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The truth about Russia, Trump and the 2016 election

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There have been four major investigations into Russian intervention in the 2016 presidential election and the FBI’s handling of the subject — a 2019 report released by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III, a 2019 Justice Department inspector general report, a bipartisan report by the Senate Intelligence Committee issued in 2020 by a GOP-controlled Senate, and now a 2023 report released by special counsel John Durham. All told, the reports add up to about 2,500 pages of dense prose and sometimes contradictory conclusions.

But broad themes can be deduced from a close reading of the evidence gathered in the lengthy documents, as well as indictments and testimony on related criminal cases.

In early 2017, days before Donald Trump became president, the Obama administration released an Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA) that made the following statement:

“We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the U.S. democratic process, denigrate Secretary [Hillary] Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. We further assess Putin and the Russian Government developed a clear preference for President-elect Trump.”

Trump immediately rejected that conclusion, but both the Mueller report and the Senate investigation affirmed it. Mueller concluded that Russian government actors successfully hacked into computers and obtained emails from people associated with the Clinton campaign and Democratic Party organizations, and then publicly disseminated those materials through various intermediaries, including WikiLeaks, to sow discord in the United States, hurt Clinton and help Trump.

Putin personally ordered the hack, the Senate report said, and “Moscow’s intent was to harm the Clinton Campaign, tarnish an expected Clinton presidential administration, help the Trump Campaign after Trump became the presumptive Republican nominee, and undermine the U.S. democratic process.”

These conclusions are not in dispute. The Durham report references the ICA in a footnote and acknowledges the previous three reports for “the contributions they have made to our understanding of Russian election interference efforts.”

The dozen Russians indicted by Mueller have not been extradited — and may never be — so the accusations have not been tested in court. But the Justice Department recently won a case using forensic evidence similar to the earlier indictment. A Russian millionaire with ties to the Kremlin was convicted in February of participating in an insider-trading scheme that involved the hacking of securities filing agencies to get advance knowledge of earnings reports. The hacking was allegedly conducted by a Russian military officer, Ivan Yermakov — one of the Russian operatives who was charged with hacking into key Democratic Party email accounts.

The FBI on July 31, 2016, opened a counterintelligence investigation, dubbed “Crossfire Hurricane,” into possible collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. The team was set up because of a tip from an Australian diplomat: that a Trump campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos, had disclosed in a May conversation that Russia had obtained damaging information on Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, and appeared willing to help the Trump campaign with it.

After WikiLeaks, on July 22, 2016, released emails hacked from Democratic National Committee servers, the Australian government thought the conversation appeared newly relevant, and on July 26 sent a cable to the State Department summarizing what Papadopoulos had said. The cable said it was unclear how “Trump’s team reacted to the offer,” according to the Durham report.

The Justice Department IG report concluded that the information received from Australia “was sufficient to predicate the full counterintelligence investigation because it provided the FBI an articulable factual basis that, if true, reasonably indicated activity constituting either a federal crime or a threat to national security may have occurred or may be occurring.”

The Durham report is more circumspect. It says “there is no question that the FBI had an affirmative obligation to closely examine” the information received from Australia but concludes that “the investigation could have been opened more appropriately as an assessment or preliminary investigation.”

The Durham report details how some investigators thought the information from Australia was “thin” and questions why the FBI in August so quickly elevated the probe into examining the activities of four Trump campaign advisers — Papadopoulos, energy consultant Carter Page, foreign policy expert Michael Flynn and then-campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

The distinction between a full and preliminary investigation is not especially important. A preliminary investigation would have had a time limit and allowed for fewer investigative tools, but if enough evidence had been developed, it could have been turned into a full investigation.

The Australian tip led the FBI to investigate whether the Trump campaign was colluding with the Russian government. FBI officials were especially suspicious because then-candidate Trump openly called for Russia to interfere in the election.

“Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” Trump said at 10:30 a.m. on July 27, one day after the Australian cable was sent to the State Department. The Republican nominee was referring to a controversy over emails Clinton had deleted from a private email account she had used as secretary of state. It was midafternoon in Russia when Trump made his statement, and that same day, according to the Mueller indictment, Russian hackers “attempted after-hours to spearphish for the first time email accounts at a domain hosted by a third party provider and used by Clinton’s personal office.”

While none of the investigations revealed explicit coordination between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives, Mueller’s report and the Senate report concluded that the Trump campaign welcomed foreign help — even though that broke U.S. election norms. The Durham report makes no similar assessment but instead focuses on how it believes the FBI did not follow investigative norms.

“The investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit from a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts,” Mueller’s report said, even as it stated that it “did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” (“Did not establish” is a lawyerly way of saying the claim could not be ruled out.)

For instance, when given a chance to obtain “dirt” on Clinton from a person that top campaign aides were told represented the Russian government, they eagerly gathered at Trump Tower in New York to collect it. The meeting came about after Donald Trump Jr. was told by a contact that the Russian government wanted to offer “official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary” to assist the campaign. “If it’s what you say I love it,” Trump Jr. responded in an email. In the end, what they received proved disappointing to the campaign. The Senate report said two Russian participants had “significant connections to the Russian government, including the Russian intelligence services.” (In a footnote on Page 55, Durham acknowedges the Trump Tower meeting as among “some activities involving the Trump campaign and Russians that did not become public, and were not known to the FBI, until much later.”)

The Mueller report said the special counsel decided not to prosecute the Trump campaign officials who attended the meeting in part because it could not determine whether the information had enough value (at least $25,000) to trigger a felony count, or even the $2,000 threshold for any criminal charge. Mueller considered whether to bring charges of conspiracy to violate laws prohibiting foreign contributions, especially because emails made it clear to the participants that the meeting concerned information from Russian sources. Trump Jr. did not consent to a voluntary interview, and Mueller declined to prosecute because his team “did not obtain admissible evidence likely to meet the government’s burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that these individuals acted ‘willfully,’ i.e., with general knowledge of the illegality of their conduct.”

During the perjury trial of longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone — whose refusal to cooperate hampered investigations — Trump’s former deputy campaign manager testified that Stone told Trump in a July 31 phone conversation that WikiLeaks planned to release “more information” hacked from the DNC. “We believed that if information [from the hack] were to come out,” Rick Gates said, “it would give our campaign a leg up.” He also said that Stone appeared to know of the Clinton leaks as early as April, shortly after the hacks and well before they were discovered. (Stone was convicted and sentenced to prison, but Trump commuted his sentence and then pardoned him.)

Meanwhile, the Senate Intelligence report found that “Manafort’s presence on the Campaign and proximity to Trump created opportunities for Russian intelligence services to exert influence over, and acquire confidential information on, the Trump Campaign.” The report said one of Manafort’s associates was a “Russian intelligence officer” and said the increasing contact between the two during the 2016 election represented a “grave counterintelligence threat.”

Manafort initially fought criminal charges brought by Mueller, and then, facing a long prison term, pleaded guilty in hopes of a lesser sentence for cooperating. But the plea deal almost immediately collapsed as Mueller accused Manafort of lying to him and his team — about his contacts with a potential Russian agent. He was sentenced to more than seven years in prison; Trump pardoned him before leaving office. Flynn pleaded guilty to making false statements about his conversations with the Russian ambassador but then tried to withdraw his plea; he eventually was pardoned by Trump.

In a plea bargain with Mueller, Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to making false statements to the FBI about his contacts with Russian officials. He also was pardoned before Trump left office.

On Jan. 6, 2017, the same day the accurate Intelligence Community Assessment was released, then-FBI Director James B. Comey took a step that immediately undermined it and has colored the public perception ever since. He privately briefed Trump on material contained in what was called the Steele dossier, in particular an alleged incident involving Trump and sex workers in a Moscow hotel room. The discussion quickly leaked, and then four days later BuzzFeed News took the unusual step of publishing what it called “unverified, and potentially unverifiable allegations of contact between Trump [campaign] aides and Russian operatives.”

The dossier, alleging a “well-developed conspiracy of cooperation” between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin, was assembled by a former British intelligence agent, Christopher Steele, working under contract for a private investigation firm at the behest of Clinton’s campaign. Many of the memos, which falsely suggested deep sourcing within Russia, had quietly circulated in media and law enforcement circles for months before BuzzFeed made them public.

The Durham report devotes significant attention to what it calls “Clinton Plan intelligence.” This was a Russian intelligence analysis obtained by the CIA that claimed Clinton on July 27 — the same day Trump called for Russia’s help — had authorized a plan “to stir up a scandal against” Trump “by tying him to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and the Russians’ hacking of the Democratic National Committee.” The report notes that such opposition research would not be illegal, unless it was intended to provide false information to the government. But it faults the FBI for not investigating this tip about Clinton as aggressively as it did Trump.

This is where the story ends up in murky “chicken or egg” territory. Clinton campaign officials adamantly denied to Durham that such a plan existed, and Clinton herself suggested to Durham that the report was Russian disinformation. But given Trump’s high-profile statements on Russia, the Clinton campaign at the time was not shy about highlighting possible Russia-Trump ties. Moreover, the Steele dossier was funded by the campaign and, behind the scenes, was influential among government officials and journalists looking into Trump.

The Durham report details how Fusion GPS, the investigation firm, circulated selected morsels from Steele’s reporting to journalists (including The Washington Post) to encourage reporting on Trump-Russia connections. Steele also supplied copies of his reports to a State Department official, who distributed them as well.

Meanwhile, the memos circulated among FBI officials, whetting an appetite for more, to the extent that the FBI at one point offered Steele “$1 million or more” if he could verify his claims, according to Durham. (Steele on July 5 had provided the most salacious of his reports, written on June 20, to his FBI handling agent, who was based in Rome, the Durham report said. But for bureaucratic reasons Steele’s reports were not received by the “Crossfire Hurricane” team until 75 days later, in mid-September.)

The FBI in November cut off Steele for leaking to the media, but a month earlier it cited information from his reports to clear a “probable cause hurdle” required by a special foreign intelligence court to permit electronic surveillance of Page and physical searches of his property. The inspector general found that the Steele reports played a “central and essential role” in the FBI decision to seek a warrant. The surveillance of Page continued until September 2017, though none of the Steele allegations cited in the warrant application were ever verified and Page was never charged with any crime. The IG also faulted the FBI for, in its court filings, hyping Steele’s previous help for the FBI and for failing to report mitigating facts such as Page’s assistance to an unnamed government agency from 2008 to 2013, in which he disclosed contacts with Russian intelligence officers.

In seeking the court’s approval, the FBI also assessed “without any support,” according to the IG, that Steele had not “directly provided” the information to a reporter at Yahoo News; this was important to Steele’s continued credibility as an FBI source. Durham quotes from a Sept. 23 Lync instant message from Peter Strzok, who was then the FBI’s deputy assistant director of counterintelligence, to an FBI intelligence analyst: “Looking at the Yahoo article. I can definitely say at a minimum [Steele’s] reports should be viewed as intended to influence as well as to inform.”

The Steele dossier ultimately allowed many Americans, especially on the right, to shrug off the fact that Russia sought to change the outcome of the election, and the Republican candidate welcomed that help. Instead they embraced a counternarrative — of an alleged plot by the Democratic candidate (who had been hacked) to influence the course of the election with the assistance of the FBI.

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