In a stunning and detailed interview conducted September 17 by U.S. attorney Jeff Jensen, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) case agent for the original investigation of former White House National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and who later worked on Robert Mueller’s Special Counsel blew the whistle on myriad problems that plagued those investigations from the very beginning.
FBI Special Agent William Barnett told Department of Justice (DOJ) investigators that the handling of the probes troubled him so much that he threatened to quit working on it in one case, and threatened to go to the Inspector General in another. According to the summary of Barnett’s interview, he said there was never any basis for the bizarre “collusion” theory the agency and the special counsel relentlessly pursued, to the point that agents made jokes about how they could take any piece of information and claim it was evidence of collusion. He said the Special Counsel Office (SCO) pursued Flynn simply as a means to “get Trump” and viewed FBI investigators as a “speed bump” slowing down the work of the attorneys leading the inquisition.
The broader Trump investigation was “opaque,” the case theory was “supposition on supposition,” the Flynn probe in particular was “unclear and disorganized,” and its predicate was “not great,” Barnett told investigators. According to the interview notes, he felt there was “little detail concerning specific evidence of criminal events.”
When Barnett was first placed on the case in 2016, he said he assumed he’d have a better understanding of why the investigation into the Trump campaign was launched as he read through the evidence. But “after being involved in the investigation for six weeks, Barnett was still unsure of the basis of the investigation concerning Russia and the Trump Campaign working together, without a specific criminal allegation.” Much was made over the Republican National Convention platform amending a proposed change in support of “lethal assistance” to Ukraine to “appropriate assistance.” While some at the FBI attempted to claim this was a sign of collusion with Russia, he characterized the theory as “groping.”
After moving in 2016 to close the Flynn investigation for complete lack of any evidence of criminal wrongdoing, Barnett was instructed in early 2017 to keep it open and investigate Flynn for a Logan Act violation. The FBI didn’t even have a code for the Logan Act, a never-used, centuries-old law prohibiting private citizens from corresponding with foreign governments. Flynn was not a private citizen, but the incoming National Security Advisor for President Trump when he made phone calls with Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, so even if the law were deemed constitutional, it would not have applied to Flynn. Barnett had to research the Logan Act, as he was unfamiliar with it, but “did not see the Logan Act as a serious stand-alone charge.”
When Barnett pushed for a closing interview with Flynn in 2016, as part of the normal procedure for closing cases that were going nowhere, he was rebuffed. But when the FBI later interviewed Flynn, falsely conveying to Flynn that he was not a target of an investigation and not in danger of walking into a perjury trap, Barnett was “cut out” of the January 24, 2017, ambush interview of Flynn, and was not informed of its existence until it had already been conducted. “Typically a line agent/case agent would do the interview with a senior FBI official present in cases concerning high ranking political officials,” the summary of Barnett’s interview noted. While Barnett at first thought the unusual move was part of an effort to close the investigation, he later realized otherwise.
It was not the only time the case agent was cut out of the unusual activity going on in the probe to target Flynn. “[N]either Barnett nor any other line agents were invited to attend” meetings about the Flynn investigation, which was changed to being conducted from the “‘top down,’ meaning direction concerning the investigation was coming from senior officials,” Barnett said. He noted that former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe was personally directing the Flynn investigation. McCabe was later fired for repeatedly lying under oath about his leaks to the media. McCabe was referred for criminal investigation by the department’s Inspector General Michael Horowitz.
“Barnett was willing to follow instructions being given by the Deputy Director as long as it was not a violation of law,” the summary of Barnett’s interview stated.
During the interview, Barnett also revealed how the FBI used high-level criminal leaks to advance the agency’s investigation into Trump-related targets. Texts released yesterday showed FBI employees sarcastically pretending to care about the criminal leak of phone calls between Flynn and Kislyak to David Ignatius of the Washington Post and a reporter at the Wall Street Journal. The employees surmised that the leaks came from high-level officials at the White House.
“The FBI was reacting to articles being reported in the news, most notably an article written by Ignatius concerning [REDACTED] involving Flynn to a Russian Ambassador,” Barnett told investigators, saying “the investigative tempo increased” following the article.
By February 2017, Barnett told his unit chief that he wanted to be removed from the case. According to the document detailing his interview, Barnett told investigators the Flynn investigation “was problematic and could result in an IG investigation.”
Barnett relayed how uncomfortable he was with aspects of the case but said that its oversight by FBI attorneys and top FBI officials led him to assume at the time that the investigation was not illegal. “While Barnett questioned the investigative theory, he did not think at the time the investigation was illegal, particularly due to the oversight by attorneys (i.e., CLINESMITH) and the direction being given by top FBI officials,” the interview summary noted. Kevin Clinesmith, an attorney who assured Barnett that the case was being properly handled, has since pleaded guilty to fabricating evidence to support a spy warrant against Carter Page, a separate target in the FBI’s anti-Trump probes.
An analyst who was “very skeptical of the Flynn collusion investigation” was removed from the Flynn investigation, Barnett said. Referring to the factual and legal basis for the ongoing Flynn investigation, Barnett added that he “also thought it was a ‘dumb theory’ that did not make sense,” according to the report of his interview.
The Flynn investigation was folded into the Special Counsel probe when it was launched in May of 2017. Upon its formation, Barnett informed the Special Counsel’s team, including attorney Jeannie Rhee, that there was “no evidence of a crime” committed by Flynn. Rhee, a former outside counsel representing the Clinton Foundation as well as former Obama national security official Ben Rhodes, had been picked by Robert Mueller to be part of the investigation into Donald Trump. When Barnett attempted to brief Rhee on a separate investigative matter, she stopped him and demanded that he “drill down” on the fees Flynn was paid for giving a public speech in Russia. When he explained those fees, she dismissed his assessment. “Barnett thought Rhee was obsessed with Flynn and Russia and she had an agenda,” the summary of Barnett’s interview stated. “Rhee told Barnett she looked forward to working together. Barnett told Rhee they would not be working together.”
Following the briefing of the Special Counsel team, Barnett once again sought to avoid any participation in the anti-Flynn probe. It was Peter Strzok, the fired former FBI counterintelligence official, who urged Barnett to move over to the Special Counsel’s operation. Barnett said he “did not wish to pursue the collusion investigation as it was ‘not there'” but decided to work at the Special Counsel office in the hope his perspective would keep them from “group think.”
Rather than allowing Special Counsel agents to build cases from the bottom up by following leads and evidence, investigative steps were ordered from the top-down, according to Barnett. He characterized the situation as upside down, with attorneys drafting search warrants and asking agents to do little more than sign off on the attorneys’ demands. Barnett repeatedly said there was a “get TRUMP” attitude by officials running the Special Counsel probe.
Barnett relayed how investigators interpreted a Trump request to “get to the bottom” of something as an attempt to obstruct an investigation and “cover it up.” Barnett had to point out that Trump’s literal words contradicted that theory. Special Counsel leaders were convinced that Trump fired disgraced former FBI Director James Comey in order to obstruct investigations of him. Barnett pointed out it was possible that Trump simply didn’t like Comey and wanted him replaced.
The Special Counsel’s leadership was so certain that Trump had directed Flynn to call Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the U.S., that they assumed all testimony to the contrary was false. Special Counsel attorneys were frustrated that K.T. McFarland, the incoming deputy National Security Advisor, didn’t support their theory. “Mueller described McFarland as the ‘key to everything’ because McFarland was the link between Trump, who was at Mar-a-Lago with McFarland, and Flynn, who was in the Dominican Republic on vacation, when [REDACTED] were made,” the report of Barnett’s interview says. Because of Barnett’s contrary views, members of Mueller’s team even tried to prevent him from participating in interviews with McFarland, leading Barnett to threaten to go to the Inspector General. Barnett said he believed the Special Counsel was “trying to get McFarland to change her story to fit the Trump collusion theory.”
During a proffer interview with McFarland, the special counsel team asked no follow-up or clarifying questions, which “perplexed” Barnett. He began asking direct questions, trying to “cut to the chase” and get facts directly from the subject of the interview. He asked if she knew things for a fact or if she was merely speculating. He asked if she passed information from Trump to Flynn. These direct questions and their clear answers that undercut their theory of the case led Special Counsel Attorney Andrew Goldstein to call a time-out and caution Barnett against asking them.
“If you keep asking these questions, we will be here all day,” Goldstein reportedly told Barnett.
When Flynn, under pressure from the Special Counsel, answered a question that could have been interpreted as saying Trump was aware of his calls with Kislyak, Barnett drilled down and got a clear answer to the contrary.
“There was always someone at SCO who claimed to have a lead on information that would prove the collusion only to have the information be a dead end,” Barnett told investigators about the “numerous attempts” that were made to obtain evidence against Trump. The efforts always ended “with no such evidence being obtained,” Barnett said. He said the assumptions about such direction were just “astro projection,” and the “ground just kept being retreaded.” At one point, for example, Andrew Weissman reportedly got excited about “a meeting on a yacht near Greece that was going to be proof of collusion, ‘quid pro quo,'” according to the report. Like the other claims, it went nowhere.
Barnett painted a picture of a Special Counsel that was run the opposite of the way a typical FBI investigation would be. “Typically investigators push for legal process and have to explain the need for the request to the attorneys. Barnett said the SCO attorneys were pushing for legal process and just wanted investigators to sign affidavits they prepared,” he said, according to the report. He said every request was “green-lighted” and that seasoned FBI agents were viewed as a “speed bump” to the attorneys leading the investigations.
The situation was so extreme that Barnett and others joked about how it was like a game, which they referred to as Collusion Clue. “In the hypothetical game, investigators are able to choose any character conducting any activity, in any location, and pair this individual with another character and interpret it as evidence of collusion,” Barnett said, according to the report of his interview.
Barnett also referenced recent revelations that SCO members regularly wiped their phones and electronic devices to prevent examinations of their communications. According to records released earlier this month, more than a dozen top members of Mueller’s team wiped their phones by entering the wrong password or other means. Barnett told investigators that he did not wipe his phone, although he did recall hearing other members of Mueller’s team joking about wiping their phones.
“Barnett believed the prosecution of Flynn by SCO was used as a means to ‘get TRUMP,'” the report of his interview concluded.
The interview was conducted as part of a larger probe into the sprawling investigation into President Donald Trump and his affiliates.