In late July 2016, FBI Director James Comey notified certain members of the Obama White House, along with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, about the FBI’s opening of the “Crossfire Hurricane” investigation into the presidential campaign of then-candidate Donald Trump.
CIA Director John Brennan was already aware of the investigation since he was the one who had been providing the FBI with information regarding the Trump campaign.
Brennan testified to Congress in May 2017, “I was aware of intelligence and information about contacts between Russian officials and U.S. persons that raised concerns in my mind about whether or not those individuals were cooperating with the Russians, either in a witting or unwitting fashion, and it served as the basis for the FBI investigation to determine whether such collusion—cooperation occurred.”
We also know that Brennan was in contact with UK Intelligence—at the very highest of levels. Robert Hannigan, head of the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (also known as GCHQ), flew to the United States in the summer of 2016 to personally brief Brennan.
The matter was deemed so important that it was handled at the “director level,” face-to-face between the two agency chiefs. Clapper later confirmed during congressional testimony the “sensitive” stream of intelligence from Europe.
He told Congress that it was accurate that “over the spring of 2016, multiple European allies passed on additional information to the United States about contacts between the Trump campaign and Russians.”
But here’s the thing. The Intelligence Community (IC), the Obama administration, and the political establishment never expected Trump to win. And when he did win, the IC was suddenly faced with a very real problem: How would they properly cover up their actions?
And how would they hobble the new Trump administration? As it turns out, the timeline of their actions in the first few months of 2017 tells a story; it’s one of an establishment response to the very real threat that the young Trump administration presented to the long-standing—and corrupt—political structure of our nation.
On Jan. 5, 2017, “following a briefing by IC leadership on alleged Russian hacking during the 2016 Presidential election, President Barack Obama had a brief follow-on conversation with FBI Director Jim Comey and Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates in the Oval Office,” according to a 2018 joint statement from Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.).
Then-Vice President Joe Biden and senior foreign policy adviser Susan Rice also were present.
“That meeting reportedly included a discussion of the Steele dossier and the FBI’s investigation of its claims,” the statement reads.
According to an email written by Rice, Obama asked Comey “to inform him if anything changes in the next few weeks that should affect how we share classified information with the incoming team.”
Comey said he would.
Note Obama’s concern over the sharing of classified information with the incoming Trump team. That concern would shape the events of the next several months.
On Jan. 10, 2017, Comey testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee that the Democratic National Committee (DNC) had refused access to its servers. Comey claimed that the FBI made “multiple requests,” but ultimately struck an agreement with the DNC that a private company, Crowdstrike, would get access and share what it found with investigators.
In other words, Comey told Congress that the information from the DNC servers was now walled off from oversight. During that same hearing, Comey was asked by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) if the FBI had investigated relationships between associates of Trump and the Russian government. Comey told Congress that he couldn’t confirm or deny an active investigation, thereby triggering a media onslaught that triggered doubt among millions of Americans.
Comey said he couldn’t comment in public on a possible investigation into allegations of links between Russia and the Trump campaign.
“I would never comment on investigations—whether we have one or not—in an open forum like this, so I really can’t answer one way or another,” he said.
The Senate hearing had been organized to specifically look into the U.S. intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Russia intervened in the election to benefit Trump. In a matter of no small coincidence, it was the same day that the Steele dossier was released by BuzzFeed and reported on by CNN.
On Jan. 11, 2017, Trump, no doubt concerned by the flood of leaks from the intelligence community, conducted his first sting. In order to identify the people leaking classified information to the press, Trump very specifically didn’t tell his staff that the IC was about to brief him. After that briefing, the news was leaked to the press, leading Trump to conclude the leaks were coming from the IC.
“I have many meetings with intelligence,” Trump said. “And every time I meet, people are reading about it.”
Later that day, Clapper was forced to put out a formal statement decrying the leaks from the intelligence community.
“I expressed my profound dismay at the leaks that have been appearing in the press, and we both agreed that they are extremely corrosive and damaging to our national security,” he said.
But in his statement, Clapper also referenced the Steele dossier, saying that he and Trump also “discussed the private security company document, which was widely circulated in recent months among the media, members of Congress and Congressional staff even before the IC became aware of it.”
Clapper said he “emphasized that this document is not a U.S. Intelligence Community product” and that he didn’t believe that the leaks came from within the intelligence community.
He said the IC “has not made any judgment that the information in this document is reliable, and we did not rely upon it in any way for our conclusions.”
He also claimed that “part of our obligation is to ensure that policymakers are provided with the fullest possible picture of any matters that might affect national security.”
However, a House Intelligence report later found that when Clapper was initially asked about leaks related to the IC assessment in July 2017, Clapper flatly denied discussing the Steele dossier or any other intelligence related to alleged Russian hacking of the 2016 election with journalists.
But under subsequent questioning, Clapper suddenly acknowledged discussing the “dossier with CNN journalist Jake Tapper” and acknowledged that he might have spoken with other journalists about the same topic.
The day after Trump’s IC briefing, on Jan. 12, 2017, Department of Justice Inspector General (IG) Michael Horowitz announced his initiation of a review of actions taken by the FBI in the leadup to the 2016 presidential election.
This announcement wasn’t publicized and only became public knowledge almost a year later, in December 2017, when a New York Times article on the removal of then-FBI agent Peter Strzok from Robert Mueller’s inquiry disclosed Horowitz’s investigation.
The NY Times noted that Horowitz was leading a “broad examination of how the F.B.I. handled the Clinton email investigation.”
The article also noted that “Horowitz declined to characterize his findings but said that he hoped to have a copy of his report released by March or April [of 2018].”
At the time, the news of his investigation was received with a large degree of optimism. But in hindsight, one can see that what that investigation did was effectively tie up any outside investigations into the FBI for two years.
Also of note is that the IG’s investigation was virtually all-encompassing; Horowitz was “looking” at everything. That also meant that almost everything the FBI and the IC had done fell under the umbrella of Horowitz’s supposed investigation. His report wouldn’t be released until December 2019.
He would later call Trump’s presidency “a challenging time … particularly in the last year” during a Feb. 10, 2021, online discussion hosted by Harvard Law School and moderated by Jack Goldsmith and Bob Woodward.
At one point during the discussion, Goldsmith noted that the Trump administration represented a “most extraordinary and unprecedented assault” on our norms and our institutions. Goldsmith then asked Horowitz, “What happens when a president is elected precisely to break norms.”
Horowitz said: “I agree with Bob, and I agree with you. That was what happened here, it was norm-breaking.”
He continued, saying that “norms didn’t matter” and telling Goldsmith that “it was certainly a challenging time” for the IG community.
But several other crucial events also transpired on Jan. 12, 2017, the most important being the first renewal of the Carter Page FISA. It also marked the date that the Clinton Global Initiative announced that it would close on April 15, 2017, as donations continued to dry up as the Clintons no longer held true political power. It was also on that day that Washington Post reporter David Ignatius cited government “sources” regarding Michael Flynn’s calls with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Although Flynn would later be found to have engaged in nothing improper during his calls, he would resign a day later, on Jan. 13, 2017. The same day that Flynn resigned, the Senate Intelligence Committee opened what would prove to be a fatally flawed and politically driven investigation into Russia and U.S. political campaign officials.
Then, on Jan. 24–25, 2017, Christopher Steele’s supposed source for his dossier, Igor Danchenko, was interviewed by the FBI. Given Danchenko’s admissions, the FBI knew that the dossier’s major allegations were fabrications. Yet instead of halting their investigation and withdrawing their FISA warrant on Trump 2016 campaign adviser Carter Page—a warrant that had been obtained on the basis of the dossier—the FBI forged on and even escalated the probe.
Two days later, during a private dinner meeting, Trump asked Comey if he was under investigation. Comey told him privately that he wasn’t, but refused to say so publicly. During this same dinner meeting, Trump also told Comey that he was considering ordering the FBI to investigate the dossier, which Comey successfully talked him out of doing. Sometime in March 2017, likely just a few days later, the FBI provided Danchenko with confidential human source (CHS) status, which would successfully keep Danchenko under full protective cover—concealing him from congressional and public scrutiny.
With the newfound CHS status, Danchenko’s name and the entirety of his connections to the FBI were fully redactable. Additionally, by paying Danchenko, the FBI may have found a way to ensure his silence.
On March 2, 2017, during an MSNBC interview, Obama’s deputy assistant secretary of defense, Evelyn Farkas, said that if “the Trump folks, if they found out how we knew what we knew about the Trump staff dealing with Russians, that they would try to compromise those sources and methods, meaning we would no longer have access to that intelligence.”