James Clapper knows nothing about the FBI investigation into Donald Trump and his associates. You read it right. Not a thing.
He doesn’t know what started the investigation; what role the Christopher Steele dossier played in the investigation; whether (or which) Trump associates were electronically surveilled during the Trump investigation; if or when Trump himself is (or was ever) under investigation; what justification the FBI used to apply for and obtain a Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) warrant on Carter Page; or whether anything of substance in the Steele dossier has ever been corroborated.
Nothing. In this area, the man is clueless.
That is not to say the man wasn’t doing his job. By most accounts, Clapper was a conscientious, hands-on manager with a solid grasp of the myriad intelligence activities carried out under his purview. It’s just that this particular investigation apparently wasn’t carried out under his purview.
How do we know this? Clapper himself told us as much at a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing with former acting Attorney General Sally Yates on May 8, 2017:
During my tenure as DNI, it was my practice to defer to the FBI director, both Director Mueller and then subsequently Director Comey, on whether, when and to what extent they would inform me about such investigations. This stems from the unique position of the FBI, which straddles both intelligence and law enforcement. And as a consequence, I was not aware of the counterintelligence investigation Director Comey first referred to during his testimony before the House Permanent Select Committee for Intelligence on the 20th of March, and that comports with my public statements.
He expanded on his testimony during an interview with Jake Tapper on CNN’s “State of the Union” on May 14. They had this exchange.
‘So you did not even know that there was an FBI investigation until Comey testified (on March 20)?’ Tapper asked.
‘I did not know. That’s right,’ Clapper replied. ‘And that was my first official knowledge of such an investigation, particularly as it addressed potential political collusion.
‘So, the bottom line is, I don’t know if there was collusion, political collusion, and I don’t know of any evidence to it, so I can’t refute it and I can’t confirm it.’
I Am Happy To Keep Talking About How I Know Nothing
By the second week of May 2017, it was clear that Clapper had nothing of value to offer regarding the FBI collusion investigation, yet he has since gamely participated in dozens of televised interviews on the subject. A number of those interviews were conducted by the very host (Tapper) to which he initially delivered the sobering news.
During these appearances, Clapper readily expounds on any number of Trump- and intelligence-related topics, many of which consist of questions regarding his opinion of this or that particular Trump tweet. Clapper is consistent in his contempt for Trump’s tweeting habits, particularly when POTUS’s ire is directed at the FBI and intelligence community, yet he becomes a bit cagey when asked, inevitably, to clarify or verify a disputed question about the FBI investigation.
As we’ve established, he has good reason to be cagey. He has no idea what is or was going on inside that investigation. But, for reasons known only to Clapper, he responds to this line of questioning as if he has knowledge of information he decidedly, and admittedly, does not. The result is a stilted, often confusing combination of stock answers, false affirmations of leading questions, and carefully crafted responses suggesting—but not quite asserting—a level of information to which he was not privy.
If asked about collusion between Trump and Russia, Clapper will tell us he “had no knowledge” or “saw no evidence” of any such collusion by the time he left the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in January 2017. What he won’t tell us, in response to that or a similar question, is the simple truth: “I wasn’t informed of the Trump investigation until after I left government, so I wouldn’t have had access to any of that information, whether or not it existed.”
How Clapper Responds When Asked About the Dossier
If asked about the Steele dossier, Clapper’s responses follow a familiar pattern that, again, doesn’t include the whole truth. Here’s his standard treatment of the dossier question, when interviewed by Brian Ross for ABC News in March 2017:
Clapper: I had no way of validating – at the time, no way of corroborating the information in it. Some of the second or third order sources that were used in that, we could not corroborate. And I told him that.
Ross: Are there parts of that dossier that have been corroborated?
Clapper: There were some. Particularly pertaining to the rabid animus, I guess I’d call it, that Putin had for the Clintons, both President Clinton and Secretary Clinton. And that was born out in the main body of the report, but we felt, because of the unknowns pertaining to the sources of this report, that we did not include it in the main body of the report that we briefed him.
Ross: But, just so I’m clear, there are some parts of that dossier that have been corroborated?
Clapper: The, as I said, the example I cite is the animus for the Clintons, and that we saw from other sources.
Ross: Are there other parts that have NOT been corroborated?
Clapper: That’s all I’m going to comment on the dossier.
Clapper refuses to comment further on the dossier because his initial response to Ross represents the sum total of Clapper’s knowledge of the Steele dossier’s veracity. He’s got nothing left to say, because he knows nothing more about it.
Yet he persists. His message, which he reliably repeats when cable news hosts call on him to refute the latest attack by Trump or Republicans, is: “I was the DNI when this dossier was acquired by the FBI. I know what’s in it. To say that nothing in the report has been verified is untrue. ‘There were some’ parts of it that have been corroborated.”
All of this is technically true, yet wildly misleading. By his own account, Clapper became aware of the dossier “around the second week of December,” when President Obama asked him to produce an Intelligence Community Assessment of Russian meddling in the election. The ICA was published on January 6, and Clapper left office two weeks later.
By his own account, including remarks delivered as recently as Tuesday night on CNN, the intelligence community (IC) was unable to validate what works out to about 99 percent of the information in the Steele dossier before completing the ICA. Consequently, according to Clapper, none of this uncorroborated information was included in the assessment.
Two Lines Are All He’s Got, But He Plays Them Incessantly
Also, by his own account, the singular dossier data point verified by the IC and included in the report was the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin had an animus for Bill and Hillary Clinton and wanted Trump to win. That data point comprises a grand total of two lines in the 35-page dossier. On page 7, you will find this in the summary bullets: “PUTIN motivated by fear and hatred of Hillary CLINTON.”
In the body of the report, also on page 7, is the second and final reference to Putin’s “animus”: “The two sides shared a mutual interest in defeating Democratic presidential candidate Hillary CLINTON, whom President PUTIN both hated and feared.”
That’s it. When Clapper sits across from the Tappers, Rosses, and Sciuttos of the world, gazes awkwardly into the distance, and repeats his assurance that “there were some” parts of the dossier verified by January 2017, thereby providing an authoritative rebuttal to Trump or anyone else questioning its validity, he is speaking exclusively of those two lines.
Put aside for the moment the fact that those two lines could’ve been written by millions of people throughout the world without the benefit of inside collaborative sources “close to the Kremlin,” who could be just as confident of this assessment as Steele was of his sources’.
Consider the journalism. Nothing written herein is exaggerated or invented of whole cloth. Clapper’s words are transcribed from interviews conducted by journalists. Clapper’s answer is consistent and familiar to anyone watching, including and especially journalists. Yet not only do the journalists to whom he delivers this information let it ride without challenge or follow-up, they actually use it as a direct, definitive affirmation that the FBI has indeed validated some portions of the Steele dossier. Again, technically true, but wildly misleading.
Here’s What’s News In All of This
There is news here: James Clapper knows nothing about the origin or status of the FBI investigation into collusion with Russia. What he does know is that the only information contained in the Steele dossier that the FBI corroborated by mid-January 2017 was a two-sentence declaration that Putin hated Hillary and wanted Trump to win. That’s news.
The FBI received the first part of the dossier in July, asked for and received all additional information Steele had in August, applied for and were granted a FISA warrant on Page in September, flew out to meet with Steele in London in October, completed and published the ICA in December/January, and first questioned George Papadopoulos on his Russian connections in January.
According to the director of national intelligence in office during this time, during the collaborative compilation of intelligence and analysis undertaken to produce the ICA in January, the FBI made it clear to him that they were as yet unable to verify “second- and third-order sourcing” of any information in the Steele dossier except for the two lines describing Putin’s hatred for Clinton, and thus included none of that information in the ICA.
To anyone who’s actually listening to what Clapper is saying, that’s news. Reporters spend weeks and months digging through sources and a variety of data streams to understand the facts about the use and validity of the Steele dossier. Clapper walks into their studio, adjusts his microphone, gazes off into the distance, and tells them everything they want to know. The problem is that what he actually knows is of little use to an interviewer looking only for validation of information outside Clapper’s purview.
So what do these journalists ask him about? Well, they ask him to help refute any doubt about the origin and conduct of the FBI investigation, and to confirm the validity of the Steele dossier.
Let’s Dissect a Recent James Clapper Appearance on CNN
If you watch closely, Clapper’s discomfort when responding to these questions is palpable. He knows what they want, and he wants to give it to them, but he also knows he had no access to the information related in the report. He could solve this internal ethical struggle by simply responding, “I don’t know. I wasn’t privy to any of that information.” But he doesn’t.
Consider this exchange between Clapper and CNN’s Jim Sciutto and Pamela Brown, which occurred Tuesday night during CNN’s special report, “Trump: One Year Later.”
After reading a paragraph from an op-ed by Fusion GPS founders Glenn Simpson and Peter Fritsch claiming the FBI had a source inside the Trump camp, Sciutto asked Clapper if that was true.
Clapper: “That’s the first heard from me. I was not aware of that when I left the movie about a year ago. And of course our issue with the dossier was we could not, in the time we had, about a month, to do the ICA that we finished on the sixth of January, did not have time to verify or validate the second and third order sources that were used to compile the 17 documents in the dossier. That’s not to say they weren’t valid, it’s just that we couldn’t do that, so, as a consequence we did not include the dossier as an organic part of the ICA that we rendered about Russian interference, in which we had very high confidence. Even then, there were some things in the dossier that were corroborated in our report, notably the intense animus that President Putin has personally for Hillary Clinton, and their determination that they wanted Trump to win the election. So there are things in those 17 documents that were corroborated, separately, with high confidence, in the ICA. But not all of it.”
Note the determination to affirm here—“there are things” that were corroborated “with high confidence,” but “not all of it.” Remember, the “things” that were corroborated relate to two sentences in the 35-page dossier revealing Putin’s hatred for Clinton and his desire for Trump to win.
Brown seemed to notice the lack of substance in his response, and asked him to clarify.
Brown: “So was it corroborated before or after – in other words, did you already have some of this information, then you received the dossier and you thought, ‘well, this corroborates the dossier we already have, or..’”
Clapper: “Exactly. That’s, ma’am, that’s kind of the sequence. I personally didn’t learn about the dossier – I’m, you know, late to this movie – until about the second week of December, the first I even knew about. It was around and had been before that.”
Sciutto then pivoted from a line of questioning with obviously dwindling returns, and asks Clapper to comment on President Trump and his “most ardent supporters” who describe it as the “now-debunked dossier.” Sciutto: “For our viewers here who might not be following the Russia investigation day to day, is that a true statement.”
Clapper: “No, it’s not. Some has been corroborated and some of it has not been. And that’s kind of where things left when I left the government on the 20th of January.”
In an effort to rebut President Trump’s tweet calling the “garbage” Steele dossier the basis for the FBI investigation, Sciutto then told Clapper the Steele dossier wasn’t the basis for the FBI investigation.
He didn’t ask him. He told him, and awaited the affirmation. At this point we all know what Clapper’s honest answer to this question should be: “I have no idea.” Yet he provides the affirmation, albeit half-heartedly, that Sciutto seeks.
Clapper: “No, there are other factors that I think were the stimulus for the investigation, and the revelation about George Papadopoulos, which was not a name on my radar scope when I left, may, I think, also, was another factor. But I don’t think it was one thing that individually prompted the investigation.”
One can think of any number of logical follow-up questions about these “other factors,” such as, “What ‘other factors’ are you aware of that prompted the investigation?” Not only did Sciutto not ask the follow-up, but he turned to Brown and restated Clapper’s vague response as a ringing endorsement of his own statement in opposition to President Trump’s characterization of the prominent role the dossier played in the initiating the investigation.
Sciutto (to Brown): “And that’s a claim that’s gotten a life of it’s own, right? It’s repeated by the president, it’s repeated by his supporters as fact when, in fact, we’re hearing from the man who lead the intelligence agencies who says it’s not a fact.”
The “man who lead the intelligence agencies,” with no knowledge of what initiated the FBI investigation, said he doesn’t think it was one thing that initiated the FBI investigation. For Sciutto, that’ll do just fine. Brown then performed a blatant act of journalism: she asked a follow-up question.
Brown: “I know you may not be able to answer this, but I’m gonna ask anyway – you mentioned that part of what had been corroborated already was this personal animus toward Hillary Clinton. Is there anything you can shed light on in terms of what else had been corroborated? If you can’t, I understand, but I’ve got to ask.”
At this point, Clapper’s stuck, and it shows.
Clapper: “Well, the only two specific examples that come readily to mind that I recall was that animus and the determination of clearly favoring, as a consequence, favoring Trump to win the presidency.”
Brown’s response: “Hmm,” followed by an awkward silence. Sciutto closed by thanking Clapper for the “fascinating interview.”
It was, indeed, a fascinating interview. It’s fascinating that Clapper continues to put himself in front of reporters as an authoritative source of information regarding an investigation he knows nothing about. It’s fascinating that reporters continue to ask Clapper to refute or affirm claims that have arisen from an investigation they know he knows nothing about.
And it’s fascinating that each and every time the former DNI is asked to offer support for the validity of the Steele dossier, his response—that only two sentences had been corroborated by January 2017—isn’t the “news” that comes out of those interviews. The “news” is that “James Clapper confirmed that parts of the dossier had been verified.” The real news is hiding in plain sight.