Hillary Clinton’s campaign lawyer Michael Sussmann is currently on trial for lying to the FBI about his role in pushing data pertaining to alleged communications between Trump and the Russian Alfa Bank. According to Special Counsel John Durham, Sussmann lied when he brought that data to the FBI’s General Counsel James Baker as part of the Clinton campaign’s efforts to trigger an FBI investigation of her opponent, Donald Trump. Specifically, Sussmann allegedly wrote Baker a text message claiming he was not representing anyone in providing the information when, in fact, he was representing the Clinton campaign.
In a surprising move, Sussmann’s defense team last week disclosed three sets of handwritten Department of Justice (DOJ) notes of a March 6, 2017 meeting between high-ranking DOJ and FBI officials. Durham gave the notes written by DOJ officials Tashina Gauhar, Mary McCord, and Scott Schools to Sussmann’s team as part of Durham’s discovery obligations.
While the notes contain a one-line hearsay suggestion that may cast doubt on Sussmann’s earlier claim that he was not representing anyone, their broader significance lies in what they reveal about the FBI’s strategy in the months leading up to the appointment of Special Counsel Robert Mueller in May 2017.
In fact, the notes are the very first documents to have been released to the public that show what the FBI was telling the DOJ about the predication and status of the FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane investigation only two weeks before FBI Director James Comey’s shock announcement to the House Intelligence Committee on March 20, 2017, that the Trump campaign was being investigated by the FBI for ties to the Kremlin. It was Comey’s announcement that ultimately led to the appointment of Mueller.
The DOJ had a legal responsibility to supervise the FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane investigation, which, as a “sensitive matter,” placed special oversight and due diligence obligations on the DOJ and additional reporting and due diligence obligations on the FBI. The March 6 meeting was a key milestone in those due diligence obligations.
The FBI was represented at the meeting by three of its top officials: Deputy Director Andy McCabe, Counterintelligence Executive Assistant Director Bill Priestap, and Counterintelligence Deputy Assistant Director Peter Strzok. The DOJ was also represented by top-level officials, led by Acting Attorney General Dana Boente. Boente was taking the place of Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who had recused himself only four days previously.
The notes reveal a pattern of repeated lies and omissions by FBI leadership to DOJ officials that concealed the dramatic deterioration of the predicate for the Crossfire Hurricane investigation. As the predication deteriorated, so too was the purported justification for Comey’s public reveal of the Crossfire Hurricane investigation.
The significance of the FBI’s lies was accentuated this week at Sussmann’s trial when Scott Hellman, an FBI cyber analyst, testified that he knew right away in September 2016 that Sussmann’s data did not suggest any covert communications between Trump and Russia. Hellman added that he wondered if the person who put together the data was suffering from a mental disability.
Hellman’s testimony is the clearest evidence yet that the FBI knew from the start that one of the two major components of the Trump Russia collusion narrative – the Alfa Bank data – was false. As the March 6 notes show, they concealed this fact from their DOJ superiors.
The other major component of the investigation was the Steele dossier. The FBI knew from a January 2017 interview of Igor Danchenko, Christopher Steele’s “Primary Sub-Source” through whom all the allegations in the Steele dossier were originated or channeled, that the dossier too was false.
Danchenko’s most shocking revelation to the FBI was that he had never met Sergei Millian, the attributed source for the Steele dossier’s most inflammatory claims, including the allegation that there was a “well-developed conspiracy of cooperation” between Trump and the Kremlin, that Russia passed hacked Democratic National Committee emails to WikiLeaks, as well as the infamous Moscow pee tape story.
Danchenko, although a Russian national, was not “Russian-based,” as the FBI was claiming, but had lived and worked in Washington, D.C. for more than a decade, including at the Brookings Institute. Fiona Hill, a Brookings Institute stalwart, was a key supporter of Danchenko’s and had even introduced him to Steele in 2011. In 2016, Hill introduced Danchenko to former Hillary Clinton aide Charles Dolan. Danchenko would later use Dolan as a source for a number of his dossier claims.
Beyond the fact that Millian could not have been a source for the dossier, the FBI also learned from Danchenko that the dossier stories were based on bar talk and innuendo (Danchenko has since been charged by Durham with lying to the FBI about his sources).
The FBI appears to have concealed these matters from the DOJ. In fact, it does not appear from the March 6 notes that the FBI ever mentioned Danchenko. Despite Danchenko’s disavowal of the dossier as of March 6, it remained as the main component of the overall Crossfire Hurricane investigation, including being the basis of two Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act warrants against Trump campaign aide Carter Page.
The March 6 notes also reveal that FBI leadership told DOJ officials that the Page FISA application had been “fruitful” even though it had turned up nothing of significance. Page was never charged with, or even accused of, any offense and is now suing the DOJ for damages.
FBI leadership also pushed the narrative on their DOJ counterparts that the dossier was “CROWN reporting,” implying that the dossier was an official United Kingdom intelligence product when it was actually made-up stories and gossip and paid for by the Clinton campaign – a fact the FBI knew from their Danchenko interview.
The notes cite “CROWN reporting” in connection with collusion allegations on at least two occasions. In Strzok’s exposition of the status of Page’s case, the notes indicate that Strzok referred to “Crown source reporting” as a key element in the Page FISA warrant. This was already known from unredacted portions of the FISA applications that were publicly disclosed in 2020. However, what was not known was that the FBI also lied internally about these facts to their DOJ supervisors.
Similarly, the March 6 notes indicate that, in connection with the status of the Manafort case, Strzok had reported that, based on “CROWN reporting,” the FBI had “looked at [the Republican] convention” and allegations that the Trump campaign had caused the convention to “soften stance on Crimea and NATO” in exchange for “Russian energy stocks.”
In fact, there is no reference to allegations about Crimea or NATO in Steele’s dossier. Strzok attributed these false accusations to “CROWN reporting,” presumably to lend weight to them with his DOJ superiors.
With respect to “Russian energy stocks,” the dossier includes a false reference to Page receiving a brokerage fee for the sale of a Russian energy company but this allegation is not related to the convention but to the lifting of sanctions. Again, Strzok falsely portrayed this as having something to do with the Republican Party’s convention.
Additionally, the notes show that lead agent Strzok also lied to DOJ officials about the opening of the Crossfire Hurricane investigation. Strzok claimed the investigation was triggered by Trump when he jokingly asked Russia to publish Clinton’s missing 30,000 emails. It was Trump’s joke which, according to Strzok, caused the Australian diplomat to provide his tip about Trump aide George Papadopoulos to the U.S. embassy in London.
In truth, the diplomat provided his tip before Trump made the joke. Another fact that the FBI concealed in respect of the opening of Crossfire Hurricane was that their theory that Papadopoulos had advanced knowledge of the DNC hack was logically impossible. When Papadopoulos met the Australian diplomat on May 10, 2016, most of the hacked DNC emails hadn’t even been written yet.
Ironically, in analyzing why the FBI leadership felt compelled to brazenly lie to their DOJ counterparts, it appears that their hand was forced by Trump himself. Just two days before the FBI-DOJ meeting, on March 4, 2017, Trump tweeted he had found out that President Obama had wiretapped Trump at Trump Tower. Trump’s tweet was in an apparent reference to radio host Mark Levin, who reported on his show on March 2 that Trump campaign aides had been the subject of FISA warrants.
In a number of instances, the March 6 meeting notes reflect the FBI leadership’s befuddlement as to how much Trump knew about the FBI’s investigation of him. McCabe is cited repeatedly as having said that the FBI was investigating what was behind Trump’s tweet.
In reality, Trump’s tweet probably just restated what Levin had said. But the fact that the FBI did not know how much Trump knew meant FBI leadership had a choice to make. They could either downplay the investigation with a view to wrapping it up or they could double down even though they had not found any incriminating evidence.
They chose to double down, with Comey going on offense in the immediate aftermath of the March 6 meeting. Aside from giving narrative-shaping briefings to congressional leaders, Comey publicly disclosed the existence of the Trump Russia investigation, ensuring a media frenzy. That frenzy ultimately led to the appointment of Mueller on May 17, 2017.
While we have become accustomed to false statements charges being filed against Trump associates such as Roger Stone, Papadopoulos, and Michael Flynn, those same charges are also applicable to false statements or concealment of material facts by FBI officials to DOJ officials in the conduct of their supervision of FBI investigations.
It is perplexing that no one within the FBI has been held accountable for the many lies told at the March 6 meeting. This fact is all the more perplexing as it was Durham who originally turned over the March 6 notes to Sussmann’s defense team.
Former Attorney General William Barr had earlier turned down the opportunity to charge McCabe with lying during an internal FBI investigation of a leak related to the Hillary Clinton email investigation. McCabe had authorized the leak but lied about it. McCabe later apologized for lying to agents who were investigating the leak.
While Barr claimed it was a judgment call not to prosecute McCabe, his lies must now properly be seen in light of the FBI’s and his own pattern of lies, as documented in the March 6 notes. While the notes were only publicly released last week, they have been available to Barr, Durham and the DOJ for much longer. Yet no action was taken.
Crucially, public release of the notes came after the five-year statute of limitations had lapsed in March of this year. The question is why the DOJ — and Durham in particular — gave the FBI a free pass. The uncomfortable answer may be that, as has been suspected for a while, Durham’s authority is effectively limited to private actors such as Sussmann and Danchenko and does not extend to public officials such as McCabe and Strzok.