Thousands upon thousands of media reports over the last year and a half have intimated, suggested, or flat-out asserted that President Donald Trump is a traitor who colluded with Russia to steal the 2016 election from Hillary Clinton. What this widely held theory lacks in evidence, its diehard supporters in the media and other anti-Trump bastions make up for with their faith-filled conviction of its truth.
An alternate storyline has been unfolding over that same time. The basic contour is that claims Trump stole the election by treasonously colluding with Russia are the result of a coordinated campaign that was bought and paid for by the Clinton campaign and Democratic National Committee, weaponized by the federal government, and promulgated by a completely compliant media.
This week ABC News reported that former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe personally authorized a criminal investigation into Attorney General Jeff Sessions over his alleged ties to Russians. Sessions fired McCabe last week after the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Office of Inspector General (IG) reported his misconduct to the FBI’s Office of Professional Responsibility. These internal overseers determined McCabe had made unauthorized disclosures to the news media and not been truthful when asked about it on multiple occasions, including when he was under oath. McCabe was long considered one of the bureau leadership’s many leakers while still employed.
This latest leak to ABC News was viewed by many in the media as bad for Sessions. For the people who still cling to the Russia conspiracy theory, this news was proof of that theory.
HOLY SHIT HOLY SHIT HOLY SHIT HOLY SHIT HOLY SHIT HOLY SHIT HOLY SHIT HOLY SHIT HOLY SHIT HOLY SHIT HOLY SHIT HOLY SHIT HOLY SHIT HOLY SHIT HOLY SHIT HOLY SHIT HOLY SHIT HOLY SHIT HOLY SHIT HOLY SHIT HOLY SHIT HOLY SHIT HOLY SHIT HOLY SHIT HOLY SHIT https://t.co/8qncVy2tjz
— Ian Millhiser (@imillhiser) March 21, 2018
For the people who have trouble believing that Jeff Sessions — yes, that Jeff Sessions — is a Russian agent meriting a criminal investigation by the FBI, the second storyline continues to bear fruit.
How In The World Did This Story Get Going?
Of all the Russian conspiracy angles, the one alleging Sessions is working on behalf of the Russians is easily the most outlandish. The former U.S. senator from Alabama, Sessions is a southern conservative who supported Trump in part because of shared views on the need to fix U.S. immigration policy.
In January 2017, Sessions was undergoing his confirmation hearings in the midst of the initial Red Panic gripping DC. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) asked Sessions, “Several of the President-elect’s nominees or senior advisers have Russian ties. Have you been in contact with anyone connected to any part of the Russian government about the 2016 election, either before or after election day?” Sessions responded “No.”
Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) asked him a convoluted question about a brand-new CNN report claiming that Obama intelligence chiefs were taking the Steele dossier extremely seriously. Then-FBI Director James Comey had briefed Trump about the dossier’s salacious claims of compromising information held by Russians shortly before the fact of that briefing was leaked to CNN by a mysterious someone with knowledge of that briefing.
Franken: Now, again, I’m telling you this as it’s coming out, so you know. But if it’s true, it’s obviously extremely serious and if there is any evidence that anyone affiliated with the Trump campaign communicated with the Russian government in the course of this campaign, what will you do?
Then-Sen. Jeff Sessions: Senator Franken, I’m not aware of any of those activities. I have been called a surrogate at a time or two in that campaign and I didn’t have — did not have communications with the Russians, and I’m unable to comment on it.
We now know the dossier turned out to not only be riddled with errors and falsehoods, but was also an operation of the Clinton campaign. But that was not known when Franken asked his questions about collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Despite Leahy and Franken’s “Russia! Russia! Russia!” questions, Sessions’ answers that he was not a Russian agent seemed to be believable to most of his peers, and he was confirmed on Feb. 8, 2017 as attorney general. But that’s when the promoters of the Russia conspiracy theory made a major push to force Sessions to recuse himself from overseeing any investigations involving Trump or Russia.
The DOJ Effort to Push Recusal
The big help in this push came in early March 2017 when the Washington Post’s Adam Entous, Ellen Nakashima, and Greg Miller received a leak from “Justice Department officials” that Sessions was basically a Russian agent. See, like many of his peers, he had met with Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak in Sessions’ role on the Armed Forces Committee. And then he had been in a room at a political event with Kislyak and a few hundred of their closest friends.
Check out how the Post put their big scoop from “Justice Department officials” who I’m sure have names that in no way rhyme with Comey, McCabe, or any of their demoted or reassigned compatriots:
Then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) spoke twice last year with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Justice Department officials said, encounters he did not disclose when asked about possible contacts between members of President Trump’s campaign and representatives of Moscow during Sessions’s confirmation hearing to become attorney general.
One of the meetings was a private conversation between Sessions and Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak that took place in September in the senator’s office, at the height of what U.S. intelligence officials say was a Russian cyber campaign to upend the U.S. presidential race.
The previously undisclosed discussions could fuel new congressional calls for the appointment of a special counsel to investigate Russia’s alleged role in the 2016 presidential election. As attorney general, Sessions oversees the Justice Department and the FBI, which have been leading investigations into Russian meddling and any links to Trump’s associates. He has so far resisted calls to recuse himself.
It’s almost funny to read this breathless reportage. It portrays the meeting of senators with ambassadors as anything but routine, quotes multiple Democratic elected officials as calling for a special counsel, quotes Republicans such as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) tut-tutting these meetings, quotes retired intelligence officials as lamenting the Russian operation to “cultivate” Sessions, and suggests that Sessions had mysteriously changed his views on Russia during the campaign.
Buried at the way-end of the story is the detail that the first nefarious meeting between Sessions and Kislyak wasn’t even a meeting at all.
Sessions attended a Heritage Foundation event in July on the sidelines of the Republican National Convention that was attended by about 50 ambassadors. When the event was over, a small group of ambassadors approached Sessions as he was leaving the podium, and Kislyak was among them, the Justice Department official said.
Oh. In this light, the March 2017 leak to the Washington Post from
Andrew McCabe “Justice Department officials” looks more like a set-up to force a recusal than a legitimate concern about Russian takeovers.
Comey Got In On the Action, Too
After he was fired by Trump for, among other things, playing games with the Russia investigation, Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee. That testimony was notable for his surprising admission that he had told Trump he was not under investigation three times, just as Trump said in his letter firing him.
In his written testimony, Comey also claimed that after a Feb. 14 meeting with the president, he immediately briefed “FBI senior leadership” but hid the information from Sessions on account of how leadership believed he “would likely recuse himself from involvement in Russia-related investigations.” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) asked him about this: “What was it about the attorney general’s own interactions with the Russians or his behavior with regard to the investigation that would have led the entire leadership of the FBI to make this decision?”
Comey says a variety of factors played a role, then added, “We also were aware of facts that I can’t discuss in an open setting, that would make his continued engagement in a Russia-related investigation problematic and so we were—we were convinced and in fact, I think we had already heard that the career people [at the Justice Department] were recommending that he recuse himself, that he was not going to be in contact with Russia related matters much longer.”
NBC News’ Ken Dilanian reported “Comey confirmed that he had been talking about a story that NBC News and other outlets had already reported — about classified intelligence suggesting an undisclosed meeting between Sessions and the Russian ambassador to the U.S. in April 2016 at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington. That’s according to two sources familiar with what Comey said.”
This leak of an explosive, shocking third meeting with Kislyak turned out to be — and you’ll want to sit down for this one — that both Kislyak and Sessions attended the same foreign policy address by candidate Trump and — again, please tell me you’re sitting down for this classified intelligence I’m about to share with you — they both attended the same short VIP reception just before the event for ambassadors and senators and other important figures. I’ll give you a few minutes to collect your thoughts about this.
NBC News’ Dilanian — known as Fusion Ken for his close ties to Democratic firm Fusion GPS, which was hired to create the Steele dossier — reports this reception for diplomats and other important figures in the manner to which we’ve been accustomed:
Five current and former U.S. officials said they are aware of classified intelligence suggesting there was some sort of private encounter between Trump and his aides and the Russian envoy.
That would be a huge problem for Sessions, who has already come under fire for failing to disclose two separate contacts with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
Oh the drama! I wonder who those five current and former U.S. officials are who leaked this nothing story and tried to make it into a dramatic tale.
Back to The Latest Leak
Note ABC News’ manner of breaking the news that McCabe was so completely out of control that he launched a criminal investigation into the attorney general. It includes a bit of a tell:
Nearly a year before Attorney General Jeff Sessions fired senior FBI official Andrew McCabe for what Sessions called a ‘lack of candor,’ McCabe oversaw a federal criminal investigation into whether Sessions lacked candor when testifying before Congress about contacts with Russian operatives, sources familiar with the matter told ABC News.
The second mention of “candor” is the tell that suggests Team McCabe leaked this to undermine Sessions and hint that his firing of McCabe was compromised. That suggestion is undermined by the later claim that Sessions didn’t even know McCabe had done this at the time of his firing, as well as the career staff recommendation of the firing.
McCabe didn’t just oversee the investigation into the attorney general, but authorized it after Sens. Leahy and Franken asked the bureau “to investigate ‘all contacts’ Sessions may have had with Russians, and ‘whether any laws were broken in the course of those contacts or in any subsequent discussion of whether they occurred.'”
Such a far-reaching investigation would be an unprecedented attack on Sessions, who had already recused himself from anything Russia-related. As Glenn Reynolds puts it, it makes sense as “an insurance policy.” Just as Comey kept publicly intimating a nefarious Russia collusion narrative at the same time he was privately admitting to Trump he was not under investigation, McCabe had a back-up plan to keep Sessions from finding out too much about FBI leadership’s problematic behavior.
McCabe’s decision to launch an investigation of Sessions happened just a few months after the Justice Department’s internal watchdog announced it was investigating the FBI’s handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s private email server. McCabe was a “key figure” in the Clinton email investigation. While the IG report has not been released, it has been widely understood to paint an extremely unflattering portrait of McCabe’s handling of the probe.
McCabe’s launch of a gratuitous and laughably silly probe of Sessions is notable in part because previous deputy directors of the FBI managed to not set up a criminal probe of Obama’s Attorney General Eric Holder even as he was held in contempt of Congress for his failure to turn over documents related to a failed federal firearms sting operation that allowed some 2,000 weapons to reach Mexican drug gangs, leading to the death of a border patrol agent and dozens of Mexican nationals.
Either Sessions Is a Russian Spy Or We Have a Politicization Problem At the FBI
If you subscribe to the first storyline of treasonous collusion with Russia, McCabe and Comey’s actions can be explained as them simply needing to protect the bureau from likely Russian agent Jeff Sessions.
If you do not accept the rather outlandish theory that Sessions is a Russian agent who was conspiring with Moscow by not once but twice being in the same reception room as the Russian ambassador, an alternate explanation is in order. The big threat to the DOJ and FBI in the early days of the Trump administration was an attorney general who looked less kindly on inappropriate use of a Clinton-campaign-orchestrated dossier, a campaign of coordinated (and criminal) selective leaks against Trump by senior intelligence officials, and political favoritism toward Hillary Clinton in her troubles.
Actions taken by senior FBI leadership against such an attorney general are evidence of a serious politicization problem at the FBI.