The Inside Story Of How America’s Intelligence Agencies Tried To Undo Trump’s Election

The Inside Story Of How America’s Intelligence Agencies Tried To Undo Trump’s Election

Journalist Lee Smith's new book, 'The Plot Against the President,' reads like a spy thriller, but it's really a warning about how Trump-era abuses by intelligence agencies threaten to undermine American self-government.
Krystina Skurk
By

Lee Smith’s new book, The Plot Against the President: The True Story of How Congressman Devin Nunes Uncovered the Biggest Political Scandal in U.S. History, lays out a compelling case of abuse against the United States’ major intelligence agencies. In great detail, he explains how the FBI and the Department of Justice not only abused their power in going after Donald Trump, his campaign, and later his administration, but how they sought to cover it up.

Unlike some of the other recent books on this topic, Smith’s epic has a hero. Smith makes a compelling case that California Rep. Devin Nunes and his steadfast team stood up to an army of Goliaths. This small team of committed truth-seekers took on the most powerful intelligence apparatus in the world, a hostile media, and a dishonest opposition party to hold them accountable for violating American citizens’ constitutional rights.

The Plot Against the President almost reads like a spy thriller. It’s hard to put down as it follows the Russia investigation and the ensuing investigation of the investigators – and it’s all told through Nunes’s eyes.

‘Crossfire Hurricane’

Nunes knew early on that the Russia-Trump collusion narrative was nonsense. As chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI), Nunes was in a unique position to push against the media and Democrats’ obsession with discrediting Trump and the 2016 election results. Nunes’ work to uncover abuse within the intelligence apparatus meant the HPSCI was getting back to its roots. The committee had been founded in the 1970s specifically to keep an out-of-control intelligence bureaucracy in line.

Smith’s account of what Nunes, his family, and his team went through to expose the covert operation to destroy Trump’s presidency is an emotional roller coaster. Nunes and his team suffered smear campaigns, violent threats, and even a vindictive ethics investigation as a result of their battle to uncover the truth.

Nunes knew he was getting close to the truth when Democrats spent millions in an attempt to unseat him during the midterm elections. When asked whether he ever thought of walking away from the investigation, Nunes replies, “Never. Not once. I knew the more times they came after me, the more they hit me, I knew that I was right over the target.”

Rumors about Trump and his campaign team’s interactions with Russia began circling early in the 2016 election. We know now that these rumors had no validity, but for three years this was anything but common knowledge. Even on the right, few stood by Trump. Only a handful of journalists remained skeptical.

The rumors were fueled by a now infamous report compiled by Fusion GPS, a research firm hired by Hillary Clinton’s campaign. Christopher Steele, a former British intelligence agent, compiled his infamous and discredited “dossier” accusing Trump and several of his campaign officials of colluding with Russia to change the results of the 2016 election. All of Steele’s information was second- or third-hand or in the public record. Nonetheless, the dossier was used to obtain a FISA (Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act) warrant on Carter Page, a Trump campaign foreign policy advisor.

The FBI team investigating Trump and his campaign called their investigation “Crossfire Hurricane.” FISA applications are only supposed to obtain verified information, as judges do not have an investigative arm to verify the facts themselves. Knowing that the dossier was not only unverified, but unverifiable, the Crossfire Hurricane team submitted it as evidence anyway.

They thought that since Hillary Clinton was going to win the election, they’d never be caught. Well, she didn’t and they were. And they were caught thanks to the work of Nunes and his team. They not only uncovered abuse of the FISA process, but rampant leaking, unmasking, and obstructionist behavior throughout intelligence agencies. It is their investigation that Smith unfolds in this book.

‘Objective Medusa’ Begins

After Nunes stepped down from heading the Russia investigation, he began to investigate intelligence abuse. One of Nunes’ first steps was to hire Kashyap Patel, a prosecutor in the Justice Department’s National Security Division, as his lead investigator. Patel is credited with being the first to recognize the extent of the corruption in the FBI and DOJ.

In an interview, Patel tells Smith that a significant part of the problem is that there was no accountability in the Obama Justice Department. Patel is the one who urged the Nunes team to go after documents first, instead of witnesses. He knew that documents that detailed the department’s own evidence were the key to unmasking DOJ abuse.

Patel started with the Steele dossier and the FISA warrant on Page. Patel explains that a FISA warrant is the biggest tool for counterintelligence investigations and the best way to get one is to pick an easy target, even if it’s not the ultimate target. Patel attempted to gather all the investigative documents surrounding Crossfire Hurricane. “I wanted to know what the government knew, when they knew it, and if there were any material omissions in the FISA application,” he said.

Nunes’s committee interviewed officials from the Obama administration and the intelligence communities. They asked each the same question, “Do you have any evidence of collusion, conspiracy, or coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia?” Patel said not a single person interviewed answered in the affirmative. Patel believed that top intelligence officials such as former FBI Director James Comey and former FBI Deputy Director Andy McCabe had tailored their investigation to reflect their personal or political agenda.

Patel remembers telling Nunes in reference to Crossfire Hurricane, “There are so many parts to this thing. There are so many snakes on one head. We need to cut off the head like Medusa.” Thus Objective Medusa, an investigation of the investigators, began.

Revealing FBI Abuse

Chapter 7, “The Insurance Policy,” recounts, how top FBI official McCabe, FBI lead investigator Peter Strzok, as well as FBI lawyer and Strzok mistress Lisa Page, ran the investigation into then presidential candidate Trump. Due to the work of Objective Medusa and Rep. Paul Ryan’s congressional taskforce, many of Strzok and Pages’ texts to one another were made public.

These texts paint a picture of two people with an outsized view of their importance and a vitriolic hatred of Trump and those who support him. “The intermingling of their self-love bred contempt for others,” Smith writes, pointing to messages such as this one that Strzok sent to Page: “Just went to a southern Virginia Walmart, I could smell the Trump support.”

Bruce Ohr, the fourth highest-ranking official at the Department of Justice, is also introduced. His wife Nellie Ohr worked for Fusion GPS on Trump opposition research for 11 months. Patel discovered that Bruce Ohr passed information about Trump and Russia from Fusion GPS head Glenn Simpson, Steele, and his wife to the FBI. When the FBI stopped working with Steele after it was uncovered he was leaking to the press, Bruce Ohr became his back channel to the FBI.

Steele told Ohr a month before the FBI obtained the FISA warrant on Carter Page that he was desperate to keep Trump from getting elected. Ohr claims he told this to the FBI. This means that the FBI knew that their primary source for an application to spy on an American citizen was heavily biased, yet they failed to report this fact to the FISA court.

Nunes claims that the FBI spied on Carter Page to gain access to the Trump campaign even though they knew he was innocent. Smith explains that the FBI’s hope was to find damning information that would defend Clinton against a possible October surprise, such as the release of the missing emails from her illegal server.

Smith further points out that the FBI also likely wanted to use the information they found offensively as an October Surprise to deploy against Trump. In the end, they found nothing. Clinton’s emails never surfaced and they came across nothing that would damn Trump. Carter Page was spied on for a year, and all of his communications before, during, and after his time on the Trump campaign were combed through. Not a single charge was filed against him.

After Trump won the 2016 presidential election, Lisa Page texted Strzok that she’d purchased “All the President’s Men,” Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s famous book about the fall of Richard Nixon. “Figure I needed to brush up on Watergate,” she wrote. Smith points out that Strzok and Page sought to re-enact Watergate and had cast themselves as Deep Throat. “More than forty years later, the Crossfire Hurricane team was poised to reenact the Watergate legend. They were going to take down a president,” Smith writes.

Plus CIA Abuse

John Brennan, Obama’s director of the CIA, participated in spreading the Trump-Russia collusion narrative. In fact, Brennan took credit for getting the FBI probe off the ground. In August 2016, Brennan briefed then-Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid on information regarding contact between Russia and Trump campaign officials, information that likely came from Steele’s dossier. Two days later, Reid wrote a letter to Comey detailing his concern about the Trump campaign’s potential collusion with Russia.

Brennan used Reid’s letter to motivate Comey to open an investigation into the Trump campaign.
According to Smith, the Intelligence Community Assessment (ICA) was one of the first signs of a coup against the incoming president. President Obama ordered the report from Brennan on December 6 and asked for it to be finished by January 20. The report was rushed so Obama could maintain control of the narrative.

Brennan’s team selectively leaked their findings to the press. These leaks were engineered to undermine Trump’s presidency before it even began. Smith argues that the purpose of the ICA was to claim that Trump’s election victory was illegitimate and that Russia, not the American people, had chosen our 45th president. Nunes said he believes the report politicized intelligence. So much so, Smith calls the ICA report “Obama’s dossier.”

Obama Officials Abuse

HPSCI also discovered that Obama officials had been “unmasking” American citizens without cause and then leaking their names to the press. Unmasking takes place after an American is inadvertently recorded when speaking with a foreigner who is under surveillance. The name of the American is usually concealed in documents and reports unless there is a good national security reason for unmasking it. Susan Rice, Obama’s national security advisor, admitted to unmasking Trump transition team members in 2016.

In a press conference on March 22, 2017, Nunes announced that none of the spying or unmasking on the Trump transition team had anything to do with Russia. He claimed Obama officials had no legitimate reason for unmasking the names of Jared Kushner, Steve Bannon, or Michael Flynn. This was a “criminal abuse of power,” argues Smith, and “violated the privacy rights of U.S. Citizens.”

Unmasking wasn’t the only problem the Trump administration experienced during its first days in office. Several of President Trump’s conversations with world leaders had been leaked to the press. Smith writes, “That was the essence of the political campaign targeting the Trump White House: Obama officials leaked classified intelligence to political operatives with bylines to sabotage Trump.”

Nunes recognized that discovering and drawing attention to these unmaskings was deadly to the opposition. It was after his March 22 press conference that Nunes began experiencing a barrage of hit pieces and erroneous stories about himself. The operation was meant to keep Nunes from digging deeper into anti-Trump operations, but Nunes didn’t stop.

Objective Medusa’s Quest

The FBI and DOJ actively attempted to delay and obstruct Objective Medusa’s investigation. For example, the FBI claimed their investigation, Crossfire Hurricane, did not begin until July 31, 2016, when in reality the FBI started investigating much earlier. According to The Plot Against The President, the DOJ and FBI officials purposefully misled everyone about the timeline of their investigation so they would not be asked for certain documentation. They use the July 31 date as a firewall to protect themselves from being held accountable for spying on American citizens without evidence, Smith explains.

“We were continually finding things that shouldn’t have been classified, but were,” Nunes said. He argues that the Crossfire Hurricane team had buried what they’d done under the guise of a classified counterintelligence investigation. The intelligence agencies wrote the rules and knew how to get around them. A big part of their investigation involved getting documents declassified.

The Objective Medusa Team’s first big win took place in October 2017 after a court granted them access to Fusion GPS’s bank records. There confirmed what had long been suspected: The Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party had paid for the Steele dossier. The FBI also hid this pertinant fact from the FISA court, as well as from congressional leaders.

Tensions between Objective Medusa and the DOJ grew as Nunes’ team sought more of the underlying documents from the Crossfire Hurricane investigation. Although Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein came in under Trump, he was more loyal to the institution. He and Patel clashed. Rosenstein threatened Patel and his team with an investigation and subpoenas.

Nunes’ response was to produce a memo that laid out what he and his team had discovered about abuses within the FBI and DOJ and their use of the FISA process to spy on a presidential campaign.

The memo, written primarily by Nunes’ team, stated that neither the initial FISA application for a warrant nor the renewal applications for the warrant disclosed the role of the Democratic Party and the Clinton campaign in producing the Steele dossier. The application also didn’t disclose Steele’s bias against Trump, the fact that Bruce Ohr’s wife worked for Fusion GPS, or that Steele was the source of a news article the FBI presented as independent corroboration for information in his Steele’s own report. The Nunes memo demonstrated that the FBI had used powerful tools, meant to keep Americans safe, to launch a political operation against a political candidate, Smith writes.

Even before the Nunes memo came out, the media blasted it and Nunes’ team, claiming it was a threat to national security. Comey, Clapper, and Brennan all publicly claimed that the memo would be bad for national security. However, the real reason they didn’t want the Nunes memo to come out is because they knew how much the information would embarrass their respective institutions.

Nunes and his family endured heavy backlash. Nunes’ wife, an elementary school teacher, was threatened. She and her children had to be put under 24-hour protection. Nunes believes the attacks were too well organized and sophisticated to be from the typical random, unhinged individuals. “There was a political structure built to bring tremendous pressure on me and my family to stop me from the investigation,” Nunes said.

Tensions only grew when in April 2018 Nunes’ team asked the FBI and DOJ how many informants had been used against the Trump campaign. According to an Objective Medusa team member, both departments went nuts and leaked to the press that Nunes and his team were going to get people killed. The name the agencies were trying to hide was an American professor at Cambridge, Stefan Halper.

Halper played a role in smearing Trump National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and in getting Carter Page invited to give a speech in Russia. He also attempted to elicit information about Trump and Russia from both Page and George Papadopoulos. In short, Halper had his hands in almost every aspect of the Russia investigation and his role demonstrates how far the FBI went in trying to find something, anything, on Trump.

In summer 2018, Nunes asked the White House to declassify documents pertaining to the Crossfire Hurricane investigation, including the last Carter Page FISA warrant renewal, Bruce Ohr’s 302s — reports the FBI uses to summarize interviews — as well as the exculpatory information withheld from the FISA court.

Nunes also sent eight criminal referrals to the new attorney general. Nunes hopes these referrals will hold people and institutions accountable for crimes like lying to Congress, misleading Congress, leaking classified information, conspiracy to lie to a FISA court, and the manipulation of intelligence.

Russiagate was a collective lie that divided the country, ruined American institutions, and eroded adherence to our founding principles, writes Smith. Nunes and his team sacrificed a tremendous amount of time and energy on their quest to expose those who used their power and positions as political weapons.

Smith’s book is a public service. It reminds us that the United States is a nation of laws, that might does not make right, and that it is our responsibility as citizens to be ever vigilant in defending our freedoms. The book ends with Patel announcing that although they may not be legally allowed to show it yet because much of their discoveries are still classified, the Objective Medusa team “cut off the head.”

The Plot Against the President is a good book to read in preparation for Michael Horowitz’s much anticipated inspector general’s report that will more than likely provide even more evidence for how the FBI and DOJ abused their power by opening a counterintelligence investigation on a presidential candidate. Smith’s book provides the context Americans need to understand the report, and should motivate them to insist that their representatives hold intelligence officials accountable.

Krystina Skurk is a research assistant at Hillsdale College in D.C. She received a Master's degree in politics from the Van Andel School of Statesmanship at Hillsdale College. She is a former fellow of the John Jay Institute, a graduate of Regent University, and a former teacher at Archway Cicero, a Great Hearts charter school.

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