WASHINGTON — On July 31, 2016, the FBI secretly opened an unprecedented foreign-counterintelligence investigation into whether a Trump campaign adviser was involved in a Russian effort to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
That probe, code-named “Crossfire Hurricane,” later became special counsel Robert Mueller’s 22-month investigation. Its much-awaited report in March resulted in no charges against President Donald Trump or his associates for conspiracy or obstruction.
Now the tables have turned.
Attorney General William Barr recently opened a sweeping review of how the FBI investigation began nearly three years ago, after Trump repeatedly demanded a probe into what he called a politically motivated “takedown attempt.”
“People have to find out what the government was doing during that period,” Barr said. “If we're worried about foreign influence, for the very same reason shouldn’t we be worried about whether government officials abused their power and put their thumb on the scale?”
Former FBI general counsel James Baker, one of a small, high-level group of FBI officials who launched the Russia investigation, hit the airwaves two weeks ago to defend the investigation as not only lawful and by the book but absolutely necessary.
“We would have been derelict in our duties if we hadn't investigated,” Baker said.
Meanwhile, House Democrats, pointing out that Mueller did not “exonerate” Trump of obstruction, are pressing ahead with their own probes, which Trump has defied, prompting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to accuse him of a “cover-up.”
In the coming weeks, one of the three internal Justice Department inquiries into the FBI’s actions will be made public when Inspector General Michael Horowitz issues the findings of his examination of how the FBI won approval to monitor a former Trump campaign adviser.
As this debate continues, here are four of the questions Barr raised in a recent Fox News interview, the publicly known version of events, and Baker’s explanation in interviews with the Lawfare Blog and Yahoo’s Skulduggery podcast.
When did the FBI open its investigation, and did it have a reasonable basis to start it?
Barr and some Republican lawmakers cast doubt on the FBI’s story of how it began its investigation. Asked when the probe started, Barr said, “I’m not going to speculate when it started. We’re going to find out when it started.”
The Mueller report and top former FBI officials said three factors led to the opening of the investigation in 2016.
Hacked Democratic emails, suspected to be the work of Russia, began popping up on websites in June, and on July 22 WikiLeaks posted 20,000 stolen emails form the Democratic National Committee, many of them about Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
The FBI, already alarmed about Russian activities, became concerned about Trump’s praise for Russian president Vladimir Putin and Trump’s July 27 public call to Russia to find Clinton’s 30,000 missing emails.
And on July 26, an Australian diplomat told the FBI of a May 6 conversation he had with Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos.
Papadopoulos told the diplomat that on April 26 that Joseph Mifsud, a European professor just back from Russia, told him Russians had “dirt” on Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails.”
Papadopoulos later pleaded guilty to lying to Mueller about the hacked emails. Mueller indicted the Russian military intelligence agency and a dozen agents for the email hacking.
Baker acknowledged the FBI for decades has been investigating Russian activities in the United States and any Americans who become involved or have interactions with Russia.
But Baker said, “This incident, the Papadopoulos information, is what triggered us going down this path.”
Did the FBI spy on the Trump campaign?
In congressional testimony and interviews, Barr echoed Trump’s complaints about spying on his campaign, telling The Wall Street Journal, “Government power was used to spy on American citizens.”
The FBI did have Trump campaign aides with ties or visits to Russia on its radar, according to the Mueller report and The New York Times and The Washington Post.
The FBI used a confidential informant, University of Cambridge professor Stefan Halper, to reach out to campaign advisers Papadopoulos, Carter Page and Sam Clovis. Page and Clovis later said those contacts were not suspicious.
Halper and a woman named Azra Turk, a government investigator who posed as Halper’s assistant, met and pressed Papadopoulos on Russia and hacked emails in September 2016. Papadopoulos later wrote he abruptly ended having a drink with Turk because of that questioning.
The FBI also won a secret court’s permission to monitor the conversations of Page, who had lived and worked in Russia from 2003 to 2007 and then became acquainted in America with three Russians later charged with conspiracy to act as unregistered foreign agents.
While a Trump campaign adviser, Page also traveled in July 2016 to Moscow, where he criticized U.S. policy toward Russia in a speech and then met with Russian officials, the Mueller report said. Page has not been charged with any crimes.
“The term spying connotes some level of impropriety, of unlawfulness,” Baker said. “I don’t think of it as spying. I think it is the FBI undertaking lawful investigative activities to figure out what's going on.”
Did the FBI misuse the Steele dossier to get a wiretap?
House Republicans have long cried foul on the FBI’s use of the Steele dossier to get approval of surveillance on Page. The dossier consists of memos written by former British intelligence agent Christopher Steele on Trump’s ties to Russia for a research firm to aid Clinton and the Democratic National Committee.
“It’s a very unusual situation to have opposition research like that, especially one that on its face had a number of clear mistakes and so much jejune analysis, and to use that to conduct counterintelligence against an American political campaign,” Barr said.
On Oct. 21, 2016, the FBI won a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant and three 90-day extensions from a secret court to monitor conservations of Page, who had resigned the month before from Trump’s campaign.
In the application, the FBI cited the Steele dossier.
Steele’s reports contained raw intelligence from talking with Russian sources, including a still unverified story that Trump was consorting with prostitutes in a Moscow hotel, information that Russia could use to compromise Trump. Other parts of the reports remain unverified.
Mueller confirmed Steele’s reporting that Russia interfered in the election to help Trump.
The FBI also cited other factors that are redacted in the public version of the application, but one is not: “The FBI believes Page has been the subject of targeted recruitment by the Russian government.”
Republican lawmakers charge the FBI misled the court by not identifying Steele by name and as an opposition researcher. The FBI said in a footnote that “Source #1” was a “trusted FBI source” hired to conduct research for a person “likely looking for information that could be used to discredit Candidate #1’s campaign” — a reference to Trump.
Baker said at that time the FBI was in the early stages of its investigation and was trying to verify the dossier.
“You have to remember that a FISA application is part of an investigation,” Baker said. “It's in order to get authorization to use a particular type of investigative tool to figure out what's going on.
Did the FBI try to blackmail Trump?
Barr said the period between Trump’s election on Nov. 8, 2016, and the inauguration on Jan. 20, 2017, included “some very strange developments.”
Barr told Fox News: “That's one of the things we want to look into, such as the handling of the meeting on January 6 between the intelligence chiefs and the president and the leaking of information subsequent to that meeting.”
On that day, U.S. intelligence community chiefs met with the president-elect at Trump Tower in Manhattan to brief him on their findings on Russian interference. They released a public version of their assessment afterward.
At the end of the meeting, then-FBI Director James Comey asked to speak with Trump privately, then briefed him on the Steele dossier and its unverified story about the sex party, while assuring him the FBI was not investigating him personally.
Four days later someone leaked that Comey had briefed Trump on the dossier’s unverified salacious story, and BuzzFeed News published the dossier online. Trump expressed concern to the intelligence chiefs about the leak and asked them to publicly rebut the allegations.
Over the next few weeks, three congressional committees opened investigations into Russia's interference in the election and whether the Trump campaign had colluded with Russia.
Baker said the FBI was “quite worried” that Comey’s private briefing on the dossier’s salacious allegations might seem like J. Edgar Hoover-style “blackmail.”
The FBI knew the dossier was about to be published, Baker said. “It had to be briefed to the president-elect, significantly because it was about to be disclosed in the press,” Baker said.
The FBI did not want Trump to find out later, he said, and that “we knew about this, went up there and gave him a briefing on a related topic, and didn't at least alert him to the fact that this information was out there and that we hadn't verified it yet.”