The Hillary Clinton presidential campaign and its possible links to Christopher Steele were discussed inside the FBI’s top echelons before it obtained court authority to wiretap a Trump associate based largely on Mr. Steele’s Democratic Party opposition research, according to the Justice Department’s inspector general report.
The report chronicles a tense standoff during which FBI agent Peter Strzok steered the Justice Department’s Office of Intelligence (OI) to finally sign off on a historic spy warrant on Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. A senior Justice attorney had wanted to know more about the political biases of Mr. Steele, a former British intelligence officer who later would be shown to be a Clinton campaign-paid researcher.
In one instance, Inspector General Michael E. Horowitz’s report disputed Mr. Strzok’s version of events on what he had shared with OI staff writing the spy warrant.
Mr. Strzok showed hostility toward candidate Donald Trump in private messages to his lover, FBI counsel Lisa Page. He talked of stopping Mr. Trump and of having an “insurance policy.”
The FBI’s sworn affidavit under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) eventually was submitted and approved on Oct. 21, 2016, omitting any reference to Mr. Steele’s possible Democratic Party/Clinton ties.
Today, Mr. Steele’s dossier has been proven to be all wrong when it comes to his dozen or so Trump-Russia conspiracy allegations, including the parts on Mr. Page. Special counsel Robert Mueller said he did not find a conspiracy and exonerated Mr. Page.
In 2016, the FBI knew Mr. Steele was paid by Fusion GPS through a law firm. The IG report depicts Mr. Strzok’s Hurricane Crossfire agents, as the FBI’s Russia probe was code-named, as not particularly aggressive in identifying the firm, Perkins Coie. The law firm represented the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee, and funneled the money to Fusion to pay Mr. Steele about $160,000.
If the FBI had identified Perkins Coie, then presumedly its sworn FISA affidavit would have informed the FISA court that Mr. Steele’s allegations were partisan opposition research for the Clinton campaign to attack candidate Trump.
The FBI’s Crossfire agents began receiving Mr. Steele’s memos in mid-September, just in time to provide the pivotal evidence to win the federal court’s approval of a wiretap. Mr. Steele had begun providing the dossier memos to the FBI in July. In early October, agents meet with him in Rome to try to sign him up for $50,000 to keep investigating Mr. Trump.
Mr. Steele’s allegations were many, but the two basic ones used in the affidavit were that Mr. Page met secretly in July with two Kremlin figures and that there was an extensive conspiracy between Mr. Trump and Moscow to interfere in the election.
The FBI knew during the FISA drafting that Russia had hacked Democratic Party computers. WikiLeaks had released thousands of stolen emails in July.
The internal FISA debate begins
Stuart Evans, a deputy assistant attorney general, oversaw the Justice Department’s Office of Intelligence (OI) that drafted and approved the Page warrant. He emerged in the Horowitz report as a lone voice of skepticism over Mr. Steele’s somewhat mysterious sourcing.
Mr. Evans began raising red flags on Oct. 11, 2016. He later told the IG that he was surprised to learn from the FBI for the first time that “Steele had been paid to develop opposition research.”
Friction quickly arose between the OI staff and Mr. Strzok.
“[Mr. Evans] told us that he recalled that he, the OI Unit Chief, and the OI Attorney were all quite surprised by this new information and that it was frustrating that they had not been informed sooner,” the IG report said. “Evans said that the new information, coupled with the sensitive nature of the case, made him concerned that the source might have a bias that needed to be disclosed to the court.”
That day Mr. Strzok and Mr. Evans spoke by phone.
Later, Mr. Strzok messaged Ms. Page: “Currently fighting with Stu [Evans] for this FISA.”
He urged her to persuade her boss, then-Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe, to intervene.
An hour later, Mr. Strzok, who later would be fired for his partisan messages to Ms. Page, emailed a unit chief in the FBI Office of General Counsel. He brought up Mrs. Clinton’s name.
“Stu is very nervous,” Mr. Strzok said. “He said he wasn’t aware of the fact until a few hours ago that [Mr. Steele] was employed to find this information by a named client, in turn hired by an unnamed client presumably affiliated with the Clinton campaign in some manner.”
Mr. Strzok confided to the FBI attorney that Mr. Evans might sabotage the FISA paperwork. “I’m worried about what Stu whispers in court adviser’s ear,” he said.
He asserted to the FBI lawyer that he “absolutely informed” Mr. Evans’ office about Mr. Steele’s connections.
On this issue, Mr. Horowitz, the inspector general, sided with Mr. Evans and against Mr. Strzok. Mr. Horowitz said he could find no evidence that the Strzok team ever advised Mr. Evans until he made inquiries on Oct. 11.
The IG report said: “The OIG did not find any written communications indicating that anyone on the Crossfire Hurricane team advised OI about the potential or suspected political connections to Steele’s reporting before Evans raised his questions on October 11, and nothing to that effect appeared in the October 11 draft FISA application. Further, the emails described above containing Evans’s questions about Steele’s campaign affiliation or contributions suggest that OI did not have prior knowledge.”
The next day, Oct. 12, the Office of Intelligence staff sent more questions to the Crossfire agents and brought up the issue of Mr. Steele’s possible ties to Mrs. Clinton.
The OI team asked if the FBI could “articulate why it deems [Mr. Steele’s] reporting to be credible notwithstanding [Mr. Steele] did the investigation based on [a] private citizen’s motivation to help [Hillary Clinton/Democratic Party],” the IG report said.
The FBI team respond that “Steele was not a U.S. citizen and therefore had no vested interest in the outcome of the election.”
An OI attorney told the IG that answer raised even more questions.
It was sometime during Oct. 11-12 that the FBI provided a new detail: that Mr. Steele was hired by the investigative firm Fusion GPS and its co-founder, Glenn Simpson.
Mr. Steele said he had learned in July — well before the FISA warrant — that Fusion was working for Perkins Coie and that he told the FBI.
FBI witnesses told Mr. Horowitz that Mr. Steele didn’t want to be asked about the law firm’s identity. The IG said he found no evidence that was true.
Clinton mentioned again in Comey’s presence
Later, on Oct. 12, then-FBI Director James B. Comey and Mr. McCabe, the deputy director, met with Mr. Strzok and top counterintelligence agent Bill Priestap. At that meeting, Mr. Comey was briefed on the Justice Department’s concerns that Mr. Steele may be a Clinton operative, meaning his evidence had a partisan motive.
Mr. Comey was “‘supportive’ of moving forward despite this concerns,” the IG said, based on participants’ notes.
Afterward, Ms. Page joined Mr. Strzok in urging approval of the FISA warrant.
She messaged Mr. McCabe: “OI now has a robust explanation re any possible bias of the chs [confidential human source] in the package. Don’t know what the holdup is now, other than Stu’s continued concerns. Strong operational need to have in place before Monday if at all possible, which means ct tomorrow.”
By Oct. 21 a compromise was reached. The OI and the FBI agreed that they would address Mr. Steele’s motives in an affidavit footnote. It said: “The FBI speculates that [Fusion’s Mr. Simpson] was likely looking for information that could be used to discredit [Mr. Trump’s] campaign.”
Mr. Strzok and Ms. Page were quite talkative leading up to Oct. 21. Mr. Strzok had put the Hillary Clinton email probe behind him.
On the day he and Mr. Priestap opened Crossfire Hurricane on July 31, he messaged: “And damn this feels momentous. Because this matters. The other one did too, but that was to ensure we didn’t F something up. This matters because this MATTERS.”
On Aug. 8, as Mr. Trump squared off against Mrs. Clinton, Ms. Page texted: “[Mr. Trump’s] not ever going to become president, right? Right.”
Mr. Strzok responded: “No. No. he won’t. We’ll stop it.”
Mr. Horowitz wrote this in a 2018 report about those texts: “It is not only indicative of a biased state of mind but, even more seriously, implies a willingness to take official action to impact the presidential candidate’s electoral prospects. This is antithetical to the core values of the FBI and the Department of Justice.”
Two months later, Mr. Strzok won the battle to spy on Carter Page.
Mr. Horowitz cleared Mr. Strzok of being motivated by bias in his recent report.
Looking back on the internal debate, Mr. Evans told the IG that he objected to the FISA spying not only based on Mr. Steele’s skimpy background but also on the blunt political implications of such a wiretap.
The inspector general cast the Evans position this way: “According to Evans, he raised on multiple occasions with the FBI, including with Strzok, Lisa Page, and later McCabe, whether seeking FISA authority targeting Carter Page was a good idea, even if the legal standard was met. He explained that he did not see a compelling ‘upside’ to the FISA because Carter Page knew he was under FBI investigation (according to news reports) and was therefore not likely to say anything incriminating over the telephone or in email. On the other hand, Evans saw significant ‘downside’ because the target of the FISA was politically sensitive and the Department would be criticized later if this FISA was ever disclosed publicly.”
Mr. Evans’ fears materialized in 2018. Rep. Devin Nunes, California Republican and then-chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, forced the FBI to release heavily redacted FISA warrants on Mr. Page — the same ones debated by Mr. Evans and Mr. Strzok.
They showed for the first time that the FBI did in fact rely on a Democratic Party-financed dossier to persuade judges to sign four warrants covering October 2016 to September 2017.
Mr. Horowitz said the dossier was “central and essential” to the FBI asking for FISA authority.
The IG blasted the FBI, saying it omitted exculpatory evidence or submitted false information 17 times for affidavits for which an FBI agent had sworn followed federal law.
The most glaring slight, he said, was that Mr. Steele’s main source in Moscow told the FBI in January 2017 that the information he provided was rumor and gossip. He said he never suspected that Mr. Steele would put it in a report sent to Washington to damage Mr. Trump and his people. The FBI judged him as truthful.
The source’s discrediting of the Steele reporting was not added by the FBI to three subsequent FISA applications.
Mr. Steele’s June-to-December 2016 dossier memos contain sensational allegations, such as Mr. Trump funded and oversaw the computer hacking; his lawyer, Michael Cohen, traveled to Prague to execute a cover-up; Mr. Page and campaign manager Paul Manafort worked as a team to coordinate with the Kremlin; and this was all part of an extensive Trump campaign/Russia conspiracy.
None of those allegations proved true. Mr. Mueller said he did not establish such a conspiracy, the FBI concluded that Cohen didn’t go to Prague, and Mr. Page and Manafort never met or spoke.
• Rowan Scarborough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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