message about closing the Flynn case. Around that time, an FBI analyst told Barnett that the probe was an “exercise in futility.” Barnett told investigators that another analyst, who was the lead analyst on Crossfire Razor, was “a believer” in the collusion theory and was convinced that Flynn broke the law.
Barnett said that after the election, he wanted to interview Flynn so he could close the case. The request was blocked by someone higher up in the chain of command. During the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, a supervisory agent had ordered the Flynn case closed. Barnett worked on drafting the closing communication on Jan. 3–4, 2017, but was stopped short by an order to keep the investigation open midday on Jan. 4.
The following day, President Barack Obama personally discussed the Flynn case at the White House with Vice President Joe Biden, FBI Director James Comey, and Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, according to notes taken by FBI Assistant Deputy Director Peter Strzok. Obama revealed that he was aware of call intercepts between Flynn, who was the incoming national security adviser, and Russia’s ambassador to the United States. Obama told Comey and Yates to assign the “right people” to the case. Biden brought up the use of the Logan Act against Flynn.
Barnett told investigators he learned that the bureau was considering prosecuting Flynn under the Logan Act. He didn’t see it as a serious standalone charge.
Less than three weeks later, Barnett learned that two other agents interviewed Flynn at the White House on Jan. 24. He wasn’t told that the bureau was planning the interview, even though a lead case agent usually would be present for the interview. Barnett told investigators he now believes he was “cut out” of the interview.
The Flynn legal saga, which continues to this day, revolves around an alleged false statement Flynn made during that interview.
After the interview, senior FBI and DOJ officials regularly met about the Flynn case but line agents were left out, Barnett said, adding that the investigation was run by management rather than by agents.
In February 2017, Barnett asked an FBI unit chief to let him off the case, saying he thought the case was problematic and might prompt an investigation by the DOJ’s inspector general.
Mueller took over Crossfire Hurricane after Trump fired Comey in May 2017. Barnett was convinced to join the Mueller team, where he quickly encountered officials who “had an agenda.” They included Mueller lawyer Jeannie Rhee, who Barnett said was “obsessed with Flynn and Russia.”
Barnett told investigators that the attorneys on the Mueller team ran the investigation. The attorneys, mostly Democrats, ran the investigation with the conviction that there was “something criminal there” and vied to be the first to find a crime because they wanted to be part of something “big.”
The rush to find a crime played out in interviews with witnesses. On multiple occasions, when Mueller lawyers interviewed people from Trump’s circle, it was Barnett who stepped in with clarifying and follow-up questions, which eventually prompted the attorneys to attempt to remove him from the interview. After Barnett threatened to report the matter to the inspector general, he was allowed to participate.
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.
Barnett wasn’t the only official concerned with the conduct of the Russia probe. FBI and CIA analysts who worked on Crossfire Hurricane in 2016 were so concerned about what scrutiny of their work by the incoming administration might reveal that they took out professional liability insurance, according to text messages released on Sept. 24.
“We all went and purchased professional liability insurance,” an FBI analyst wrote to a colleague on Jan. 10, 2017.
“Holy [expletive]. All the analysts too?” the colleague responded.
“Yep. All the folks at the agency as well,” the analyst wrote, referring to the CIA.
The conversation then shifted to what could happen if the Trump administration discovered the details about the probe via a leak to the press.
“The thought was if that piece comes out … and Jan. 20 comes around … the new [attorney general] might have some questions … then yada yada yada … we all get screwed,” one of the two analysts, who aren’t identified in the documents, wrote.
“Don’t think it will happen now, but just in case … this could be a very very unpredictable 4 years,” the analyst added.
The two analysts were working on the Flynn case.
Other text messages between the analysts show that both conceded that nothing of substance was uncovered in the Flynn inquiry. The pair then expressed exasperation after the case was ordered to stay open.
“So razor is going to stay open??” one of the analysts wrote.
“Yep. Crimes report being drafted,” the other analyst responded.
One of the analysts then wrote that FBI officials were “scrambling for info to support certain things and it’s a mad house.”
Alleged Clinton Plan
One potential reason for the apparent lack of substance behind the Russia probe surfaced as part of yet another disclosure on Sept. 29. In a letter, Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe disclosed that then-CIA Director John Brennan briefed Obama in late 2016 about Russian intelligence alleging a plan by Clinton to stir up a scandal around Trump, by tying him to the alleged hack of the Democratic National Committee by Russian intelligence services.
After U.S. intelligence services obtained the insight into the Russian intelligence analysis in late July 2016, Brennan briefed Obama and other national security officials about the purported Clinton plan, including the “alleged approval by Hillary Clinton on July 26, 2016, of a proposal from one of her foreign policy advisors to vilify Donald Trump by stirring up a scandal by claiming interference by Russian security services.”
On Sept. 7, 2016, U.S. intelligence officials referred the matter to Comey and Strzok, according to Ratcliffe. The referral was titled “U.S. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s approval of a plan concerning U.S. Presidential candidate Donald Trump and Russian hackers hampering U.S. elections as a means of distracting the public from her use of a private mail server.”
“The [intelligence community] does not know the accuracy of this allegation or the extent to which the Russian intelligence analysis may reflect exaggeration or fabrication,” Ratcliffe wrote.
The FBI formally opened an investigation of the Trump campaign on July 31, 2016, five days after Clinton’s alleged approval of the smear campaign against Trump. The investigation was predicated on a conversation in which Trump campaign foreign adviser George Papadopoulos spoke about Russians having “dirt” on Clinton.
Strzok opened the Crossfire Hurricane investigation and played a major role in the investigation of Clinton’s use of an unauthorized private email server to conduct government business. In text messages, he expressed an intense hatred of Trump and deference to Clinton, spoke of stopping Trump from becoming president, and mentioned an “insurance policy” in the “unlikely” event that Trump won the election.
While anything intercepted from foreign intelligence should be taken with a grain of salt, Brennan’s briefing to Obama indicates there were serious concerns about the information, whether true or false, at the highest levels of the Obama administration. The potential significance of the matter is further bolstered by the subsequent referral of the intercept to Strzok and Comey.
Clinton, who lists only a postal box as a means of contact on her website, didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment addressed to her on Twitter by The Epoch Times.
The Clinton campaign paid for an opposition research dossier in 2016 composed by a former British spy who relied on a once-suspected Russian spy in Washington as the main source. The FBI used the dossier to obtain a warrant to spy on former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page. The bureau didn’t advise the court that Clinton funded the dossier, one in a battery of errors and omissions unearthed by a Department of Justice watchdog in the applications to spy on Page.
Petr Svab contributed to this report.