Factcheck: How Old Claims Compare to IG Report

DOJ inspector general Michael E. Horowitz

On Dec. 9, the Department of Justice’s Office of the Inspector General released its report on the FBI’s counterintelligence investigation into whether individuals associated with the Trump campaign were coordinating with Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. That report contradicts some of the claims the president, and other Republicans, have made over the years about the investigation, but it also supports at least one assertion.

  • Republicans, including President Donald Trump, have claimed that the FBI’s Russia investigation was sparked by a dossier compiled by former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele. But the IG report said that “Steele’s reports played no role in the Crossfire Hurricane opening.”
  • Trump repeatedly has accused the FBI of illegally spying on his campaign. But the IG report “found no evidence that the FBI placed any” confidential sources or undercover agents in the Trump campaign or tasked any such sources “to report on the Trump campaign.”
  • Trump has accused the FBI of obtaining a surveillance warrant of former campaign aide Carter Page under false pretenses. The IG report didn’t find “intentional misconduct,” but it did find at least 17 “significant inaccuracies and omissions” in court applications for Page’s warrant.
  • The IG report also debunked Trump’s claims that the investigation was motivated by political bias on the part of FBI staff. The report found no “documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation” influenced the opening of the investigation or decision-making during it.

The report by the DOJ inspector general, Michael E. Horowitz, examined the origins of the FBI investigation, the bureau’s relationship with former British intelligence office Christopher Steele and four Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act applications for surveillance of Page, among other aspects of the investigation. A press release on the report said the inspector general “examined more than one million documents that were in the DOJ’s and FBI’s possession and conducted over 170 interviews involving more than 100 witnesses.”

Origins of the Investigation

Several Republicans, including the president, have claimed that the FBI’s investigation — called Crossfire Hurricane — was “based on,” “started” by or “precipitated by” a dossier compiled by former British intelligence officer Steele. But the IG report said it “determined that Steele’s reports played no role in the Crossfire Hurricane opening.” The FBI investigation, the report said, was launched based on information from a “Friendly Foreign Government” about George Papadopoulos, a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser, claiming the Russians had damaging information on Hillary Clinton.

In March 2018, Trump tweeted that the special counsel investigation of whether Trump campaign officials coordinated with Russia’s interference in the 2016 election “was based on fraudulent activities and a Fake Dossier paid for by Crooked Hillary and the DNC.” 

Other Republicans echoed that talking point in an effort to paint the origins of the investigation as politically motivated. For instance, Rep. John Ratcliffe said earlier this year: “That this was a fake, phony dossier that started all of this, funded by the Democrats.” Jay Sekulow, an attorney for the president, said: “The whole impetus upon which this inquiry engaged, where it came out of, was this dossier, this counterintelligence investigation regarding collusion.”

And the chair of the Republican National Committee, Ronna McDaniel, also claimed the investigation “was precipitated by this fake dossier paid for by the Hillary Clinton and the DNC.”

Even at the time of those statements, as we’ve written, we knew that a Jan. 18, 2018, House Republican intelligence committee memo said it was information about Papadopoulos that sparked the FBI counterintelligence probe in July 2016. But now, the inspector general’s report, reiterated that finding.

The “dossier” is a series of memos compiled by Steele on supposed contacts between Russian officials and members of the Trump campaign. It alleged the Russian government had compromising information on then-presidential candidate Trump. Steele was hired by the research firm Fusion GPS, which had been hired by a law firm representing Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and the Democratic National Committee.

Papadopoulos had contacts with Russian intermediaries during the campaign, according to the Justice Department, and later pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. Papadopoulos, when he was a campaign adviser, met with a professor with connections to Russian government officials who told him “about the Russians possessing ‘dirt’ on then-candidate Hillary Clinton in the form of ‘thousands of emails,’” and he tried to arrange a meeting between the Russian government and the campaign, the Justice Department’s statement of the offense said.

The IG report said the FBI launched its investigation after Papadopoulos told a “Friendly Foreign Government” (an Australian diplomat in London, according to the New York Times) that the campaign had received information about Russia having dirt on Clinton.

IG report: As we describe in Chapter Three, the FBI opened Crossfire Hurricane on July 31, 2016, just days after its receipt of information from a Friendly Foreign Government (FFG) reporting that, in May 2016, during a meeting with the FFG, then Trump campaign foreign policy advisor George Papadopoulos “suggested the Trump team had received some kind of suggestion from Russia that it could assist this process with the anonymous release of information during the campaign that would be damaging to Mrs. Clinton (and President Obama).” The FBI Electronic Communication (EC) opening the Crossfire Hurricane investigation stated that, based on the FFG information, “this investigation is being opened to determine whether individual(s) associated with the Trump campaign are witting of and/or coordinating activities with the Government of Russia.”

The IG report said no other information was “relied upon to predicate the opening of the Crossfire Hurricane investigation.” However, FBI officials at the time “had reason to believe that Russia may have been connected to the Wikileaks disclosures that occurred earlier in July 2016,” and they were “aware of information regarding Russia’s efforts to interfere with the 2016 U.S. elections.”

The Steele dossier, though, played “no role” in the opening of the investigation.

IG report: These officials, though, did not become aware of Steele’s election reporting until weeks later and we therefore determined that Steele’s reports played no role in the Crossfire Hurricane opening.

After an “initial analysis of links between Trump campaign members and Russia,” the Crossfire Hurricane team opened four individual cases in August 2016 — on Trump campaign associates Papadopoulos, Carter Page, Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn.

The inspector general’s office said it was concerned that Department of Justice guidelines didn’t include a provision requiring a DOJ consultation before launching an investigation involving a presidential candidate. But the IG concluded that the information on Papadopoulos, provided by a trusted friendly government, “was sufficient to predicate the investigation” and indicated that either a crime or national security threat may have occured.

“This information provided the FBI with an articulable factual basis that, if true, reasonably indicated activity constituting either a federal crime or a threat to national security, or both, may have occurred or may be occurring,” the report said.

No Evidence of ‘Spygate’

The president over the years has repeatedly accused the FBI of illegally spying on his campaign.

In four tweets on March 4, 2017, Trump alleged that “President Obama was tapping my phones in October, just prior to Election!” Trump called this a “fact,” and compared the alleged wiretapping to the criminal acts of “Nixon/Watergate.”

In May 2018, the media reported that an undercover FBI source met with Trump campaign aides in the summer and fall of 2016 as part of the agency’s counterintelligence investigation into Russia’s interference in the presidential campaign. Trump — in a series of tweets on the morning of May 23, 2018 — claimed the FBI informant “was only there to spy for political reasons,” even though there was no evidence that the FBI had done anything improper. The president called it “a major SPY scandal” — which he dubbed “spygate,” a term he used at least 19 times

But inspector general investigators found no evidence of illegal “spying” — either before or after the FBI on July 31, 2016, opened the Crossfire Hurricane investigation.

“We found no evidence that the FBI used CHSs [confidential human sources] or UCEs [undercover employees] to interact with members of the Trump campaign prior to the opening of the Crossfire Hurricane investigation,” the report said. “After the opening of the investigation, we found no evidence that the FBI placed any CHSs or UCEs within the Trump campaign or tasked any CHSs or UCEs to report on the Trump campaign.”

The IG report said it “investigated allegations that the FBI used specific individuals” as spies, but found no evidence to support any of the allegations.

For example, Michael Caputo, a former Trump campaign adviser, alleged that a “Russian national FBI informant” using the alias “Henry Greenberg” tried to frame him by offering in March 2016 to “give me some dirt on Hillary Clinton.” But the IG report found “no evidence  … that this individual was acting as an FBI” informant “for any purpose in 2016.”

Papadopoulos, another former Trump adviser, alleged that the FBI may have used London-based professor Joseph Mifsud to entrap him. (Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his contact with Mifsud, who told him in April 2016 that the Russian government had “dirt” on Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails,” the plea agreement said.) But, the IG report said, “the OIG searched the FBI’s database of Confidential Human Sources (CHSs) and did not find any records indicating that Mifsud was an FBI CHS, or that Mifsud’s discussions with Papadopoulos were part of an FBI operation.”

After the FBI opened an investigation in late July 2016, the FBI used four confidential human sources and “a few” undercover employees that “resulted in interactions with Carter Page, George Papadopoulos, and a high-level Trump campaign official who was not a subject of the investigation.”

However, the report said the interactions between the Trump campaign aides and the FBI’s confidential sources “received the necessary FBI approvals” and were “consensually monitored and recorded by the FBI.”

Lastly, the report said it learned that the FBI had “several other” confidential sources “with either a connection to candidate Trump or a role in the Trump campaign.” But they “were not tasked as part of the” investigation.

One such FBI source who “knew candidate Trump” gave the FBI “general information” about Page that was already publicly available. “We found no evidence that any members of the Crossfire Hurricane team ever suggested inserting this [confidential human source] into the Trump campaign to gather investigative information,” the report said.

Another FBI source “held a position in the Trump campaign,” but did not tell the FBI about his or her role until after leaving the campaign.

‘Significant Inaccuracies’ in FISA Applications

Trump repeatedly has accused the Department of Justice and the FBI of what he called “FISA abuse,” referring to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that established secret courts to authorize surveillance warrants to intelligence agencies investigating matters involving national security.

Trump claimed, for example, that the “FBI misled the courts” to win approval for the surveillance of Page, a former adviser to Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. The IG report detailed at least 17 “significant inaccuracies and omissions” in the four FISA applications targeting Page. It declined, however, to say if those errors “would have resulted in a different outcome.”

The IG report said the FBI considered seeking a surveillance warrant in August 2016, but did not because it was determined that “more information was needed to support probable cause that Page was an agent of a foreign power.” That changed, the report said, on Sept. 19, 2016, when investigators “first received Steele’s election reporting.”

The Office of General Counsel’s unit chief in the Department of Justice “told the OIG that the receipt of the Steele reporting changed her mind on whether they could establish probable cause.”

“She said that although there could be differing opinions, she thought it was a ‘close call’ when they first discussed a FISA targeting Page in August, and that the Steele reporting in September ‘pushed it over’ the line in terms of establishing probable cause,” the report said.

The first of four FISA applications was filed in October 2016. It contained “seven significant inaccuracies and omissions,” according to the IG report, which we list here:

  • Page served as an approved “operational contact” — a confidential source — for another federal agency from 2008 to 2013, and “had provided information to the other agency concerning his prior contacts with certain Russian intelligence officers.” But that information was omitted from the first FISA application.
  • The application said that Steele’s prior reporting “had been ‘corroborated and used in criminal proceedings,'” a claim that the IG report described as “overstated.”
  • The application included information from a Steele source, identified only as “Person 1,” but failed to include “information relevant to the reliability” of that source. “Steele himself told members of the Crossfire Hurricane team that Person 1 was a ‘boaster’ and an ‘egoist’ and “may engage in some embellishment,'” the report said.
  • The application referred to a Sept. 23, 2016, Yahoo News article that said intelligence officials were looking into Page’s July 2016 trip to Moscow and whether he had met with senior Russian officials. Steele was the source of the story, but the application wrongly claimed that he wasn’t. 
  • The application, citing Steele’s reports, alleged Page was an intermediary between Paul Manafort, Trump’s then-campaign manager, and the Russian government “in a ‘well-developed conspiracy’ of cooperation” between the campaign and Russia. But the application did not include Page’s statements to the FBI two months earlier denying this alleged conspiracy.
  • The application did not include statements by Papadopoulos “denying that anyone associated with the Trump campaign was collaborating with Russia or with outside groups like Wikileaks.”
  • The application included some of Page’s statements to an FBI intelligence source “that the FBI believed supported its theory that Page was an agent of Russia but omitted other statements Page made that were inconsistent with its theory.”

“None of these inaccuracies and omissions were brought to the attention of [Justice Department’s Office of Intelligence] before the last FISA application was filed in June 2017. Consequently, these failures were repeated in all three renewal applications,” the report said. “Further, as we discuss later, we identified 10 additional significant errors in the renewal applications.”

One of those additional significant errors resulted in the criminal referral of an FBI lawyer who allegedly altered a document related to Page’s past work as a confidential source for another federal agency.

In preparing a FISA renewal application, a Justice Department lawyer emailed a colleague to say Page may be a confidential source and asked for additional information. “This is a fact we would need to disclose in our next FISA renewal,” the attorney said. But the FBI lawyer “did not accurately convey, and in fact altered, the information he received from the other agency,” the report said.

The inspector general’s report said FBI policy requires that FISA applications “must contain a ‘full and accurate’ presentation of the facts, and that agents must ensure that all factual statements in FISA applications are ‘scrupulously accurate.'”

“Nevertheless, we found that members of the Crossfire Hurricane team failed to meet the basic obligation to ensure that the Carter Page FISA applications were ‘scrupulously accurate,'” the report said.

Although investigators “did not find documentary or testimonial evidence of intentional misconduct,” the report said the finding of “so many basic and fundamental errors … raised significant questions regarding the FBI chain of command’s management and supervision of the FISA process.”

The IG did not take a position on whether the errors influenced the court’s decision to approve or renew the FISA applications.

“We do not speculate whether the correction of any particular misstatement or omissions, or some combination thereof, would have resulted in a different outcome,” the report said. “Nevertheless, the department’s decision-makers and the court should have been given complete and accurate information so that they could meaningfully evaluate probable cause before authorizing the surveillance of a U.S. person associated with a presidential campaign.”

Bias

Trump has attacked the investigation as a politically motivated hit job, raising the specter of a “deep state” within the FBI bent on undermining or overthrowing his presidency.

The Justice Department’s inspector general, however, concluded that the opening of the investigation was “in compliance with Department and FBI policies” and found no “documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation” influenced the opening of the investigation or decision-making during it.

Trump has focused much of his argument about political bias on former FBI agent Peter Strzok and former FBI lawyer Lisa Page. In a previous June 2018 report, Inspector General Horowitz revealed text and instant messages exchanged between the two that showed a “hostility toward then candidate Trump and statements of support for candidate Clinton.”

For more than a year, Trump has blasted “the two lovers” Strzok and Page as “corrupt,” “dirty cops” and “scoundrels” who pursued a “scam” investigation motivated by bias. Trump said the two had been caught in a “conspiracy” and described their actions as “subversion.” He even accused them of “treason.

The Dec. 9 inspector general report said the messages between Strzok and Page “raised serious questions about the propriety of any investigative decisions in which Strzok and Lisa Page played a role,” but Horowitz found neither was in a position to drive the investigation.

The IG found that while Page “attended some of the discussions regarding the opening of the investigations, she did not play a role in the decision to open” them. The report said FBI witnesses “told us that she did not work with the team on a regular basis or make any decisions that impacted the investigation.”

Strzok was directly involved in decisions to open the cases on Page, Papadopoulos, Manafort and Flynn, the report stated, but “he was not the sole, or even the highest-level, decision maker as to any of those matters.”

Bill Priestap, then the assistant director of the FBI’s counterintelligence division, ultimately made the call to open the cases “and evidence reflected that this decision by Priestap was reached by consensus after multiple days of discussions and meetings that included Strzok and other leadership in [Counterintelligence Division], the FBI Deputy Director, the FBI General Counsel, and a FBI Deputy General Counsel.”

Witnesses, including Priestap, told the IG that while Strzok “approved the team’s investigative decisions during the time he was in the supervisory chain of command for the investigation, he did not unilaterally make any decisions or override any proposed investigative steps.”

IG report: We concluded that Priestap’s exercise of discretion in opening the investigation was in compliance with Department and FBI policies, and we did not find documentary or testimonial evidence that political bias or improper motivation influenced his decision. We similarly found that, while the formal documentation opening each of the four individual investigations was approved by Strzok (as required by the DIOG), the decisions to do so were reached by a consensus among the Crossfire Hurricane agents and analysts who identified individuals associated with the Trump campaign who had recently traveled to Russia or had other alleged ties to Russia.

The inspector general also reviewed the text messages of all of the FBI officials who participated in the decision to open the investigations but “did not identify any statements in those communications that indicated or suggested the decision could have been affected by political bias or other improper considerations.” Although much of the public scrutiny about potential political bias fell on Strzok and Page, the report also revealed pro-Trump messages between FBI agents as well.

According to a footnote in the report, one example included an agent who sent an instant message on Nov. 9, 2016, saying he was “so elated with the election,” comparing the election coverage to “watching a Superbowl comeback” and commenting about Clinton that he “didn’t want a criminal to be in the White House.”

Interviews of various FBI officials and a review of contemporaneous documents also revealed no political bias in the agency’s decision-making, the report stated.

IG report: We therefore concluded the FBI met the requirement in the AG Guidelines and the DIOG that Crossfire Hurricane be opened for an “authorized purpose,” namely “to detect, obtain information about, or prevent or protect against federal crimes or threats to the national security or to collect foreign intelligence.” We also determined that, although the investigation had the potential to impact constitutionally protected activity, the FBI’s decision to open the investigation was permissible under both Department and FBI policies because there was a legitimate law enforcement purpose associated with the investigation.

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