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FDL Analysis: Team Trump Was Illicitly Surveilled

Republican nominee Donald Trump was a first-time contender for public office, and during the 2016 presidential campaign, his missteps were so numerous that he was declared dead out of the water. Polls showed him behind former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by double digits weeks before the election, and the most generous prognosticators pegged Trump’s chances of winning at less than 30%. However, on November 8, 2016, Trump swept thirty states and won the presidency of the United States.

Once the dust settled, November 8th was a day of jubilation for Trump as well as a day of reckoning for members of the media and the political class of the United States, who had thrown their eggs in the Clinton basket. After November 8th, the defeated attempted to prolong the inevitable through recount efforts and attempts to sway presidential electors. However, these pursuits proved unsuccessful, and the beleaguered shifted toward attempts to delegitimize Trump. They took advantage of a fledgling narrative with two components: One, Russia interfered in the 2016 election to a degree that the momentum swung from Clinton to Trump, and two, the newly-elected leader of the free world colluded with the Russian government.

The argument has an audience with the media because it does not implicate them in the biggest offense of the 2016 election: the underestimation of Trump’s political prowess. The narrative is also exalted by Clinton and her comrades because it excuses inexcusable campaign tactics, such as ignoring Wisconsin. Instead, the Russia story pushes the blame for a disappointing result onto a foreign power that had a limited impact and the campaign that won.

Despite its dishonesty, if the Trump-Russia collusion narrative had originated and remained within partisan circles, it would be malicious but acceptable: Casual libel, for better or worse, is an age-old component of American politics. However, the collusion story did not emanate with Team Clinton; it is rooted in gossip from ranking officials of an adversarial nation. Furthermore, the narrative was not only propagated by Clinton and the media; it reached the highest echelons of the American government and was used to violate American civil liberties.

The first public demonstration of the narrative’s institutionalization was the January 5, 2017 Senate testimony of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, but the construction of the collusion story unofficially commenced much earlier, in the summer of 2016. Then, Christopher Steele compiled an assortment of memorandums that went on to serve as the foundation of the case against Trump.

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Christopher Steele (The Wall Street Journal)

Steele was on the payroll of Fusion GPS, a Washington, D.C.-based intelligence firm. Their nondescript, grayscale website has only one page, and in their telling, their offerings are just as simple – they provide clients “premium research, strategic intelligence, and due diligence services.” However, as is usually the case, hiding behind Fusion GPS’s fa├žade of simplicity is a more complicated, objectionable reality.

Fusion GPS was founded by a group of reporters that included Glenn Simpson, who wrote for The Wall Street Journal. Immediately after the formation of the firm, Simpson set off to complete not-so-honest work, including projects for money launderer Denis Katsyv. In the process, he worked with the likes of Natalia Veselnitskaya, the lawyer and Kremlin affiliate who met with Donald Trump Jr. in the summer of 2016.

Realizing Fusion GPS’ propensity for completing unseemly work, political opponents of the elder Trump tasked the firm with dredging up intelligence to sink his presidential candidacy. The first at Fusion GPS’ door was Paul Singer, but his inquiries subsided after Trump won the nomination of the Republican Party. The next customer was Perkins Coie, a Washington, D.C. law firm bankrolled by the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign. Perkins Coie sanctified their contract with Fusion GPS in April 2016, and by June, Simpson had consigned Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence agent, to complete the project.

Steele quickly commenced a research process devoid of investigative credibility. By his own telling, to find dirt worthy of his employer, he communicated with Russian government contacts, including a “senior Russian Foreign Ministry figure,” a “senior Kremlin official,” and an “intelligence officer still active in the Kremlin.” The end result of Steele’s discussions was 35 pages of gossip fashioned as a confidential “company intelligence report.”

The document, which has since been dubbed “the dossier,” is not favorable to Trump, which is unsurprising considering that it was financed by the Democrats. Steele’s overarching thesis is that Trump is a puppet of the Russian government, subject to the Kremlin’s exploitation of his “personal obsessions and sexual perversion.” To make this case, Steele alleges that Trump solicited “golden showers,” escapades where Russian prostitutes purportedly urinated on his bed. Less luridly, Steele purports that Carter Page, an advisor for the Trump campaign, coordinated Russian bribes in exchange for official action.

Perhaps as a consequence of the laughable research process, Steele’s dossier is replete with glaring factual inaccuracies. For one, he states that Trump attorney Michael Cohen attended a “secret meeting … with Kremlin officials in August 2016,” held in Prague. Cohen, now an adversary of Trump, maintains that he has never been to the Czech Republic, and he reiterated this pronouncement while under oath. Further, an analysis of Cohen’s passport by BuzzFeed News found no stamp for the Czech Republic.

In another instance of untruth, Steele writes that Page conspired with Russian officials in Moscow when he was actually giving a commencement address. Under oath, Page confirmed that he had not met with Russian officials.

These factually-challenged assertions underlie a dossier that is fundamentally rooted in fallacy. Whereas Steele broadly argues that Trump conspired with Russia, the Department of Justice’s independent counsel, found no evidence of coordination after probing Trump for two years. The conclusion of the special counsel investigation followed the collapse of Steele’s allegations under scrutiny from favorable news outlets. Yahoo News’ Michael Isikoff, who was originally Steele’s most prominent promoter, renounced the dossier, noting that “we have not seen the evidence to support [Steele’s allegations], and in fact, there is [sic] good grounds to think that some … are likely false.”

Essentially, Steele, acting as an agent of a political party, created a document that could not be verified by the media or an extensive governmental probe. It would have been forgivable, if not admirable, if the investigative corps rejected the findings on sight: The dossier has obvious deviations from reality and its sources include the ranking officials of an adversarial government. However, this was not the case, and the document found an audience with the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The FBI first received some of the contents of the dossier from Steele himself. The Washington Post reports that on July 5, 2016, Steele met with an FBI agent in London, giving him “two to four pages” of his investigative findings. Reporting from The Washington Examiner makes it apparent that the FBI subsequently obtained the entire document.

After it was introduced to high places, the dossier found plenty of friends. Steele was able to arrange a meeting with Bruce Ohr, associate deputy attorney general and husband to a Fusion GPS associate, on July 30, 2016. Ohr proceeded to alert ranking members of the FBI, including Deputy Director Andrew McCabe, of Steele’s findings. The FBI’s investigation into Trump-Russia collusion began the following day, on July 31, 2016.

The FBI proceeded to officially consign Steele’s services, which were compensated despite the fact that he was an agent of a political campaign. According to NBC News, the FBI-Steele arrangement demonstrated “how seriously the bureau was taking the [dossier’s] allegations,” however factually challenged.

Concurrently, the FBI used Steele’s intelligence in order to obtain a warrant to wiretap Trump advisor Page, obtained through the court system established under the Foreign Intelligence Act. There is a question of how much weight the dossier carried in the application, but it is clear that it counted for a good amount: Estimations include “based largely” (The Washington Times), “central” (The Hill), and “essential” (the House Intelligence Committee).

Worse yet, in order to pass the document off as reliable information, the investigative corps evaded stating that Steele was paid by Clinton, alternatively describing him as “credible.”

After the initial warrant was authorized by the FISA court, Page was surveilled continuously under several 90-day authorizations, two of which were secretly approved during the Trump presidency. The exhaustive effort, however, uncovered nothing incriminatory: “No evidence has emerged publicly that [Page] ever met with Putin people or discussed bribes” and he “has not been charged,” per the The Washington Times.

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Consider the situation holistically: The Democratic campaign bankrolled the production of a document that transcribes hearsay from Russian officials. It was fed into the investigative corps of a Democratic president. Democratic appointees then misrepresented the document to dubiously secure a warrant, allowing them to surveil an advisor in the Republican presidential campaign (Page). Concurrently, Republican campaign chairman Paul Manafort was wiretapped by the FBI, though it is unclear whether the dossier also served as the underpinning for his surveillance warrants.

The plan, however, did not impact Trump’s electoral chances. Despite the surveillance of his campaign team by Democratic appointees, he went on to win the Oval Office, and it was only later that he realized what occurred in the summer and fall of 2016. Then, he blared that his campaign was wiretapped by former President Barack Obama during the election, writing, “Just found out that Obama had my ‘wires tapped’ in Trump Tower just before the victory.”

Trump’s leap toward direct criticism of Obama was likely unfounded, but the basic facts are correct: Manafort lived in Trump Tower and he was wiretapped by the Obama administration FBI. Perhaps based on this revelation, Trump fired FBI Director James Comey, whose signature was affixed on a Page wiretap authorization.

While it is now clear that the FBI’s investigation into Trump-Russia collusion was suspect, the president’s comments on surveillance were then seen as conspiratorial. Therefore, Comey’s firing, which appeared to be an expulsion without good reason, sent shockwaves. Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, also a signatory on a Page wiretap authorization, responded to the ouster by appointing Robert Mueller as independent counsel.

Mueller was tasked with investigating “any links and or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump.” To do the job, Mueller assembled a team with 12 Democratic donors and 14 card-carrying members of the Democratic Party, compared to three independents and no Republicans.

Following two years of extensive investigation, the independent counsel betrayed that his team of Democratic partisans found no evidence of collusion between Trump and the Russian government, much less validation for the elaborate scheme outlined in the Steele dossier. Mueller wrote that his inquiry “did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities,” and Attorney General William Barr noted that this was the case “despite multiple offers from Russian-affiliated individuals to assist the Trump campaign.”

Mueller’s clearing of Trump was conclusive in the sense that it definitively showed the fallaciousness of the dossier. However, Mueller’s findings, and the intra-governmental investigations that preceded them, present new questions.

Were the American investigative corps motivated by partisanship during and after the 2016 presidential election? The question was originally spurred by the revelation that opposition research served as a component of surveillance authorizations, and it has been furthered by the fact that the independent counsel team was composed wholly of non-Republicans, whereas Democratic donors had a starring role.

If not blinded by partisanship, were America’s investigate corps fundamentally incompetent? The question is not hyperbolic. Senior members of the FBI and the Justice Department, especially McCabe, were so captivated by the author of an unverified report that they predicated surveillance on it.

Was the dossier the foundation for the broader FBI investigation into Trump-Russia collusion, which was eventually taken over by the independent counsel? Kimberly Strassel, a columnist for The Wall Street Journal, has offered this possibility, and it can be taken a step further: Steele gave the first pieces of the dossier to the FBI on July 5, 2016, Ohr met with Steele on July 30th, and the FBI’s investigation commenced on July 31st. A connection between these three events would be unsurprising, and that ambiguity alone is cause for a probe.

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Michael Horowitz (Washington Examiner)

The United States is not a banana republic, but this status is called into doubt by the tainted nature of the investigations into Trump and the possibility that the American investigatory corps abused their authority. Therefore, Inspector General Michael Horowitz’s upcoming report is of the essence: It will allow the American people to see for themselves the interjection of political influence into the Obama-era investigative process. Horowitz’s findings do not go live until December 9th, but according to news reports, they validate the aforementioned accusations of FISA court abuse. Three years later, the chickens will finally come home to roost.

Read my source list and the attached preface.

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